What's special about chalk grassland?

A close up of the flowers found in the clifftop  chalk grassland habitat

Wildflower meadows on chalk downland are sometimes called Europe’s tropical rainforest. They're home to an incredibly rich and diverse range of plant and insect life. They're under threat, but our ranger teams are working hard to restore this vital habitat.

Up to 40 species of flowering plants can be found in one square metre of chalk grassland – also called lowland calcareous grassland. Many species grow nowhere else, including many beautiful orchids and wildflowers. In turn, they attract many insects and rare butterflies such as the Adonis Blue and Duke of Burgundy.

What is chalk grassland?

Chalk grassland is mainly found on limestone and chalk valleys in Kent, Sussex, Surrey , the Chilterns and the Isle of Wight in southeast England.

Lime-rich, but low in nutrients, the thin soil holds little water and heats up quickly. These stressed conditions stop the dominant lush grasses from taking over. This allows a diverse range of smaller herbs and lower plants to flourish. 

What plants grow there?

Common flowers such as small scabious and common bird’s foot trefoil can be found alongside many nationally rare plants such as the monkey and spider orchids and the delicate pasque flower. 

Flowers in abundance
A close up photograph of hay meadow showing red clover, sheep's sorrel and common bird's-foot-trefoil
Flowers in abundance

What insects are found there?

Many ground beetles and different types of bee can be found amongst rarer insects such as the phantom hoverfly and wart-biter bush cricket. Rare butterflies such as the Silver spotted skipper and Adonis blue, and rare moths such as the Gothic moth and Four-spotted moth can also be found on chalk grassland.

Any other wildlife?

Threatened birds such as the stone curlew and skylarks rely on chalk grassland and it’s a valuable basking ground for reptiles such as adders and slow worms. 

Why is it under threat?

We have lost more than 80% of our chalk grassland since the Second World War. This is mainly because of changes in land use from traditional low-level animal grazing. For instance, intensive farming with the use of herbicides and fertilisers changes the nature of the soil so that the traditional chalk grassland species can’t grow.

Over grazing can prevent plants from flowering and seeding, whilst under grazing can allow scrub to take over. Building development and recreational pressure has also taken its toll.

We like long lazy days in the sun
Some cows on a grassy slope under a blue sky
We like long lazy days in the sun

What are we doing about it?

Our rangers work with wildlife advisers and partners at organisations such as Natural England, Wildlife Trusts, RSPB and Butterfly Conservation to link up chalk grassland sites to allow species to spread.

We also manage the pasture in association with local farmers with low-intensity sheep and cattle grazing. Sometimes livestock will be removed in spring when the plants start re-growing and stay off the pasture until the plants have flowered and set seed. 

The ideal is to create a mosaic of different habitats within the chalk grassland. For instance, some scrub, tussocks of long grass, areas of short-sward grass and some bare soil. This way, many species will be supported.

Countryside volunteers
Vounteers gathering devil's bit scabious for translocating
Countryside volunteers

What can I 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. You could be involved in everything from stock watching to scrub-clearance or butterfly surveying.
  • Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms.