On the rolling chalk grassland of Coombe Bisset Down the purple spikes of pyramidal orchids have appeared in a field 10 years after the land was reclaimed from arable farming by the Wiltshire Wildlife Trust.
This part of the Down, near Salisbury, is a Trust nature reserve, and according to the Trust’s Catherine Hosie, the appearance of the orchid illustrates what can be achieved when marginal agricultural land is returned to grassland.
They may yet only number about 25 plants, but they signal the slow return of wild flowers to farmed land through careful management by hay cutting and grazing.
The orchid, Anacamptis pyramidalis, was among a multitude of other wildflower seeds such as small scabious, devil’s bit scabious, fairy flax, horseshoe vetch, eye bright, cowslips and red bartisia, first sown in 1998, and then in 2001, as the Trust sought to restore this patch of chalk grassland, which is a nationally important habitat.
“Twelve years ago this field was full of swaying barley with not a flower in sight. Since we seeded the field and took over its management we have seen more and more wild flowers creeping in. This is the best year yet – we’ve even found one fragrant orchid, which usually takes a long time to colonise a place,” says Catherine. (Image: Steve Day)
“The field was particularly suitable for returning to grassland because it is right above a beautiful flower-rich chalk grassland slope.
“We have worked hard to get our sheep and cattle to graze different bits of the land at different times of the year. This creates a diversity of grass height that draws in a whole range of insects. At the same time it removes the thick thatch of grass and opens up the ground so that wild flowers have the chance to establish themselves,” says Catherine.
Earlier this year the Trust launched the three-year New Life for Chalk Grasslands Project, funded by Grantscape and Biffaward. Its aim is to knit together calcareous grassland in downlands, coombes and valleys stretching from the North Wessex Downs through Salisbury Plain to Cranbourne Chase and the West Wiltshire Downs.
Under the project a small farming enterprise has been set up at Coombe Bissett. It will supply Dexter cattle and native breed sheep for grazing to other landowners as the animals help to keep down brambles, hawthorns, ash seedling and coarse grasses, which left unattended, would shade out the wildflowers.
"Some sites in private ownership are small and isolated and difficult for landowners to manage, particularly if they no longer own any livestock. By owning and supplying our own animals, we will be able to help where sites require additional grazing or targeted grazing to promote key species,” says Catherine, who manages the project.
And what a benefit that will bring. Chalk grassland is one of the most diverse habitats in the world. On good ground it can support more than 60 species of plant in a single square metre, many of them Biodiversity Action Plan species, and many of which cannot survive in any other habitat.