NVC Winter Habitat Survey - A Day In The Life of a Course Participant


It's always great to hear from our course participants, and we love to share knowledge and experiences with others. Recently, one of our fantastic higher education placement students, Chelsea, took part in the NVC Winter Habitat Survey course at Slapton Ley. Chelsea is an Environmental Science student who is broadening and building on her wildlife knowledge during her placement, and she has kindly shared some of her experiences with us. So join Chelsea as she walks us through an NVC Habitat Survey course, covering what the day involved, some of the things she's learnt and a selection of the recorded species.

What is a NVC Habitat Survey?

The British National Vegetation Classification (NVC) is a system used to classify vegetative habitats in Britain, using specific codes for each classification (e.g. MG1, MG2, MG3 etc., for different mesotrophic grassland communities). The system was developed by ecologists, botanists and other environmental professionals during a large-scale scientific meeting. This meeting resulted in the publication of five books, each focusing on different broad ranges of habitats and forming the compendium of British Plant Communities.

  • Volume 1: Woodlands and Scrub
  • Volume 2: Mires and Heaths
  • Volume 3: Grasslands and Montane Communities
  • Volume 4: Aquatic Communities, Swamps and Tall-herb Ferns
  • Volume 5: Maritime Communities and Vegetation of Open Habitats

Guides used on NVC Course
First published between 1991 and 2000, these texts have served amateurs, students and professionals alike, aiding in their understanding of British vegetation and the unique environments this island provides. They have also allowed several organisations to complete vegetative surveys throughout Britain, monitoring the habitat diversity found here and protecting the more vulnerable habitats from sources of change.

The classification for each habitat is determined using dichotomous keys found in the relevant NVC Volume. To do this, you must be able to identify the relevant plant species present in the area. This is much easier to achieve during the summer months when plants are typically in flower, making this course an interesting one as it allowed people to gain confidence in undertaking these surveys during the more challenging winter months.

To identify the relevant plant species, we used two primary texts and a few of the Field Studies Council's own grass identification guides (Grassland Plants 1 and Phase 1 Survey Guide: Grassland and Marsh). The other texts used were The Wild Flower Key by Francis Rose and Grasses by C. E. Hubbard.

Survey Sites

This course was based around the beautiful Field Studies Centre, Slapton Ley - an ideal location due to its close proximity to Dartmoor and Berry Head, two sites of particular interest in botany due to their contrasting geology. Surveying the plants at these locations demonstrates the differences that underlying geology can make to soils and therefore, the vegetation present and associated NVC classification.

Day 1

To begin the course, we met at Slapton Ley Centre to learn about NVC classifications, some background on the areas we would be visiting, and an overview of the weekend. After introductions and welcomes, we set off to Berry Head, a coastal headland forming the southern boundary of Tor Bay. It is a national nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) hosting a range of nationally rare and threatened species, making it a fascinating place to conduct a botanical survey. Here, the underlying geology is limestone – a feature that will impact the species present.

The journey to the field site was a great introduction to the beautiful coast of Devon; somewhere I had not spent much time before. We arrived at Berry Head and began looking at the vegetation we could find along the edge of the carpark, then further into the nearby field, and then further past the fields. It was definitely interesting to see how the variety of plant species you can find may depend on how frequently visited and trodden an area is. Some species closer to the car park were more nutrient-dependent as they would be nourished by the nutrients introduced by things on the bottom of shoes or left by dogs… Further away from the car park, we found more physically fragile species and those less tolerant to foot traffic. This was particularly interesting as it showed the changes in NVC classification that can occur over a short distance and why it's essential to survey several parts of a site before determining a classification for the whole area. For these areas, we used Volume 3 of British Plant Communities: Grasslands and Montane Communities. Using this guide, we determined that the community nearest the car park was probably a sub-community of the MG1: Arrhenatherum elatius grassland. Further away, we found this changing into MG9: Holcus lanatus-Deschampsia cespitosa grassland. We also found evidence of MG5: Cynosurus cristatus-Centaurea nigra priority habitat grassland community in this area. It was interesting to see all this variation in a relatively small area!

Day 1 NVC Habitat Survey

Moving on, we headed towards the southern fort and surveyed an area of vegetation on a sea-facing slope above the cliffs. Here, we discussed how the differences in salinity from sea spray and greater exposure to wind affect the vegetative habitat. We discovered that the habitat would be best described as one of those contained in Volume 5 of British Plant Communities; Maritime Communities and Vegetation of Open Habitats.

Nearer the southern fort, we were introduced to a very unique habitat, so unique that it has its own NVC classification! This classification is not shared with any other place in the UK due to the variety of rare plant species. This is the CG1b classification: the Scilla autumnalis-Euphorbia portlandica sub-community of the Festuca ovina-Carlina vulgaris grassland. The rare species present included:
•    Autumn squill (Scilla autumnalis)
•    Honewort (Trinia glauca)
•    White rock rose (Helianthemum apenninum)
•    Small restharrow (Ononis reclinata)

Day 2

For the second day, we ventured out to Dartmoor, specifically the area of Sharpitor. Dartmoor is a National Park and Special Area of Conservation (SAC) covering 954 km2. The underlying geology is granite, which is exposed in places forming its famous tors. Sharpitor is located on the south-western side of the National Park. For this day's survey, we used Volume 2 of British Plant Communities: Mires and Heaths to determine the NVC classifications.

We climbed towards the tor, occasionally stopping to identify common plants in Dartmoor, such as heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile) and cow-horn bog-moss (Sphagnum denticulatum). We noticed the difference in the vegetation present on the road-facing side of the hill of the tor, which was more similar to a calcifugous grassland. We categorised this niche as the U4e: a subcommunity of the Festuca ovina-Agrostis capillaris-Galium saxatile grassland due to the presence of heath bedstraw (Galium saxatile), sweet vernal grass (Anthoxanthum odoratum), tormentil (Potentilla erecta) etc. We surveyed the area around the tor, adding new plants to our identification repertoires.

Continuing down the southeastern side of the hill towards the peat bog, we learned about different bog plants including common floatgrass (Glyceria fluitans) and golden-head moss (Breutelia chrysocoma).
In this area, we found M10a; the Carex demissa-Juncus bulbosus/kochii subcommunity of the Pinguiculo-Caricetum dioicae mire. This was interesting as the maps available under this community classification in the British Plant Community book on Mires and Heaths showed that this community is not generally found in southern Britain. Its presence here may be due to a gradual change since the books were last edited.

After some lunch in the great outdoors and chatting over our findings, we went upwards onto the other side of the tor to see what differences in vegetation we could find. Here, we found areas of cross-leaved heath (Erica tetralix) as well as bristle bent (Agrostis curtisii), deergrass (Scirpus cespitosus) and mat-grass (Nardus stricta). Indicating that we were probably looking at an area of the H4d; Scirpus cespitosus subcommunity of the Ulex gallii-Agrostis curtisii heath.

It was great to see such a variety of habitats, undertake an NVC survey and practice my identification skills. We all learned a lot about various plant communities and different habitats! The tutor Philip Wilson was highly knowledgeable, and he really did treat us to a wonderful botanical weekend! It was also great to meet like-minded people on the course and share the experience with others.


Chelsea Boden is currently a Higher Education Placement student with the Field Studies Council, and already in her time with us, she has experienced a lot. Here's a little snippet into her year so far:

"While being a Higher Education Placement (HEP) at the Field Studies Council, I've had many opportunities to improve my knowledge base on all sorts of areas of the environment, including rocky shore communities, sand dune ecology and salt marsh plant identification. I've also been given several training opportunities to further widen my knowledge and experience while on placement; this includes training with the Pembrokeshire Coastal Forum on identifying sea birds, education on grey seals, plus Snorkel Instructor training with BSAC. It's been great to explore other parts of the country via the Field Studies Council centres, including Millport in North Ayrshire, where I spent part of the winter season, Slapton Ley in Devon, where I attended the NVC Winter Habitat Survey course and here at Dale Fort in Pembrokeshire. These locations have stunning views and surrounding scenery, which helps illustrate the importance of protecting our environment. Working with the Field Studies Council during my placement year so far has really helped to demonstrate the importance of many of the topics I've studied at university and put lots of the theory into practice, something I had not had the opportunity to do first-hand during my studies due to Coronavirus halting any practical experience I would have undertaken. I feel confident that this year of experiences will help me continue my degree by giving me that edge that only first-hand experience can provide."


If you would like to learn more and experience an NVC Habitat Survey first-hand, you can find the upcoming courses here.

We also have plenty of opportunities to upskill in botany on our practical or online courses.

If you are interested in completing a placement with the Field Studies Council, sign up for our newsletter to get announcements about our future opportunities.

And lastly, if you have been on one of our courses, we would love to hear from you, so remember to tag us on social media and share your photos! @FSCBiodiversity