LONDON, Aug. 21 (Xinhua) -- A three-year experiment by ecologists on Salisbury Plain, home of Britain's iconic Stonehenge, has found a new method of saving Britain's iconic grasslands from disappearing.
The sparsely populated plain in southern England is the largest remaining area of calcareous grassland in north western Europe.
Intensive farming, tourism and housing has led to Britain losing 80 percent of its chalk grassland since the Second World War.
Scientists from the University of Manchester, the Center for Ecology and Hydrology and Lancaster University have revealed how Britain's iconic chalk grasslands, damaged by intensive farming, could be regenerated.
Their study of an area on Salisbury Plain, degraded by years of cultivation, revealed how combinations of plants based on their size and shape could restore soil fertility in chalk grasslands.
Up to 40 plant species, including orchids and wildflowers, grow in a square meter of typical British chalk grassland, attracting insects and rare butterflies and birds. It also acts as an important carbon store, which helps mitigate against the effects of climate change, say the scientists.
The research, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and published in the latest edition of the journal Ecology, showed certain characteristics or traits of plants play a critical role in regeneration of soil fertility.
Professor Richard Bardgett, one of the co-authors of the study, said: "These results are important because they suggest that we can design plant communities, based on knowledge about how they affect soil, to accelerate the recovery of degraded soils."
Dr Ellen Fry from The University of Manchester, lead author of the study said: "Our study showed the structure and depth of plant roots, as well as plant height, could tell us how long it may take for grassland to recover from degradation caused by intensive farming."
Fry added: "If factors such as the use of pesticides, overgrazing and the impact of tourism and housing still continue to be a factor, our chalk grasslands will still be under threat."
She said a mixture of deep and shallow roots was found to be crucial in enabling the grassland to buffer severe drought which is becoming increasingly common with climate change.
"If, at least during early stages of restoration, plant species are sown based on their traits, we argue that restoration of functions such as water and nutrient cycling could occur as quickly as between 20 and 30 years," added Fry.