Chalk Grassland

Chalk Grassland
Southerham Farm © Nigel Symington

By Charlotte Owen

WildCall Officer

There are few sights more spectacular than a wildflower meadow in full bloom. Packed with nectar-rich flowers and humming with insect life, these botanical hotspots will soon be looking their best and today, 6 July, marks National Meadows Day - a celebration of our glorious grasslands and the wealth of wildlife they support.

Here in Sussex our local speciality is chalk grassland, a habitat so intricately diverse that it has been dubbed the European equivalent of the tropical rainforest. If you were to shrink down to the size of a Yellow Meadow Ant, one of the Downs’ myriad insect inhabitants, it would certainly feel like trekking through dense jungle, complete with towering blades of grass and colourful, exotic flowers.

Somewhat counter-intuitively, the impressive botanical diversity to be found here actually stems from the challenging growing conditions. The soil is so thin it’s barely there, and the underlying chalk is so porous that rainfall tends to soak in and drain straight through, taking any dissolved nutrients with it. The result is shallow, nutrient-poor soil that is rather dry and very alkaline but the plants that grow here have adapted to thrive in this harsh environment.  They have also had to cope with centuries of grazing by Rabbits and sheep, whose constant nibbling means no single plant ever manages to out-compete its neighbours before it is trimmed back down to size.  As a result, the short, springy turf is home to a great many species growing together in a delicate balance, with up to 40 different plants in a single square meter.  From Wild Thyme to Pyramidal Orchids and the deep blue of our County flower, Round-headed Rampion, the profusion of flowering plants supports such a diverse range of bees, butterflies and birds that chalk grassland is of international conservation importance.  The UK currently holds 5% of the world’s chalk grassland, with 2,600 hectares of it to be found in Sussex.  We used to have a lot more but huge swathes have been lost to the plough, development or neglect, so it’s vital that we protect, restore, expand and enjoy the treasured fragments that remain.

Downland Nature Reserves to Visit

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Meadow flowers at Levin Down © Graeme Lyons

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