Commons wildlife

The commons of the Chilterns are bursting with wildlife! Look out for reptiles basking on sunny heaths, butterflies dancing around orchids on chalk grasslands, and fungi popping up through the leaf litter of beech woodlands. Explore our common land through the seasons to find out where to go for wildlife, what to spot and what’s rare.

Commons (or common land) are areas where a specific group of people hold rights to use privately owned land for grazing, fishing and gathering materials. Some commons are still grazed today, but most are now incredibly important habitats for wildlife and special places for people to explore and enjoy. They host a whole range of habitats, including rare chalk grassland, woodland, heathland, and parkland – something for everyone! There are lots of great commons to visit in the Chilterns AONB, such as Nettlebed and District, Naphill, Northchurch and Berkhamsted, and Hawridge and Cholesbury. Visit our interactive map to discover even more family days out and wildlife adventures across the Chilterns.

Our commons are very special, playing a huge role in the wider landscape and our own lives. Visit our nature and wildlife section to find out why these things are important in the Chilterns and what we are doing to look after them.

Watching commons wildlife through the seasons

Read our season-by-season guide to the Chilterns commons wildlife.


In spring, the commons of the Chilterns come to life as wildlife prepares for the plentiful months ahead. On grassland habitats, cowslips and buttercups pepper the growing grass with sunshine yellow; on heathland habitats, reptiles and butterflies emerge from hibernation and make the most of the warming sun; in the woodlands, birds and animals start to breed, marking territories and attracting mates with songs, comfy nests and dazzling displays; and on open pasture and parkland, trees and hedges fill with leaves and blossom.

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What to look out for in Spring

The blackcap is one of many migrant birds that arrive in the Chilterns in spring, ready to breed. Although the male has a black cap, the female has a red cap. On spring mornings, black caps, along with many other birds, sing loudly to mark their territories and attract a mate. This dawn chorus is a real sign of spring and, with a trained ear, it’s possible to make out the many different songs. Birds feed and breed in a whole host of different trees, hedges and woodlands, so it is important to keep this variety in the Chilterns AONB and on its commons.

Yellow gorse flowersThe bright yellow of gorse flowers are a familiar sight on the heathlands and grasslands of our commons. But did you know that they have a scent like coconut? This tough, evergreen shrub can grow to around 2.5 metres in height and has sharp spikes on its stems, which are actually its leaves. It flowers from early spring into summer, providing a source of nectar for bees and butterflies. It also makes good shelter for birds, such as stonechats (Saxicola rubicola) and yellowhammers (Emberiza citronella).

The orange tip is an unmistakeable butterfly of spring, flying from April to June in a wide range of habitats, including heathland, woodland and gardens. It is largely white, and the males have orange tips to their wings, while females have black tips. It has a mottled grey pattern on the underside of the wings. Females lay single orange eggs on plants such as garlic mustard (Alliaria petiolate) and cuckooflower (Cardamine pratensis). The caterpillars are green and well camouflaged.

The UK hosts three native species of newt: smooth (or common), palmate (Lissotriton helveticus) and great crested (Triturus cristatus); but it is the smooth newt that you are most likely come across in your garden or pond, or when out and about on your local common. The smooth newt can grow up to 10 cm in length. It is similar-looking to the palmate newt, but a lighter grey or brown, with a yellow or orange belly dotted with black spots that reach its throat. During the breeding season, males develop a wavy crest down their backs, although it’s not as big as that of the threatened great crested newt (which looks a bit like a small dinosaur!). In spring, adults emerge from their overwintering sites and find a pond to breed in. Larvae hatch out a few weeks later, looking a bit like tadpoles with feathery gills. Adults can be found hunting around ponds in summer, feeding themselves up on slugs and insects.

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Summer on the commons ushers in the chirruping of crickets, the bright songs of birds, and the croaks of frogs and toads. Our commons are certainly busy places at this time of year! Hay meadows are in full bloom with traditional wildflowers like ox-eye daisy and common poppy, chalk grasslands are bursting with rare orchids, heathlands are playing host to ancient dragons and damsels (of the insect variety at least!), and woodlands are in full leaf and full of scurrying mammals. Summer is also a great time to get out for a walk and soak up the history of our commons – from furniture-making to ancient grazing rights, there’s much to learn about.

What to look for in Summer

The UK hosts three native species of snake: adder, grass snake (Natrix natrix) and smooth snake (Coronella austriaca); but only the grass snake and adder can be found in the Chilterns. Grass snakes are common across all wetland and grassland habitats, while adders can be found on heaths and in woodlands. Adders are quite stocky and can grow to 80 cm long. They have a distinctive diamond-shaped pattern along their backs and a characteristic red eye with a cat-like slit; grass snakes have yellow eyes with a round pupil. The adder is our only venomous snake – it has a painful bite that can be dangerous for the young, elderly or infirm, but it doesn’t pose much of a threat to humans if left undisturbed. Adders hunt small mammals, lizards and ground-nesting birds. During spring and summer, snakes and other reptiles can be spotted basking in the early morning sun along paths, on log piles or near water. Snakes and other reptiles hibernate over winter.

Young badgers feeding (Phil Farrer)Look out for badgers around dusk, particularly in Chilterns’ woodlands. They are the UK’s largest land-predator, measuring around 80 cm from nose to tail. They are easy to recognise with their familiar black-and-white striped heads and stocky, silver-grey bodies. Badgers live in family groups (clans) of up to 12 individuals in underground tunnels and chambers known as setts. During the day, nesting material (grass and bracken) may be brought out of the sett to air in the sunshine. Badgers have a wide-ranging diet, including slugs, earthworms, seeds, berries, rodents, birds and eggs.

Cookley Green-Foxgloves at Church Woods-1The foxglove is a familiar flower of woodland, hedgerows and heaths that thrives when ground has been disturbed or the canopy is opened by falling trees. Its seeds can last for many years in the soil until light levels are suitable. It flowers between June and September and can grow to 1.5 m high. The name ‘foxglove’ is a corruption of the phrase ‘folk’s glove’ because fairy folk were said to wear the flowers as gloves. The whole plant is poisonous; however, the drug Digitalis is extracted from it and used to treat heart problems.

The large red damselfly can be found around the edges of ponds, lakes and ditches when breeding, but also on grasslands and in woodlands. Emerging in early spring, it lives up to its name – males are bright red with a black thorax (females are entirely black). The similar small red damselfly (Ceriagrion tenellum) is a much rarer species of Southern England, particularly the New Forest; as its name suggests, it is smaller and much more delicate looking. Look out for the large red resting on vegetation near the water, waiting for its insect-prey. Damselflies rest with their wings folded over their bodies, while dragonflies rest with them open.


Trees are looking bare, flowers have gone over, and fields may start to be flooded, but that doesn’t mean that our commons aren’t worth a visit in autumn! At this time of year, the leaves of deciduous trees turn golden brown, orange and red in showy displays. Heather comes into bloom, scattering heathlands with purple and pink, and fungi pop up across our grasslands – look out for magical fairy rings and toadstools brightening dewy grass. Our birds change with the seasons. Summer migrant birds leave for more exotic shores, and are replaced with our winter migrants, looking for a clement place to spend the colder months. Look out for flocks of waders like lapwings and dunlins, and hedgerow birds like fieldfares and redwings.

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What to look for in Autumn

The small and delicate purple toadstools of the amethyst deceiver fungus can be spotted among the leaf litter of wooded areas on our commons. Like most fungi, the parts above ground are just the fruiting bodies. These grow from an unseen network of tiny filaments and produce spores for reproduction. Fungi help to decompose rotting wood and recycle its nutrients back into the soil. Many fungi also help trees to feed on nutrients in the soil, their filaments forming a beneficial relationship with the tree’s roots. Do remember many fungi are poisonous and should not be picked or eaten.

Oak Tree, Maidensgrove Common (C Ormonde)One of our most iconic trees, the English oak is familiar to us as the bearer of acorns and lobed leaves. Broad, ancient, gnarly trees stand over time like the grandfather clocks of the forest; some live well over 500 years and grow more than 40 m tall. The wood is highly prized for buildings ships, houses and furniture. The English oak is also known as the ‘pedunculate oak’ because its acorns are borne on peduncles or stalks, whereas those of the sessile oak (Quercus petraea) are stalkless. Oaks provide valuable food and shelter for wildlife – from stag beetles to flycatchers, hairstreak butterflies to bracket fungi, all kinds of organisms enjoy these stalwarts of the countryside.

The much-loved, spiky, little European hedgehog was once common across a range of habitats – from hedgerows and woods, to grasslands and parks. But, today, it is under threat. Numbers have declined by a third due to road traffic collisions; trends for ‘tidy’ gardens without grassy areas and gappy hedges; the loss of farmland and hedgerow habitats; and the use of pesticides to reduce heir prey. Help your local hedgehogs by providing safe nesting and hibernating spots, such as leaf and log piles in the garden, and making sure there are holes in fences so they can move about – they can roam up to 4 km in one night in search of food! On autumnal evenings, look out for hedgehogs snuffling around our commons at dusk as they fill up their bellies ready for a long winter’s nap.

Bell heather on Kingwood CommonPurple swathes of blooming heather are an autumn delight on the heathlands of the Chilterns. There are three types of heather: ling (or common), bell (Erica cinerea) and cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix). Ling heather has delicate, pink flowers loosely arranged along its stems, whereas bell heather has tiny, purple ‘bells’ clustered together. Heather flowers attract a wide variety of pollinating insects. A low-growing shrub that likes acidic soils, it is also an ideal garden and rockery plant.

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Winter can seem like a bleak time on our commons, as winds and rain whip across open ground and grasslands and parks can become soggy and muddy. But don’t stop visiting! There are lots of things to look out for on a cold, crisp, frosty morning. Numbers of wading birds, such as lapwings and snipe, increase as many migrants are still arriving from colder climes. Dusk and dawn are the best times to spot barn owls swooping low over heaths and hedgerows in search of small mammals, many of which will find safe places to hibernate at this time of year. Lizards, snakes, amphibians, butterflies and bees also take shelter over winter, but many animals are still active – look out for wildfowl on ponds, starlings creating striking murmurations (flight displays) across the skies, and hedges filling with birds like fieldfares and redwings. Take some time with the trees too; evergreens like box, yew, holly and juniper help to make the season bright!

What to look for in winter

Buzzard numbers have increased across the area in recent years. They kill rabbits, young pheasants and other small animals, and will also scavenge on carrion. They are stocky birds of prey, with broad, rounded wings that can reach a span of up to 1.25 m. When in flight, their wings make a V-shape as they soar, but it’s their short, rounded tails that really give them away – quite different to the distinctively forked tails of red kites. In fact, buzzards and red kites are surprisingly tolerant of each other and can often be seen flying together. Look for buzzards soaring over our commons, woods and grasslands.

The chaffinch is one of the most common birds to be found in Chilterns’ woodlands, parks, hedges and gardens. It has a metallic-sounding ‘pink-pink’ social call and a distinctive song that ends in a loud trill. It feeds on seeds, insects and fruit, and is attracted to open glades when foraging. Male chaffinches look particularly striking in their breeding plumage with grey heads and puffed-up pink chests, while females are a duller brown, with white should and wing patches.

A small, unassuming shrub, dogwood comes into its own in autumn and winter with striking red stems, crimson leaves and bunches of shiny, black berries. It is often used for ornamental purposes in parks and gardens because of its winter colour, bringing life to the dreary, dark days of the season. It grows wild along woodland edges and in hedgerows. In spring, it displays umbrella-like clusters (‘umbels’) of white flowers.

Steeped in myth and legend, yews are some of our oldest trees. Growing to 20 m tall, they are only considered ‘ancient’ when they reach 900 years in age and may continue to live for thousands of years. They have sheltered kings and queens, were planted on the graves of plague victims to protect the dead, and are considered symbols of immortality – or doom! Today, yews can still be seen in churchyards across the Chilterns. Look for the evergreen, spiky, green leaves and red berries in winter. All parts of yew are poisonous, but they are prized for their wood, which was traditionally used to make bows, spears and tools.

Common land wildlife under threat

Commons are important features of the Chilterns’ landscape, but their habitats and characteristics are being lost at an alarming rate; for example, ten of the 60 rarer chalk flora species of our chalk grasslands are already thought to be extinct. Threats to the survival of our commons include lack of traditional management, climate change, habitat loss and invasive species. Find out how we are tackling these threats and how you can help.

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Managing the Chilterns’ special habitats

The habitats of our Chilterns’ commons need protection, management and restoration, so that the wildlife living there can thrive and for our own well-being, too. The Chilterns Conservation Board (CCB) looks after the Chilterns AONB, working with partners and stakeholders to ensure its future. Find out what we do and how we protect, enhance and restore our wonderful landscape.

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Bookable experiences

We have carefully chosen our most immersive and memorable Chilterns Countryside Experiences to share with you here. Choose from Active Countryside, Chilterns Food & Drink, Countryside Learning and Chilterns Sightseeing. All are bookable online.
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Featured walks

A selection of some of the best walks in the Chilterns, from short easy strolls to all day walks, and all through beautiful scenery. The best way to shake off the cobwebs, enjoy tranquil surroundings and burn a few calories!
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Upcoming events

Find out what's on in the Chilterns - walking or biking, food & drinks, serious trekking or a picnic on the flat - the possibilities are endless.
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Plan your trip to the Chilterns!

Search the interactive map: select from a list of categories to bring up icons showing the location and information of walks, bike rides, places to visit, tasty local products and plenty more across the Chilterns area
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