Wild Sussex Downs – Take a Walk on the Wildside.

Several years ago, the National Trust purchased the block of land sandwiched between their Crowlink property west of Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters Country Park to the west and known as Gayles Farm.  Access is from either of the above named properties.

At the moment because of under-grazing partly due to a bovine Tb restriction on one of NT’s tenant’s herd of cattle, the seaward side of this property is virtually un-grazed.  It currently consists of wide, rolling acres of un-grazed Downland with a fair show of flowers and plenty of butterflies.  Being in the current state and with few people walking taking advantage of the mown path that passes through/around the property, it’s a rare treat to visit some ‘wild’ countryside!

It is also an example of how the invasive tor grass which is native to the Downs has spread due to fertilizing from modern-day atmospheric pollution.  look for the bright green patches – that’s it!

Plight of Our Chalk Grasslands

I feel that it’s now pertinent to reappraise, to question, why and how we move forward with conserving our iconic chalk grasslands.  So, two questions come to mind for me and I shall here attempt to answer them.

1)  Where does the conservation of chalk grassland fit into a much broader, evolving view of nature conservation in today’s Britain of the 21st century?

2)  Can we, and how do we justify the expenditure of the currently very limited amounts of funding and resources, in dealing with the threats to conserving our chalk grasslands?

To try and answer the first question we need to begin by looking backwards…  The latest cutting-edge research is very much pointing to the following scenario: that it was likely that the chalk grasslands of southern England following the retreat of the last Ice Age, were fairly open – perhaps a mosaic of grassland and scrub with occasional stands of woodland on the deeper soils. With the arrival of Man some 10,000 years ago, who practiced ‘intentional’ hunting, followed by approximately 5,000 years later the introduction of farming,  it was likely that this open, grassland habitat on these lighter soils of the chalk would have been encouraged by the increased grazing with the occasional breaking-up of relatively small areas of grassland by effectively shallow, ‘organic’ tillage, this soon being recolonised by the large wild seedbank, once cultivation had been moved on.  Chalk grassland was further enhanced over millennia peaking during the medieval period and again during the 18th and 19th centuries, with the arable element waxing and waning according to the demands of the market place.

Chalk grasslands are today, largely an inconvenience on most farms that include such areas; they are just somewhere to hold some livestock during the occasional pinch-point or in some cases, are simply disregarded, several unacceptable examples to be found on the Firle Estate in the BoPeep area, pictured below.  Other sites are simply badly managed, for example, the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat.  However, chalk grassland forms one of this country’s great biodiversity assemblages, rich in both flora and fauna and comparable in this respect to tropical rain forests.  We have though, regrettably lost during the past century somewhere in the region of 97% of this treasured habitat.  (Incidentally, the UK ranks as 29th from the bottom out of 218 countries assessed upon their remaining richness of biodiversity!).

As to the answering of the second question…  We are now conditioned by some 70 years or more of interventionist conservation or ‘gardening,’ of our prize wildlife habitats including the one under discussion.  Oddly, nearly all our designated landscapes (National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty) are valued primarily for their cultural value and not for their true potential wildness.  Challenges faced by chalk grassland have been: the slump in agricultural production (grazing) during the first half of the twentieth century and following hard in its heels, the demise of the rabbit population and the fragmentation of farmland from the post-war industrialisation of farming.  Then more latterly there are the repercussions of bovine Tb restricting where cattle can safely graze.  All four challenges have led in general, to courser and ranker chalk grassland vegetation and also in places, to its loss.

But there are more recent, more sinister threats to chalk grassland which a century ago would have been virtually unheard of: nitrogen pollution; destruction from the use of pesticides and lastly, climate change.  To briefly explain: nitrogen compounds emanate from the various types of exhaust emissions released into the atmosphere.  These have almost certainly led to soil enrichment (most wild flora requiring nutrient-poor soils) aiding the spread of the rampant, native tor grass (Brachypodium rupestre) across much of the chalk grasslands and now possibly the increasing occurrence of soft brome grass (Brachypodium sylvaticum).  These grasses are of little use to modern breeds of farm livestock.  Then there has been the use, often indiscriminately, of artificial fertilizers.  Also affecting chalk grassland is the diffuse drift of spray from the widespread use of a whole host of chemicals.  Finally, there is the enormity of climate change which we’re increasingly being affected by and can only guess at what impact this will have in the future on this habitat.

So, we as a nation – national and local government (I castigate national government for their emasculation of Natural England!), NGO’s, (I here single out the National Trust’s achievements as being exemplary), with assistance and encouragement from the public, must continue to fight for and safeguard our chalk grasslands.  Continued, sympathetic grazing by farmers and land managers together with well-considered control of scrub where thought necessary, are vital to safeguarding this much threatened and very finite wonder of the natural world here in the UK.  Education too of course of our younger generations also has a vital part to play in the longer-term struggle.

 

A West Dean Garden and Elm Loss

Saturday, July 7th.  Had a beautiful, enjoyable afternoon, including a trip down Memory Lane!  Went to an Open Garden event in aid of the Family Support Group at The Long House in West Dean near Seaford.  The owners have over the past six years created an extensive, beautiful but compartmentalised cottage garden containing a wide variety of plants.

Part of the garden at The Long house.

After, we visited the nearby churchyard and church.  I used to know the village well and a number of its then inhabitants when I lived and worked over the hill at Exceat during the 1970’s and 1980’s.

Upon leaving the village spotted one of the last fair-sized elms in the area starting to die from Dutch Elm Disease.  Further up the valley at Lullington and especially sad for me, one of the last sizable elms has at last surrendered to this dreadful disease. It is the only example in the area of a Smooth-leaved Elm of the variety diversafolia.

Variety ssp. diversafolia back in 2012.

I managed the East Sussex Dutch Elm Control project between 1997 and 2004.  Due to mis-management and cost-cutting, it unraveled two years later and failed, after a total of some 30 something years and the expenditure of millions of pounds of public money.

Ash Dieback – Latest News

As I drive about here in Sussex and further afield, I often notice dying ash trees and from time to time whole groups – especially of smaller semi-mature trees: the wooded downland escarpment above Eastbourne; Filching, Glynde, Jevington; even west Wales.  Judging from the large numbers,  I can only assume ash dieback is the cause.  Added to this is the stress being caused by the current hot, dry weather exasperating many diseased and weakly trees of other species.

https://www.forestry.gov.uk/chalara.  (You can also report diseased ash trees via this link).   Confirmed findings as at midday on 1st June 2018:

10-kilometre grid squares with one or more Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (Chalara) infections confirmed in the wider environment:

  2012 2013 2014 2015 2016  2017  2018  Total % of all 10k squares in country
Scotland 7 5 33 125 10 27 12 219 19.9%
England 82 60 161 224 310 86 29 953 64.8%
Wales 0 2 5 31 96 64 13 211 79.6%
N Ireland 0 0 0 0 17 0 0 17 9.1
Isle of Man  0 0 0 1 1 0 1 7.1
UK (total) 89 67 199 380 433 178 54  1401 46.2%

 

The progression of numbers and appearance of new grid squares over time should not be interpreted as an indication of the rate of spread of the disease. It only indicates when infection sites were found, not when the fungus first arrived at the site, which in many cases cannot be known.

Symptoms

 

Video hosted by external party

Because ash trees have many genetic variants and occur right across the UK, they come into leaf at different times. Ash is also one of the last tree species to flush, sometimes taking as long as six weeks to do so, and can often occur as late as the end of May. Trees in the colder north flush later than trees in the warmer south. Some ash trees will break-bud, or flush, earlier than others, and some buds will produce flowers rather than new shoots. Some variation will be more apparent in older trees.

Some shoots on ash trees will fail to flush altogether, while others will flush normally before showing signs of ill-health or dieback later. These events might mean that the trees are damaged in some way, but shoot death and dieback in ash trees can have a number of causes.

So if an ash tree does not have any leaves on it in April and May, it does not necessarily mean that it is diseased or dying, but by mid-June all healthy ash should be in full leaf.

Mid- to late summer (August and September) is a good time of year to undertake surveys, because once autumn has begun, visual symptoms can be confused with leaves that are naturally changing colour.

ASH KEYS (Fraxinus excelsior)

In the autumn you might see clumps of sometimes dark-coloured ash keys (seeds), retained on the trees after the leaves have fallen. This is quite normal, but from a distance they can be mistaken for the blackened leaves which can be a symptom of the disease.

Reporting suspected cases

Tree Alert icon If you think you have spotted the disease, please check our symptoms section before reporting it using Tree Alert or one of the Further Information contact points below.

The science

Chalara is caused by a fungus called Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. This fungus has two phases to its life-cycle: sexual and asexual. The asexual stage, which grows in affected trees, attacking the bark and girdling twigs and branches, was the first to be described by science, and was originally called Chalara fraxinea. This gave rise to the common name of the disease which it causes.

The sexual, reproductive stage, which was only discovered some years later, occurs as tiny, mushroom-like fruiting bodies on infected rachises, or stalks, of the previous year’s fallen leaves. Infective spores from these fruiting bodies are spread by the wind on to the leaves of healthy trees in summer. This sexual stage was initially called Hymenoscyphus pseudoalbidus (H. pseudoalbidus) before a taxonomic revision suggested the name should be Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. The International Botanical Congress has also agreed that a single fungus should have only one name, even if different stages of the organism have previously been given separate names. Therefore Hymenoscyphus fraxineus is now widely accepted as the name to use.

Government scientists have set out the most up-to-date understanding of the disease. Their assessment concluded that:

  • the spores are unlikely to survive for more than a few days;
  • spore dispersal on the wind is possible from mainland Europe;
  • trees need a high dose of spores to become infected;
  • spores are produced from infected dead leaves during June to September;
  • there is a low probability of dispersal on clothing or animals and birds;
  • the disease will attack any species of ash;
  • the disease becomes obvious within months rather than years;
  • wood products would not spread the disease if treated properly;
  • once infected, trees cannot be cured; and
  • not all trees die of the infection – some are likely to have genetic factors which give them tolerance of, or resistance to, the disease.

Preliminary results from testing of selected fungicides for treating ash trees with Chalara dieback of ash for their efficacy in laboratory tests and field trials are now available on the Defra website.

Origins

The fungus is believed to have originated in Asia, where Asian species of ash are able to tolerate it after of thousands of years of co-evolution.

It entered Britain on ash plants imported from nurseries in continental Europe. However, now that infected, older trees have been found in South-East England with no apparent association with plants supplied by nurseries, it is thought possible that it also entered by natural means. These include being carried on the wind or on birds coming across the North Sea and English Channel, or on items such as footwear, clothing or vehicles of people who had been in infected sites in Continental Europe.

Video: history of the pathogen.

Last updated: 5th June 2018

A Good Source of Latest Conservation News; 05/07/2018

There are lots of really good, relevant news stories and up to date research to be found on the RSPB’s Martin Harper’s Blog.  Here are some of the latest articles from this source which is to be found at:    https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/default.aspx

Recent fires on the Pennines. https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/29/wildfire-at-dove-stone.aspx

Severn estuary tidal barrage review.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/07/04/severn-tidal-power-can-we-learn-the-lessons-this-time.aspx

Nature-friendly farming.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/29/good-news-for-a-friday-growing-solidarity-and-ambition-for-nature-friendly-farming.aspx

Controlling predators of wild birds.  https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/28/the-conservationist-39-s-dilemma-an-update-on-the-science-policy-and-practice-of-the-impact-of-predators-on-wild-birds-5.aspx

Licencing the shooting of ravens?https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/18/a-response-to-news-that-licenses-have-been-granted-to-shoot-ravens-in-england.aspx

Swifts – house building, reporting nesting sites, wintering grounds. https://ww2.rspb.org.uk/community/ourwork/b/martinharper/archive/2018/06/17/swift-awareness-week.aspx

Staying In An Countryside Idyll.

Well, here we are in the far west of Wales in the Gwaun valley nestling below the Preseli Hills Mountains; the weather is wall to wall sunshine, not too hot at the moment but that might change…

On the drive down on Friday, 22nd taking the scenic route to the north of the Brecon Beacons, we saw many dying ash trees – ash dieback I wonder?  Upon arrival at our little cottage, greeted by swallows, house martins and swifts!  Indeed, upon driving around, there are quite a number of swifts over countryside and the local towns -so this is where all our swifts are?

Geologists list it as one of most important meltwater channels in Britain from the last Ice Age.  The valley is pure rural idyll, thick with beech and hazel, ash and oak.  Sightings of pied flycatcher, wood warbler, redstarts, marsh tit, nut hatch and tree creeper are recorded.  We watch from the cottage, buzzards, kite and (our) four young swallows on the overhead cable opposite.

Up on the mountains, bog aspodel, sundew, cotton grass, heathers, western gorse(?) and a small pink flower I shall have to look up upon my return oh and ponies!  Farming appears to be fairly benign , it mostly on the intermediate middle ground just above the valley.  The road verges are quite floristically rich – the foxgloves are spectacular at the moment!

Cull of Ashdown Forest Deer.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-sussex-43006793/ashdown-forest-deer-cull-necessary-to-save-lives

Controversy has just hit the tv screens of Sussex after the the BBC SEToday article concerning the culling of deer on the Ashdown Forest…

After having hunted lynx and the wolf to extinction, the fact is, that Man is now the top predator.  I have some knowledge of this subject…  On a large area of land neighbouring Ashdown Forest, in which I was involved in the course of my work, culling commenced some five years ago.  The removal of selected deer including old and injured animals by experienced stalkers, has led to the remaining deer population now being in a healthier condition with them having more to eat.  A second bonus has been that the woodland and flora are now starting to recover from decades of over-grazing – I have witnessed that with my own eyes.

Thirdly, this has locally reduced the numbers of deer involved in road traffic accidents.  This came close to me several years ago when my wife narrowly escaped serious injury from involvement with a deer – within an urban 30mph speed limit area.  This collision wrote-off her car.

Could Pioneering Vet’s TB Test End the Slaughter?

As badger culls begin, could one pioneering vet’s bovine TB test end the slaughter?

Patrick Barkham.   The Observer.  Sun 15 Oct 2017.

Research at a secret location in Devon may help eradicate bovine tuberculosis without a single badger being killed, says leading vet

A pretty stone farmhouse sits in a bucolic green valley, surrounded by airy cowsheds. It looks like a timeless West Country scene but is actually a pioneering farm, where cutting-edge science is helping to solve the hugely controversial, multimillion-pound problem of bovine tuberculosis (bTB).

As an expanded badger cull gets under way this autumn, in which 33,500 animals will be killed to help stop the spread of the disease, a leading vet, Dick Sibley, believes this Devon farm demonstrates a way to eradicate the disease in cattle – without slaughtering any badgers.

Sibley’s trial, at a secret location, was halted earlier this year when two new tests to better identify bTB in cattle were deemed illegal. But government regulators have now given the vet permission to continue. His work is backed by rock star-turned-activist Brian May, whose Save Me Trust last week began a four-year programme of vaccinating badgers at the farm against bTB.

The family that owns the farm, which has 300 milking cows, turned to Sibley in despair after being virtually shut down with bTB for five years. Because of the disease, their cattle cannot be sold on the open market.

“We had nothing to lose,” said the fourth-generation farmer, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of interference from extremists on both sides of the argument. “We want to get rid of TB, it’s costing us a lot. Any technology would be better than the old bTB test.”

Despite four years of badger culling, bTB continues to rise in England, and 30,980 cows were slaughtered in the year up to June in attempts to control it, an increase of 4%. Farmers, as well as wildlife campaigners, are increasingly critical of the cattle test for bTB, which misses many cases, leaving undiagnosed cows to spread the disease within herds. In 2015, 16% of English bTB “breakdowns” were only detected in abattoirs, after supposedly healthy cows had been slaughtered.

Sibley is pioneering two new tests. The phage test, developed by microbiologist Cath Rees of Nottingham University, uses a bTB-invading virus to “hunt” for the live bacterium. It is detecting bTB in cows on the Devon farm months before they test positive with the traditional “skin test”: 85 cows have tested positive with the phage test despite all being found disease-free by the conventional test.

Farmers then need to know if infected cows are infectious. For this, Sibley uses a second test, qPCR, developed by Liz Wellington, life sciences professor at Warwick University. It detects bTB in dung, showing if a cow is “shedding” – spreading – the disease. If it is, the cow is slaughtered even though the conventional test suggests it is healthy.

Both professors have given Sibley free use of their new technologies, and the tests have shown that supposedly healthy cows are the “hidden reservoir” of bTB on the farm. But Sibley said what farms need as well as better testing is better risk management and more resilient cows. “I’ve never cured a cow with a test,” he said.

The farm is an intensive dairy operation that keeps its cattle indoors once they are fully grown and milks them robotically – some cows produce 15,000 litres of milk each year. “If you don’t give that cow everything she needs, and keep the disease away from her, she will crash and burn,” said Sibley. “It’s just like athletes: if there’s a bit of E coli in the Olympic village, they all go down.”

TB – in cows as well as humans – is traditionally a disease of bad living conditions, so the farm’s barns are airy. There are fewer cows in each barn compared with a typical dairy farm, walkways are cleaned three times a day, and regularly changed drinking water is held in “tipping troughs” that are kept scrubbed clean. Dung falling into troughs is likely to be a key transmitter of the disease.

After studying each cow’s history, Sibley believes mothers often spread the disease to their calves at birth. The farm is combatting this by building a new maternity unit with rubber floors that will be disinfected after every delivery. Colostrum – the crucial first milk that boosts a calf’s immune system – is harvested from each mother but pasteurised before it is fed to each calf, so it won’t spread disease.

Leading vet Dick Sibley is trialling new testing methods for bTB that will detect the disease much earlier in cattle. Photograph: Jim Wileman for the Observer

After being “shut down” for five years, the farm had its first clear test last year. It hopes to be clear of all restrictions within 12 months. But Sibley says that removing the disease from cows without tackling diseased badgers is like “crossing the road and only looking one way”.

Farm CCTV reveals that no badgers come close to the cattle sheds, but Wellington’s qPCR technology tested badger latrines and found local badgers were shedding the disease: 30% of 273 faecal samples contained the bacterium. Young grazing cows are potentially exposed to the disease.

“We have to accept that the badgers are a risk,” said Sibley. “We either kill them, fence them out or, more constructively, vaccinate them to reduce the risk of infection in the environment.”

May’s ‘Save Me Trust’ is funding badger vaccination around the farm. The Queen guitarist became a hate-figure for some farmers when he suggested that if bTB was such a problem they should stop rearing cattle. But he has been working behind the scenes for several years to support farmers.

“I’m very, very hopeful that Dick Sibley has the answer,” said May. “I hope it works out, not just for this farm but for the whole of Britain. That would take away this awful polarisation between farmers and the public and animal welfare groups.”

A global shortage of BCG vaccine stopped May vaccinating badgers last year and he points out that the farm has virtually banished the disease without touching a single badger. “If badgers are running around with bTB and the herd has been cleaned up with advanced testing, that really makes you wonder whether badgers are contributing to the disease,” said May.

While some epidemiologists have privately expressed frustration that the government has not yet adopted new cattle-testing technologies, Sibley said the regulators move slowly. “The authorities must have rock-solid evidence in case they end up in court. I predict that in five years time phage and qPCR will be in the toolbox for farmers.”

Other bTB-hit farms are interested in Sibley’s approach and May’s charity has pledged to help meet veterinary costs. In Wales, farms with chronic bTB are receiving special support from the Welsh government and could be among the first to adopt the new techniques. Christianne Glossop, Wales’ chief vet, said: “I have known Dick for many years and have great respect for his work. I am also well aware of his current trials and will be keeping a close eye on the results of his pilot in Devon exploring innovative new testing methods.”

The Devon farmer admits he has been surprised by his success. “This test is showing the light at the end of the tunnel. I’m excited that it could help us get clear of the disease and help other farmers in the future.”

THE CULLING DEBATE.

A zoonotic disease – one that can jump from animals to humans – bovine tuberculosis (bTB) caused thousands of human deaths until the pasteurisation of milk began in the 1920s. It was then almost eradicated from British cows with the widespread slaughter of herds in the 1950s.

However, in 1971 it was discovered that cows had passed the disease to badgers after a dead badger was found on a farm in Gloucestershire. The find led to five decades of debate and scientific uncertainty, and it is still not known what proportion – if any – of cattle TB cases are caused by badgers. The scientific consensus is that cows and badgers pass the disease between them but the precise method of transmission is also not known. Epidemiologists believe it is most likely via animal faeces.

Cattle TB has risen steadily since the 1980s and cost £500m in compensation to farmers in the decade up to 2013. That year, badger culling began in two “zones” in Gloucestershire and Somerset. It has since expanded to 21 zones in England. Ireland, the only other country with a bTB problem, also culls badgers.

Pro-cull farmers argue that reducing badger numbers will reduce bTB in the environment. No data has been published on the impact of four years of badger culling on cattle TB, but many scientists question the cull’s effectiveness.