The majority of these grasslands have never been reseeded and don’t receive fertilizer other than grazing animal inputs. These grasslands are called semi-natural grasslands. Wet grasslands are most often grazed but may be cut for hay if the summer season is dry. Wet grasslands are particularly susceptible to poaching, especially if the weather conditions are wet. The stock carrying capacity of these grasslands is typically lower than for improved agricultural grassland on deep or shallow brown earth soils. The quality of these grasslands can vary greatly from farm to farm and even within a farm.
The upland and marginal farmland in these SPAs are of high conservation value, many comprising protected habitats and supporting threatened bird and animal species.
Acid grasslands are the typical hill pastures found on free draining nutrient deficient acid soils that are not waterlogged and characterised by vegetation dominated by grasses and herbs. This type of grassland occurs particularly in the higher elevations where peatland habitats occur, often in a mosaic among them. They are very widespread but often occur in small patches. Unimproved acid grasslands are particularly important for long term carbon storage.
These may have been reseeded over a decade ago and not heavily fertilized since, the species-richness of these grasslands may be higher. These grasslands often have Cuckoo Flower, Ribwort Plantain and more grasses than just Perennial Ryegrass. Improved agricultural grasslands also occur in these areas. These are regularly reseeded and fertilized with chemical fertilizer. They have a very low plant species-richness, few flowers and have a very green appearance. They are dominated by Perennial Ryegrass. White Clover and Creeping Buttercup are also very common.
Peatland habitats are also very common throughout the SPAs. These can be privately owned or commonage. There are two main types of peatland that are commonly farmed. Heath: this may be wet or dry heath. It is common on slopes of hills and mountains. It would have a low stock carrying capacity but is an important component of summer grazing for cattle and sheep or year-round grazing for sheep. It often occurs in a mosaic with blanket bog and acid grassland. Dry heath may occur over calcareous or siliceous soils. Another common peatland habitat is blanket bog; this may be upland or lowland blanket bog. Blanket bog has a low stock carrying capacity but, like heathland, it is important for summer grazing for cattle and sheep or year-round sheep grazing. These peatlands are important hunting and nesting grounds for Hen Harrier.
Patches of woods and scrub are very common on Irish farms. Gorse (furze), Whitethorn, Willow and Blackthorn are commons scrub species in the SPAs. This scrub can be very important hunting grounds for Hen Harrier and may be nesting sites also. There are small patches of native woodland throughout the SPAs too. These are the most important sources of plant and animal biodiversity. They may be dry (with Oak, Ash, Birch or Hazel), wet (dominated by Willows, Oak, Ash or Alder), riparian (along a river), or bog woodland (on peatland). Some woodlands may be grazed by livestock or used for shelter during the winter.
Field boundaries are important components of all farms and also very important reserves of plant and animal biodiversity. They may be hedgerows, stone walls, drainage ditches, streams, earth bank or treelines. They provide connectivity between more intensively farmed landscapes and HNV landscapes. On some types of HNV farms the field boundaries may be present in very high densities. This is particularly obvious in landscapes with very small fields such as the lowlands of most of the SPAs. Hedgerows and earth banks are particularly important habitats for small bird, insects and flowers and are an important food source for Hen Harrier.
Wetlands are also very common on Irish farms however mostly confined to moist, more nutrient-rich soils. Wetlands can occur as swamps along the edges of rivers, lakes and ponds, turloughs and marshes and often form luxuriant and species-rich plant communities. Rushes and grasses are frequently important in wetlands and provide important habitats for aquatic plants and animals.