1. The recreation of species-rich grassland represents a key EU agri-environment policy initiative intended to maintain native biodiversity and to support the provision of ecosystem services. Understanding the long-term potential for recreation success is crucial to the evaluation of such schemes.
2. We use a single-site long-term data set (22 years) to test the consequences of grazing recreation management in re-establishing plant community composition and functional trait structure as assessed relative to pristine examples of target floodplain meadows.
3. Following a July hay cut, late summer grazing of the re-growth by either sheep or cattle resulted in an increase in the similarity of plants species composition to the target floodplain meadows, but only in terms of what species had colonized, not in terms of their relative frequencies.
4. Where grazing in late summer was applied, the functional traits of the meadows undergoing recreation became similar to those of the target floodplain meadows only where grazing management was used. When plant traits were divided into subcategories (e.g. regeneration, seed biology, life-form, environmental associations), only those traits linked with plant phenology failed to show evidence of a temporal shift towards the functional trait structure of floodplain meadows.
5. Synthesis and applications:. Under typical grazing management colonization by the majority of species that characterize the target habitat type is predicted to take over 150 years. In contrast, recreation of functional trait structure can occur over a considerably shorter time-scale (>70 years). The potential to provide functionally equivalent grasslands that deliver analogous ecosystem services to those of the target habitat type is therefore a more realistic goal for recreation. We suggest that the time-scale needed to recreate grasslands puts into question the benefits of compensation schemes that allow grasslands to be lost to development (i.e. gravel extraction) in exchange for future recreation at other sites.