Europe’s grasslands range from desert-like areas in the south-east, to humid grasslands and nutrient-rich meadows in the north and north-west. Grasslands are among the most diverse ecosystems in Europe; they can be home to as many as 80 different plant species per square metre and a high diversity of animals ranging from small insects, birds and rodents to large herbivores.
Grasslands are essential for agriculture and livestock herding as they provide food for domestic livestock. Natural grasslands also play an important role in storing carbon. Most European grasslands are maintained through grazing or cutting. However, changes in agricultural practices and land uses have caused grasslands to disappear at an alarming rate, making them one of Europe’s most threatened ecosystem.
Some natural and semi-natural grasslands and their wildlife are protected under the EU Nature Directives, a legal framework that is translated into national law by all 27 Member states of the European Union.
Natural grasslands are shaped by extreme environmental conditions including climate, soil type and topography, which prevent other types of vegetation from growing. Some natural grasslands are found on mountain tops, such as alpine grasslands, or on steep and poor soils where no other plants can thrive.
Semi-natural grasslands, on the other hand, were created or modified by human activities and are subsequently maintained by regular cutting or extensive grazing. The evolutionary origin of Europe’s lowland grasslands and their high species diversity is not fully understood: some scientist believe that such grasslands may have existed pre-historically under the influence of large grazing herbivores and wildfires, whereas other refute this idea.
WILDLIFE IN GRASSLANDS
The EU Nature Directives protect numerous grassland species including almost 200 species of mammals, around 100 reptiles, 88 birds and more than 50 arthropods.
Grassland or steppe birds are among the most threatened bird species in the EU. Examples include the Great bustard (Otis tarda), the Little bustard (Tetrax tetrax) and Montagu’s harrier (Circus pygargus). These birds are highly dependent on very open landscapes which makes them vulnerable to land use changes that affect vegetation cover and insect availability.
BUTTERFLIES AND OTHER POLLINATORS
Grasslands are crucial for the survival of butterflies, bees and other pollinators. Pollination is essential for the survival of many plant species: 80 percent of the world’s crops depend for their reproduction on pollination by animals, which means that, quite simply, without pollinators, humanity could not survive.
Many butterfly species protected by the EU depend on certain types of grasslands and rely on specific plant species for the survival of their caterpillars. The Marsh fritillary butterfly (Euphydryas aurinia), for instance, is dependent on a single host plant, the Devil’s-bit scabious (Succisa pratensis), which is found in extensively grazed grasslands. The Large blue butterfly (Maculinea arion) depends on thyme or oregano as host plants.
Grasslands are home to many small mammals including voles, mice and hamsters. For example, the European ground squirrel or souslik (Spermophilus citellus), a species protected by the EU Habitats Directive, is a small mammal that only occurs in grasslands in Central and South-Eastern Europe, its natural range is split in two by the Carpathian Mountains.
EU ACTION TO PROTECT OUR GRASSLANDS
In addition to the important conservation work under the EU Nature Directives, several other more recent initiatives aim to protect European grasslands and the species that rely on them.
The EU Pollinators Initiative is the first ever initiative on wild pollinators in the EU. It sets strategic objectives and a set of actions to be taken by the EU and its Member States to address the decline of pollinators in the EU and contribute to global conservation efforts.
The EU Pollinator Information Hive provides easily accessible information on the conservation of wild pollinator species in the EU.