Meadows – 98% gone? Really?

Another interesting post from Andrew Martin

When meadows, and their disappearance, are discussed on the media, a statistic is often quoted: that 98% of them have disappeared since the end of the second world war.  But where does this figure come from?  Is it just a guess, or a figure plucked out of the air that someone once came up with and is quoted by everyone else since then?  

As any regular listener to the Radio 4 program “More or Less” will realise, there are lots of statistics quoted by the media that are, even if not completely untrue, used out of context and in very misleading ways.  Often, it’s just due to lazy or bad journalism.  The book “Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bad_Science_(Goldacre_book) brilliantly shows how many “facts” repeated by the media (and of course also in social media) are just simply wrong, but widely held to be true because they are repeated so often.  Is the statistic of 98% of meadows lost since WW2 one of these misleading factoids?

The answer is: no, it isn’t.  Unfortunately, it’s completely true.  It comes from this research paper: “The changing extent and conservation interest of lowland grasslands in England and Wales: A review of grassland surveys 1930–1984”, by R.A. Fuller, published in “Biological Conservation” in 1987 (Vol 40, no. 4, pp 281-300).  How the research came to be done is interesting.

One of the best books available on meadows (and if you only get one book, it should be this one) is by George Peterken: https://www.nhbs.com/meadows-book .  Some years back, we got George to come and give a talk to CMG.  In his talk he showed us this figure:

This figure isn’t actually in the book, so I emailed George Peterken and asked him about it.  He told me that the graph uses agricultural census records for Herefordshire, but that any county in England or Wales would show the same shape.   The figure below the graph (97% decline) was from the 1987 paper in Biological Conservation.  It came about when he had responsibility for the Nature Conservancy Council’s spending on habitat change research.  Everyone in Conservation knew that meadows and all semi-natural grassland had greatly decreased since WW2, but the farming community maintained that there were no figures to prove it.  At the time, grassland specialists took the view that the losses were so obvious that spending money on researching them was pointless.  George realised that there was lots of information in various kinds of agricultural census that might reinforce the point from the farmers’ own sources.  In the end, he awarded a contract to the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology to go through all the available information and see what it would show.  The result was the paper in “Biological Conservation” which came out in 1987, which confirmed the 97% loss from 1935-1985 which has been quoted ever since.  The 98% figure allows for the fact that losses continued after 1985, and in fact it has probably gone beyond 98% now, but apart from local assessments there has been no detailed research since then.

Many thanks for this (sad but true) data Andrew. Rachel

2 thoughts on “Meadows – 98% gone? Really?

  1. Thanks Andrew
    I hadn’t realised the 97% figure was from 1987, so I get your 98% figure. But now I’m wondering if restoration efforts by meadows groups, biodiversity charities and others may be starting to bring this figure down again. I wonder how that could be researched.

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  2. Hello Andrew,
    Thanks for this and highlighting what a shocking loss there has been. At least the tide may be turning, certainly awareness has been raised, and hopefully we might even be allowed out a bit more this summer to experience the delights of local wildflower meadows – I’m guessing many members of CMG will be thrilled with how their own patches are developing in the short time since Isabel got CMG going. Well done and thanks to all who have kept the show on the road over the last year,
    Best wishes
    Julian

    Like

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