Wiltshire's Natural Heritage
South west England is recognised as having a high concentration of the nation’s biodiversity interest and Wiltshire, in turn, boasts a significant proportion of the south west’s biodiversity. The historic county of Wiltshire (including Swindon Borough) covers an area of 348,070ha making it the largest inland county in southern England with its geographical centre on the Marlborough Downs.
Watch the short video below celebrating the Wiltshire countryside and wildlife through the seasons. This taster highlights some of the wildlife and habitats you can see in the county throughout the year.
Traditionally, the landscape of the county has been described as the ‘chalk and cheese.’ ‘Chalk’ refers to the higher areas of rolling chalk downland, traditionally grazed by sheep, that dominate the southern (Cranborne Chase), eastern (Marlborough Downs) and central (Salisbury Plain) parts of the county and together make up half of Wiltshire’s land area. The chalk hilltops of Tan Hill and Milk Hill are Wiltshire’s highest points at just over 300m above sea level. ‘Cheese’ refers to the flatter pasture lands of North West Wiltshire and the river valleys of the south with their neutral, clay soils that traditionally supported dairy production. Other landscape types that fringe the county include the oolitic limestone of the Cotswolds in the North West and part of the New Forest in the south east which supports Wiltshire’s only acid bogland and the majority of its surviving heathland.
There is little variation in the mean temperature across Wiltshire, average rainfall is slightly higher in the south-west corner than other areas; the north-east around Highworth, and the south-east around Amesbury has the lowest rainfall.
Wiltshire has an amazing diversity of Wildlife where Skylarks can be heard over wildflower meadows and the ghostly white of a hunting Barn Owl can be seen at night. The Chalkhill Blue butterfly, Natterer’s Bat, Burnt Orchid and Fritillary (familiar to gardeners as the Snakeshead Fritillary, but growing wild here) have a stronghold in Wiltshire yet they are all thought to be in decline. The Great Bustard is the county bird of Wiltshire and has recently been reintroduced onto Salisbury Plain after becoming extinct over 100 years ago. Some plants and animals can be seen in many different habitats as they are able to survive in various conditions; others are specialised and can only survive in particular habitats.
The largest single land-use in Wiltshire is arable farming, occupying more than 160,000ha or around 50% of the county. In the Twentieth Century agricultural intensification made this an increasingly hostile habitat for wildlife, but in recent years changes in subsidy arrangements and a greater understanding on the part of land managers have lead to a significant recovery in populations of farmland birds and invertebrates.
Chalk grassland, is perhaps the most significant of Wiltshire’s habitats. The county supports around 55% of the total area in Britain and the rolling downland landscape typifies southern Wiltshire. Although Wiltshire is often regarded as having very little woodland, this habitat is also important in the county, with the larger examples being remnants of the old Royal Hunting Forests such as Savernake, Braydon and the New Forest.