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Surveying and monitoring grassland habitats

There are many methods of surveying grassland depending on what you wish to survey and monitor. The list below contains only a few different methods for surveying grassland. Some are more general helping to identify different types of grassland or map grassland habitats for example, whilst others are specific to a certain type of grassland.

National Vegetation Classification (NVC)

National Vegetation Classification (NVC) is a descriptive system of categorising habitats in Britain. The original surveys were commissioned in 1975, and the resulting botanical data was analysed and separated into different vegetation communities. The resulting NVC categories are used to identify priority habitats, for example lowland meadow is identified as MG4, MG5 and MG8 and upland hay meadow MG3 and MG8. For more information on the creation and use of NVC see the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) NVC webpage.  

NVC is a great tool for being able to identify types of grassland  which can then be related to whether the grassland is considered to be a priority and is species-rich. A full botanical survey of five 2 x 2 m quadrats is required and experience of analysing the data to identify the closest NVC community description.

Identifying the NVC community can help to target management that could diversify the grassland either maintaining the species richness, or increasing the number of species present. However, because the rate of change on a grassland is usually quite slow NVC is not a good monitoring or surveillance tool for feedback into management. It also requires very good botanical identification skills and experience of being able to analyse species composition data to find the nearest vegetation community description.

To find out more about NVC:

Phase 1 Habitat Classification

Phase 1 habitat classification is a landscape surveillance method, identifying types of semi-natural habitat on a broad scale. It is designed to cover large areas of the countryside relatively quickly and provide some basic information about the type of habitat present and possible importance for nature conservation. For more information on the creation and use of Phase 1 Habitat Classification see the Joint Nature Conservation Committee (JNCC) website.

It is a useful method for mapping habitats across large areas at a coarse scale, for example the Phase 1 Habitat Survey of Wales completed in 1991. It is also used as a baseline for preparing Environmental Impact Assessments. Phase 1 Habitat Survey relies on being able to identify some indicator species to provide a broad assessment of the habitat, particularly grasslands. However, it does not require a full species list like more intensive survey techniques.

Phase 1 Habitat Survey is suitable for use when surveying large areas of habitat, and grasslands can be separated into their different types, or can be lumped together under improved or semi-improved grassland. The method does not enable detailed botanical information to be collected, and as a consequence, can limit priority habitat identification and cannot be used to monitor changes in species composition.

To find out more about Phase 1 Habitat Classification:

Integrated Habitat System (IHS)

Integrated Habitat Survey (IHS) was devised by the Somerset Environmental Records Centre (SERC) in 1999, and is a descriptive system of identifying different types of habitat. It has been developed to combine all other recording systems, such as NVC and Phase 1 Habitat Classification, so that the survey information is comparable within the same system. IHS aims to provide an integrated approach to data collection, management and analysis; optimise use of existing data by translating it into the same descriptive format and provide an overview of the habitat resource for planning and other uses. For more information about IHS see the SERC website.

IHS is a useful tool to map habitats across a large area and the hierarchal classification system enables different degrees of habitat identification to be combined into the same survey. This means that very detailed surveys down to the types of grassland based on indicator species, such as neutral, calcareous or acid grassland, can be identified and mapped adjacent to broad-categories like unimproved grassland. IHS is more detailed than Phase 1 Habitat Classification, but has not been as widely used.  

IHS is ideal for surveying large areas of land and identifying the types of habitat present, even to quite high levels of detail. It can also be used with aerial photograph interpretation, but is more limited as the level of identification of grasslands in particular is less accurate using aerial photographs. It is not a useful method of monitoring changes in grassland and identifying management action.

To find out more about IHS:

Rapid Assessment

Rapid Assessment was created originally by the Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust as a method for surveying their nature reserves in 2004-5. It is similar method to Common Standards Monitoring for SSSIs using indicator species and measuring other botanical variables, to assess whether the species-richness of a site is being maintained or more diverse. It can also be used as an early warning system if a site starts to decline in condition, and management action can be implemented.

It is a useful survey method to assess the status of individual grasslands and can be taylored to the indicator species present. Rapid assessment can be used to identify the effects of ongoing management and measure the response in the grassland habitat, and it can also be used on re-seeded grassland to monitor ecological succession as wild flowers and grasses start to germinate and spread.  Although this is a good method for surveyors inexperienced in species identification to use for the survey, more experience of grassland ecology and management is required to set up, implement and analyse the data to make sure that the correct indicator species are chosen. This is not  a useful method for monitoring the whole botanical range of the whole vegetation community. 

To find out more about rapid assessment:

Photographic Records and Fixed Point Photography

Fixed point photography can be a useful way of monitoring th effect of management and how grassland habitats change over time. For example, taking photos over several seasons and years can show changes in the cover of scrub and bracken. 

To find out more about photographic records and fixed-point photography:

Common Standards Monitoring for SSSIs

Common standards monitoring is a specific monitoring method for Sites of Special Scientific Interest. It uses indicators of success to determine whether the habitat and species for which the site is designated for are in favourable, unfavourable improving, unfavourable – maintaining or unfavourable declining condition.

To find out more about Common Standards Monitoring:

Monitoring Floodplain Meadows

The Floodplain Meadows Partnership has produced some guidance to standardise monitoring these specific grasslands. This will make comparing the differences in floodplain meadows much easier, and involves undertaking a series of sample quadrats recording the vascular plant species and monitoring the hydrology.

To find out more about monitoring floodplain meadows: