The climate and the soils of the Dales make it mostly unsuited to growing arable crops. Therefore, most of the farmed land in the National Park is grassland of one form or other. In fact, grasslands make up three quarters of the land cover of the Dales. The basis of most farming enterprises is sheep and/or beef cattle, but in some Dales (notably Wensleydale) there are large herds of dairy cattle. Fields are grazed or the grass is grown to be cut for hay or silage.
Since the Second World War there has been an emphasis on increasing productivity of agricultural grassland and this has been achieved through means such as drainage, regular heavy applications of artificial fertiliser, use of herbicides on unwanted, ‘weed’ species and, sometimes, ploughing and re-seeding grass leys with faster-growing grass varieties. The resultant ‘agriculturally improved’ grasslands tend to lack the diversity and abundance of plant and animal species that is found in less intensively managed systems. Very intense grazing pressure due to large numbers of livestock and multiple grass cuts to make silage as opposed to hay can also contribute to reduction of biodiversity in grassland habitats.
The Yorkshire Dales have not escaped the intensification of grassland management that has occurred from the 1940s onwards, but there are still fragments of unimproved grassland left and considerable amounts of relatively species-rich grassland remains that might be best described as ‘semi-improved’.
For information on some of the special kinds of species-rich and unusual grasslands that still remain, follow the links to: