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Environment "> Environment | Comment 27 October 2021

By Gill Perkins

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Michelle D’urbano

HUMANITY’S connections to grasslands run deep. Our ideas of the perfect habitat lean heavily on the meadow, brimming with bumblebees and butterflies flitting between wild flowers: the perfect idyll. As the 13th-century Persian poet Rumi wrote: “When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.”

Permanent grasslands hold about a third of Earth’s terrestrial carbon, meaning they can’t be overlooked when we talk about slowing climate change. More grasslands, and especially more biodiverse ones, means more natural carbon storage. Yet instead of expanding these habitats, we risk losing them entirely.

The past 100 years has seen this terrain destroyed on a terrifying scale. Since the beginning of the 20th century, the UK alone has lost at least 97 per cent of its meadows. Tall grass prairie in the US once covered 170 million acres, less than 4 per cent of which survives. Pollinators, such as butterflies and bumblebees, that create and depend on these biodiverse environments are also at risk.

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Often, grasslands are seen as empty spaces. They are there to be ploughed and sown and built on. Their destruction isn’t met with the same angst as deforestation by the public or politicians. While one of the goals of the COP26 climate conference is the halting of deforestation, there is no such stated aim to protect meadows, savannahs and steppes.

That is why my organisation, the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, has joined a group to push the protection and restoration of species-rich grasslands to the top of the global political agenda. The Grasslands+ coalition will be led by UK charities Plantlife, Butterfly Conservation and the trust I head, and together we will advocate for the symbiosis of plants, pollinators and people.

While we are all familiar with the idea of forests as Earth’s “lungs”, reforestation isn’t the sole or simple solution to the problems we face. Mass planting of trees isn’t feasible in many human-inhabited areas of the world, and a lot of land that may have had potential for forestry is ultimately lost to grazing and cultivation. On the other hand, even small mown and grazed meadows contain a greater diversity of flora and fauna than equivalent areas of forest.

At either extreme of grassland management – mown short or left long – there are species that thrive. A mosaic of approaches can aid species in both, as well as those that like something in between.

Even long-grass movements such as Plantlife’s “No Mow May” advocate mowing less and at the right time rather than not at all.

This means grasslands can provide an ideal environment for us to enjoy as places to eat, work and play in nature, while also providing the essential functions of carbon sequestration and oxygen-releasing photosynthesis.

One recent study suggests that the cultivation of species-rich grasslands on degraded and deserted farmland, of which there are 430 million hectares globally, could “greatly increase carbon capture and storage rates on degraded and abandoned agricultural land”.

It is vital that world leaders at the COP26 summit put international protections for grassland on the agenda, to mitigate the effects of climate change, increase biodiversity and ensure that these areas of natural beauty are preserved for future generations to enjoy. Thousands of our members and supporters are now writing to their elected representatives to demand recognition of these precious places and their essential role in the fight against global warming and biodiversity loss.

It would be tragic if, in the rush for big solutions to our big problems, the power of the modest wild grasses and flowers, with their bumblebees and butterflies, was overlooked.

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Source : https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg25133581-000-meadows-could-be-our-secret-weapon-in-the-fight-against-climate-change/

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