Chalk grassland restoration at Polesden Lacey

A wildflower meadow

Polesden Lacey lies on the North Downs, a chalk escarpment famous for its species-rich grassland. For many years the chalk downland along Polesden Valley has been neglected and forgotten. Not for much longer, as Area Ranger Jamie Parsons takes us through the exciting project to bring these slopes back to life.

A floral wonder to behold

Chalk grassland is one of the most species-rich habitats in the world, often holding 40 species of flowering plant per square metre. This diverse mix of species attracts a huge array of insects including many butterflies such as the Chalkhill blue.

However, this habitat is under threat from agricultural intensification and over-grazing. Here at Polesden we are working with our tenant farmer to combat this and restore 87 acres of chalk grassland along Polesden Valley. 

The Chalkhill blue is a chalk grassland specialist we’re hoping will recolonise our slopes
A blue butterfly rests on a leaf

It’s a team effort

To achieve this goal we will all have to work together.

We are working with our tenant farmer Steve Conisbee and Natural England who are providing funding through a higher level stewardship scheme. The countryside team here at Polesden is made up of both staff and volunteers who carry out species surveys, sward checks and public engagement. Of course our visitors can help by keeping dogs under control around livestock and shutting gates behind them. 

Steve Conisbee our tenant farmer with his cattle who will be grazing the chalk downland
A farmer stands in a field with his cows

Let’s get technical

The science behind grassland restoration starts with soil tests looking at nutrient content. For chalk grassland you actually want nutrient poor soil rather than rich soil. Poor soil means that everything is struggling to grow, which allows more species to grow in one area because no one species can dominate.

Our results showed that our soil was nutrient poor so our next challenge is grazing. Grassland loves to be grazed - this is what prevents it turning into woodland. Timing is everything, so we will graze our downland with cattle in late summer and early autumn, helping cut back the grass and tread in all the wildflower seeds with their heavy hooves.

Over the winter we will continue to graze the slopes with sheep to help keep the nutrient content low as all the nutrients from the grass goes in to the sheep and not the soil. Then come spring we will take all the livestock out and let the wildflowers flourish. 

Bee orchids can be found growing on the chalk slopes
A pink orchid in a field

No quick fix

Grassland takes a long time to establish and it will take a good few years for our grassland to fully recover from its agricultural past. However, the signs are already very promising with bee orchids and common blue butterflies enjoying the break in grazing.

But this is just the start - we are looking forward to seeing what species return to Polesden Lacey over the coming years.

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