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The extent of semi-natural grassland has diminished considerably across lowland landscapes of England and Wales during the second half of the twentieth century. Locating, describing and evaluating the dwindling cover has been a major challenge for conservationists. A concentrated vegetation survey effort at grassland sites has been mounted within different parts of Britain since the late 1970s. Plant community recognition has benefited considerably from the development of the contemporary National Vegetation Classification, and its widespread adoption permits national inventory of comparable vegetation data.

Findings of a range of surveys (ninety-eight in total), undertaken between 1978 and 1996 in England and Wales covering different forms of unimproved lowland grassland, are collated and reviewed. Vegetation data were abstracted from internally published survey reports. Calcicolous and neutral grasslands have been covered more thoroughly than acidic and wet or marshy grasslands. Cover data are summarized at community level. Overall estimates from survey results indicate that there are some 27 500–40 000 ha of calcicolous grassland, 7500–15 000 ha of unimproved neutral pasture and hay meadow, 8000–15 000 ha of acidic grassland and 9000–17 500 ha of wet grassland in lowland England and Wales; these represent only 1–2% of the cover of permanent lowland grassland. Some communities have additional representation in heathlands, mires and upland environments.

Although they require further refinement, the cover data for individual communities provide a context for assessing priorities in site-based and agri-environment conservation programmes. It is concluded that, as well as arresting further depletion, it will be necessary to restore and expand lowland grassland habitats to counteract the negative impacts of fragmentation and isolation of various community types, such as the Centaureo–Cynosuretum, which is widely but thinly distributed. Habitat rehabilitation schemes also need to assimilate local patterns of community diversity characteristic of both wet and dry grasslands. It is suggested that reversal of the recent successional trends that followed relaxation of grazing at certain sites might produce a more appropriate balance in the relative cover of coarse tall grasslands and fine short turf. Vegetation surveys provide a source of spatial data for identifying local aggregations of semi-natural grassland remnants.