Most of Cleeve Common consists of ‘unimproved limestone grassland’ (calcareous grassland), found on shallow, free-draining and alkaline soils. This grassland has not been treated with artificial fertilizer or herbicides, or reseeded to yield more grass for agriculture. The only management over the centuries has been extensive grazing and some cutting back of scrub.
It is a harsh environment with thin soil, poor in nutrients. As a consequence, all types of plants struggle to survive. This battle for survival makes room for great diversity – no single species can gain sufficient competitive advantage to take over and so the species variety is high.
Several types of grass can be found, including short turf of fescues and bents and taller tor-grass, upright brome and meadow oat-grass. In spring and summer lime-loving flowers are widespread, including bright yellow bird’s-foot trefoil, wild thyme, common rock-rose, fairy flax, burnet-saxifrage, dropwort (right), milkwort, small scabious, horseshoe vetch, carline thistles and harebells. Purple milk-vetch, a relative of wild liquorice, occurs in the shorter turfs on the Common. This bright purple, pea-like flower is classified as Endangered on the UK Red List and conservation efforts are underway to secure its range on the Common. Several types of orchid are to be seen, particularly bee orchid, early purple orchid, common spotted orchid, pyramidal orchid (left) and the rare frog and musk orchids. More about musk orchids.
More on limestone grassland on the Cotswold AONB website.
Surprisingly for Gloucestershire, there is acidic soil in some parts of the Common where Harford Sands outcrop at the surface. In these areas, you will see heather, tormentil, heath-grass, heath milkwort, heath bedstraw and several types of moss – a typical assemblage of acid-tolerant plants that you will not find on limestone. One such area is the enclosed ‘heather plot’: it is fenced to prevent damage by rabbits.
In the marshy fringes of the Washpool are bristle club-rush, whorl-grass and the nationally vulnerable flat-sedge. On the steep slopes of the Washpool Valley are rare plants associated with the thin and fragile scree, including the Limestone Fern. There are also stands of bracken in one south-west corner of the Common beyond Nutterswood.
Those few trees planted to adorn the skyline show the effects of exposure to the predominantly south-westerly winds, notably ‘The Twins’ (right), an iconic pair of trees that we have adopted for our logo and the ‘Single Beech’, the highest tree in the Cotswolds at 317m.
In the late 1990s, thirty acres of woodland was planted at the far south-eastern extremity (West Down, going towards Charlton Abbots). This is named ‘Wardens’ Wood’ in tribute to the Cotswold Voluntary Wardens who undertook most of the planting. Elsewhere, there is scrubby growth in the lower part of Padcombe Bottom and a finger of woodland extending down Bentley Lane, towards Southam.
Less obvious, but also important, is the range of mosses and liverworts (collectively termed bryophytes) found around the Common, some of which are exceptionally rare. In conjunction with a local expert, the Conservators are currently running a project to re-establish certain species through the use of mud-capped walls and scrape creation. More about the bryophytes.