Farmland habitats under threat

Farmland habitats, such as meadows, downlands, hedgerows, woods and ponds, are naturally evolving features of the landscape, but their important characteristics and species are being lost at an alarming rate due to climate change, land-use change and pollution, among other issues. Find out below how we are tackling these threats to the survival of our farmland habitats and how you can help.

Our farmland is a vital part of our environment, providing us with natural resources and services. Yet, they face a host of threats, causing severe declines in our habitats and wildlife – for instance, a staggering 97% of traditional wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK since the 1940s, while three-quarters of our ponds have disappeared over the last hundred years. This ultimately affects the ability of our farmland and its habitats to provide us with the things we need.

The Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) works with partners, stakeholders and the public across the area to help our farmland habitats. We are not just managing the threats they face, but restoring the AONB’s landscape, so that it is both resilient to change and can continue to provide us with the benefits we enjoy. To guide us, we have a Management Plan, which sets out the vision, policies and actions for the management of the AONB from 2019 to 2024. It describes how best to conserve, enhance and enjoy the Chilterns, helping all those with a responsibility for the AONB to care for it for current and future generations.


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Looking after the AONB

The CCB protects the landscape, history and wildlife of the Chilterns, monitors planning and development across the area, promotes sustainability, and engages with local communities. Find out how we do this and how you can get involved, too, by visiting our What we do pages.

Farmland habitats under threat

People have shaped our landscape for millennia, with farming being one of the biggest influences on our environment. Although some areas, such as forest clearings, may have been grazed naturally, our arable land, hedges and orchards are solely a result of human activity. Indeed, many of the semi-natural habitats that are associated with farmland have been managed for resources over time and are now inextricably linked to the way we continue to work the land.

In the Chilterns, the short turf of the chalk grassland that allows orchids to thrive is a result of grazing the steep, chalk slopes. The hedgerows that are filled with blossom, berries and birds were planted and maintained to manage livestock or identify boundaries. The towering beech and coppiced woodlands are a result of a furniture industry that thrived in the Victorian era. The purple-and-yellow heathlands of our commons are a result of forest clearance for grazing. So many of the Chilterns’ special qualities are down to the way we enhance and manage the landscape around us.

Wildlife has made the most of the habitats we humans have provided, moving in and finding abundant food and shelter. Yet, there has also been much loss within the agricultural environment. After the Second World War, traditional methods of farming began to decline, replaced by a more mechanised and modern system. Farmers were able to farm larger swathes of land much quicker, and increased their productivity by removing hedgerows, trees, ponds and ‘untidy’ field corners. Pesticides and fertilisers were developed to help increase yields and reduce loss, and wildlife was eventually pushed out. Now, around 60% of farmland species are in decline.

During the mid-late 20th century, the outlook for farmland wildlife and habitats seemed bleak. Pesticides and run-off polluted rivers and streams, harming sensitive wildlife like otters, and the physical loss of habitats caused a decline in many traditional species, such as skylarks and turtle doves. But, with the banning of harmful pesticides, and the recognition of the ecosystem services (the benefits that we get from nature) that healthy farmland provides, we began to turn the story around.

Today, many farmers, landowners and land managers care deeply about the way they work their land and the biodiversity it shelters. Wildlife-friendly and sustainable farming methods are not only popular with landowners, but are also a selling point with consumers, and are at the forefront of much of the support that farmers can receive.

Let us help you support nature’s recovery – guidance for landowners and managers

The CCB works with farmers, landowners and managers to protect and enhance the landscape of the AONB. We provide end-to-end support to farmers, landowners and land managers on a range of subjects, such as: shaping a project idea; accessing funding; commissioning contractors for landscape work; training and advice; environmental monitoring; and bringing in volunteers or new partners to help with surveys or practical conservation work.

We also work with Farmer Clusters – proactive groups of farmers from a specific region who come together to farm with nature, wildlife and climate change in mind. They discuss important issues and support each other with regards to cross-farm conservation strategies and initiatives. They gain advice and help to deliver these projects from a variety of partners. Working with these groups supports nature’s recovery across large areas of land; the Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster and Christmas Common Farmer Cluster between them cover an impressive 15,000 hectares of land within the Chilterns AONB.

Our Farmer Clusters meet regularly to discuss and work on a variety of projects, such as:

  • putting up bird and owl boxes to support key species;
  • organising wildlife surveys to see which species are present to support sensitive management;
  • planting hedgerows to support small mammals and birds;
  • putting out supplementary feed for wild birds through the winter;
  • dedicating field margins to the cultivation of wildflowers and chalk grassland to support pollinators and birds.

To find out more about our Farmer Clusters, or to join your local group, please contact us or visit Farmer Clusters – For farmers, facilitators and advisors

To find out more about how you can help nature’s recovery on your patch, contact us.

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CASE STUDY: Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster

Eighteen Buckinghamshire farmers formed a Farmer Cluster in the Central Chilterns. They have gone from strength-to-strength with understanding and supporting the wildlife on their farms, and reducing their farms’ carbon footprints. Achievements include planting more than 50,000 new hedgerow trees, carrying out farm carbon assessments, setting up cattle-grazing systems to improve chalk grassland, and undertaking wildlife surveys on all their farms.

Scaling up this approach across the whole of the Chilterns AONB is central to delivering nature’s recovery. By providing a locally brokered approach, we can make sure that investment is targeted, and we achieve the landscape-scale connections that work for our farms and their wildlife.” Dr Elaine King, Chief Executive Officer, Chilterns Conservation Board.

Be inspired and find out more about the work of the Central Chilterns Farmer Cluster and how it might help you get started.

Farming in Protected Landscapes

Defra’s Farming in Protected Landscapes programme is running from July 2021 to March 2024. It helps farmers and land managers to carry out projects that support nature’s recovery, mitigate the impacts of climate change, and provide opportunities for people to discover and enjoy their landscape and heritage; and, in the process, it supports sustainable farm businesses. We can help you with accessing this funding, from developing an initial project idea to introducing partners and supporting the application process.

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Major threats to the farmland habitats of the Chilterns AONB

Climate change

We are in a climate emergency. Global warming – where the global average temperature rises – is happening at a scary rate, and experts agree that an increase of nearly 3-4oC could be possible by 2100. The biggest culprit of this change is the greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, emitted into the atmosphere through human activity like burning fossil fuels and cutting down trees.

Climate change not only affects our wildlife and habitats (our natural capital), but also affects many of our ecosystem services (the benefits we get from natural capital). Thus, it impacts every aspect of society, from disaster risk to food security, economy to health and well-being. In the Chilterns, it will have a major, but unpredictable, influence on the natural beauty and natural capital of the AONB; for example, shifts in the timing of seasonal events, will change how plants and animals live and thrive in our grasslands and heaths.

Initiatives that are carbon-friendly can sometimes have a negative impact on other aspects of wildlife and habitats. For instance, tree-planting in the wrong place, such as on species-rich grasslands, can inadvertently cause damage to these fragile ecosystems. Ecosystems, such as grasslands, not only store carbon themselves, but can also provide a buffer against some of the impacts of climate change, such as increased flooding, extreme weather, soil erosion and decreases in pollinator species.

  • Monitor and understand the impacts on key species and habitats as a result of climate change. This will help farmers and other land managers to make good decisions regarding future management.
  • Create well-connected networks of habitats that allow species to move through the landscape in response to the changing climate and shifting local ecology.
  • Protect and restore our farmland habitats, recognising their importance for people, wildlife and carbon storage.
  • Capture and store carbon through tree cover, working with landowners and other agencies to support tree planting that follows the golden rule: the right tree in the right place.
  • Promote and encourage local food products to help reduce carbon emissions from the transportation of goods.
  • Promote the Chilterns as a sustainable alternative for short and long visits – an outstanding landscape, accessible by public transport and on the doorstep of millions in the South East.
  • Manage your land for wildlife. If you are a farmer or landowner, the way you manage your land will determine whether it is resilient to climate change.
  • Reduce your carbon footprint. There are lots of ways to reduce your carbon emissions in your day-to-day life, such as travelling by public transport, bike or foot to work or recreation; heating your house only when needed; and buying locally produced or carbon-low products.
  • Visit your local nature spots to reduce travel; enjoy a staycation in the Chilterns! Find out where to go using our interactive map.
  • Plant a tree. Either in your garden or as part of a scheme or project.
  • Encourage your employer or local business to reduce their carbon footprint.

Habitat loss

Farmland habitats can be impacted by changes in farming methods, as well as other pressures like development, transport infrastructure and changes in land. This can mean that hedgerows are severed, farmland monocultured, and ancient meadows and downland lost, damaged or reduced. Wildlife habitats need to be big enough and well connected for wildlife to thrive. Species need corridors to move through the landscape in response to a changing environment.

A recent report highlighted that England’s wildlife sites are generally too small and too isolated, leading to a devastating loss of some of our most loved or iconic species. To combat this, we need better and more resilient ecological networks for plants and animals; we need more, bigger, better and joined habitats.

  • Continue to protect, restore and enhance the farmland habitats of the Chilterns AONB.
  • Work with planners and developers to look after important wildlife spaces, create habitat networks, and include green space within developments.
  • Promote and encourage environmentally sensitive farming methods, including hay-cutting, hedge-laying and planting pollinator strips.
  • Create well-connected networks of habitats that allow species to move through the landscape in response to changing conditions.
  • Promote the use of gardens as part of a wider ecological network – connecting wild spaces between towns by encouraging people to garden with wildlife in mind.

Inappropriate management

Our landscape was once a patchwork of farmland, woodland, flower-rich grasslands and purple-studded heaths, knitted together by hedges, streams and ponds, and defined by topography, soils, ancient rights and management. Yet, over many years, there has been a decline in traditional land management, such as grazing, coppicing, the keeping of orchards, the exercise of common rights, and hedge-laying. Coupled with increased development, this has led to the degradation of many of our farmland habitats; during the 20th century alone, 90% of our grasslands were lost. Wildlife has suffered as a result. Turtle doves, skylarks and corn buntings are on the brink of extinction; plants like pheasant’s-eye and shepherd’s-needle are now classified as Endangered on the Vascular Plant Red List for England; and even the once-common hedgehog is now threatened.

Farmland management is important to create the conditions in which the specialist wildlife that lives there can thrive. Actively managing its habitats to encourage the growth of wildflowers and keep vigorous weeds at bay, and to create networks of habitats through connecting hedges, ponds and floodplains, helps to ensure resilience to climate change, pests and disease.

  • Encourage landowners and managers to use traditional methods of management on their land, including hay-cutting, scrub clearance, hedge-laying, coppicing and common rights.
  • Create well-connected networks of habitats that allow species to move through the landscape in response to changing conditions.
  • Promote the use of local goods like food (meat, dairy, honey, wheat, etc.), wood for fuel, and hay, silage and manure.
  • Protect and restore commons and common rights, alongside promoting them as places for recreation and enjoyment.

Invasive species and diseases

There are plants and animals in our countryside that have either been introduced from other countries, or spread from one area to another. Sometimes these species don’t cause too much trouble, but at other times, they can have terrible impacts on native wildlife. Examples include signal crayfish and grey squirrels, but there are many more.

In many wildlife habitats, scrub can become invasive if grazing is not used to keep vigorous plants under control. On grasslands, common ragwort can be invasive and is dangerous for grazing animals, while plants like thistles and docks can take hold quickly and shade out delicate flowers. Non-native plants can also cause devastation; Himalayan balsam escapes from gardens and takes over ditches and wet habitats, and Japanese knotweed invades grassy roadside verges and railway cuttings, crowding out native wildflowers.

Diseases are also a growing problem for our trees and shrubs, especially as climate change affects the resilience of our native wildlife to new threats. Phytophtora diseases are soil diseases that affect trees and shrubs like larch and juniper, now a rare plant in the Chilterns. Box blight is another fungal disease that can be spread from one plant to another on contact. The Chilterns has some important box woods, so it is vital to keep these sites free of infection.

  • Encourage the active management of farmland habitats across the Chilterns to prevent invasive species and diseases spreading.
  • Help land managers and owners with pest and disease control, promoting sustainable and eco-friendly methods.
  • Inform the public and those visiting our countryside about diseases and how to stop their spread, for instance, cleaning shoes.
  • Promote wildlife-friendly gardening, using native species and being careful about discarding garden waste to avoid plants escaping into the wild.
  • Create well-connected networks of habitats that are resilient to change and allow species to move through the landscape.
  • Manage your land for wildlife. If you are a farmer or landowner, the way you manage your land can help to restore our native wildflowers and animals and create wildlife networks. Be mindful of using harmful pesticides and fertilisers and how these, and other agricultural spoils, run-off into local streams and rivers.
  • Be careful how you tread! Some diseases can be spread via soil and contact, so wash your boots between site visits.
  • Be careful how you garden! Use native planting schemes where possible and try not to introduce non-native plants into the surrounding area, for example by discarding cuttings.
  • Volunteer to help manage local farmland habitats.
  • Encourage your employer or local business to use native plants on their land.


Fertilisers, insecticides and herbicides, if over or incorrectly used can become pollutants to our environment. These leach into the ground, changing soil and water composition, kill our much-needed pollinators, and accidentally target native, wild plants as well as those that are an agricultural pest.

Air pollution is mainly nitrogen from transport and power stations, and ammonia from agriculture, particularly, livestock though the effects of ammonia from agriculture can be temporary and reversible. As well as ravaging wild plants, woodlands and meadows, air pollution can have a detrimental and direct effect on our health.

Nitrogen levels in the UK countryside are leading to an increase in nitrogen-tolerant plant species, which out-compete many characteristic native species. This can have a knock-on effect for other species like butterflies. Trees can also directly suffer as they are stripped of their protective lichens, and plants may be more susceptible to damage from drought, frost and diseases.

Lichens are powerful indicators of air pollution. They are sensitive and respond to pollution in short timeframes. Many lichens evolved in naturally low levels of atmospheric nitrogen, so will disappear when faced with polluted air. Assessing the lichen communities in a habitat can provide an indication of its overall health.

  • Promote and encourage environmentally sensitive farming methods.
  • Work with planners and developers to decrease the amount of traffic on the roads, particularly over short distances, and include green space within developments.
  • Encourage people to leave the car at home whenever possible.
  • Promote the Chilterns as a sustainable alternative for short and long visits – an outstanding landscape, accessible by public transport and on the doorstep of millions in the South East.
  • Create well-connected networks of habitats that allow species to move through the landscape in response to changing conditions.
  • Manage your land for wildlife. If you are a farmer or landowner, the way you manage your land will determine how polluting it is.
  • Reduce your air pollution. There are lots of ways to reduce your emissions in your day-to-day life, such as travelling by public transport, bike or foot to work or recreation; and buying locally produced products.
  • Visit your local nature spots to reduce travel; enjoy a staycation in the Chilterns! Find out where to go using our interactive map.
  • Encourage your employer or local business to reduce their transport emissions.
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Chess Smarter Water Catchment project – working across a landscape and its habitats

The pilot Chess Smarter Water Catchment project is being funded by Thames Water and delivered by multiple partner organisations, including Affinity WaterBuckinghamshire Council, The Chiltern SocietyEnvironment AgencyHertfordshire & Middlesex Wildlife Trust and The River Chess Association. The project focuses on the River Chess – a precious chalk stream – and the land around it (its catchment), which comprises semi-natural habitats, agricultural land, and urban areas. It is using a landscape-scale approach to tackle multiple issues and realise multiple benefits for those inside and outside the catchment. The project’s new Farming Officer is supporting the set-up of a farmer cluster, and promoting joined-up management of the River Chess and the farmland habitats surrounding it.

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Featured walks

A selection of some of the best walks in the Chilterns, from short easy strolls to all day walks, and all through beautiful scenery. The best way to shake off the cobwebs, enjoy tranquil surroundings and burn a few calories!
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Plan your trip to the Chilterns!

Search the interactive map: select from a list of categories to bring up icons showing the location and information of walks, bike rides, places to visit, tasty local products and plenty more across the Chilterns area