All flesh is grass

Water meadows cut for hay © Miles King

Are we just slaves to a few members of the grass family – the gramineae? Is there something in these grasses that, like the common parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which elicits an increase in risky behaviour after infection, causes people to just want to grow more and more of it? It’s not like there isn’t other stuff to eat, and, as we know – from gluten intolerance to coeliac to diabetes caused by high sugar intake, eating grass is not necessarily good for us.

I looked at the figures for how much of England is covered in one grass or another. For a start, 69% of England is covered in farmland – 9 million hectares. Of this, 2.6M ha is one form of cereal (all grasses) or another – mostly Wheat, Barley and Oats. On top of that there are 226000ha of Maize. So the total area covered by annual grass crops this year is 2.826Mha or 31% of our farmland.

Then there is grass for grazing and fodder. Most of the grassland in England comprises just one species of grass, Perennial rye-grass. The Government keeps careful records of how much farmland falls into different categories – temporary grasslands (formerly known as leys), which are less than five years old, will be Perennial rye-grass. 713oooha of temporary grassland was recorded this year.  Grasslands older than five years old occupy 3.27 Mha of farmland.

This is where it gets a bit more complicated, because everything from a six year old rye-grass field and the millennia old chalk downland of Maiden Castle are all lumped together. Around a third of this 3.27Mha is considered to be “semi-improved” grassland, which means that it has more than once species of grass in it. Much of this land is still overwhelmingly grass though. But let’s work with 2/3 of 3.27Mha being just one species of grass (and the odd bit of white clover). That’s 2.18Mha.

So adding all of these together gives a grand total of 2,826,000 + 713,000 + 2,180,000 =

5,719,000 ha, which is 64% of all of England’s farmland.

All figures are from here, apart from the semi-improved grassland figure, which is an estimate derived from the National Ecosystem Assessment.

In addition, Perennial rye-grass is widely used outside of farmland. It’s the grass that you will see in every park in the country and on every playing field. It will also be a large part of golf course grassland, although other grasses are also used, notably varieties of Red fescue (Chewings fescue being the most commonly used one). According to the ONS there is 107,000ha of “functional greenspace” in England and this covers parks, public gardens, playing fields, golf courses etc. So we could assume that 75% of that will be grass and mainly PRG – say 75000ha. Even so, it’s a small addition compared to the farmed grass area.

A much larger area of grass is to be found on private lawns. Gardens cover 452oooha of England, and obviously not all of that is grass. One estimate suggests around 2/3 of private gardens are vegetated. If 2/3 of that was lawn, that would be 200,000ha of grass.

So these urban forms of grassland, dominated by PRG, might add up to another 275000ha.

That would give a grand total of just under 6 million ha of grass in England. And remember this is just a handful of species – Wheat, Barley, Oats, Maize and Perennial rye-grass.

That’s 46% of England, under five types of grass. Adding in those very species-poor semi-improved grasslands (basically rye-grass grasslands that have been managed less intensively since they were seeded, allowing a handful of wild plants like dandelions, to colonise) covering perhaps another 500,000ha, would bring us up to half of England.

“So what!” I hear some of you cry – we need to eat. Those grasses feed us. Well yes, a bit of that wheat is used to make bread, and more to make biscuits. A lot goes to chickens and pigs, which we eat. Then there’s all that PRG, which feeds cattle and sheep, which we eat, or we eat their cheese and drink their milk. And I don’t have a problem with that, I’m not a veggie.

Do we need to be bothered that we’ve covered half our country in five species of grass.

Unfortunately the consequences of concentrating on these grasses to the exclusion of everything else, is that everything else has been pushed to one side, or indeed pushed off the edge.

There is just 100,000ha or so of the old species-rich semi-natural grassland left in England plus another say 500,000ha of poorer but still valuable semi-improved grassland. And another 730000ha of rough grassland in the uplands – most of which was badly damaged by overgrazing by sheep during the 20th century.

That’s why places like Berrier Farm are so special, because practically all of the other places like them have already been destroyed.

There’s also the small matter of all of the chemicals which are applied to the land to keep these grasses growing. Some of them are directly contributing to the climate crisis, notably Nitrogen fertiliser which creates the most powerful and long-lived climate pollutant, Nitrous Oxide. And then of course there are all the methane cow burps from the cows grazing the ryegrass, although the story here is far more complicated.

And climate chaos may well mean that the handful of grasses that cover half of England at the moment, find that the climate is no longer suitable for them. The poor wheat harvests of this year (38% lower than 2019) may be just the beginning.

What might replace all of this grass? There’s a big push to plant trees (see the previous blog for how this can go wrong) with a target of 30,000ha a year.  Defra also has a target to create 500,000ha of new semi-natural habitat, which presumably would be on some of this land currently under these grasses. That still leaves a lot of land for this handful of grasses.

No, it seems that these grasses have us firmly in their grip. We are just the flesh of these grasses.



About Miles King

UK conservation professional, writing about nature, politics, life. All views are my own and not my employers. I don't write on behalf of anybody else.
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3 Responses to All flesh is grass

  1. Melanie Smith says:

    Thanks Miles, a fascinating, insightful and data rich perspective…..this concisely nails what biodiversity loss really means. When we put grass at the base of the food chain…it is not ‘just grass’…

  2. m parry says:

    What we consume is important, but if there were fewer of us on the planet (and fewer of us in the UK) at the same time then the problems you are talking about would be greatly reduced.

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