Grassland and healthland 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.
There are lots of great grasslands and heathlands to visit in the Chilterns AONB, such as Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve, Grangelands nature reserve, Hartslock nature reserve, Knocking Hoe National Nature Reserve and Pegsdon Hills and Hoo Bit nature reserve. Visit our interactive map to discover even more family days out and wildlife adventures across the Chilterns.
Our grasslands and heaths are very 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 grassland and heathland wildlife through the seasons
Read our season-by-season guide to wildlife watching on Chilterns grasslands and heathlands.
In spring, our grasslands and heaths start to bloom and buzz. Cowslips, early flowering orchids, buttercups and gorse decorate the different habitats with bright colours, and attract the first pollinators and butterflies like brimstones, commas and orange-tips. Trees, bordering hedges and shrubs, such as hawthorn and blackthorn, come into leaf and blossom, and small mammals wake up from long sleeps. Birds and animals are preparing to breed: listen out for bird song, and look out for birds and animals gathering stuff for their nests and dens.
Image: Male brimstone (John Morris)
What to look for in spring
Brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni)
The lemon-yellow wings of the male brimstone butterfly make it an unmistakeable species. It is one of the very first butterflies to emerge, being on the wing as early as January if there are warm days. It is common in gardens in spring, but can be seen across a wide range of habitats including grasslands, hedgerows, woodlands and farmlands. The caterpillars feed on buckthorn, found on chalk grasslands, and on alder buckthorn, found in wet woods.
Cowslip (Primula veris)
A traditional flower of hay meadows, woods and hedgerows, the pretty cowslip appears in early spring. It displays bright yellow clusters of flowers on top of green, upright stems that reach up to 25 cm in height. Its green, crinkly leaves are familiar to the Primula genus, to which the primrose (Primula vulgaris) also belongs. Like cowslips, primroses can be found in early spring in woodlands, hedgerows and grasslands. Their flowers are much larger and lower to the ground, however, and tend to be creamy-yellow in the wild.
Early purple orchid (Orchis mascula)
One of the first orchids to flower, the magenta spikes of early purple orchids can be spotted from April onwards in hay meadows and woodland, and on chalk grasslands and roadside verges. The flower spikes can be up to 40 cm tall and carry as many as 50 purple-pink flowers (white flowers are uncommon). Before the flowers appear, look out for the shiny green, blade-like leaves forming a rosette on the ground – easy to spot because of the dark purple blotches on them.
Grass snake (Natrix helvetica)
The UK hosts three native species of snake: grass snake, adder and smooth snake; but only the grass snake and adder can be found in the Chilterns. Grass snakes are common across all wetland and grassland habitats, while adders can be found on heaths and in woodlands. Grass snakes can grow to 1.5 m long, making them our largest snakes, and are usually green in colour with a pale belly. They have a characteristic yellow-and-black collar and round pupils, unlike adders which have a cat-like slit. Adders also have a distinctive diamond-shaped pattern along their backs. The adder is our only venomous snake – it has a painful bite that can be dangerous for the young, elderly or infirm, but it doesn’t pose much of a threat to humans if left undisturbed. Grass snakes swim well and hunt amphibians, fish, small mammals and birds, while adders eat small rodents and lizards. During spring and summer, snakes and other reptiles can be spotted basking in the early morning sun along paths, on log piles or near water. Snakes and other reptiles hibernate over winter.
Lying in a grassland, listening to the hum and buzz of bees, the chirruping of crickets and the songs of skylarks, must be one of the great wildlife experiences of the Chilterns – a chance to reconnect with nature. We may feel relaxed, but our grasslands and heaths are certainly busy places at this time of year! 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 heathland are playing host to ancient dragons and damsels (of the insect variety at least!).
What to look for in Summer
Adonis blue butterfly (Polyommatus bellargus)
The Adonis blue is a striking butterfly of southern chalk grassland. Males have brilliant-blue wings, while females are mainly brown with orange spots at their wing edges. Both sexes have black lines that cross the white fringes of their wings. Caterpillars feed on horseshoe vetch and are always found with ants who protect them in return for a sugary substance they produce. Adonis blue populations have undergone serious declines in recent years, mainly due to habitat loss.
Glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca)
Despite its name, the glow-worm is not actually a worm; it is a beetle. The males of this species look just like a typical beetle, but the females look like large larvae without wings. It is the females’ tails that famously light-up green at night in the hope of attracting a mate. Look for adult glow-worms on chalk grassland and heathlands in summer. Larvae can be found under rocks, feeding on slugs and snails, which they inject with a paralysing poison. They can also emit light, as can the eggs.
Juniper (Juniperus communis)
Juniper is a spiny, grey-green, evergreen shrub that tends to grow in colonies on chalk grassland sites in the Chilterns. It has separate male and female plants (‘dioecious’), which produce cone-like flowers in spring. Those on the female plants are pollinated by the wind and eventually ripen into the berries that juniper is famous for – blackish-blue and perfect for making gin! Once a common plant in the UK, it is now rare due to the loss of our chalk grassland and moorland habitats.
Monkey orchid (Orchis simia)
The monkey orchid is very rare in the UK and can only be found at three sites. One of those sites is in the Chilterns at BBOWT’s Hartslock nature reserve, a sloping chalk grassland habitat that overlooks the River Thames at Goring. Living up to its name, the monkey orchid has small, white-and-pink flowers that look just like little monkeys, each with a head, arms, legs and a tiny tail. One flower spike may have over 50 little monkeys hanging off it!
Hay meadows have been cut, flowers have gone over, and fields may start to be flooded, but that doesn’t mean that our grasslands aren’t worth a visit in autumn! At this time of year, the leaves of deciduous trees turn golden brown, orange and red in showy displays. Heather comes into bloom, scattering heathlands with purple and pink, and fungi pop up across our grasslands – look out for magical fairy rings and toadstools brightening dewy grass. 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 like lapwings and dunlins, and hedgerow birds like fieldfares and redwings.
What to look for in Autumn
Bell heather (Erica cinerea)
Purple swathes of blooming heather are an autumn delight on the heathlands of the Chilterns. There are three types of heather: bell, ling (or common) and cross-leaved heath; but bell heather probably the one that is familiar to most of us. As its name suggests, tiny, purple ‘bells’ cluster along the stems in September attracting a wide variety of pollinating insects. A low-growing shrub that likes dry and acidic soils, it is also an ideal garden and rockery plant.
Chiltern gentian (Gentianella germanica)
The Chiltern gentian is a very special plant in the region – only growing on the lowland chalk grasslands of Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire, and recently discovered in Wiltshire. It is endemic to the UK, meaning it is only found here and nowhere else the world! This rare annual flowers in autumn, showcasing clusters of purple or pinkish, trumpet-shaped flowers. It is very similar to the autumn gentian, but its flowers are a brighter purple, and larger and wider when fully open.
Red kite (Milvus milvus)
Red kites are one of Britain’s most magnificent and distinctive birds of prey, with fanned forked tails, a reddish-brown body and a distinctive mewing call. One of the best places to see them is the Chilterns AONB, where their current success story began. By the late 1800s, persecution had driven them to extinction in England. But a major reintroduction project in the Chilterns in the 1990s saw them soar to new heights. Our red kites are now a great example of what a successful conservation project can achieve. Look out for them soaring above grasslands and woods in the AONB, but please don’t be tempted to feed them to entice them closer – it discourages them from expanding their range to look for new food sources and breeding territories. Find out more about these fabulous birds.
Waxcap (Hygrocybe species)
Brightly coloured waxcaps are showy fungi of damp grasslands, old pastures, heaths and even the odd lawn! Named for the waxy texture of their caps, they vary in colour from bright red, through pink, to gold, brown and even green. Common species include scarlet, pink, golden, meadow, parrot and glutinous waxcaps. Like most fungi, the parts above ground are just the fruiting bodies. These grow from an unseen network of tiny filaments and produce spores for reproduction. Fungi help to decompose rotting wood and recycle its nutrients back into the soil. Many fungi also help trees to feed on nutrients in the soil, their filaments forming a beneficial relationship with the tree’s roots. Do remember many fungi are poisonous and should not be picked or eaten.
Winter can seem like a bleak time on our grasslands and heaths, as winds and rain whip across open ground and flooded meadows are impossible to pass. But don’t despair and don’t stop visiting! There are lots of things to look out for on a cold, crisp, frosty morning. Numbers of wading birds and wildfowl increase as many migrants are still arriving from colder climes. The plaintive call of the curlew can be heard across wet meadows over winter, while lapwing and snipe forage in the gathering pools. Dusk and dawn are the best times to spot barn owls swooping low over heaths and hedgerows in search of small mammals, many of which will find safe places to hibernate at this time of year. Take some time with the trees too; evergreens like box, yew, holly and juniper help to make the season bright!
Image: Martin Sepion
What to see in Winter
Barn owl (Tyto alba)
The barn owl is probably one of our best-loved birds of prey – with its beautiful, soft, white feathers, heart-shaped face, and silent, ghostly flight, you can see why! As the vegetation dies back over winter, and the nights draw in, it becomes easier to spot barn owls as they glide over fields, hedgerows and grasslands, looking for small mammals to pounce on; this behaviour is known as ‘quartering’. In cold weather, they will conserve energy by hunting from post and fences, rather than the air, and by roosting in warm places like tree hollows, haybale stacks and nestboxes.
Common box (Buxus sempervirens)
In a small number of places in the Chilterns, ancient box woods exist as remnants of a habitat that was once more extensive. These woodlands host rare animals and lichens, and were once harvested for their timber to make lace bobbins, woodblocks for printing, and instruments. Today, these industries have declined, and box woods are under pressure from habitat loss. The small, oval, glossy-green leaves of this medium-sized evergreen shrub are its giveaway. Look out for it growing on steep, chalk grassland slopes, churchyards and formal gardens like Cliveden.
Kestrel (Falco tinnunculus)
The kestrel is a small falcon best known for its habit of hovering in the sky before swooping into a dive to catch its small-mammal prey. It prefers open habitats like grasslands and heaths, but is often spotted along roadsides watching out for voles, mice and small birds. Males have a grey head and tail, and gingery-brown back, while females are mostly brown, with dark bands on the tail. They nest in hollow trees and old buildings, raising their young in springtime.
Red fox (Vulpes vulpes)
Famed for their cunning and their bushy tails (brushes), these red, dog-like animals are great scavengers, eating fruit, eggs, worms and carrion, but may also hunt small mammals. Although they are mostly nocturnal, red foxes have a very characteristic musty smell, which you might notice when out for a walk in the woods. You may also spot their underground burrows, or earths, where they raise their cubs. The females, or vixens, make a loud screaming call during the mating season in winter.
Grassland and heathland wildlife 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 the Chilterns’ special habitats
Grasslands, heathlands 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
Image: Nick Middleton