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Preserving the wild flower meadows of the Kent Downs

PUBLISHED: 11:13 23 July 2018 | UPDATED: 11:13 23 July 2018

Mary Tate, Kent Downs AONB (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Mary Tate, Kent Downs AONB (photo: Manu Palomeque)

Manu Palomeque 07977074797

For many the essence of the beauty of the Kent Downs AONB is our natural wild flower grasslands which bloom in profusion in June and July

The flower-rich, thyme and marjoram-scented turf and abundance of insect life is an evocative part of hazy summer days in the Kent Downs.

These beautiful, ancient places are home to hundreds of varieties of plants and animal and of these it is the wild orchids and butterflies of chalk downland particularly which are symbolic of this habitat. The Kent Downs support populations of some of the country’s rarest species.

The UK plant conservation charity Plantlife says: “Meadows and other species-rich grasslands are an intrinsic part of the UK’s natural and cultural heritage.

Wild flowersWild flowers

“Rich in landscape character, farming, folklore and history, they are as much a part of our heritage as the works of Shakespeare.”

In the Kent Downs we have some of the nation’s finest grassland sites. Chalk grassland is an internationally important habitat but what remains is a tiny fragment of what was once a much more common part of the countryside.

By the mid 1980s it is estimated that more than 80 per cent of UK chalk grassland had been lost; 97 per cent of our lowland wild meadows were lost in the same period.

Getting children out in the countryside from a young age encourages their interest in nature and wildlife (photo: David Hodgkinson)Getting children out in the countryside from a young age encourages their interest in nature and wildlife (photo: David Hodgkinson)

Plantlife believes this represents a decline of a habitat unparalleled in the history of UK nature conservation.

More than half the world’s remaining chalk grassland is found in England. Although this habitat is one of people’s most-valued features of the Kent Downs, the remaining extent is just two per cent of the Kent Downs land area – yet this relatively small area represents three per cent of the global resource!

We are incredibly lucky to have such great wildflower meadows remaining in the Kent Downs. It is not just the heady scents and painterly beauty of the grasslands in flower that is important; beneath this is a startling complexity of wildlife, likened by many to the UK equivalent of the tropical rainforests.

Adonis Blue butterflyAdonis Blue butterfly

The wildflower grasslands of the Kent Downs are home to some of the UK’s rarest species.

Wild Orchids such as the Late Spider Orchid or Lady Orchid are only really found in the Kent Downs in Britain; the same is true for the day-flying, black-veined moth.

We have great profusions of rare butterflies on some sites including the beautiful Adonis Blue butterfly, and some sites will host more than 20 different species of butterfly.

Wild orchids such as the Lady Orchid are only really found in the Kent Downs in BritainWild orchids such as the Lady Orchid are only really found in the Kent Downs in Britain

Not only do we have one of the largest, most important and most beautiful concentrations of chalk grassland as well as some important meadowland, much of it is available for you to visit at nature reserves, National Trust properties and country parks.

In most of our wildflower sites dedicated staff and often volunteers work hard to manage the sensitive grasslands to conserve the landscape and ensure that the exquisite wildlife thrives. One of the best ways to ensure the long-term future of these places is through the gentle influence of grazing, wildflower grasslands being a habitat that is maintained, like many others, through farming and land management.

Almost always these sites are marginal from an economic point of view and their management is supported by the land owners and through public subsidy. In some cases there is an opportunity to support this careful management through buying the products on conservation grazing, as doing so helps secure the long-term future of these special sites.

Enjoying a wildflower walk at Samphire HoeEnjoying a wildflower walk at Samphire Hoe

Mary Tate, Head for the Hills Project Officer, Kent Downs AONB

“Meadows and wildflowers are a fundamental part of the varied habitats and ecology of Kent. They have seen a massive decline in recent times with 98 per cent lost nationally since the 1930s. Of those that remain most are small and fragmented and vulnerable to destruction.

Mary Tate, Kent Downs AONB (photo: Manu Palomeque)Mary Tate, Kent Downs AONB (photo: Manu Palomeque)

For the last four years I have been leading a Plantlife national project called Save our Magnificent Meadows to help educate and inspire people about wildflower grasslands and to help them to manage them for wildlife. In the Kent Downs I have worked over several sites to restore and create grassland through restoration and traditional hay making techniques.

From orchids and butterflies to slow worms and small mammals, natural wildflower meadows and grasslands have an immeasurable value for a range of wildlife and are essential to our cultural heritage, recreation and enjoyment.

In Kent the remaining grassland habitat has become fragmented and small.

Through project work I have been able to encourage more wildflower corridors to be created to bridge these gaps so species can move from one area to another and create more wildflower areas within the county. This in turn will encourage species such are rare orchids and butterflies.”

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