Chalk grassland creation, Berkshire
Nearest town or settlement: Newbury
Contact detailsContact name: Sue Everett
PartnersMr Charles Egerton, Defra
The majority of the Berkshire Downs is no longer "downland" in the true sense of the word - most is intensively farmed arable land with very few pockets of original downland remaining. So, in 2002 I was delighted to be approached by Charles Egerton, racehorse trainer and owner of Heads Farm on the Berkshire Downs. At the time the farm was all arable, the last grassland fields having been ploughed in the 1970s. Charles was keen to restore native chalk grassland and habitats for skylarks, brown hare and grey partridge. Defra keenly supported our ideas, and with funding from the Countryside Stewardship Scheme, 40 hectares of new native chalk grassland has been successfully established using wild-collected seed from the Cotswolds and North Wessex Downs.
Brush-harvested seed was supplemented by hand-collected seed of additional wild flowers, gleaned from nearby road verges and small fragments of native grasslands in the area. In all, over 60 species were introduced to the new grasslands.
However, establishment on the 15-ha field was rather slow, and wild flowers did not appear initially. Residual herbicide, coupled with sowing the seed directly after the crop had been harvested, were considered relevant factors, while the soil had very obviously been 'farmed out'. The field is one which was the last to go under the plough in the 1970s and should never have been ploughed. Recovery of soil is likely to take many decades. There was also a very dry autumn and a seed bank of black grass and brome. In subsequent years it was decided to throw across the site 'cleanings' from other seed harvest. The grassland is now fairly well established although some areas are still largely grass-dominated (Upright Brome).
Valuable lessons were learned from this project. In recent years seed has been harvested from these fields and used for other chalk grassland creation schemes in the area (supplemented by other wild flower species purchased from a reputable supplier - as these species are uncommon in the new grasslands or harvesting takes place too early to collect them).