Downland and traditional meadows, rich in orchids, gentians and cowslips, and teeming with butterflies, were once relatively common in Dorset. But over the last 60 years, as agriculture intensified due to policy and increased demand, these grasslands have become increasingly rare, pushing many of the species that depend on them towards extinction.
Grasslands vary according to the soil on which they grow. In Dorset, we have large areas of chalk and limestone, giving us some of our most species-rich grasslands. Chalk downland supports a huge range of plants and animals, such as bee, burnt-tip, pyramidal and early spider orchids, clustered bellflower, cowslip and autumn gentian. Butterflies include Adonis and chalkhill blues, grizzled, silver-spotted and Lulworth skippers and marbled whites.
Grasslands on neutral soils were often traditionally managed as hay meadows. In addition to a range of attractive grasses, such as Yorkshire fog and quaking grass, they also contain flowers like ox-eye daisy, buttercup and agrimony.
Acid grasslands are often associated with heathland. They also support a range of characteristic grasses and wildflowers. Damp acid grasslands can support the attractive marsh orchid and bog pimpernel.
These traditional grasslands are now very rare. Many have been lost through conversion to arable farmland or by intensive management to provide silage. Some of the remaining sites are suffering from too little management. Without grazing or cutting, the grasslands are taken over by scrub and woodland.
Top Dorset Downs and Meadows to Visit
- Corfe Castle Common NT
- Greenhill Down DWT
- Hambledon Hill EN
- Haydon Hill DWT
- Hod Hill NT
- Kingcombe Meadows DWT
- Muckleford Chalk pit DWT
- Stonehill Down DWT
- Townsend DWT
Threats to Dorset’s Meadows and Downs
- Loss through intensive agriculture
- Lack of suitable management, e.g. grazing, to stop scrub taking over
- Not enough support for farmers to help with management
- Fragmentation of sites, leading to local extinctions
How to help Dorset grasslands
- Support local farmers who are managing traditional grasslands by buying local produce such as Dorset lamb
- Support the organisations working to conserve our rare grasslands, such as Dorset Wildlife Trust and the National Trust
- Become a volunteer warden or help with scrub management and wildlife surveys on your local grassland reserve. Contact Dorset Wildlife Trust, the National Trust and Natural England for details.