Much of Northern Ireland’s lowland grassland has been intensively farmed, heavily fertilized, re-seeded and drained, all of which unfortunately lead to loss of diversity and wildlife. Correct grazing levels are essential to maintain these grasslands for the future benefit of wildlife. Too much grazing leaves the land poached and damaged while too little enables scrub to grow preventing wildflower growth and resulting in the eventual loss of species rich grassland.
In the Belfast Hills there are important pockets of ‘unimproved’ grassland (grassland which has not been intensively managed) which provide a habitat for wildlife to flourish. These range from damp rough pasture in the higher stretches often dominated by rushes to semi-improved meadows on the lower slopes and areas of thin, poor soil associated with quarry workings.
The importance of grassland is reinforced by the range of priority species found in the meadows of the Belfast Hills. The Irish hare appears to have a number of strongholds along the region, while the upland pasture in the hills is still home to curlew, lapwing and snipe, all declining in Northern Ireland. These ground nesting birds can be disturbed by dogs, highlighting the importance of keeping dogs under control when walking in the Belfast Hills.
The range of grasslands is reflected in the a variety of flora and fauna which includes spotted, marsh and butterfly orchids, high numbers of wax cap fungi, moths, as well as wood white and common blue butterflies; the value of these habitats to local biodiversity is undeniable. More uncommon species such as the marsh fritillary may also be seen in grasslands.
Skylarks and meadow pipits are easily seen and heard as they still nest in large numbers in both rough pasture and heathland. One iconic but elusive species that has rapidly declined throughout Northern Ireland is the barn owl. Recent occasional reports suggest that it is still found in parts of the hills, where it is totally dependent on the high numbers of small mammals found in rough meadows to survive.