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.

Brown Argus - Aricia agestis - May to September – Chalk grassland sites.
Brown Argus - Aricia agestis
Brown Argus - Aricia agestis - May to September – Chalk grassland sites.

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.

Chalk grassland at Coombe Hill
Chalk  grassland
Chalk grassland at Coombe Hill

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.

Cattle grazing at Coombe Hill
Cattle grazing at Coombe Hill
Cattle grazing at Coombe Hill

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.

Scrub 'bashing' at Watlington Hill
Scrub bashing at Watlington Hill
Scrub 'bashing' at Watlington Hill

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.

Tortoiseshell butterfly at Coombe Hill
Tortoiseshell butterfly at Coombe Hill
Tortoiseshell butterfly at Coombe Hill

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?