The farmland, grassland, woods and hedgerows of the Chilterns are brimming with wildlife, from brown hares bounding across the fields to skylarks filling the skies with song, bumblebees buzzing among cornfield flowers, to mice scuttling under hedges. Explore our farmland habitats through the seasons to find out where to go for wildlife, what to spot and what’s rare.
Farmland covers around 60% of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Much of it is privately owned, but footpaths criss-cross the land and give explorers access to wide a range of farmland habitats. You can also visit certain farmed sites in the Chilterns AONB, such as Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve, College Lake nature reserve, Coombe Hill, Grangelands and Pulpit Hill nature reserve and Lodge Hill nature reserve. These protected places offer a variety of habitats to enjoy, including lakes, woodlands and chalk downlands, and are brimming with traditional farmland wildlife. You may come across farm workings, too, along with grazing livestock.
Visit our interactive map to discover even more family days out and wildlife adventures across the Chilterns.
Our farmland habitats are special, playing a huge role in the wider landscape and our own lives. Visit our nature and wildlife section to find out why these things are important in the Chilterns and what we are doing to look after them.
Watching farmland wildlife through the seasons
Read our season-by-season guide to the Chilterns farmland wildlife.
In spring, our countryside bursts with new life – from the lambs in farmers’ fields to the blossom on our hedgerows. Farmers will be hard at work preparing the ground, planting crops for the new season and looking after livestock as it breeds. In the same way, wildlife is just as busy as it prepares for new life: linnets nest in trees and hedges, and skylarks nest among crops; lapwings visit wet meadows for to breed; dormice emerge from hibernation looking for food; badger cubs born over winter take their first steps out of their setts; brown hares can be spotted ‘boxing’ in the fields; and flowers spring from the ground in a profusion of colour.
What to look out for in Spring
Brown hare (Lepus europaeus)
With its long ears, powerful hind legs, large eyes and golden-brown fur, the brown hare is easy to identify. It is much bigger than a rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and is often seen bounding across crop fields and grasslands. Brown hares are particularly visible in spring when vegetation is low and they can be seen fighting in the fields: standing on their hind legs and ‘boxing’ with their front paws. Rather than two males fighting, it is often a female fighting off the unwanted advances of a male! Brown hares do not dig burrows like rabbits, but create ‘forms’ – shallow scrapes in the ground in which they nest.
Common hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)
The creamy-white blossoms of hawthorn hedges are an unmistakable and stunning sight in May. So much so, they feature in many May-time traditions, such as May Day garlands, and are also known as May blossom or May thorn. These hedges are important for a huge variety of wildlife – offering food and shelter to farmland birds, mammals of all sizes, reptiles and amphibians, and insects, from fluttering butterflies to chirruping crickets. In autumn, they bear distinctive red fruits or ‘haws’.
Lapwing (Vanellus vanellus)
Some of our lapwings are migrants – visiting in the winter and creating huge flocks that wheel through the sky. Others reside here, breeding in spring on wet meadows, near ponds and lakes, and on damp farmland. They can be easily identified by their distinctive crest, ‘black-and-white’ pattern (up close the feathers have a green and purple sheen), and round wingtips. Look out for the dramatic aerial display of the males, usually accompanied by their ‘peewit’ call. Females nest in muddy or sandy waterside scrapes, hatching out fluffy, yellow chicks.
Linnet (Linaria cannabina)
The linnet is classic farmland bird, spotted across grassland, crops, heath and scrub. Look out for a slightly streaky, brown bird with a grey head; males sport characteristic pink patches on their foreheads and chests. Linnets feed on seeds and can form large flocks in winter, feeding on stubbles and scrubs. They nest in gorse bushes and hedgerows, building bowl-shaped nests. They are particularly noted for their beautiful song. Like many of our farmland birds, they are under threat from the loss of our farmland habitats.
Summer on farmland sees golden crops, swaying wildflowers and cool, green tree canopies. Hay meadows are in full bloom with traditional wildflowers like ox-eye daisy and common poppy; rare orchids are popping up on chalk grassland and along verges; floodplain meadows are swamped with breeding birds; and heathlands are playing host to ancient dragons and damsels (of the insect variety at least!). Farmers are also enjoying the fruits of their labours, harvesting winter-sown arable crops, salad, vegetables and soft fruit, cutting hay and making silage, and shearing sheep and mating cows.
What to look for in Summer
Common-spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
One of the easiest of all the orchids to spot, the common-spotted orchid is just that – common! From May to August, it can be found across a range of habitats, including roadside verges, grasslands, ditches, woodlands, hedgerows, old quarries, marshes and fens. Delicate, pale-pink, lobed flowers sit atop a green flower spike and are adorned with darker pink spots and stripes. The spike grows from a distinctive rosette of spotted leaves, which give the plant its name.
Swift (Apus apus)
You know summer has arrived when the arrowed silhouettes of wheeling swifts, dark against the sky, return. These small, dark brown birds, with pale throats, also have a distinctive high-pitched, scream-like call. They are similar to swallows (Hirundo rustica) and martins, but are larger and don’t have white bellies. Migrating here to breed, swifts nest in trees and old buildings. They feast on small insects they catch while on the wing. At the end of the summer, they start the long journey back to their warm wintering grounds in Africa.
Wood (or long-tailed field) mouse (Apodemus sylvaticus)
The diminutive wood mouse is a common, brown mouse that is also known as the long-tailed field mouse. Its eyes and ears are larger than those of a house mouse (Mus musculus), its underside is pale, and it does not sport the yellow neck band of the similar yellow-necked mouse (Apodemus flavicollis). Wood mice can be found in woods and fields, feeding on seeds, fruits and nuts. They live in burrows underground and breed from March to October.
Skylark (Alauda arvensis)
The melodious, rising song of the skylark is iconic of farmland and grassland across the UK. A small, brown, streaky bird, with a slight crest, the skylark is unassuming in appearance, but its song flight is unmistakable as it moves vertically in the air over swaying summer grasses. Skylarks nest on the ground among crops, grass or heather, laying three to four eggs. Chicks are quickly independent, and adults can have up to four broods in one summer. Despite this, skylarks, like many of our farmland birds, are under threat from the loss of our farmland habitats.
Hay meadows have been cut, flowers have gone over, and fields may start to be flooded, but that doesn’t mean that our farmland habitats are sitting idle in autumn! Farmers are harvesting vegetables, preparing the ground for winter sowing, attending livestock and even felling Christmas trees! In the landscape, the leaves of deciduous trees turn golden brown, orange and red in showy displays. Fungi pop up across our grasslands and hedges are laden with sloes, blackberries and haws. Our birds change with the seasons. Summer migrant birds leave for more exotic shores, and are replaced with our winter migrants, looking for a clement place to spend the colder months. Look out for flocks of waders, such as lapwings and plovers, and hedgerow birds, such as fieldfares and redwings.
What to look for in Autumn
Common gull (Larus canus)
During the colder months, the common gull can be seen in flocks on inland farmland and wetland habitats, as well in its more traditional coastal habitats. It is a medium-sized gull, similar in appearance to the herring gull (Larus argentatus), but with yellow legs and without the distinctive red spot on the beak. Look out for it stamping grassy ground to mimic the rain and encourage its invertebrate prey to the surface.
Redwing (Turdus iliacus)
The redwing is a winter visitor that flies to our shores mainly from Iceland and Scandinavia. The orangey-red patches under its wings give this brown, streaky thrush its name. Look out for its white eyestripe and pale breast too. Redwings often form flocks with similar-looking fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) and can be seen flying around our hedges, orchards, parks and gardens. They feast on the berries and fruits of autumn and winter, and head back to their breeding grounds in spring.
Starling (Sturnus vulgaris)
A swirling flock of starlings, silhouetted against a white autumnal sky, is truly one of the UK’s most impressive wildlife spectacles. These ‘murmurations’ are common during the colder months as starlings arrive from the continent and flock together to find their communal roosts. Numbers can reach the tens of thousands as flocks join and part, making patterns across the evening skies – easily spotted across the open fields, grasslands, parks and even towns of the Chilterns. The starling itself is a pretty, black bird with a purple-green sheen to its feathers and white spots over its body in winter. It will happily visit garden feeders and tables, and eats fruits and insects.
Wayfaring tree (Viburnum lantana)
The wayfaring tree is a shrub of woodlands, hedgerows and scrub, particularly on chalky soils, so the Chilterns is a perfect spot for it. It has oval leaves with silky hairs on their undersides and displays flowerheads (umbels) of creamy-white flowers in spring. In autumn, the fruits appear – bright red at first, then turning to black. Although the berries are poisonous to us, birds feast on them, while insects love the nectar of the flowers.
As temperatures drop and frosts become frequent, the attention of our farmers moves from the fields to conservation works, such as coppicing and hedgelaying, building works and looking after and selling livestock – turkeys are being prepared for the Christmas table! Our wildlife is preparing for the harder months, too, whether looking for places to hibernate, building up stores of food, or arriving from colder climes. Numbers of wading birds and wildfowl increase, and the plaintive call of the curlew can be heard across our wet meadows. Barn owls swoop low over heaths and hedgerows, ‘quartering’ in search of small mammals. Deciduous trees may look stark without their leaves, but our evergreens are shining – box, yew, holly and juniper help to make the season bright!
Brambling (Fringilla montifringilla)
The brambling is a relative of the chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) and looks very similar. In winter, the males’ heads turn from black to mottled brown, but both sexes display a rusty orange breast, a white rump and a yellow bill; in contrast, chaffinches have pink breasts and grey bills. Arriving from Scandinavia, they can be seen in flocks along hedges, in stubble fields and sometimes in gardens.
Mistletoe (Viscum album)
Nothing says Christmas quite like a hanging bunch of mistletoe and the romantic tradition it inspires! Yet, the mistletoe plants themselves are not so friendly. As well as the berries being poisonous to us, the plant itself is a parasite of trees like apple, lime and hawthorn. Great balls of it can be seen hanging from the bare branches of its hosts, attracting birds, such as blackcaps (Sylvia atricapilla), that can stomach its berries.
Pheasant (Phasianus colchicus)
Many pheasants are bred in captivity and released into woodlands or on farmland as game. Organised shooting parties take place throughout the winter, but it’s illegal to shoot them at other times of the year. Male pheasants are large (up to 90 cm long) and colourful, with dark green heads, red eye patches, white neck rings, brown-red bodies and long tails. Females are smaller and buff-brown with dark spots. Listen out for the males’ loud, hacking call followed by a rapid wing flutter. Pheasants feed on shoots, seeds and insects.
Snipe (Gallinago gallinago)
The snipe is a medium-sized, brown wading bird, with an intricate pattern of gold and black bars on its back, and dark brown stripes on its head. It is most recognisable by the shape of its bill – long and straight, perfect for probing the soft mud of wetland shores for invertebrates to feed on. Our resident breeding birds are joined by migrants in winter. Look out for them on wet grasslands, farmland and lake shores.
Farmland wildlife 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 how we are tackling these threats to the survival of our farmland habitats and how you can help.
Managing the Chilterns’ special habitats
Farmland, grassland, heathland and other habitats in the Chilterns need protection, management and restoration, so that the wildlife living there can thrive and for our own well-being, too. The Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) looks after the Chilterns AONB, working with partners and stakeholders to ensure its future. Find out what we do and how we protect, enhance and restore our wonderful landscape.