Diverse grasslands

Cattle grazing in the Purbeck Hills

The landscape of Purbeck is dominated by two ridges of high ground where thin alkaline soils and centuries of grazing by domestic livestock have produced grassland habitats of exceptional diversity.

To the south, around Langton Matravers, is the limestone which forms the backbone of the Jurassic Coast, while to the north the chalky Purbeck Hills run parallel from west of Corfe Castle to Old Harry.

The south facing downland along the coastal strip is sought out by many a botanist looking for rare plants such as the early gentian, nit grass or the UKs largest population of early-spider orchids.

Rarities like these early gentians make the uplands of Purbeck a must-visit destination for botanists
Rare early gentians near Spyway, Dorset

Even for the casual visitor the grassland flowers are spectacular, with lime-loving specialists such as milkwort, birds-foot trefoil, eyebrights, vetches and knapweeds all common.

Along both the coastal strip and the Purbeck Hills, the plant communities provide the habitat for many invertebrates but it is probably the butterflies that are the most eye-catching. 

More than 30 species are regularly spotted and these are some of the best sites in England to look for rarities such as the Adonis blue and Lulworth skipper.

Skylarks 

They are great sites for grassland birds as well; the song of skylarks and the curious sight of parachuting meadow pipits are a constant backdrop in summer.

Where grazing is less intense the close cropped grassland gives way to small pockets of gorse scrub. These thickets play an important role, particularly for birds, and are home to yellowhammer, linnet and song thrush.

Over the years farming has changed and grazing has generally declined, so the crucial balance between open grasslands full of wild flowers and more closed thickets of taller vegetation has shifted. 

There has been a massive increase in gorse scrub along the Purbeck Hills, and the flower and butterfly-rich grasslands no longer run the entire length, but are reduced to smaller and more isolated pockets.

Tradition 

Along the coast the scrub is less dominant, but reduced grazing here has led to thick tussocks of tor grass Brachypodium rupestre in some areas. Although loved by Lulworth skippers, the tor grass soon out-competes most other plants, and plant and animal diversity declines. 

As with so many of our habitats in lowland Britain, our grasslands have developed as a result of the way people have lived and farmed over many centuries, and if we want to look after the wildlife that depends on them, we need to keep managing them. 

We have ambitious plans to clear scrub and restore more of our grasslands in Purbeck over the coming years, but just as importantly we will be working to help our tenants make traditional grazing a viable long-term option for 21st century farms.