Nature Studies: Chalk downs teem with life like no other landscape

Finding any wild orchid is an event. But here there were four species on display

Share

We are not over-blessed with truly wildlife-rich habitats in the British Isles. We have no equivalent of tropical rainforest. But we do have one ecosystem that is actually so full of species that even a short walk will make it appear to be teeming with life – and now is the right time of year to set out.

If you were asked to guess it, what would you say? Ancient woodland? Not a bad guess. Hay meadows? Well, if you can  find any. Lowland heath? You probably wouldn’t say teeming. The seashore? The best guess so far, but no. The answer, actually, is chalk downland.

The rounded, bare chalk-hills of southern England, the North Downs and the South Downs in Kent, Surrey and Sussex, the Chilterns, the Berkshire Downs and then the Marlborough Downs in Wiltshire and the final downland outcrops in Dorset – these harbour a combined richness of plants and insects on their slopes that is unmet with anywhere else in the British Isles.

Last week, I went for a hike up on Pewsey Downs National Nature Reserve in Wiltshire and saw it once again for myself: the grassland was simply crammed fit to bursting with wild flowers.

The thousands and thousands of cowslips that had carpeted the whole area for the past few weeks were going over, but their yellow was being replaced with an even denser lemon-coloured sward of horseshoe vetch, bulbous buttercups and that prettiest of limestone-loving plants, rock rose; there were blue and purple tints everywhere from chalk milkwort and wild thyme and nodding thistle, interspersed with the white dots of fairy flax.

And that’s just what was obvious; look closer at little things and 40 species of plants can be found in a square metre.

The insect richness was just as remarkable, with 10 species of butterfly on show inside an hour, including brilliant, freshly emerged specimens of the brown argus, that less familiar member of the blue family which has disdained blue as a wing colour for brown, chocolate-brown, in fact, with a charming border of orange spots.

There were three more blues to be seen, flitting around the horseshoe vetch, true blues these, first the common blue, then the small blue – our tiniest butterfly – and the most striking of all, the Adonis blue, which is just coming out and whose wing colour  is electrifying.

Other butterflies on view included small copper, wall, grizzled skipper, speckled wood (in a sheltered dip in the downs) and a solitary painted lady, just arrived from Morocco.

Because I was with my friend the naturalist and writer Peter Marren, who has forgotten more about wildlife than I will ever learn, I also set eyes on some creatures I would have missed on my own, such as a cistus forester moth, whose forewings are bright green; it is one of the very few green individuals among our 900 species of larger moths. (Green butterflies are even scarcer in Britain; there’s only the one, the green hairstreak. But we saw that too.)

This burgeoning insect community is supported by the extraordinary plant community of the downs, which is so rich for a number of reasons. The soil is very thin on the steep slopes, poor in nutrients and infertile, which makes it impossible for a few big strong plants to outcompete everything else (such as cow parsley and stinging nettles, whose takeover tendencies I wrote about last month), so a lot of plants find space to germinate and grow.

Many of these are calcium-loving, so the chalk substrate is ideal. And the downs, mostly, have never been ploughed, and have never had chemicals applied to them – they’ve been managed for centuries by sheep grazing, which has meant for greater and greater species diversity.

Now’s a wonderful time to see them, though they will remain species-rich for the whole summer. That sense of species-richness was tangible last week, but the highlight of the hike – not forgetting the skylarks, and the sensational view over the Vale of Pewsey, across to Salisbury Plain – was the orchids.

Finding any wild orchid to me is an event, but here there were four species on display, in huge numbers: common spotted, fragrant, lesser butterfly and burnt orchids, this last, one of Britain’s most rapidly declining wild flowers. All were exquisite; parts of the hillside were like an orchid garden.

“I’ve been coming up here for 20  years and this is the best year for  orchids ever,” Peter Marren said, looking  on in admiration.

Take it from someone who knows. That’s chalk downland for you.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Female Care Worker

£7 - £8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This expanding, vibrant charity which su...

Recruitment Genius: Parts Supervisor & Advisor - Automotive

£16500 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's leading...

Recruitment Genius: Housing Assistant

£16819 - £21063 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Account Manager - OTE £60,000

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: In 2014, they launched the worl...

Day In a Page

Read Next
People struggle to board a train at the railway station in Budapest  

Even when refugees do make it to British soil, they are treated appallingly

Maya Goodfellow
 

Daily catch-up: immigration past and present, in Europe and in America

John Rentoul
Refugee crisis: David Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia - will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi?

Cameron lowered the flag for the dead king of Saudi Arabia...

But will he do the same honour for little Aylan Kurdi, asks Robert Fisk
Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Our leaders lack courage in this refugee crisis. We are shamed by our European neighbours

Humanity must be at the heart of politics, says Jeremy Corbyn
Joe Biden's 'tease tour': Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?

Joe Biden's 'tease tour'

Could the US Vice-President be testing the water for a presidential run?
Britain's 24-hour culture: With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever

Britain's 24-hour culture

With the 'leisured society' a distant dream we're working longer and less regular hours than ever
Diplomacy board game: Treachery is the way to win - which makes it just like the real thing

The addictive nature of Diplomacy

Bullying, betrayal, aggression – it may be just a board game, but the family that plays Diplomacy may never look at each other in the same way again
Lady Chatterley's Lover: Racy underwear for fans of DH Lawrence's equally racy tome

Fashion: Ooh, Lady Chatterley!

Take inspiration from DH Lawrence's racy tome with equally racy underwear
8 best children's clocks

Tick-tock: 8 best children's clocks

Whether you’re teaching them to tell the time or putting the finishing touches to a nursery, there’s a ticker for that
Charlie Austin: Queens Park Rangers striker says ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

Charlie Austin: ‘If the move is not right, I’m not going’

After hitting 18 goals in the Premier League last season, the QPR striker was the great non-deal of transfer deadline day. But he says he'd preferred another shot at promotion
Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones