Ireland’s species-rich grasslands

Ireland’s natural and semi-natural habitats

Ireland’s natural vegetation is deciduous woodland, most of the natural woodland that would cover Ireland has been cleared for farmland.  This clearing of woodland began thousands of years ago as farmers needed wood to burn and to create grazing areas for their animals.  Over much of Ireland, where soils and terrain allow, the grasslands have been reseeded, fertilised and generally improved for agricultural production.  However, in many parts of Ireland, due to thin soils and/or rough terrain or heavy wet soils, the fields have not been reseeded and have received little or no fertilizer or other chemicals.  These grasslands are termed ‘semi-natural’ habitats and many are important for supporting our native wildlife including our wild flowers, invertebrates and birds.

Leitrim Landscape 1

Leitrim Species-rich Grasslands

What are semi-natural grasslands?

Semi-natural grasslands are those which have been well managed for livestock and for the environment, receiving limited or no fertiliser and not having been ploughed or reseeded and continue to support a diversity of wild flowers.  These semi-natural grasslands are associated with low-intensity agriculture and typically divided by hedgerows, and possibly ditches, or stone walls, which add to the habitat mosaic and wider biodiversity.  These grasslands are called ‘semi’-natural because our natural land cover is woodland, which was cleared many, many centuries ago by our ancestors to build dwelling places and create pastures for livestock.  Grasslands that have been reseeded and continually fertilised are called improved grasslands, and typically support very few wild flowers.

Are there semi-natural grasslands in Leitrim?

Until the national semi-natural grassland survey of Ireland (ISGS), carried out between 2007-2012, knowledge of the quantity and quality of semi-natural grassland in Ireland, and in Co. Leitrim, was patchy.  In the ISGS survey one-third of the top quality sites surveyed in the county were in County Leitrim.  This make Co. Leitrim a very important and suitable location for the trialling and testing of results-based agri-environment schemes for species-rich grassland.

marsh frit hab

How are semi-natural grasslands in Leitrim managed?

Cattle are the predominant livestock in Co. Leitrim, either beef or dairy, followed by sheep, with much lesser numbers of horses, goats and other livestock.  Pasture and rough grazing is not traditionally mown and will have year round or seasonal grazing, depending on soil and individual farm circumstances.  In Leitrim, meadows are generally wet grasslands, occasionally dry in South Leitrim, and may be mown in mid to late June, sometimes later, and may or may not have aftermath grazing.

Baling - Leitrim.JPG

Will our species-rich grasslands always be here?

Changes in land-use and in agricultural practices are affecting the quality of Ireland’s and Leitrim’s semi-natural grasslands.  Some grasslands have intensified by fertilisation to allow increased stocking rates.  Marginal land may be abandoned or converted for other uses.

Cattle grazing - Leitrim,DB.JPG

Results-based payments and species-rich grasslands

Results-based agri-environment schemes aim to create a new market for the ecosystem services produced by farmers who manage semi-natural grasslands and other habitats and species.  Payment is awarded to the farmer depending on the condition of the biodiversity maintained, rather than for carrying out specific management actions, as was the case with traditional agri-environmental schemes.

See our RBAPS in Ireland page for more details of our species-rich grassland measure and species-rich flood meadow measures in Ireland.


This project is funded by the European Commission with co-funding provided by project partners and with support from The Heritage Council, Teagasc and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The opinions expressed on this website or in project documents do not necessarily reflect those of the funders.