England’s chalk hills were amongst the first areas to be cleared of trees by Stone Age farmers. Over thousands of years the resulting chalk ‘downs’ were grazed by sheep, cattle and rabbits, and periodically cultivated. Chalk weathers to form poor, free-draining alkaline soils – a tough environment for plants – and unique communities of wild flowers developed, made up of the species that could survive the harsh conditions. Most do not actually need chalky soils, but the conditions help to suppress more vigorous competitors.
Sadly, most chalk downland has been ‘improved’ and the flowers have gone. The few remaining areas, usually now reserves, are amongst our most beautiful and flower-rich habitats. In Norfolk the chalk bedrock is usually buried under sands and gravels left by the various Ice Ages and flower-rich chalk grassland is a rarity. To show off some of its riches, however, this bank of excavated chalky soil has been planted with a selection of native wild flowers that are characteristic of chalk grassland.