Wiltshire Museum presents:


Wild Life in the Red

Poisoned, ploughed up, covered in concrete

Wiltshire is famous for its chalk downland, peppered with wildflowers and butterflies. But since the 1930s, more than 95% of this grassland in the UK has been destroyed. The Donald Grose herbarium provides a snapshot of Wiltshire’s wildflowers from 1940-1950 and tells the story of this early environmental campaigner.

Wild Life in the Red

Supported by

The object behind the story

Donald Grose (1900-1973) was passionate about wildflowers and campaigned against the dramatic loss of meadows in Wiltshire.

His incredible work is showcased in the hebarium, two large wooden cabinets containing 9,000 sheets of pressed plants. Many were collected when Grose was writing his book, The Flora of Wiltshire.

The museum also has Donald Grose’s notebooks and card index of plant species. They were given to the museum in 1981, along with the herbarium.

Wooden cabinets containing racks of dried plants
The Donald Grose herbarium at Wiltshire Museum.

Why are wildflower meadows so important?

Chalk downland is one of the most species-rich habitats in the UK. It can have up to 50 different kinds of wildflower growing in a single square metre. Some of the plants you can spot are daisies, buttercups, clover, cowslips, poppies, orchids and yellow rattle. 

These meadows provide food and shelter for minibeasts, including bees, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets and beetles.  The insects then feed a host of animals including birds, hedgehogs and bats.

Find out why bees are so important as pollinators on Dorset Museum’s pages. 

Chalk grassland with orchid in foreground
Wiltshire's chalk downland, designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Photo: Glyn Coy.

Decimated by people

Wildflower meadows were traditionally used for cattle grazing and hay making. But since the 1930s, more than 95% of these meadows in the UK have been lost. Huge areas of grassland were ploughed up and planted with arable crops to increase food production during the Second World War (a subject that Donald Grose wrote about).

Farmers have since ploughed up more of the meadows. This land is reseeded with a single species of grass to feed sheep and cattle, and sprayed with chemical fertilizers and pesticides. These fields don’t have the variety of plant species to support insect life.

Land has also been sold off to meet the demand for more roads and houses.

Biodiversity at its best

Wildflower meadows are perfect examples of biodiversity. All species rely on each other, and if one species is lost, it will have a detrimental effect on the others.

Bumblebee on clover
Bumblebee on clover. Photo: Mark North

The Flora of Wiltshire

Surprisingly, Donald Grose was a jeweller by profession. But his passion for wildflowers led him to become chief botanical recorder for Wiltshire. 

When his book, The Flora of Wiltshire, was published in 1957, it was so acclaimed he was asked to make a broadcast on the BBC.

Photo below: Mark North.

Notebooks of Donald Grose
Donald Grose's notebooks

The botany dream-team

The two volumes of The Flora of Wiltshire took 16 years to complete, with the support of an army of helpers, including Grose’s wife, Ivy May.

On field trips, the husband and wife team would hand out long lists of Latin plant names, so the group members could learn the correct spellings! He collected his specimens in a battered metal spectacle case so he could carry them home safely for identification.

Black and white photo of Donald Grose with group of botanists sitting in grass
Donald Grose and his wife, Ivy May, with Natural History group, Imber Village, 1964.

Acre shocker!

Since the 1930s, 7.5 million acres of wildflower meadows have been lost in the UK.  This is more than the counties of Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall and Hampshire put together!

Vast expanse of ploughed field
West Wiltshire Ploughed Field by Lewis Clarke. Licensed with Creative Commons.

Grose the eco-warrior

Another important work by Donald Grose was The Treatment of Roadside Verges in Wiltshire, 1962 (photos below). It outlined the effects of mowing and weed killer on wildflower populations, and forced Wiltshire Council to rethink its strategy on managing grass verges.

Grose also wrote about the impact of the Second World War on Wiltshire’s wildflowers, and campaigned for nature conservation in Wiltshire parks.

By the time of his death in 1973, Grose had become Wiltshire’s most distinguished botanist.

Reports about spraying roadside verges
Donald Grose letters about the spraying of roadside verges.

Flowers at the museum

Wiltshire Museum also looks after another large collection of botanical specimens. The Wiltshire Archaeological & Natural History Society Flora started by the aptly named T. B. Flower and T. A. Preston in 1870, contains 3,000 specimens.

Find out more by searching the collections online.

How you can help 

  • Support a conservation organisation by volunteering, joining campaigns or donating, such as Plantlife UK or The Wildlife Trusts.
  • Join in with National Meadows Day – the first Saturday in July.
  • Encourage wildlife into your garden – leave wild patches, avoid using chemicals, add a pond or a wood pile, build a bug home. Find out more in the activity sheets below.
  • Spread the word about the importance of creating wildlife habitats.

Learn more about wildflowers

Photo below: Glyn Coy.


Sawfish are also called carpenter sharks...but they are rays, not sharks!

There’s also a species called a sawshark, but that’s, well, a shark!

What the heck is a lek?

Males great bustards perform spectacular courtship displays, gathering at a ‘lek’ or small display ground to try to impress the females.

Road Runner!

The great bustard has a dignified slow walk but tends to run when disturbed, rather than fly.

Belly Buster!

The hen-bird on display at The Salisbury Museum was one of the last great bustards to be eaten in the town!

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website.

Skip to content