In 1503, German painter Albreht Dürer completed his watercolour and gouache piece titled The Great Piece of Turf

Since its completion, it has been widely recognised as one of his masterpieces as it exhibits the wonderful complexity and intimacy of a May meadow in Franconia (Germany). The painting appears to move as the tall grasses sway in the wind, while below there is a sense of mystery in the undergrowth. It is almost as if you are lying down, belly first, analysing the patch with childlike eyes, that grew over 500 years ago.

Dürer was one of the first artists to paint ‘en plein air’  or in the open air, a style that allowed Dürer to add exquisite scientific detailing to each leaf and steam.

Using various shades of green and varied brushwork, Dürer captures the intricacy of the smooth meadow grass, greater plantain, yarrow, daisies, dandelion, germander and speedwell. A beautiful illustration of the biodiversity of grassland species in 1503, a benchmark that depicts what nature should maybe look like. 

The Great Piece of Turf is an incredible piece that according to art historian Fritz Koreney, represents a radical movement where nature was studied for its own sake. Finding beauty in things that were often neglected before Dürer made his mark. 

“Even the simplest thing in nature is worth painting … .Only in their artistically heightened form do things that have long been accessible and visible to everyone become consciously noticed”.

It is almost as if Dürer grants himself permission to paint nature as a portrait, rejecting its symbolic use seen throughout the Renaissance. An important realisation, as this piece depicts honesty and is a true account of biodiversity. 

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500 years on from Dürer’s painting we are amidst a biodiversity crisis, caused by human activities, climate change and ecological destruction. 

Globally, grasslands cover 40% of terrestrial landmass, but they are degrading in quality, biodiversity and land cover. On a global scale, 49% of grassland ecosystems have experienced degradation and 5% of these ecosystems have experienced strong or extreme degradation, according to a study in 2014. 

Grasslands provide valuable ecosystem services, as they contribute to global food security and are an important carbon sink for greenhouse gases. As depicted in Dürers piece, grasslands house a wide variety of plant and animal species, above and below the soil. 

However, the ecosystem that many key species call home is vanishing. 

From around the beginning of the 19th century, large scale conversion of many natural grasslands were being turned into cropland, and the European steppes system saw one of the largest declines in this period as agriculture was industrialised and intensified. This process saw grasslands become fragmented, a pattern seen globally. The fragmentation of grasslands has reached around 37%

This has subsequently caused the loss of grassland structure and functions, which, when paired with the implications from invasive species, has dramatic consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem structure. Species such as the white daisy (Erigeron annuus) were the most successful invasive plants, an invasion that shifted the native structure of plant communities and the carbon cycle. 

Today, grasslands continue to play a vital role in maintaining stability against climate fluctuations, though they are increasingly threatened by extreme weather events, specifically droughts, exacerbated by climate change. This poses a risk of shifting grasslands from carbon sinks to carbon sources, hindering their ability to mitigate climate change. Furthermore, the challenges of land use change and nitrogen deposition are predicted to be the main drivers of further grassland species loss in Europe. 

Astonishingly, given their ecological importance, temperate grasslands, which includes the ones here in the UK, are the least protected habitat. To improve the variety of species and carbon sequestration efficiency is to allow low to moderate grazing, this suppresses the dominance of the top species, allowing niche species to seed in the troughs. Sewing native flower species, cutting wooded plants and removing invasive species are also among the best practices. However, what grasslands need is time, the recovery of soil communities and their cycles is slow. 

As a final note, it’s worth mentioning that Dürer went beyond the norms of his time and decided to paint a small turf of grassland. He saw innate beauty in its composition and biodiversity, however 500 years on, perceptions have changed. Many people today see grass as somewhat of an inconvenience, so much so the use of astroturf in gardens has skyrocketed in recent years.

A Great Piece of Turf by Dürer, provides a glimpse into European grasslands of the past, which have since faced significant changes. Biodiversity emerges as a key factor in bolstering grassland resilience, influencing ecosystem functions and stability amidst climate challenges. Current research in Germany, close to where Dürer painted his piece, shows the importance of large-scale experiments to better understand these dynamics, with initiatives like the iDiv Ecotron project in Leipzig, offering crucial insights. Bridging the gap between these experiments and practical grassland management will be essential for preserving these diverse and essential ecosystems for the well-being of both our planet and all of its species.