Managing our rare chalk grassland
The patches of chalk grassland in the Chiltern Hills include some of the rarest habitats in the UK, the result of forest clearing as far back as Neolithic and Bronze Age times. Grazed by sheep for centuries, they are home to a remarkable array of plants and animals with as many as 30-40 different species in each square metre. Since the Second World War, the UK has lost around 80 per cent of grasslands like these. The National Trust works with a range of partners to protect what remains and to reverse this process of decline.
How does the National Trust manage chalk grassland in the Chilterns?
The fragmentation of many areas of chalk grassland has resulted in populations of a number of species becoming isolated and prone to local extinctions. The National Trust rangers and volunteers manage the pasture, in association with local farmers and other conservation groups such as the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust, Natural England, and Butterfly Conservation, to link up chalk grassland sites with ‘wildlife corridors’, which allow species to spread and intermingle.
Where possible, the Trust uses low-intensity sheep and cattle grazing to maintain the grassland. Sometimes livestock will be removed in spring when the plants start re-growing and they stay off the pasture until the plants have flowered and set seed. Grazing animals nibble off the shoots of saplings and shrubs, preventing them from shading out the low-growing grassland species.They also disturb the soil surface, providing oppotunities for a seeds to set, leading to a rich floral biodiversity. This, in turn, attracts a wide variety of insects, small mammals and birds that make up a complex food web.
At some of our sites, such as West Wycombe Hill, it is impractical to introduce grazing animals, so their actions are replaced by seasonal grass-cutting and careful mechanical or manual removal of scrub and tree saplings by our National Trust rangers, volunteers and contractors.
Our aim is to create a mosaic of different habitats within the chalk grassland. For example, some scrub areas, tussocks of long grass, areas of short-sward grass and even some patches of bare soil. This way, many species of plants fungi, insects, mammals and birds are supported.
What can you do to help?
- Join the National Trust to support our work on chalk grasslands and other threatened habitats.
- Volunteer with your local National Trust ranger team.
- Support local wildlife-friendly farms.
- Tell others about the importance of our special chalk grassland habitats. Why not share this page with your friends?