Chalk and limestone landscapes in southern Britain today are predominantly huge, hedgeless fields of intensively farmed arable crops. Turning the turf with a plough in order to feed the country during the Second World War was the end of the last great expanses of species rich lowland grassland. Many of the UK’s 56 orchid species as well as a host of other specialist plants and invertebrates only survive on ‘unimproved’ chalk grasslands; their zenith in the UK was probably at the height of the wool trade. Vast areas were given over to grass because wool exports drove the Medieval economy. Orchids would have flourished during the Wars of the Roses, the English Civil War through to the middle of the 19th century when guano, the new and explosively effective N P K fertiliser, was mined from seabird islands all over the world; its application radically improved grassland productivity to the detriment of plants, like orchids, that are adapted to nutrient poor soils.
Park Gate Down is one of the finest remnants of ancient chalk grassland in the UK. The nature reserve is a postage stamp (7 ha) found on a sunny, sheltered slope wedged between a bank of dense scrub and tall conifer forest in a tight fold of downland in East Kent; it probably survived the attention of farmers because of its small size, long narrow shape and steep slope. An old chalk pit is located near the road so it was useful in other ways too.
Park Gate Down is famous for its diversity of rare orchids and especially its monkey orchids as it one of only three sites in the UK where these occur. However, monkey orchid, like most orchid species in the UK, is widespread in Europe; rarity is the norm when a species is on the edge of its range and its preferred habitat is so demolished.
Another rare, edge of range, orchid here is the musk orchid; unfortunately great rarity does not automatically confer great beauty. The musk orchid is diminutive, pale yellow and unprepossessing; the fun is in the finding as it is only a few inches tall. Small wasps crawl over the flowers and accidentally pollinate them. This, like many rare species, is highly conservation dependent; its remaining populations are all within nature reserves where the habitat management is high maintenance and à la carte. The sward is kept short by winter grazing with Highland cattle and Konik ponies and incessantly encroaching scrub is rudely hacked back by winter work parties.
The chalk grassland on the narrow bank is littered with brown stalks of ‘gone over’ early purple orchids and emerging fragrant, monkey and common spotted orchids. There are a handful of tall greater butterfly orchids in perfect condition and one or two rapidly ageing fly orchids. Some of these oddball plants have more than a dash of Picasso within a meadow that is a colourful Impressionist splash.
So Park Gate Down is a little museum of national treasures (or screwball curiosities) from the age of wool; the plants need an audacious escape plan not least to thwart the damage now being wrought by the fast changing climate but also to make the exceptional commonplace and the diversity unremarkable. My guess is that, in 100 years, this lick of ancient grassland will either be a distant memory or at the centre of an area of great rolling downs, where people will wander at leisure enjoying the outrageous art of abundant nature.