Grasslands and heaths

The Chilterns AONB supports important wildlife-rich chalk, acid and neutral grasslands, as well remnant heathlands often found on common land.

The Chilterns is famous for its patchwork landscape of steep, windswept downlands and rolling, flower-filled meadows, interspersed by woodlands, farms and hedges. Indeed, the AONB supports important concentrations of species-rich grasslands, such as chalk, neutral and acid grasslands. These places are home to a huge range of wildlife, some of which cannot be found anywhere else or in any other habitat type.

The Chilterns’ chalk grassland is an internationally rare, fragile and wildlife-rich habitat, which has developed over centuries of grazing on nutrient-poor, chalk soils. Here, butterflies dance among fragrant herbs like thyme and marjoram in the day and glow-worms light-up the evenings. Steep slopes have short turf where rare orchids grow, and juniper and box flourish. Other chalk specialist species include wild candytuft, pasqueflower and silver-spotted skipper.

Neutral grasslands are, perhaps, more to familiar to us as the hay meadows, pastures and floodplains of lower ground. These special places are full of wildflowers and birds, and are often grazed and cut to provide dazzling displays of colour in the summer. Where the soil is more acidic, often over sand and gravel, acid grassland dominates, and a different set of plants grow. Grasses, rushes and sedges thrive, alongside heathers and speedwells. Lizards and snakes bask in the sun, and solitary bees buzz around their holes in the bare ground.

Our heaths can mostly be found on common land – areas where a specific group of people hold rights to use privately owned land for grazing, fishing and materials. Some commons are still grazed today, but most are used for recreation. Many are former wood pasture (where animals graze under trees), with a mosaic of heathland, acid grassland, ponds and other open habitats. In these special places, heath and gorse turn the landscape purple and yellow, woodlarks nest on the ground, adders hide under rocks, and crickets fill the air with their chirruping.

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Discover the Chilterns’ grasslands and heaths for yourself!

Browse our interactive map to find a place near you or check out our Places to visit section for inspiration.

Types of grasslands and heaths in the Chilterns

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.

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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 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.

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.

Heathland is the result of hundreds, if not thousands, of years of forest clearance and livestock grazing. If undisturbed, heathland will naturally change back into woodland. Soils are sandy and acidic, and low in nutrients. Purple-pink heather and sun-yellow gorse are typical species to be found here, alongside scattered trees and bare ground. Reptiles bask in the sun, burrowing insects thrive in the sandy soils, and ground-nesting birds like woodlarks nestle in the low shrubs.

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Grassland wildlife

The grasslands and heaths of the Chilterns are bursting with wildlife, some of which is incredibly specialist or rare. Look out for the aptly named Chiltern gentian, as well as the brilliant Adonis blue butterfly and the very special berries of juniper bushes – used to make delicious gin! Explore our grassy places through the seasons to find out where to go for wildlife, what to spot and what’s rare.

Why are grasslands and heaths important?

Grasslands and heaths don’t just provide food and shelter for plants and animals, but are an integral part of our whole environment. A healthy natural environment underpins the health and well-being of society and the economy. The natural resources – or ‘natural capital’ – of the Chilterns include its grasslands and heaths, alongside other features like geology, species and soils. The benefits that we get from this natural capital are called ‘ecosystems services’. Our meadows, pastures, downland, commons and acid grasslands provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including food, natural flood defences, pollination opportunities, recreation, health and well-being opportunities, and locally distinctive products.

Our grasslands and heaths have been managed in some form for many centuries, providing important economic services, but also producing a range of habitats that are specific to certain activities. Today, grassland and heathland may be encroached by scrub and trees if left unmanaged, or vigorous plants may take over, pushing out delicate wildflowers. Grazing and hay-cutting are two of the most important conservation activities that can keep our grasslands and heaths healthy, thus protecting our natural capital, as well as the local economy. Many grassland and heathland sites are also popular with visitors, which requires management to prevent disturbance to sensitive species and habitats.

Remember, we can all do our bit to help our grasslands and heaths by taking care not to disturb wildlife when we visit these special places and buying local products like food and fuel.

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Grasslands and heaths under threat

Grasslands and heaths are important features of the Chilterns’ landscape, but their habitats and characteristics are being lost at an alarming rate; for example, ten of the 60 rarer chalk flora species are already thought to be extinct. Threats to the survival of our grassland heritage include lack of management, climate change, habitat loss and invasive species. Find out how we are tackling these threats and how you can help.

Managing our grasslands and heaths

Protecting and managing our grasslands and heaths is one of the most important conservation activities in the AONB. Not only are they part of the heritage and landscape character of the area, but they also provide us with vital economic, health and recreation benefits. These areas include some of our most rare and precious habitats and species, such as chalk grassland and pasqueflower.

Plantlife have designated the Chilterns as an Important Plant Area (IPA) due to its important populations of eyebrights and exceptional diversity of chalk grassland plants. There are also several National Nature Reserves (NNRs) and Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) in recognition of these special habitats. Find out more about how we look after our grasslands and heaths in the Chilterns AONB Management Plan 2019-2024.

New project: Chalkscapes

Chalkscapesis an exciting new partnership project designed to inspire people to understand, care for and take action for the precious North Chilterns chalk landscape. The project will deliver landscape-scale conservation and community engagement, giving urgent support to the wildlife, heritage and communities that face unprecedented and relentless levels of housing, infrastructure growth and environmental pressures.

 

 

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