Farewell Dear Ponies…

Last month, I carried out my last lookering (checking) of some of the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust’s Exmoor ponies, these being on the National Trust’s Gayles Farm property, adjacent to the Seven Sisters cliffs.  So, now I have no connection with the Trust, a charitable trust that I set-up back in 2004.  The Trust went on to become one of the largest pony conservation grazing set-ups in the country.

June 2018. Ponies grazing on Gayles Farm.

I have found it very difficult at times lately, dealing with retiring in early 2017 and withdrawing from what was very much ‘my baby’ but the world and myself have to move on.  I now realise now just how much managing the 85 free-living ponies ruled my life and in some respects broke my personal life.  I originally started the pony grazing back in 1999 whilst working for the Sussex Downs Conservation Board, in order to conserve the chalk grasslands of Firle escarpment and neighbouring areas of flower-rich Downland.

Sussex police briefly close the busy A272 at Chailey Common to enable Sussex Pony Grazing’s ponies to cross to summer grazing area. (Image courtesy of Linda Ball).

Eventually, ponies were grazing four areas of the Ashdown Forest, a RSPB reserve near Tunbridge Wells, Chailey Common, Hastings Country Park and several locations in the Beachy Head/Birling Gap area, to name the main grazing sites.  I deeply regret that the last named two coastal areas are as from this year, now no longer being pony grazed – new management and in my view, a loss of one of the Trust’s great ‘jewels in its crown.’

October 2016. Ponies grazing at Shooters Bottom near Beachy Head.

I would like to put on the record, my sincere thanks to all those Lookers past and present and also to Bunny Hicks, Alan Skinner, Jon Curson and Malcolm Emery without whom, the pony grazing would never have got off the starting block!  Also, to those many others and landowners, who co-operated with making it such a success.

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.

Trees – Historically, Disease and Their Future

A research project being carried out by the University of East Anglia has been studying the arboreal history of a sample of four English counties.  The first lesson learnt is that the three major tree species were oak, Ash and elm.  The second is that the dominance of these together with the less frequent species such as Beech, Cherry, limes, Hornbeam, Field Maple and Scots Pine are very likely due to human choice which in turn was based on practical and economic considerations at the time.  It has also discovered that rural tree population were up until the mid-19th century, much more vigorously managed with much pollarding and coppicing being carried out and with timber trees likely to have been felled at an earlier age.  It is considered that these practices may all have contributed to an overall healthier tree population.

Last of the elms of 'Alfriston's Cathedral Walk,' 2012.

Last of the elms of ‘Alfriston’s Cathedral Walk,’ 2012.

During the last half century, this status quo has and is likely to continue to be adversely affected: modern intensive farm management; apart from within urban sanctuaries we have lost the elm as a tree; Ash is now under considerable attack from a recently arrived fungus and there are doubts about our oaks and disease.  Waterside Alder has now been under fungal attack for some decades as is Horse Chestnut being plundered by a micro moth ‘breaking-out’ from Macedonia.  Currently knocking at the UK’s door are: the Emerald Ash Borer, Sweet Chestnut blight, various conifer diseases and a suite of ‘alien’ insect pests.

If that were not enough, we still have our home grown tree diseases such as fungal plunderers and various blights.  There is also the ‘elephant in the room’ – climate change; this could impose major changes on our beautiful tree populations.  There have calls by some that we should be proactive and start planting more continental species – walnut and perhaps, Downy Oak to ‘bolster’ our two native oaks.  Challenging times indeed for our woody neighbours…

Sweet Chestnut attacked by root rot fungus along ghyll valley, Ashdown Forest SSSI.

Sweet Chestnut attacked by root rot fungus along ghyll valley, Ashdown Forest SSSI.

 

 

Week Ending June 18th.

Well, what ever happened to flaming June?

Have been charmed lately by three pairs of ‘tame’ wood pigeons that seem to think they have a right to keep dropping into my small garden despite there being often being two cats about.  Actually, they perform a very good service in that they mop-up the dropped seed from to suspended bird feeders, so reducing the risk of rats etc.  (When I lived in Hartfield, a family of badgers were often attracted by the dropped seed and therefore created a ‘no-planting’ zone in that area of the garden!).

During the evenings particularly of late, these pigeons spend a lot of time in a nearby ash tree browsing on the younger leaves towards/at the top of the tree.  I have not witnessed that before.

In the Ashdown Forest SSSI area, I have for a number of years been keeping an eye on a small colony of butterwort – eight plants within an area little bigger that the laptop I’m writing this on.  This year, one plant has two flower spikes on it; image attached.  These tiny plants are insectivorous and are rare in southern England, they only being found in wet conditions on acid soils.P1000097

Week Ending Saturday, May 14th

Thursday.  We gathered in the 15 ponies which have for the past three months, been grazing chalk grassland on the National Trust’s Gayles Farm property, perched midway along the Seven Sisters.  Just two of us managed the whole operation in readiness for our haulier Bob’s arrival at midday, to transport them up to the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren Reserve near Tunbridge Wells for the summer.

Saturday.  At Pippingford Park, on the Ashdown Forest SSSI, the commencement of growth of the dominant native purple moor-grass is always later than the other heathland sites we graze in Sussex.  In bloom at the moment are heath milkwort, lousewort and petty whin.

Petty whin.

Petty whin.

Below, ‘Jimmy’ showing off his 4 x 4 skills in order to graze the new growth on one of the many acid, wet flushes on Pippingford.  Six years of constant grazing are transforming this large area, it having a particularly good effect on increasing the specialised flora that live in these very wet areas.

P1000086

Week Ending, Saturday, May 8th

Monday.  Well, it was Bank Holiday and the weather gods took full advantage of this fact!

Tuesday.  And spring returned with a gorgeous day.  As I drove back over Ashdown Forest mid-morning, a solitary swallow flew high over the road with that characteristic care-free flight action that is so pleasing.  My heart went up to this small, solitary traveller from South Africa.

wild garlic (uck)

Wild garlic in bloom above the River Uck today.

 

We moved the ponies at Berwick on to fresh grazing taking in the old, grassed-over chalk pits on the side of the downland escarpment.  This area used to be good for orchids but is currently grossly neglected with bramble and thorn bushes gaining a footfold.  Late afternoon and I watched a whitethroat in a thorn bush at close quarters, singing its heart out to its mate in a nearby young wayfaring tree.

Wednesday.  Did my ‘annual’ walk for 90 (yes, 90!) ten year olds from a Hailsham school at the Seven Sisters Country Park.  the weather was kind for the third year running and they were a great bunch of kids shepherded by nice teachers and helpers.

Sadly, there was a absence of chalk grassland flowers and of the early butterflies one would have expected, if one were taking this walk years ago.  The slope where the early spider orchids ought to be in flower has been tightly grazed until recently and on a cursory inspection, there were no flower spikes.  Perceived wisdom is that grazing should cease before the end of winter for this specie.  A pioneer patch of the invasive tor grass is being full rein to spread.  So sad.  There appears to be few concessions to encourage the flora and fauna on this important area nowadays…

orchid.early spider

Early spider orchid photographed on this site years ago.

Spotted during the early afternoon, two swifts wheeling about, high above Crowborough.  Reports of others seen elsewhere today for first time.

Air Pollution Moving Up the Media and Political Ladders

Good to see air pollution moving up both the media and political ladders (see link below). Facts such as possibly 50,000 premature deaths per year and 80% of pollution in urban hotspots from diesel engines.  Mention also made concerning diverse release of ammonium nitrate from use of artificial fertilizer and routine slurry and manure operations within the farming industry.  I have blogged before on my concerns of the threat to biodiversity of nitrogen enrichment from air pollution.

This beautiful, sunny morning, I was out and about in relation to our pony grazing operations. In the middle of the Ashdown area well away from any roads, the air from time to time carried the odour of traffic fumes.  Awhile later, over at the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren reserve, there was a similar problem, this time from the burning of rubbish some distance up-wind.  Several weeks ago, builders at work at Bineham Farm, Chailey, were openly burning plastic debris of some description on at least two separate days, the pollution easily discernible at least a mile away.

A spin-off from reducing the demand of diesel would also at a stroke, cut the trashing of tropical forests to allow the production of biofuel products.  Years ago, local authority/EA environment officers would very likely investigate plumes of black smoke; with the cutbacks, it’s likely that there are too few of them nowadays.

Listen to: BBC Radio 4, Wednesday, April 27th 2016 @ 7-33am.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b078781j

“Urgent government action is needed to stop up to 50,000 people a year dying early from air pollution-related illnesses, MPs say. Speaking on the programme is Dr Heather Walton, senior lecturer in Environmental Health at King’s College London, and Neil Parish, chair of the House of Commons’ Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.”

Last Week of March

Last Week of March.

I haven’t seen the large flocks of fieldfares and redwings which have often frequented areas of woodland in the Ashdown area that I drive past regularly; presumably they have departed on their journey to their summer breeding areas. Have become aware recently of bullfinches in a couple of areas; have their numbers increased or have I just been fortunate?  A sighting of 13 firecrests was reported as being seen within just a ¼mile, near Cuckmere Haven on Sunday.

Good Friday. Helped by a number of volunteers, we gathered in the ponies from off their winter grazing area on Ditchling Common Country Park.  The whole operation went well with the task being completed by early afternoon.  Whilst ferrying the ponies over to Chailey Common, I noticed two brimstone butterflies on the wing.

The Force 10 storm (‘Katie’) which struck late Saturday evening/early Sunday caused widespread but limited damage. Gusts were reported of 106mph at The Needles and 81mph at Shoreham.  Driving between pony herds on Sunday afternoon I noticed a number of trees down with one having brought down power cables at North Chailey.  A lot of small woody debris and leaves laying along the roadsides generally.  The level of the Ouse at Sheffield Park bridge was quite high after the heavy rainfall during the night.  None of the three lots of electric fencing currently in use with our ponies were badly damaged but did require a little attention on the exposed sections up on the Downs.

A continual procession of storm clouds observed offshore in the afternoon moving up the Channel with some impressive mountainous peaks below which, squally shadows of rain could be seen falling.

George Monbiot Taken To Task Over Controlled Burning

I feel that George Monbiot is falling into ‘a one size fits all’ scenario in attacking all burning and ‘swaling,’ carried out in the name of landscape and wildlife conservation. I will explain my criticism from my standpoint as a lowland-Britain habitat conservationist:

Man has so modified the landscape of the British Isles during the past seven thousand years or so, that we now the sole custodians and have to work with what we’ve now got left, not some utopian suite of habitats with their keystone species, that disappeared long, long ago. Man is arguably, now the keystone specie!

George lampoons ‘environmentally friendly burning’ it would seem, in all its guises. Yes it is environmentally friendly, if, carried out correctly, in moderation, at the right time of year.  What must be avoided are fires that are either accidental or deliberate arson during the dry spring and summer times of year.

George is probably delighted by the fact that over the past few decades, burning has become rather un-fashionable.  Burning together with the near complete demise of grazing on lowland heaths in Southern England over the past 70 years or so has allowed large build-ups of dead vegetation, or thatch, leading to specie elimination and extinction.  If this build-up of ‘fuel’ is then ignited for whatever reason, it can cause major losses for wildlife (and to the landscape).

Heathlands hold some unique assemblages of plants, invertebrates and birds. Should we allow these to disappear to be replaced by mainly species-poor secondary woodland?  In most cases I would say not.  Here in Sussex, conservation bodies – both local authority and charities, are struggling to conserve the little heathland that remains.  On some sites, there has been with the advent of modern powerful machinery, a move to mowing significant parts of these heaths.  The result is increasingly, a monoculture of coppiced gorse species smothering almost everything else.

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Traditionally, small areas of these heaths – which were then part of a wider, working landscape, were routinely burnt on a 5 – 7 year rotation, something that I would argue, should be judiciously brought back, accompanied by appropriate grazing.

Yes, grazing has a part to play if carried out sympathetically. To quote George again, “grazing livestock’: well that’s the nub of it.”  Here again there is a dilemma.  Without grazing, the 7% of remaining chalk grassland, most of which is found in southern England, would disappear under scrub and specie-poor woodland.  Again, it begs the question, should we allow these truly amazing assemblages of wildlife to totally disappear?  Ironically, swaling had been used in the past on some parts of the North and South Downs with the disastrous results, leading to the spread of the aggressive tor grass.

One should not forget one other important element that now exists and was not present when George’s ‘wildwoods’ existed, that of diverse nitrogen inputs from atmospheric pollution. This is making the work of conservationists even more difficult, as most wild plant communities are geared to low nutrient levels.

So come on George, one has to be a little more careful when banding about those broad-brush-stroke statements…

 

George Monbiot, Thursday 14 January 2016.

‘Meet the conservationists who believe that burning is good for wildlife.’  [Abridged] 

Our national park authorities are vandals and fabulists, inflicting mass destruction on wildlife and habitats, then calling it conservation…

“At one end of the country, conservation groups are doing all they can to stop the burning of moors. Challenging the grouse shooting estates, for example, the RSPB argues that “there is an urgent need to restore these landscapes by … bringing an end to burning.”

At the other end of the country, conservation groups are doing all they can to ensure that moors are burnt. Exmoor and Dartmoor, national parks covered by every possible conservation designation, are now in the middle of swaling season. Swaling is the term used in the West Country [and elsewhere; ML] for burning the land. And the national park authorities, supposedly responsible for conserving and enhancing natural beauty and wildlife, oversee and assist the process.

Here’s how the Dartmoor authority justifies the practice:

“Dartmoor has been going up in flames in recent days – in an environmentally friendly way and much to the delight of various ground-nesting birds like skylarks and grazing livestock.

It’s all part of the age-old art of swaling – the notified controlled burning of overgrown heathland and clearing the ground of dead vegetation so that new growth can appear.

This year swaling has been deemed more important than ever on the moors because fewer grazing animals have been released on the highland commons over recent years, resulting in the extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken.”

Let’s take this step by step.

Environmentally friendly burning? Fossil fuel firms could take lessons in public relations from these people. Why is it that practices we recognise as destructive when we see them elsewhere in the world are judged “environmentally friendly” here? When we see land being burnt in Indonesia or Brazil, do we call it conservation, or do we call it destruction? Because it damages soil and hydrology, incinerates wildlife and simplifies ecosystems, destruction is the correct term. Burning on Dartmoor has the same impacts. It’s about as environmentally friendly as tipping bleach into a river.

But “grazing livestock”: well that’s the nub of it. This burning has sod all to do with protecting the natural world and everything to do with extracting as much grazing from the land as possible. It continues in direct contradiction of the Sandford principle, which is supposed to govern the management of national parks: that when there is a conflict between conservation and other uses, conservation should take priority.

As for “overgrown” heathland, “clearing the ground of dead vegetation” and “extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken”, these are classic examples of the mortal fear of natural processes entertained by conservation bodies in this country.

An entirely treeless landscape, maintained this way by a savage regime of burning and grazing over many years, becomes “overgrown” the moment it starts to recover. The beginning of successional processes (“extra growth of plants such as gorse and bracken”) is regarded as a threat. We all know what happens next. Scrub grows and then, God help us, trees. Wildlife is returning: quick, fetch the matches!

The Exmoor national park authority uses a similar justification:

“Exmoor national park authority is particularly keen to support swaling on Exmoor. Swaling maintains the character of the landscape by rejuvenating moorland plants, which in turn provides grazing for livestock and habitats for wildlife.”

What do you see in the background? Miles and miles of bugger all, a treeless waste, kept in that state by a process the park is “particularly keen to support”.

This is not the only form of elective destruction in which Exmoor national park engages. It employs other methods to ensure that trees don’t grow and rich habitats can’t return. The local sheep farmers don’t put their animals on the highest land, known as The Chains. So the park authority contracts a grazier on an annual basis to keep it mown.

I understand that in some places there is a difficult balance to be struck between the demands of tenants and commoners who graze their animals on the moor and the conservation of wildlife. I happen to believe that too much weight is given to sheep farming, and too little to wildlife. But where there are no tenants and no grazing, instead of using this as an opportunity for ecological restoration, the Exmoor authority is bringing in its own sheep to ensure that seedlings can’t grow and wildlife can’t recover. It’s utter madness.

The places in which we are invited to escape the impacts of humanity’s assaults on the natural world are being destroyed with the active collusion of the authorities charged with protecting them.

Not only have they failed to discharge their role as guardians of our natural wonders, but they also systematically mislead people about what they are doing, describing destructive practices as beneficial to the natural world. Since when did the duties of our national park authorities extend to greenwashing?

And that’s not the worst of it, as the criteria they use are highly questionable in the first place. Why, for example, do we see moorland as the desirable ecosystem on our hilltops, rather than more advanced successional states, such as woodland? Upland woods are vanishingly rare in Britain, but they harbour a far greater range of wildlife than moors.

Because there are so few of them, comparative studies are scarce. But in the Cairngorms there is enough woodland to create a meaningful contrast. The results? Wooded habitats are 13 times richer in nationally important species than moorland*. There are 223 species on the massif which are found nowhere else in Britain. Of these, 100 are associated with woodland or trees. But just one – a fungus that lives on bilberry leaves – requires moorland for its survival.

So why is heather moorland, a highly impoverished habitat which results from repeated cutting and grazing, our conservation priority? When we see such degraded ecosystems elsewhere in the world, we recognise them for what they are: the products of deforestation.

In either case, both the Dartmoor and Exmoor national park authorities (in common with the bodies running most of Britain’s other national parks) are wide open to legal challenge under the European Habitats Directive, for failing to keep these supposed wildlife refuges in favourable conservation status. Such challenges require time and money. Does any conservation body have the nerve to take on the national parks?

In October (and fair play to them), I was invited to talk to the UK National Parks conference, on Dartmoor. I didn’t hold back. Among other things, I argued that our national parks should be reclassified as ecological disaster zones, pending a complete reassessment of the way they are managed. (You can watch the talk here, gallantly posted on YouTube by the Dartmoor national park).

While the talk generated controversy, to my astonishment I found that many of the park staff at the conference appeared sympathetic to my arguments. There is, I discovered, a widespread sense that we cannot go on like this, that we cannot keep destroying in the name of protection. Something has gone badly wrong here, and there is an urgent need for change.”

George’s article in full can be viewed at: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2016/jan/14/swaling-is-causing-an-environmental-disaster-on-britains-moors?utm_source=esp&utm_medium=Email&utm_campaign=Green+Light+main+150116&utm_term=151233&subid=13038048&CMP=EMCENVEML1631

 

See also my recent blog ‘The Taming Of Nature? How Should Conservationists Proceed?’ based on another interesting article by George.

 

Week Ending Saturday, October 24th.

Tues. What a cracking day – well at least weather wise!  We spent the morning in ‘hunt the missing Lullington ponies!’  I ended up walking from the SD Way above Jevington to just above Friston pumping station.  Eventually all seven appeared from out of Friston Forest half way along the gallops.  Once located, we drove them back – they knew towards the end of which, where home was and how to get there!

The local farm is having a major security drive at the moment with a number of vehicle barriers being erected on access points in the Litlington area. Joy riders have become apparently an almost nightly occurrence up on the Downs.  These pests had left both gates open where the ponies are and elsewhere, literally driven through some gates in the forest!

In the afternoon at Chailey, we managed to only gather 15 ponies for the night.

Weds. Come the morning, the ponies were still contained within the temporary fenced-off area.  Luckily, just outside of which, were standing the missing five ponies.  While I made the trip with the first load of ponies to Ashdown Forest, where I became temporarily stuck on the greasy clay created by the overnight rain and had to un-hitch and extract the trailer.  Meanwhile back at Chailey, the other five were coaxed in and eventually corralled.  By the end of the day, we had five ponies on site on the new grazing area on Ashdown Forest near Nutley, eight ponies on Red House Common and seven ponies awaiting to go to another new site just outside of Brighton.