Chalk grassland

Chalk grassland is a unique, specialised and fragile habitat, important for its landscape and historical value, as well as for wildlife. 

The Chilterns’ chalk grassland – a habitat type known as lowland calcareous grassland – is an internationally rare, fragile and wildlife-rich habitat. This type of grassland is associated with thin, base-rich soils, such as those found over chalk and limestone, and has developed over centuries of grazing to maintain a short turf (or ‘sward’) that is rich in herbs, flowers and grasses. Its long use is evident in the ancient routeways, burial mounds and hillforts that criss-cross its surface, giving it a truly ancient and wild feel.

The expansion of chalk grassland is likely associated with the Middle and New Stone Ages (11,700-2,000 BC) when people started to settle and farm, clearing the woodlands for fuel and livestock. Grazing in the clearings prevented the natural succession of grass back to woodland, and stopped more vigorous plants from taking hold.

Today, chalk grassland is only found in north-west Europe, and a significant proportion of it exists in England. The Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB) has nationally important concentrations of chalk grassland, with more than 700 ha of this rare habitat occurring here, particularly along the steep scarp slopes of the chalk outcrop.

Take a walk through a chalk grassland nature reserve in the Chilterns AONB and enjoy the fragrance of summer for yourself:

To find more wildlife-rich grasslands to visit, browse our interactive map

Find out more about grassland and heathland habitats in the AONB.

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Protecting our precious chalk habitats in the North Chilterns

Chalkscapes is an exciting new partnership project designed to inspire people to understand, care for and take action for the precious chalk landscape of the North Chilterns. 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.

Wildlife-rich grasslands

Chalk grassland is bursting with life; it has been likened to rainforest for the diversity of species it supports. In the day, butterflies like the silver-spotted skipper and Adonis blue dance among fragrant herbs, such as thyme and marjoram, while at night, glow-worms light-up the undergrowth. Rare orchids and juniper grow on steep slopes, alongside chalk specialists like wild candytuft, Chiltern Gentian and pasqueflower. Many of the plants found on our chalk grassland do not live in any other habitat, and many of the insects need specific chalk grassland plants to survive.

Scrub is often present on chalk grasslands and is of high wildlife value. Plants include guelder rose, dogwood, hawthorn and blackthorn. In the Chilterns, juniper and box scrub habitats are of particular interest.

Find out more about grassland and heathland wildlife

Grasslands under threat

Since the Second World War, our chalk grassland habitats have disappeared at an alarming rate. Changes to land use and agriculture practices have meant more development or more intensive arable farming, and traditional grazing has declined. Now, many of the remaining areas tend to be on valley sides or escarpments too steep to plough or re-seed.

On the remaining sites, the encroachment of scrub is a problem, whether from a lack of traditional livestock grazing or a lack of natural grazing by herbivores, such as rabbits. Vigorous plants take over and shade out more delicate herbs and flowers, ultimately affecting the invertebrates that rely on them. Yet, through the efforts of land managers (farmers, volunteer groups and conservation organisations) across the Chilterns, progress is being made in restoring and expanding our chalk grassland. We are looking to increase connectivity between fragmented sites to allow species to respond to climate change.

Find out more about threats to our grassland and heathland habitats

Protecting our precious chalk habitats in the Central Chilterns

Chalk, Cherries and Chairs is an ambitious scheme, which aims to connect people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns. The scheme weaves together three principal themes – local wildlife, local heritage and local people – within 18 projects designed to engage people, celebrate the area, and protect and enhance the local landscape. We are working with farmers, partner organisations and dedicated volunteers to bring real change to the landscape and wildlife of the Central Chilterns.

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Want to lend a hand?

From scrub-cutting to counting butterflies, you can help our grassland habitats by getting involved!

Find out how
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About us

Find out all about the Chilterns Conservation Board, our staff and our publications.
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Volunteering hub

Find out more about volunteering in the Chilterns - indoor, outdoor, practical or desk based there's something for everyone, whatever age or stage! Use our interactive volunteering hub to find the perfect opportunity for you.
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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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Follow the Countryside Code

Help us to protect the Chilterns AONB when you’re out and about by following the Countryside Code and the rules for the site you are visiting. Please respect others around you and those who care for and work in this special landscape.
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