Natural England - Kingley Vale: what makes it special?

Kingley Vale: what makes it special?

Kingley Vale NNR lies within the new South Downs National Park and covers 150 hectares of chalk grassland, scrub, mixed oak and ash woodland and ancient yew forest.

The reserve is a steep sided dry valley (dry coombe), the top of which offers stunning views of the surrounding area, including Chichester harbour and the Isle of Wight.

The lowest areas of the coombe are covered in one of the finest examples of ancient yew forest in Europe. The thin soils on the steep valley slopes support a rich downland turf with up to 50 species of flowering plants and grasses within a square metre.

The reserve is also one of the most important archaeological sites in southern England and has 14 scheduled ancient monuments, including Bronze Age burial mounds at the top of Bow Hill.

Most of the countryside around the NNR is now managed intensively for agriculture and is therefore very hostile to most forms of wildlife. Thanks to the care of Natural England and its predecessors, the value of Kingley Vale has increased over the years, both as a wildlife oasis and as a relief for the human spirit from the uninspiring monocultures that surround it.

Chalk downland and chalk heath

For thousands of years, the downs of lowland England were used for raising sheep. This continuous grazing meant that a huge variety of low-growing, chalk loving plants were able to flourish, free from competition from more vigorous species which were kept in check by sheep, as well as rabbits and fallow deer.

During and after the last war, most of this very rich and ancient turf was ploughed up and converted to growing crops, with just a few fragments, such as Kingley Vale, escaping.

As well as chalk loving plants like birds foot trefoil, kidney vetch (the food plant for the chalkhill blues) and fairy flax, there are 11 different species of orchid at the reserve including types called bee, common spotted, frog and fly orchids.

All this flora helps support many different invertebrates and of the 58 species of butterfly that breed in England, 39 have been recorded at Kingley Vale. These include the marbled white, brown argus and the rare chalkhill blue, none of which can survive on grassland which has been 'improved' for agriculture.

The grassland is also home to yellow meadow ants, which are a favourite food of the iconic green woodpecker who can eat up to 2000 a day!

The plateau at the top of Bow Hill has a capping of clay overlying the chalk. This has helped other species, often associated with more acidic conditions, to flourish, such as heathers and tormentil. This extremely uncommon soil type, which allows two plant communities, normally distinct and separate, to grow side by side, is called chalk heath.

Ancient Yews

The largest yews occur at the foot of the valley, with several at least 500 years old, with the oldest measuring more than 5m in girth.

Legend has it that these long-living trees were planted in AD 849 to commemorate dead Viking warriors.

Their shapes are weird and fantastic, contorted by time and centuries of storms. From some of the huge limbs, partially severed and thrown to the ground by the force of the wind, new root systems have developed. The natural 'layering' of the yews, coupled with the smooth texture of the old bark, gives some trees the appearance of giant, motionless serpents. Certainly the yew grove at twilight is no place for the faint-hearted! From here, the yews have progressively colonised the valley slopes.

The ‘Field Museum’ at the entrance to the reserve has new interpretation panels and a sculpture carved from yew by local artist Walter Bailey.

Yew leaves and seeds can be highly poisonous but birds and shrews can eat the pulpy red fruits without ill effect.

Kingley Vale is a candidate Special Area of Conservation (SAC) under European wildlife legislation. This reflects its great importance in an international context and gives it the highest level of protection from development of any kind. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).


The scrub on the reserve is made of plants such as blackthorn, hawthorn, dogwood and increasingly rare juniper. It supports a variety of life, but needs to be managed to prevent it dominating the grassland. It is essential for the brimstone butterfly as it lays its eggs on the scrub and the leaves provide food for the caterpillars. The scrub is also good for birds such as robins, blackbirds, thrushes and wrens.

Nature Trail

There is an hour-long nature trail through the valley and up its steep slopes.