Horseshoe vetch

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What is Horseshoe vetch?

Horseshoe vetch is an indicator of chalk grassland in good condition. A member of the pea family, it has between five and twelve small, bright yellow, pea-like flowers on each flowering head and it flowers between May and July.  The leaves are pinnate (consisting of pairs of leaflets) ending in a leaflet and the pods are narrow and sinuous with horseshoe-like segments.

Why is Horseshoe vetch important to the Surrey Hills?

Horseshoe vetch is the caterpillar foodplant for the chalkhill blue and Adonis blue butterflies and it’s status is frequent to locally abundant on old, short chalk grassland.

What habitat does Horseshoe vetch like?

Chalk Grassland

Chalk grassland (or lowland calcareous grassland) is a habitat of international importance for both its rarity and its species richness. It is found over limestone and chalk rocks and grows below an altitude of 250 metres on shallow, lime-rich soils, mainly in the warmer, drier south and east of the UK.  As many as 40 different plant species can be found within a square metre. Many of them are so specialised that they can be found only in chalk grassland where they are specially adapted to the thin, infertile but base-rich soils. Characteristic features of the habitat often include ant-hills and, on steep slopes, terracettes or sheep walks. Small patches of scrub add to the habitat diversity by providing bird-nesting habitat and song-posts.

The UK holds around 50% of the world’s surviving chalk grassland with major concentrations on the North and South Downs of south-east England. Formerly widespread in these areas, an estimated 80% had disappeared by WWII and only 1% of the Surrey Hills has remnant chalk grassland cover.

What can be done to benefit Horseshoe vetch?

Good management for this species will create/result in:
  • Chalk grassland with a high diversity of wildflowers and their associated insects

This will benefit a wide range of other specialist chalk grassland plants including other vetches such as kidney vetch, orchids such as bee orchid and pyramidal orchid, salad burnet, wild marjoram, dropwort, small scabious and many others. It will also benefit associated insects in particular, chalkhill blue and Adonis blue butterflies, for both of which it is the caterpillar foodplant.

Opportunities to create/improve/extend suitable habitat for this species include:
  • Grazing by hardy livestock breeds to control scrub and dominant grasses
  • Clearing scrub and controlling its regrowth
  • Controlling invasive species such as tor grass, stinging nettle, creeping thistle and common ragwort
  • Protection from nutrient enrichment by fertilisation or agricultural spray drift


Creating and managing areas for Horseshoe vetch will help deliver the following benefits to communities:
  • Clean water
  • Clean air
  • Protection from and mitigation of environmental hazards
  • Mitigation of and adaptation to climate change
  • Thriving plants and wildlife
  • Beauty, heritage and engagement

These illustrations are by an artist taking part in a programme delivered by Watts Gallery Trust and funded by the Michael Varah Memorial Fund. This series of 30 Surrey Hills Indicator Species were commissioned by Surrey Hills Society and funded by Surrey Hills Trust Fund as part of the Making Space for Nature Exhibition.