Lowland Calcareous Grassland

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Lowland Calcareous Grassland -  Solsbury Hill - Mark SmithLowland Calcareous Grassland - Solsbury Hill - Mark Smith

What is it?

Walk over the short, springy turf of your local chalk or limestone grassland in summer and you’re likely release the rich aromas of an Italian kitchen as thyme, marjoram and wild basil fill the air. A truly wildlife rich habitat - up to 40 species of flowering plants can be found in one square metre of lowland calcareous grassland – it has even been called the European equivalent of the tropical rainforest.


Found over the limestone and chalk rocks, lowland calcareous grassland grows below an altitude of 250 metres on shallow, lime-rich soils, mainly in the warmer, drier south and east of the UK. Typically, this type of habitat is found on dry valley slopes, although it can develop in neglected chalk and limestone quarries, railway cuttings and along roadside verges.

Where is it found?

Current estimates suggest that up to 41,000 hectares of lowland calcareous grassland remain in the UK. The major concentrations are on the chalk downs of Wiltshire, Dorset, Kent and Sussex, but there are also some significant areas in the Chilterns, Mendips and Cotswolds. The Ministry of Defence’s Salisbury Plain is the largest calcareous grassland site in Europe. 

Why is it important?

Lowland calcareous grassland is one of Western Europe’s most intricately diverse plant communities, supporting a whole range of wildlife from beautiful butterflies and wildflowers, to fascinating insects, mammals and birds – many of these species are specialists and are unable to live anywhere else.


Common flowers like small scabious and common bird’s-foot-trefoil can be seen alongside many nationally rare plants such as the curious-looking monkey and late spider orchids, and the delicate pasqueflower. Not surprisingly, this vast array of wildflowers attracts a humming mass of insects including scarce species such as the wart-biter bush cricket, Adonis blue and Duke of Burgundy butterflies, and bordered gothic and four spotted moths. On Sussex downland, for example, 60 per cent of the UK’s butterfly species can be found.


Lowland calcareous grassland also provides feeding and breeding habitat for a number of threatened birds such as stone curlew and skylark. 

Is it threatened?

Before the Second World War, fragile and flower-rich calcareous grassland was widespread, but these habitats seriously declined: by 1984, 80% of sheep-grazed lowland chalk and limestone grassland had disappeared.


The most significant reason for this decline is the reduction of grazing and traditional management due to changes in land use. Much of the wildlife of lowland calcareous grassland is unable to withstand the results of agricultural intensification including the increased use of herbicides and fertilisers and over- or under-grazing. Development, mineral extraction, landfill, afforestation and heavy recreational pressure have also been instrumental in the loss of these habitats.


As a result, butterflies like the Adonis blue have all but been lost, the juniper bush is fighting for survival and glow-worms are now only found in a few places.
How are The Wildlife Trusts helping?


Across the UK The Wildlife Trusts make a significant contribution to the protection of lowland calcareous grassland by managing nature reserves which contain it and by providing advice to landowners and farmers on how to look after these fragile places. 

What can I do to help?

 

  • Take part in conservation measures on your land – ask your local Wildlife Trusts for advice on grazing and management methods for chalk and limestone grasslands.
  • The Wildlife Trusts are working to protect and restore grasslands for wildlife across the UK, you can support our work by becoming a member of your local Trust
  • Volunteer with your local Wildlife Trust and help your local grassland wildlife; you could be involved in everything from stockwatching to butterfly surveying.
  • Support wildlife-friendly, traditionally managed farms by purchasing meat and wool products direct from local farms.