And during almost all that time, the relationship between chalk grassland and humans has been based on the grazing of sheep. Sheep provided more than food and clothing to Ancient Britons. They also provided the landscape itself. Without grazing (and hard grazing at that), the weeds begin to creep in and destroy what we now see as the natural plants of the grassland. The weeds come, and then the trees come and then the grasslands are gone.
The keeping of sheep has actually made the grassland’s optimum biodiversity, which is what many people consider to be the typically English countryside.
These terribly English plants are all best found on grazed, managed chalk hills and downlands:
- oxeye daisies (Leucantheum vulgare)
- bird’s-foot trefoil (Lotus corniculatus)
- common spotted orchid (Dactylorhiza fuchsii)
- wild marjoram (Origanum vulgare)
- salad burnet (Sanguisorba minor ssp. minor).
When we think about nature conservation, we tend to think of wildness; of unmanaged tracts of land. But not managing the chalk grasslands will actually cause them to dissapear. Their relationship to people and farming is so ancient that they cannot exist without us.
They also can’t exist with too many of us. Between 1966 and 1980, nearly 20% of chalk grasslands were lost, either to intensive farming or development.
This is the place of skylarks and stone curlews; a land of butterflies and flowers. But it’s also a land of sheep and farmers. It’s the ancient farming communities that built so many of the monuments along the Ridgeway; the barrows and the earth mounds and the stone circles.