Our precious chalk Downlands

by Sarah Dobson Spotlight on

The international environmental and cultural importance of our chalk Downland is one of the core reasons The Living Coast was designated by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve. The chalk Downland of Sussex and the South Downs is some of the rarest habitat in the UK. These grasslands are centuries old. They support a huge variety of biodiversity. So much so, that naturalist David Bellamy called them Europe’s rainforests.

Brighton Downs Alliance has produced this fascinating video about the Downlands history.

Most species that live on our Downland are chalk specialists. The spectacular Adonis blue butterfly is one of them. This means they’d struggle to survive without this rare habitat. Visit our Downland in summer and you will see a stunning display of native wildflowers. These include:

  • orchids
  • lady’s tresses
  • the flower of Sussex, the round-headed rampion

Since World War 2, the country has lost around 80% of grasslands like these. On the Downs, over one-third of sites are now less than one hectare in size. Ideally we need sites of at least 20 hectares to secure the future of this important habitat because the smaller the ecosystem, the less resilient it becomes.

Many Living Coast partners and volunteers have been working to protect our Downland for years, including projects such as:

  • growing local, native wild flowers for conservation
  • managing herds of grazing animals
  • preventing ‘scrub’ from encroaching on the grasslands
  • creating bee and butterfly banks filled with Downland plants for pollinators

We’re also part of a Heritage Lottery funded partnership called The Changing Chalk.

It’s led by the National Trust to further protect the chalk grasslands. It also aims to engage people with the land and heritage sites of the Sussex Downs.

Grazing animals are an important part of the Downland landscape. It has evolved over centuries because of this continued grazing. Many of the specialist plant species only grow here because animals graze the longer grasses. These longer grasses would otherwise out-compete them in their fight for nutrients and sunlight.

Grazing is more beneficial for the land than mowing because:

  • grazing happens over several weeks, so the impact is less intense and allows time for insects, birds and animals to move away
  • other species’ nests are not damaged
  • it removes different plants at different rates - sheep find some plants tastier than others
  • aggressive weeds, like nettles and brambles, don't take over

Sometimes, conservation mowing is required as a short-term way to stop scrub from getting too comfortable. This would usually only happen on important chalk grassland sites that aren’t currently suitable for grazing.

Mowing is not the best management for conservation areas. This is because it’s quite destructive to wildlife and it’s also expensive to collect and compost the cuttings. If the cuttings were left to rot on the land, it would enrich the soil too much meaning most Downland species would be unable to thrive.


  • Ross McNally:
    It is frustrating to see such strong fetishisation of chalk grassland on the south downs over and above anything else. It certainly has its value as a habitat, and there is certainly room for it on the downs, but it should be borne in mind that it is not a natural state of affairs, and the only reason it is so dominant on the downs is because of centuries of deforestation followed by centuries of overgrazing and soil depletion. Maintaining that system of overgrazing, usually using an invasive Mesopotamian ruminant that decimates most of the vegetation structure, is a largely arbitrary and anthropocentric decision to freeze the landscape in a particular state of nature that you happen to think looks rather nice, at the expense of a more dynamic and exciting ecology. The perfect illustration of this is the widespread visceral hatred of encroaching scrub. This scrub is a sign of an ecosystem trying to recover, and is (as projects like Knepp Wildland show) a valuable and rare habitat in itself, partly because many of our supposed conservation bodies go to extreme lengths to destroy it. Conservation should be about restoring and preserving the integrity and functionality of ecosystems to a point where they can regulate themselves, not about micromanaging landscapes to achieve narrow arbitrarily prescribed outcomes.

    15 Dec 2020 14:37:00

Leave a comment