Conserving The White Cliffs of Dover for the future

The White Cliffs of Dover’s rare chalk grassland requires ongoing conservation work to ensure that the treasure trove of flora and fauna found on the cliffs can thrive.

We care for approximatey 10km of the White Cliffs of Dover. The cliffs are not only a national landmark but also an important place for rare species of wildlife, including butterflies, birds and wildflowers.

The chalk downland, or 'calcareous grassland', that is found on the cliff tops is formed where the chalk eroded to form gently rolling hills. Here, where the downland meets the sea, the chalk's face is exposed to form the famous White Cliffs.

A combination of shallow soils which are exposed to the wind and rain make it difficult for large plants to become established. In this harsh environment no single type of plant can dominate, instead, small clumps or patches of a wide variety of plants thrive together.

Historically, this chalk grassland was created by allowing animals to graze the cliff tops. This traditional form of agriculture created the landscape that we see today; however, modern farming techniques including the use of fertilizers, herbicides and even tractors, can easily destroy it.

Extending our work

In 2017, following a £1 million fundraising campaign, we acquired an additional stretch of land above the White Cliffs of Dover.

Running parallel to the cliffs, inland, this area of farmland had been intensively farmed for many decades. Since the acquisition, we have been working hard to reverse the effects of farming, which had depleted the land of wildlife. This work has connected the existing chalk grassland on top of the cliffs, bringing the two areas together, making a rich and varied habitat for a variety of species.

Poppies on the White Cliffs of Dover
Poppies on the White Cliffs of Dover
Poppies on the White Cliffs of Dover

A ‘bumblebird’ seed mix was sown in over autumn 2019 to provide birds with a supply of food through the winter and a range of nectar-rich plants for pollinators in the following summer. Other fields were planted with wildflowers, grasses and low input cereal to give cover for nesting birds and help create a mosaic of habitats across the Cliffs.

In the summer of 2020, aided by a wet winter in 2019, an explosion of colour, including a sea of red poppies, burst to life on the Cliffs. Other pants now growing include common vetch, bird’s-foot trefoil, crimson clover, yellow rattle, lady’s bedstraw, ox-eye daisy, meadow buttercup and self heal.

" To see the fields returning to their natural state, covered in poppies and ringing with the sound of skylarks, is really heartening. It’s a tribute to everyone who supported our campaign and helped us buy back this landscape for the nation."
- Virginia Portman

Ground nesting birds are already benefitting from the changes, with numbers of amber-listed meadow pipit, and red-listed partridge and corn bunting on the rise. The skylark is thriving, with 48 birds counted at the site in the first week of May alone. Peregrine falcons are reaping the rewards too with one of the fields now occupied by 1,200 wild pigeons; the falcons’ main source of prey.

Erosion and Cliff falls

Erosion of the White Cliffs of Dover
A chalk cliff fall at the White Cliffs of Dover
Erosion of the White Cliffs of Dover

Exposed to the wear and tear of the elements and battered by storm waves, year by year the cliff line is slowly retreating. By and large this retreat is barely noticeable at about 1cm a year, but occasionally great chunks can be lost in a sudden cliff fall.

In February 1799 Thomas Pattenden describes such a cliff fall as he writes:

" a bank of chalk and earth had fell down by the frost and thaw"
- Thomas Pattenden's Diary

Conservation grazing with Exmoor ponies

We have taken on the management of the land and now use Exmoor ponies to perform the traditional role of grazing animals that encourages biodiversity and the species that grow here.

The short downland turf has been created by millennia of grazing, dating right back to the time of wild cattle and ponies that were here at the end of the last ice age.

We use ponies to graze wherever we can, however it is impossible or dangerous to do so in some places. There we use our volunteer ranger team to cut and collect the grass with machinery. Their unstinting efforts enable the chalk grassland to be actively managed to balance conservation and access, and the site as a whole to offer an exciting range of experiences for visitors to this extraordinary place.