It is well known that natural and semi-natural grasslands are important for biodiversity, but a recent study by Swedish researchers notes that such grasslands also provide many other benefits.
The Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), along with Stockholm and Lund universities in Sweden, led an international research group that has assessed ecosystem services from grasslands using northern Europe and southern Africa as case studies.
The study recently appeared in Ecosphere, which is published by the Ecological Society of America.
SLU said grasslands are important for the climate, for agriculture and for water in the landscape and have large cultural values.
“Grasslands should be given higher priority in landscape planning and management in the future because they play important roles in agricultural landscapes and provide many benefits to society,” SLU professor Jan Bengtsson said. “They are important for water management, for grazing animals, climate mitigation, biodiversity, and they are intimately related to our agricultural history in many ways.”
“Grasslands in Northern Europe and southern Africa are different,” Regina Lindborg at Stockholm University added. “In southern Africa, they are a natural ecosystem — the grassland biome — while our Swedish and north European grasslands are cultural products of a long history of grazing and hay-making, which is required to maintain them. Despite these differences, there are also many similarities between grasslands in different parts of the world.”
The researchers noted that grasslands have decreased in area all over the world, such as in North and South America (the prairies and the Pampas, respectively), as well as the Eurasian steppe. In northwestern Europe, the area decreased by around 90% during the 20th century as grasslands were transitioned to arable land. They are also decreasing in southern Africa, but relatively large areas still remain, the researchers reported.
“Our assessment provides a broadened view of what grasslands contribute to human society and especially agriculture. It is not widely appreciated that they can provide many ecosystem services in addition to biodiversity. Usually, the focus in conservation policy has been on their role for biodiversity,” Bengtsson said. “If well managed, they can contribute to counteracting climate change and producing food on land that is not suitable for arable farming. They need to be both preserved and managed better in order to provide multiple benefits to society; they will be important for future multifunctional agricultural landscapes.”
According to the researchers, grasslands contribute 10 main benefits from grasslands, including:
1. Water management. Grasslands are important for water capture and flow regulation and decreases risks for flooding. They are also important for the availability and accessibility of water during dry seasons, especially in southern Africa.
2. Erosion control. Land that is permanently covered by vegetation (in contrast to most arable fields) decreases erosion and loss of topsoil. Grasslands that are not overgrazed decreases surface water runoff and stabilize the soil.
3. Climate. Permanent grasslands store large amount of carbon in the soil -- much more than arable land and sometimes as much as forest soils.
4. Fodder for animals. In southern Africa as well as northwestern Europe, grasslands are or can potentially be important as grazing lands for cattle and other animals. Grassland grazing, therefore, can provide people with meat and dairy products from land that cannot be farmed.
5. Pollination. Pollinators like bees and bumblebees thrive in grasslands where there are many kinds of flowers. Several studies show better pollination in the vicinity of natural grasslands.
6. Biological pest control. Grasslands are good habitats for ladybirds, ground beetles and other beneficial insects that feed on pest insects and contribute to biological control. Studies show that biological control is better in landscapes containing grasslands.
7. Medicines. In southern Africa, medicinal plants from grasslands are important, and more than half of the traditional medicinal plants that are traded grow in grasslands.
8. Tourism, recreation and hunting. Grasslands are appreciated for walking and trekking, birdwatching and hunting and are also often popular for recreation, picnics and excursions.
9. Cultural history values. Ancient grasslands often contain historical legacies like burial mounds. In Europe, grasslands invoke cultural history, being living remnants of the time when they were crucial for winter fodder for animals.
10. Biodiversity. Grasslands are valuable habitats for many plants, insects, birds and other organisms, both common and threatened species. Biodiversity is regarded as a prerequisite for many of the other ecosystem services, like pollination, biocontrol and recreation.