A grassy, well-maintained field, such as picnics or sports, is ideal for specific purposes. Meadows are the best choice for “ecosystem service” – pest control, soil health, and climate regulation.
Meadows are more than just unmowed grass. Fields are diverse, rich ecosystems teeming with wildlife. As research shows, meadows or other grassland habitats are surprisingly beneficial for humans – if we allow their biodiversity to reach its full potential.
In a 2016 article published in Nature, 60 researchers from more than 30 universities examined 150 grasslands to determine how species abundance and richness relate to 14 ecosystem services. Their research shows that biodiversity is essential, but the secret to creating an excellent pasture is more complex. We should pay attention, given the stakes.
The food chain is dependent on grasslands.
The grasslands are home to many species at different levels of the food chain. These levels are also called “trophic levels.” The human race is destroying biodiversity in these groups by developing grasslands to support intensive agriculture. Researchers have found that biodiversity loss in tables can affect ecosystem services. However, these studies did not examine diversity within multiple trophic levels simultaneously.
This 2016 paper was the first to examine all groups within a grassland’s food chain. The paper’s authors collected data from 4,600 species in nine trophic categories, including insects and soil microbes that are often overlooked.
Many different groups play a role in providing ecosystem services. We must protect biodiversity throughout the food chain to ensure that Nature continues to ‘work’ for us reliably. This includes groups like microbes and insects, which are often overlooked.
Wildlife conservation focuses on large animals, such as mammals, birds, and reptiles. Or on prominent plants, like the trees in a forest or the grasses on a grassland. While these are important, they’re not the only thing to protect.
Santiago Soliveres, an ecologist at the University of Bern and lead author of the study, says that plants provide biomass as the first link in the food chain. Insects act as pollinators, while soil organisms improve soil fertility by retaining and breaking down chemical elements like phosphorus. More species, especially within these three groups, positively affect all services.
There are multiple levels of biodiversity.
In other words, more than merely diversity is required. Grasslands need biodiversity on multiple trophic scales because species at each level have interwoven roles. If insecticides are used to reduce the variety of predators, such as praying mantises and pollinators, a meadow may still suffer from ecosystem services. If a meadow’s diversity is reduced by replacing it with a monoculture, fewer insects and microbes will thrive.
Researchers write: “Our study shows the functional importance in real-world ecologies of biodiversity has been greatly undervalued due to focusing on the single trophic group,” they wrote. “We show here that multitrophic abundance and richness have functional effects as strong or stronger than land use intensity or the environment.”
Four basic categories can be used to classify the 14 ecosystem services that they studied:
- I support nutrient cycling and capture services, including nitrification and phosphorus retention.
- Provisioning Services related to agricultural value, including the quantity and quality of nutrients in plants consumed by herbivores.
- Regulation services such as insect control, soil carbon levels, or pollinators, like bees, for crops and climates nearby.
- Cultural Services related services to human recreation, such as bird diversity or wildflower coverage.
Researchers write: “Our results collectively show that high species diversity in multiple trophic levels is essential to maintain high levels of ecosystem functioning, especially for regulating and cultural services.”
Farmlands and Grasslands can coexist.
As the Dust Bowl of 1930 showed, reckless farming can cause grasslands to become wastelands. It’s possible to have farms coexist with pastures, and it’s even better, thanks to the ecosystem services listed above, like forests, which are home to bats, owls, and other predators who prey on farm pests aphids and cockroaches. Leaving grassland surrounding farmland can provide various benefits that are difficult to replicate.
What about smaller plots of land like lawns or grassy fields in front yards? They may not directly replace meadows, but they can affect biodiversity. Wildlife is found in our yards and on the sides of roads. This is because parks and nature reserves are rarely connected to wildlife pathways.
Consider Flowering Meadows Instead of Lawns
Around 40.5 million acres are lawns in the U.S., which is twice the size of America’s largest forest. Agriculture and industry are the leading causes of habitat loss, but any yard or garden owner can make a difference.
It takes money and time to mow a lawn, as you must buy a mower and then fuel it. During droughts, many properties need to be watered. Synthetic herbicides and fertilizers wash into watersheds in the area, causing problems downstream. A patch of homogenous, clipped grass may have little biodiversity.
Meadows may not be the best option for all climates. There may need to be more to let the grass grow. Habitats are often diverse, so instead of not mowing your lawn for a few months, which may upset neighbors or violate local laws, consider a mixture of native floor covers such as wildflowers or moss. Xeriscaping or a Bog Garden can also be used.