The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill

Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?

Sometimes places that look barren or dull can be full of diverse wildlife, on closer inspection. I am a bit of a tree fan, so it’s always been the woods of Box Hill, with their rare box trees, that have excited me. While the grassy slopes of the hill have appealed to me aesthetically, I assumed that the real wildlife was elsewhere.

The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill
The grassy slope to the summit of Box Hill

A recent walk up the hill on a sunny day made me suspect I might be wrong.  What, from afar, looks like boring old grass, is actually a huge variety of plant species, including many different flowers. And these plants were buzzing with insect life.

An orchid and moth
Chalk grasslands are home to a huge range of plant and insect species

A bit of reading up on the subject has confirmed that my earlier assumptions were well wide of the mark. Chalk grassland, grazed by sheep and unfertilised, is one of the UK’s richest for plant and insect diversity. The poor, thin soil, and regular grazing, means no single species can dominate.  A square metre of chalk grassland may have up to 40 different plant species, leading to some calling it Europe’s answer to the rainforest.

The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill
The chalk grassland slopes of Box Hill, looking towards the woods

This diversity of plants gives food and shelter to a wide range of insects.  41 different types of butterfly have been found on Box Hill, including some of the rarest in the UK. I didn’t even know there were that many butterfly species in Britain.

Chalk grassland is in itself quite rare. It is an internationally important habitat and is a priority in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.Besides the North and South Downs there aren’t many other large areas of chalk grassland left. Much has been lost in the last 50 years due to changes in farming, (intensification including use of fertiliser and over grazing), encroachment of scrub where grassland isn’t grazed, and development of land for other purposes. Only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

Looking south from Box Hill
Looking south from Box Hill

There’s been quite a lot of controversy locally about a recent Court of Appeal judgement allowing some chalk grassland to be turned into an exclusive golf club. Neatly manicured, fertilised and herbicided greens and fairways are deserts compared to natural chalk grassland.

While it may not have the immediate feel of the wild that you get in woods or at the coast, chalk grasslands are rich habitats, and need protection. Losing chalk grassland means losing a unique and fragile ecosystem, which we will be poorer without.

Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
Looking from Box Hill towards Dorking
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5 thoughts on “Chalk grassland: Europe’s rainforest?”

  1. One of my most favourite habitat types, the ancientness (!) of the land makes it feel to me like you’ve briefly been transported to a bygone age. During this time of season, it is especially charming with the sounds of chirping grasshoppers and if you’re lucky a sighting of passage migrant birds like Redstarts and Chiffchaffs in the bushes. Even though, we’re in the quieter season for songbird song, the odd bird can still be heard such as a Yellowhammer and a Skylarks or two.

    Best Wishes

    Tony

    1. I love the sound of skylarks (as you’ve now spotted from my skylark post) – they’re one of my favourite birds, along with robins and blackbirds (for similar, aural reasons).

      I’ll keep my eyes peeled for chiffchaffs and redstarts next time I’m on Box Hill – I don’t think I’ve ever seen a redstart.

  2. If my local downs are anything to go by, August and even into early September is a good time to track down Redstarts on passage. The Chiffchaffs will give themselves away by their “hooet” type calls, more often than not.

    Best Wishes

    Tony

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