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Our work at Dunstable Downs

Wildflowers in June at Godolphin, Cornwall
Wildflowers in June | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Sitting within the Chilterns AONB and with many areas that are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), designated for the quality of chalk grassland, as well as being popular with visitors, Dunstable Downs is important for wildlife. Our Countryside Team manage Dunstable Downs for wildlife with many conservation projects taking place to enhance biodiversity.

Five Meadows Arable Reversion

Five meadows on Dunstable Downs, which were previously used for arable farming, have been turned from farmed land into a natural habitat for wildlife. Thanks to the success of the arable reversion, or grassland creation project, these meadows are now bursting with insects, birds and other wildlife. Discover more about the work we are doing to make these meadows a habitat for nature.

About the meadows

Land that has been used for arable farming will have lost much of the natural habitat for wildlife that is so important to our ecosystem. By converting to grassland this allows nature to thrive.

A 20-year plan

We have been using a variety of methods to create these grassland areas, including seeding with specialist seed and using hay cut from other areas as a seed source.

In some areas we’ve planted trees, linking woodland areas, and made fields smaller and less windy for insects. The fields will be managed by using sheep to graze them or taking a hay cut.

Skylark at Lyme Park, Cheshire in June
Skylark in June | © National Trust Images/Derek Hatton

Wildlife returns

It takes considerable time and management to start to see the benefits, but we’re already starting to see change. Ground-nesting birds are returning – including skylarks, meadow pipits and yellowhammers.

Red kites, buzzards, barn owls and kestrels now hunt over the grassland. We’ve also spotted deer, foxes, rabbits and field mice.

The benefit is not just the increase in wildlife, but also a reduction in the risk of soil erosion and help in locking up carbon from the atmosphere.

It's not just the Downs that we look after

It’s not just Dunstable Downs we care for, but Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, Totternhoe Knolls and Sharpenhoe Clappers – 10 sites in total.

Whether it’s clearing scrub, mowing grass, repairing fences, clearing paths, monitoring wildlife or inspecting habitats, the team come out in all weathers, to help. Ninety per cent of the countryside team are volunteers and we couldn’t do it without them.

The work begins

Summer is the busiest time for most people at the Chiltern Gateway Centre, but for the countryside team, the main conservation work is carried out as the weather gets colder.

Whilst birds are nesting and the chalk grassland plants are in flower, the team are careful not to disturb them, but from late August the real work begins.

Chalk grassland is cut

Chalk grassland flora thrives in soil that is low in nutrients. Once the plants have gone to seed the grassland can be cut, the material removed and usually burned in designated areas, or removed from site. This is to remove the nutrients stored in the plants.

This process is carried out between August and December with brush-cutters, to stop scrub returning. We leave some grass uncut as refuge areas for small mammals and to provide a seed source for birds over winter.

Rangers tree planting at Tughall Mill, Northumberland Coast
Rangers tree planting | © National Trust Images/Annapurna Mellor

Tree surveys take place

Autumn is also a perfect time for the fungi species that live in the trees and on deadwood. Consequently, this is when we check the health of our trees on all our sites. Surveys carry on from September through to December and trees may have to be felled if a harmful fungus or disease is detected.

Chute Wood

This much-loved wood has sadly become the victim of disease and requires a complete fell. In early 2022, work was carried out to remove all of the diseased ash trees which enabled it to be open for summer 2022.

Over the winter of 2022/23, the site was removed all the remaining diseased trees and with the help of our local community, and generously supported by the Rotary Club, we replanted Chute Wood with native broadleaf trees.

Sharpenhoe Clappers

Woodland work is also carried out at Sharpenhoe Clappers to remove self-seeded ash saplings, which are growing too close together, and are at risk of damaging the archaeology below ground.

Arable reversion meadows

In the meadows, the hay cut may look like a bad haircut, but each meadow requires a different cutting technique.

  • One meadow is grazed by sheep in early spring and had a much later flowering period. This was a popular spot for second broods of skylarks, so was left untouched
  • Most of the meadows have been forage harvested, but five per cent of the summer’s growth was left for birds to nest in over winter
  • Another field which was grazed by sheep in late spring was cut into strips, to keep a nectar source for pollinators throughout the field.

Pruning the fruit trees

In the jubilee orchard the fruit trees are still young, so benefit from formative pruning. From late summer the stone fruit trees can be pruned, and the surrounding meadow has a final cut before winter.

Tree planting at Dunstable Downs

We’ve drawn up plans to plant 3,600 trees at Dunstable Downs to create new woodland and wood pasture habitats for wildlife. Trees will be planted next to existing woodland areas which contain important woodland flower species such as bluebell, greater stitchwort, yellow archangel and wood anemone. Making the woodland areas larger will allow these flowers to spread. We'll be planting a wide variety of native species of trees and shrubs that are attractive to wildlife, and which have been selected for their ability to cope with the projected models of climatic change. The variety of species includes oak, hornbeam, wild cherry, silver birch, small-leaved lime, hawthorn, hazel, willow, and crab apple. The scheme combines planting woodland blocks to expand existing belts of trees with the creation of a grazed wood pasture that contains thickets of scrub and clumps of trees. The grazing animals will include cattle, which create a diversity of structure within the grassland area that will provide opportunities for insects, birds and small mammals to live and breed. Wildflowers growing in the grassland will also provide pollen and nectar for bees and butterflies.

Why not more trees?

By retaining some areas as grazed pasture, we’ll be preserving the setting of the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral that currently sits within a relatively open landscape. We’ll also ensure that we retain a sightline extending out from the nave of the Cathedral, giving a fantastic view into the surrounding landscape.

Where will this take place?

The two fields that form part of this project are adjacent to the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral, just a 20 minute walk from the Chilterns Gateway Centre. Public footpaths run along the northern and southern edges of the fields. In addition, a new route is proposed through the centre of the newly planted woodland. This is designed to minimise contact between livestock and pedestrians. New benches will be installed where visitors can pause to take in the views.

The Cloisters at Whipsnade Tree Cathedral

All cathedrals sometimes need a touch of renovation. Our tree cathedral is no different and unfortunately, our walls are starting to crumble!

Many of our trees have been hit by ash dieback, a fungal disease that has weakened their structures. Sadly, they will not recover and so must be felled.

From July 2024, we are beginning a large-scale project to remove the infected ash trees and their stumps. Once removed, we will re-plant with native wild-service trees. These will not only seek to restore the Cathedral to its former glory, it will also future-proof the area for climate change, create new habitats and increase our pollinating spots.

No tree will go to waste! The lengths are to be stacked for collection and used for woodchip paths at Ashridge (a property within our National Trust portfolio). The stumps will be moved to nearby Dell Fields for deadwood habitat creation.

Additionally, we will also be removing some of the larger spruces in our Christmas chapel. These have outgrown the space and are therefore affecting the health of the smaller trees. By replanting with a succession of different heights and species, we can encourage diversity and let more light in.

The work will all contribute to restoring Whipsnade Tree Cathedral back to Edmund Blyth's original vision.

The Cathedral will be fully closed for one week from 1 July, with partial closures extending throughout the work. Please check here for any updates.

We thank you for your support during this time.

Thank you

With your ongoing support, we're able to continue our vital conservation work. Thank you for helping to protect these special places.

Barn owl, perched in early evening at Orford Ness, Suffolk


Everyone needs nature, now more than ever. Donate today and you could help people and nature to thrive at the places we care for.

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