That grass can be found all round The Wrekin is a fact that will surprise absolutely nobody. However, the underlying geology of the forest has endowed the locality with soils so varied that every type of dirt in Shropshire can be found here! Combined with the diverse topography of the area, this has created the right conditions for a range of grasslands of varying character to take root, each providing bespoke habitat conditions for often unique collections of flora and fauna.
It’s been estimated that there is as little as 100 000 hectares of wildlife-rich grassland left in Britain (each hectare being roughly equivalent in size to a rugby pitch). Given that wide expanses of the green stuff are so ubiquitous in our countryside, this may come as a surprise but what truly unites valuable grassy locations is the activity that takes place upon them. Agriculturally, grasslands that work best for nature are generally those grazed lightly by cattle and livestock, mown for hay in mid to late summer and treated sparingly with fertilisers and herbicides. However, much of the grassland in the Wrekin Forest occurs in areas with little or no history of farming, where too little management can be just as damaging as too much!
Perhaps the most recognisable type of grassland on The Wrekin is the acidic heath found on its summit, characterised by low growing Common Heather and Bilberry. This is very much a manmade landscape, most likely brought under cultivation by the original Bronze Age occupants of the hillfort some 3000 years ago, who controlled it through a mixture of grazing and burning. The survival of well-preserved earthworks associated with that structure gives a clear indication of its grassland provenance, signalling that it is some time since the area was under cultivation! In modern times, the hilltop’s character has arguably been more threatened by the spread of invasive bracken, which speaks of the dangers posed to good grassland by under-management.
Owing to the area’s complex geology, the soils beneath The Ercall and Limekiln Wood are some of Shropshire’s most varied. As the name suggests, limestone is very much part of that underlying equation and, on shallow, free-draining topsoil, it can give rise to dry, calcareous grassland. Whether self-seeding within an old quarry floor, residing on a steep slope, or nestling amid a rocky outcrop, it is capable of harbouring an extremely diverse array of plants and grasses naturally suited to alkaline conditions. Much of the farmland around The Wrekin sits atop mildly acidic soils and these, too, can provide the basis for another distinct type of neutral grassland, traditionally given over to pasture and hay meadows. While the former are still very much in evidence, the system of husbandry required for producing the latter has largely been eschewed in favour of silage production (although, if you keep reading, you’ll find hay making can still be witnessed close to The Wrekin).
Another type of land management that is equally rare but, happily, still practised locally exists on the forest’s southern border, where it bounds the River Severn. On floodplain grazing marsh, grasses and wildflowers are left to grow tall in spring and then cut for hay in midsummer. Any re-growth is then lightly grazed until the winter floods arrive, replenishing the land with nutrients contained in the sediments deposited when the river overtops its bank. In this situation, cattle and livestock help prevent coarser grasses becoming dominant, increasing the diversity of local plantlife and benefiting a wide array of pollinating insects. By trampling the ground, they also create bare ground for germination that benefits annual species characteristic of this environment, such as Yellow Rattle.
Here are just a few of the many plant species indicative of the various grasslands found in the Wrekin Forest:
Acid Grassland: Wavy-hair Grass, Common Bent, Heath Bedstraw, Sheep’s Sorrel, Climbing Corydalis
Calcareous Grassland: Meadow Oat-grass, Upright brome, Quaking Grass, Common Bird’s-foot Trefoil, Wild Thyme, Great Knapweed, Fairy Flax, Cowslip
Neutral Grassland: Meadow Fescue, Sweet Vernal-grass, Crested Dog’s Tail, Oxeye Daisy, Common Knapweed, Yellow Rattle
Floodplain Meadow: Creeping Bent, Reed Sweet-grass, Common Comfrey, Broad-leaved Dock, Meadow Buttercup, Yellow Rattle, Cuckooflower, Meadowsweet, Kingcup
The Wrekin’s summit is perhaps the best place to start searching for typical plants of acid grassland, although its broad coverage means it is more correctly termed as heathland here. No such proviso is needed at the foot of The Ercall however, where abundant grasses and flowers provide a vivid demonstration of just how valuable this type of habitat can be, especially in spring and summer when the area is thronged by myriad insects. The varied geology and post-industrial nature of these quarries, and the adjoining Limekiln Wood, has enabled acid and calcareous grassland to take root in thin soils across the locality, so it’s worth keeping an eye out wherever you see evidence of human activity. Maddocks Hill is another place worth visiting in this respect, although its grasslands are gradually being overtaken by pioneering woodland. For more recent signs of our influence on the forest, the Wrekin Golf Course is worthy of investigation for, in part, it has remained just untouched enough in places for precious grassland to develop.
Further afield, the floodplains of the River Severn (which can be reached from Little Wenlock by venturing along the delightful Buildwas Lane) illustrate the role traditional land management can play in enabling wildlife-rich grassland to thrive. Along the way, you might wish to cast an eye eastwards over Devil’s Dingle, a former fuel waste dump for Ironbridge power station. STRICTLY OFF LIMITS, you can nevertheless view the rough, tussocky grassland that has become established here as part of a nature reserve developed by the site’s previous owner. Its varied structure provides good habitat for small mammals, such as voles, and the birds that hunt them, including Barn Owl. Happily, similar terrain is available to roam freely on the Tom Pickering Benchwalks around Little Wenlock, and further north at Smalley Hill (managed by Shropshire Wildlife Trust). Earlier in this article, we raised the tantalising prospect of hay meadows within the Wrekin Forest. Well, if you follow the public footpath from Little Wenlock to Lydebrook Dingle over Braggers Hill, you’ll find Leasowes Farm where this traditional form of management is still practised.