We are the Local Environment Group for the area around Prestwood in Buckinghamshire, including Great Missenden,
The Hampdens, The Kingshills, North Dean and Speen
We aim to protect and enhance the quality of the natural environment through the involvement of local people.
Heathland & Acid Grassland
The chalk of the Chilterns is overlain on the high plateaux by clays, some of which, the sandier ones with pebbles laid down by geologically ancient water-courses, are rather acid and infertile. Poor for agriculture, these tops long remained wooded, but where communities grew up these woods were gradually cleared for commonland where the cottagers could graze their few animals and collect twigs for fuel and bracken for bedding. These commons were a mix of acid grassland and heather, interspersed with gorse and birch scrub and clumps of trees. The impervious clay enabled ponds to be dug to water stock, to wash sheep and carts. Some of the clay was also suitable for brick making and a major industry grew up in the region from at least the 16th century to the end of the last world war.
These commons and their underlying clay were therefore an important part of the economic life and subsistence living of local people for centuries. (The less acid clays also created a suitable soil for the orchards.) Most of these commons were swept away in the enclosures of the late 18th to mid-19th centuries. Something of them survives in nearby localities like Naphill and Downley Commons or Penn Wood, but in our area only tiny degraded portions survive. As late as the first half of the 19th century a quarter of the Parish of Prestwood was covered by heath and acid grassland. Now barely 5% of those commonlands remain, and half of those have been turned into allotments. The rest are virtually all recreation grounds. In none of them does heather or gorse or any other plant of the old heathlands survive. It is a habitat that has virtually disappeared, first of all enclosed as fields during the agricultural expansion of the early to mid 19th century, and then built over in the population expansion of the late 20th century.
The only surviving wildlife interest in the recreation grounds are, around the margins, the regular appearance of grassland and heathland fungi, especially waxcaps, albeit in a rather dwarf form to avoid the mowers.
Only two patches of heather survive within the Parish of Prestwood. One in Lodge Wood (where stagshorn clubmoss once grew with it until that part of the wood was clear-felled in the 1960s) is now virtually extinct because of the unmanaged growth of secondary woodland. The other is in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Prestwood, where it is being looked after by the Church in conjunction with Prestwood Nature. Here it is accompanied by a good heathy grassland flora including heath grass, tormentil, mouse-ear hawkweed, and harebell – a type of vegetation now very rare in the region. The churchyard also has a splendid variety of waxcaps(16 species), club and other grassland fungi, including the national Biodiversity Action Plan species, Pink Waxcap.
Even gorse is now uncommon in the area, although a certain amount survives in Lawrence Grove, between Holy Trinity Church and Widmere Field.
Un-mown acid grasslands in the area are equally rare and threatened by scrub encroachment. Widmere Field is one of the larger examples (8 acres) and still supports harebells, pignut and slender St John’s-wort, as well as interesting fungi, but it is very degraded.
Prestwood Nature is interested in restoring an area of acid grassland to what it might have looked like in the days of the old commons, but so far no suitable space under sympathetic ownership has been located.
Another type of habitat on the clay is the old hay-meadow which was grazed over winter on the aftermath. Two good examples of this still exist, although neither is yet receiving the type of management that will prevent their gradual deterioration. One is the Haypole off Hangings Lane in Prestwood, where acid-loving plants such as betony, devilsbit scabious, tormentil and creeping soft-grass (all uncommon in the region) live side by side with more chalk-loving or neutral species like cowslip, burnet-saxifrage, upright brome and glaucous sedge. The other site near the Old Hampden Rectory has a similar combination of betony and devilsbit scabious.
1. Holy Trinity churchyard: Holy Trinity Churchyard, Prestwood, management plan
2. Haypole field: Haypole field report
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