Farming has created a mosaic of arable and grassland habitats in the Chilterns, stitched together by hedgerows, trees and woodlands.
Agriculture has been taking place in the Chilterns in one form or another for thousands of years, shaping the soils, landscape and wildlife. Today, farmland is the main land use in the area, covering 60% of the AONB. This means that farming has a huge influence on the appearance of the local landscape. Over time, it has created a mosaic of arable and grassland habitats, stitched together by species-rich hedgerows, and interspersed with woodland, commons and ponds. These habitats provide vital corridors for wildlife, enabling movement through the countryside. Skylarks can be heard singing as they fly high above the grasses, and lapwings can be spotted on wet meadows. Rare arable plants like pheasant’s-eye and corncockle can be found in small pockets, where they are looked after carefully for their beauty and value to insect-life. Pollinators and butterflies buzz around the herbs on flower-rich downlands, and lizards and snakes bask on heaths. Frogs, toads and newts enjoy the permanent and seasonal ponds, while buzzards wheel over the rolling fields looking out for small mammals among the crops and grasses.
Rolling, golden and green hills, fields dotted with trees and bounded by hedgerows, sheep grazing steep slopes, and cattle grazing riverside meadows are all quintessential Chilterns views.
Use our public rights of way to discover the Chilterns’ fields, grasslands, woodlands and hills for yourself! Browse our interactive map to find a walk near you or check out our Places to visit section for inspiration.
Please follow the Countryside Code and any rules for the place you are visiting when you’re out and about. Remember: Respect, Protect and Enjoy – and help this special landscape and those who live and work here.
Cereals, such as wheat, barley, rye and oats, are the main crops grown in the Chilterns. These are used in a variety of foodstuffs, including bread, cakes, biscuits, beer, whisky and muesli. Oilseed rape is a particularly familiar crop to most of us, with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma. Rapeseed is crushed and the oil is used for cooking or food processing, to make biodiesel to power vehicles, or as an industrial lubricant. Peas and beans are also grown in the Chilterns, mainly in rotation with cereals to reduce the diseases, weeds and pests associated with growing just one crop continuously. Alternative crops like borage and poppies can sometimes be seen, often grown for food supplements or medicinal products.
Some crops are grown to provide food and cover for game birds and farmland birds. These are normally planted in strips next to hedgerows and often include a mix of different seed-producing plants such as maize, sunflowers, millet, sorghum and kale.
Cattle and sheep are the most widespread and visible farm animal in the Chilterns. Pigs and poultry are also present in large numbers, and there are a small number of producers in the Chilterns who keep more unusual livestock, such as red deer, alpacas and even European bison.
Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards, particularly those growing cherries. They were used in liquors and gins as far back as 1730. During the 19th century, parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Although these traditional orchards have declined over the years, there are still fruit farms to be found, many offering pick-your-own.
The poor chalk soils of the Chilterns are not very fertile, so not much of the area is used for growing vegetables. These crops are mostly confined to land in the Thames floodplain.
The UK’s wine business is booming, a surge mainly driven by improving sparkling wines. The Chilterns is home to several award-winning vineyards that produce quality wine. The mild climate, thin, chalky soils, and sunny slopes are well suited to grape-growing, offering similar conditions to those found in well-known wine regions in France.
Habitat types associated with farmland in the Chilterns
Traditional orchards are essentially crops, planted in low densities to grow fruits and nuts. Beneath the trees, short grassland, grazed by livestock and generally unimproved with fertilisers and chemicals supports a rich wildlife. Mature and gnarly trees, with split bark and hollows, make perfect nesting sites and shelter invertebrates. Fungi are abundant on both the trees and in the grasses below, and birds like redstarts and fieldfares feast on berries and fallen fruit.
Traditional hedgerows were used to divide field boundaries or keep stock in or out. Now, they provide shelter for woodland and field species moving through the landscape, such as hedgehogs and finches. Typical hedge species include hawthorn, blackthorn, field maple and hazel, often covered in climbers like honeysuckle, ivy and traveller’s-joy. Veteran trees can be found dotted through the hedges, with species like oak and ash providing nesting and roosting spots.
Arable field margins
Many years ago, the area around farmed fields, where productivity was low, would have been used to delineate field edges and land ownership. Today, if left unsprayed and uncut, they play an important role in conserving rare arable plants, such as pheasant’s-eye and corncockle. Farmland also supports a wide range of other species, including declining farmland birds like turtle doves and skylarks.
Lowland calcareous grassland
This type of grassland is associated with thin, base-rich soils such as those found over chalk and limestone. With a typically short turf, maintained by grazing, the grassland supports important invertebrates, such as the Adonis blue butterfly, and plants, such as orchids.Read more
Lowland dry acid grassland
This grassland is found on acidic, often sandy, soils over gravels and siliceous rocks. Species-rich, it is full of fine grasses, lichens, mosses, along with low-growing herbs like sheep’s sorrel and bird’s-foot-trefoil. Turf is kept short through grazing and cutting, and bare ground provides perfect habitat for burrowing wasps and insects. Reptiles and ground-nesting birds can be found here.
Lowland meadows and pasture
Shaped by traditional farming methods, such as hay-cutting and grazing, these flower-rich fields near lowland rivers have moist, deep soils that support plants like cuckooflower, oxeye daisy, meadow buttercup and great burnet. In turn, invertebrates are plentiful and wading birds flock to the fields to feed.
Coastal and floodplain grazing marsh
Coastal and floodplain grazing marsh is found on low-lying coasts and along slow-flowing rivers. In the landlocked Chilterns, floodplain grazing marsh is mostly used for pasturing cattle or hay production. It has generally been embanked, drained and agriculturally improved, but still holds a diverse range of rare plant species, and is notable for its breeding wader and waterfowl populations, and its invertebrates.
Ponds are waterbodies that come in all shapes and sizes: everything from large, permanent waterbodies, to smaller, seasonal ponds that dry up in the heat. They may form where water collects in hollows and basins, or may be dug out to provide drainage or ornamental use. Fish and amphibians live in the waters of ponds, and waterfowl and waders use the water and its margins. The edges of these waterbodies often provide lush vegetation for invertebrates and mammals.
Managing our farmland
Protecting and managing our farmland habitats is one of the most important conservation activities in the AONB. Not only do they produce the food we rely on, but also offer vital economic, health and recreation benefits, and are an inherent part of the heritage and landscape character of the area. Farmland areas include some of our most rare and precious habitats like chalk grasslands and chalk streams, and, when managed well, create corridors or stepping-stones for our wildlife to move freely through the countryside in response to threats like climate change. Find out more about how we look after our farmland in the Chilterns AONB Management Plan 2019-2024.