Nature and wildlife
From rare orchids to majestic red kites, the diversity of the flora and fauna of the Chiltern Hills is incredible.
Nature surrounds us
Nature surrounds us all day, every day – from the birds singing in the garden, to the dandelions we pass in the street, from the rivers we navigate, to the meadows we wander in the springtime. It encompasses the ecosystems and habitats that make up the rich and varied patchwork of the Earth’s surface, as well as all the weird and wonderful species that dwell here. We are not separate from nature, but an indivisible and integral part of it.
We gain so much from nature and wildlife. A healthy natural environment underpins the health and well-being of society and the economy. The natural resources – or ‘natural capital’ – of the Earth include its physical features, such as water and soil, as well as its habitats and species. The benefits that we get from this natural capital are called ‘ecosystems services’. Nature and wildlife provide a wide range of ecosystem services, including food, clean water, construction materials, natural flood defence, pollination, pest control, carbon storage, recreation, health and well-being opportunities, and locally distinctive products.
Biodiversity is the term given to describe all life on Earth. It includes all the species, habitats, ecosystems across the globe, from the smallest microbe to the widest ocean. It also includes how species and habitats interact with each other, whether its bacteria changing soils or beavers damming-up rivers. We may think of biodiversity as simply something nice to look at, enjoying the ‘cute’ animals and visits to exotic places, but without it, we wouldn’t have all the ecosystem services we rely on. It is vital to our life support system.
Nature and wildlife in the Chilterns
The Chilterns is home to a wonderful variety of wildlife, including many protected and notable species. The area is particularly important for its chalk grassland, chalk streams, ancient woodlands and arable habitats. Over millennia, variations in soils, topography and management have given rise to rich habitat mosaics, including box woodland and juniper scrub, chalk streams, wayside verges and disused quarries, wood pasture and veteran trees, and heathland and acid grassland. Many of the habitats now associated with the Chilterns are a by-product of many years of traditional management, such as grazing, coppicing and quarrying.
More than 11% of the Chilterns AONB (9,500 ha) is designated and protected for its wildlife value.
Nature under threat
The Chilterns AONB faces immense pressure from human activities and their consequences, such as climate change. These pressures can threaten and impact the wonderful habitats and species of the area. Find out more about our habitats and what we are doing to help them:
Protecting special sites
The Chilterns is an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). This means it is a specific area of land that is protected by the Countryside Rights of Way Act 2000 (CROW Act). It has been designated for the things that make it unique – its ‘special qualities’ – such as its landscape and geology, plants and animals, relative wildness, and rich history of human settlement over the centuries.
Within the AONB, there are many more sites designated and protected specifically for their wildlife value, including nationally and internationally important sites. These include:
- Three Special Areas of Conservation (SACs – sites of international importance): the
- Chilterns Beechwood SAC, Aston Rowant SAC, and Hartslock Wood SAC.
- 64 Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs – sites of national importance for their biological or geological features), including Aston Clinton Ragpits, Hodgemoor Wood and Naphill Common.
- 3 National Nature Reserves (NNRs – sites of national importance) at Aston Rowant, Barton Hills and Knocking Hoe.
- 494 local sites recognised for their wildlife or geology.
- The Chilterns Important Plant Area (IPA) – an area identified by Plantlife as having internationally important plant populations.
Traditionally, nature conservation has focused on protecting special sites like the ones above. Places where wildlife is abundant or rare, habitats are nearly pristine, and human activity is kept to a minimum or used to maintain the area for biodiversity. These havens for wildlife provide important wildlife ‘reservoirs’, where plants and animals thrive. Yet, more often than not, these valuable places have been cut off from other reserves and sites by human activities that have changed the landscape around them, creating ‘islands’ of biodiversity.
Today, we recognise the importance of reconnecting these islands by expanding our habitats and looking after our ecosystems across the whole landscape. Conservation on this wider scale enables us to reinstate natural processes, such as water pathways and soil formation, and create stepping-stones for wildlife to move through the landscape in response to threats, pressures and changes.
Making space for nature in the landscape also benefits us in many ways – from providing places for recreation, to improving mental well-being, offering economic opportunities, to providing natural resources.
Find out more about what we are doing to protect our landscape in our What we do section.
Protecting special species
When ecosystems are functioning naturally, habitats are in balance and species thrive within them. Unfortunately, many of our ecosystems have been damaged by human activities or lack of appropriate management, preventing them from functioning the way they should. As a result, we have lost habitats, and species and populations have suffered; some have become locally or even globally rare or extinct.
Working on a landscape-scale to reinstate the natural functions of our ecosystems is the best way to save biodiversity and the natural capital (goods and services) that it provides. Yet, this is not always possible, or measures may not be put in place quickly enough. So, sometimes, actions to save particular species, populations or even individuals are necessary and urgent. For instance, red kites were hunted to near extinction across the country, but an urgent reintroduction programme in the Chilterns has seen huge conservation successes and now the red kite is no longer threatened.
Find out more about what we are doing to protect wildlife in our What we do section.
Icons of the Chilterns
Together, the habitats and species of the Chilterns form a unique set of relationships and mosaics that make the area special. Within that, there are species that are considered to be vital to the habitats they live in, iconic to the area, or rare or threatened locally, nationally or even globally; just a few of these are listed here.
The Adonis blue butterfly 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.
Adonis blue populations have undergone serious declines in recent years, mainly due to habitat loss.
The Chilterns is famous for its beech woods. Mature trees can grow to more than 40 metres in height, shading the woodland floor with their huge crowns. Specialised plants grow beneath these giants, and animals make the most of their autumnal bounty of seeds. Beech wood is especially good for furniture-making and a rich industry grew up in the Chilterns during the 18th and 19th centuries, when planting was at its height. Sadly, this tradition declined in the 20th century as beech wood was replaced by cheaper woods, metal and plastic.
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 brown trout is a medium-sized fish that lives in fast-flowing and gravelly rivers and streams; it is particularly fond of the Chilterns’ special chalk streams, which are threatened by climate change. Brown trout are golden-brown in colour, with reddish spots down the flanks. Spring is breeding time and some trout migrate miles to get to their spawning grounds. Brown trout are a Priority Species.
The Chiltern gentian is one of the rarest flowers in the UK and can only be found at a handful of sites, mostly in the Chiltern Hills. It grows on chalk downlands and prefers open, short turf. It has a reddish stem and pretty, trumpet-shaped, purple flowers. The habitat in which is lives is under serious threat from climate change and habitat loss.
Juniper is a spiny, grey-green, evergreen shrub that tends to grow in colonies on chalk grassland sites in the Chilterns. It has cone-like flowers in spring, which eventually ripen into the berries it is most famous for – blackish-blue and perfect for making gin! Once a common plant, it is now declining due to habitat loss.
The monkey orchid is very rare in the UK and can only be found at three sites, one of which is in the Chilterns. 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. The flower prefers sunny, chalk grassland sites, which are under threat from climate change and lack of appropriate management.
During the mid-20th century, the otter was driven to near extinction across our rivers due to hunting and pollution. But due to conservation efforts and legislation, it is now making a fantastic comeback. Cleaning up the rivers has allowed it to return to the waterways of the Chilterns; look for signs of this secretive mammal, such as spraints (poo); five-toed footprints; and bankside burrows. Otters are protected under European law
The pasqueflower is a rare wildflower of chalk grasslands and limestone hillsides. Flowering around Eastertime – hence the name ‘pasque’, meaning Easter – it is a large, purple flower with a cluster of bright yellow stamens at its centre. It is listed as Vulnerable on Britain’s Red List of plants and is threatened by habitat loss.
Red kites were driven to extinction in England by human persecution during the 19th century; only a small Welsh population remained. But thanks to a massive reintroduction and conservation programme, these iconic birds are back and breeding in the Chilterns – now one of the best places in the UK to see them soaring high over the woods and grasslands. Find out more.
Water voles live on our waterways, burrowing into riverbanks and hiding among reedbeds. They look like fat, fluffy rats with furry tails, but the similarities end there. They are under serious threat from habitat loss and predation by the non-native American mink. They are a Priority Species and can be found along the Chilterns’ precious chalk streams.
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