The management of lowland neutral grasslands in Britain: effects of agricultural practices on birds and their food resources


J.A. Vickery, British Trust for Ornithology, The Nunnery, Thetford, Norfolk IP24 2PU, UK (


  • 1The effects of agricultural intensification on biodiversity in arable systems of western Europe have received a great deal of attention. However, the recent transformation of grassland systems has been just as profound.
  • 2In Britain, the management of grassland has changed substantially in the second half of the 20th century. A high proportion of lowland grassland is managed intensively. The major changes include a doubling in the use of inorganic nitrogen, a switch from hay to silage, and increased stocking densities, particularly of sheep. Structurally diverse and species-rich swards have been largely replaced by relatively dense, fast-growing and structurally uniform swards, dominated by competitive species.
  • 3Most of these changes have reduced the suitability of grassland as feeding and breeding habitat for birds.
  • 4The most important direct effects have been deterioration of the sward as nesting and wintering habitat, and loss of seed resources as food. Short uniform swards afford poor shelter and camouflage from predators, whereas increased mowing intensities and trampling by stock will destroy nests and young. Increased frequency of sward defoliation reduces flowering and seed set, and hence food availability for seed-eating birds.
  • 5The indirect effects of intensification of management on birds relate largely to changes in the abundance and availability of invertebrate prey. The effects of management vary with its type, timing and intensity, and with invertebrate ecology and phenology, but, in general, the abundance and diversity of invertebrates declines with reductions in sward diversity and structural complexity.
  • 6Low input livestock systems are likely to be central to any future management strategies designed to maintain and restore the ecological diversity of semi-natural lowland grasslands. Low additions of organic fertilizer benefit some invertebrate prey species, and moderate levels of grazing encourage sward heterogeneity.
  • 7There is now a need to improve understanding of how grassland management affects bird population dynamics. Particularly important areas of research include: (i) the interaction between changes in food abundance, due to changes in fertilizer inputs, and food accessibility, due to changes in sward structure; (ii) the interaction between predation rates and management-related changes in habitat; and (iii) the impact of alternative anti-helminithic treatments for livestock on invertebrates and birds.