Agriculture has been taking place in one form or another for thousands of years in the Chilterns and today farming practices account for 75% of the total AONB land area making a major contribution to the appearance of the Chilterns landscape. There are two main types of farming: arable, which involves growing crops, for human or animal consumption and livestock which involves raising animals for milk or meat. Farming activities vary across the area, depending mainly on soil type and the topography or shape of the land. On the steep scarp slopes at Ivinghoe Beacon and Whiteleaf Cross, ploughing would be dangerous and the soils are thin, chalky and infertile. Here, grazing of sheep or cattle is the preferred form of agriculture rather than growing of crops. On the gentle slopes of the plateau where the soils are thicker, arable crops are grown. Where farming has ceased, for example on much of the scarp slope, bushes and trees quickly colonise changing the appearance of the landscape.
For information on sites in the Chilterns that require grazing and on stock that are available to graze sites visit the Chilterns SheepKeep site. You can also add your own land or stock to the SheepKeep database. The SheepKeep website www.sheepkeep.co.uk is a useful resource for all aspects of keeping livestock.
The majority of crops grown are cereal crops, mainly wheat and barley with a small amount of oats. These are used in a variety of foodstuffs including bread, cakes, biscuits, beer, whisky and muesli. The most familiar crop is oilseed rape with its distinctive yellow flowers and pungent aroma. Rapeseed is crushed and the oil used for cooking or food processing, to make bio-diesel to power cars and other vehicles or as an industrial lubricant. Also found in the Chilterns are peas and beans (similar to those grown in people’s gardens). These are mainly grown in rotation with cereals to provide a break and reduce disease, weeds and pests associated with growing one crop continuously. Alternative crops such as linseed, borage and poppies can sometimes be seen, grown mostly on contract to provide medicinal products.
Crops are also grown to provide food and cover for game birds and farmland birds. These are normally planted in strips next to hedgerows and consist of maize, sunflowers, millet, sorghum and kale.
(all figures relate to the Chilterns AONB in 2003 and were supplied by the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs or Defra)
Cattle and sheep are the most widespread and visible farm animal in the Chilterns. Sheep outnumber cattle by more than 2 to 1 reflecting the differing profitability in the two enterprises. One reason cattle numbers have fallen is closure of most of the dairy herds due to declining milk prices. Pigs and poultry are also present in large numbers although the majority are kept indoors. There are a small number of producers in the Chilterns who keep unusual livestock such as red deer, alpacas and even European bison.
Parts of the Chilterns have a long history of orchards particularly those growing cherries. They were used in liquors and gins as far back as 1730. During the 19th century parties of cherry pickers came out from Reading and London at harvest time. Orchards have declined over the years but there are still fruit farms to be found, many offering pick-your-own. See Local Products for more details. The poor chalk soils of the Chilterns are not very fertile so the area of vegetables grown is small and mostly confined to better land in the area of the Thames floodplain.
The Chilterns is home to several vineyards producing quality wine. The thin chalky soils are well suited to grape growing and are similar to some of those found in well known wine regions in France.