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.

July Sightings

July 4.  Flock of about 20 oystercatchers perched on one of the reefs that run out here and there along the beach at St.Leonards this afternoon.

July 8.  Trained to Brighton…  Beautiful show of hollyhocks at Berwick station, real cottage flowers!  Scrub is still being allowed to increase in area at a number of locations along the Firle Escarpment Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).  This is one of SE England’s major landscape features and if attitudes, government grants, and funding for Natural England staff do not change before too long, this majestic view will be lost to future generations.    In a field near Firle, saw windrows of straw from an early combined crop of cereal.    People who criticise on aesthetic grounds the Rampion wind farm some 10 miles seaward of Brighton, should turn their gaze 90 degrees and consider the factory chimney (aka i-360 attraction), parked on Brighton’s promenade!    Evening withdrawal of some evening train services meant I was stuck on Lewes station for about an hour from 8-45pm but I was rewarded by one of Nature’s spectacles.  I became aware of lots of jackdaw chatter emanating some 200m away in trees in Southover Road.  Over the next hour, wave upon wave of jackdaws came in low over the station from the south-east, many beginning to chatter on their final approach to their companions already settled amongst the crowns of the tall trees. I was left wondering how they all managed to fit into the the available space. Home at 22-45!

July 9.  Sensible dogs, and Englishmen go out in the midday sun!  Why sit on baking-hot pebbles when you can lay on cool, damp ones or even better, in the water!

July 14.  Buff-tailed bumble bees bottoms-up on artichokes on my allotment.

July 19.  during the evening, I counted some 20-24 swifts over the centre of St.Leonards.  Another couple of weeks and I guess they’ll have largely departed south.

Storm Angus

Storm Angus.  Well, after a night of listening to the wind in the trees and the rain lashing down, I received text at 6-30am from my colleague Sally saying as she lives not too far away, she’d go and check the electric fencing on the 3 coastal pony grazing sites near Beachy Head.  7-30, she text to say she’d sorted the battered fences at Frances Bottom.  8-30am and another text, saying that the cliff top fence at Shooters Bottom towards Belle Tout was in one hell of a mess, so I phoned and said I’d set set-off immediately to assist her.  This fence would have taken the full brunt of the storm.

When I arrived on site at 9-30, I’ve not seen electric fencing so blown about, some it in small heaps even with the odd metal stake still attached and within it!  We basically had to untangle the three lines of wire and tape, and re-erect most of the 850 metres of the cliff facing fence, we finishing at about midday.  Conditions were very windy at first and quite cold but at least it was dry.

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These two pics I took just before 9-30, before starting work and showing the white surf on the rocks below Belle Tout and the fencing largely laying on the ground.

We then went on to Birling Gap and fortunately Nick the looker there for today is quite practical and he’d turned the power off and had just about finished re-ercting sections by the time we arrived. Fortunately, it usually works that the ponies move away from the wind thus retreating from where the fence is being damaged and where they could get out.  Just for good measure, I then walked the 1700 metres of fencing at Ashdown Forest on the way home.

Statistics.  The shipping forecast was for the possibility of a Force 10 Storm but out at the Greenwich Light Buoy, 20 miles out from the coast off Peacehaven, the maximum wind speed briefly recorded was at 7am and at 75mph, technically into the Force 12 Hurricane zone.  (This, it has to be remembered is over open sea where wind speeds are a little higher).

Erosion of Chalk Cliffs in East Sussex – New Research

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37893804?utm_content=buffer234ec&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Cosmic clue to UK coastal erosion

By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

7 November 2016

Recent centuries have seen a big jump in the rates of erosion in the iconic chalk cliffs on England’s south coast.  A new study finds that for thousands of years the rocks were being beaten back by the waves at perhaps 2-6cm a year.  The past 150 years has seen this retreat accelerate 10-fold, to more than 20cm a year.

The speed-up was clocked with the aid of a smart technique that tracks changes induced in rocks when they are exposed to energetic space particles.

The research, led from the British Geological Survey and conducted by Martin Hurst and colleagues, is reported in the leading American journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The group believes the findings will help us understand some of the coming impacts of climate change.  “Our coasts are going to change in the future as a result of sea-level rise and perhaps increased storminess, and we want this work to inform better forecasts of erosion,” Dr Hurst, currently affiliated to Glasgow University, told BBC News.

The research was centred on East Sussex and its towering cliffs at Beachy Head and Hope Gap.

Originally laid down 90 million years ago, these soft chalk faces are now being eaten away by the relentless pounding they get from the sea.cliffs-1Rood and Hurst on the platform.  Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL

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Care is needed because the platform’s exposure can appear more recent than is really the case.

Dr Hurst’s team was able to estimate the pace of this reversal by examining the amount of beryllium-10 in nodules of flint embedded in the eroded platform in front of the cliffs.  The radioactive element is produced when cosmic rays – that constantly shower the Earth – hit oxygen atoms in the flints’ quartz minerals.  The longer the nodules have been exposed, the greater their build-up of beryllium-10.

At Beachy Head and Hope Gap, the gently sloping platform, which is only uncovered at low tide, extends seaward several hundred metres.  It represents all that is left after millennia of cliff removal.

“The lower rates of erosion that we report – about 2.5cm at Hope Gap and around 6cm at Beachy Head – are averaged over that timeframe – through about the past 7,000 years of the Holocene,” explained Dr Hurst.

“But comparing that to observations based on topographic maps and aerial photography of the last 150 years – the difference is quite stark. These historical observations from 1870 to the present suggest erosion rates of 20-30cm a year at the two sites.”

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Flint nodules.  Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL

The team removed flints for beryllium testing in a line perpendicular to the cliffs.  The estimates of change in the deep past are tricky because the platform appears younger than it really is.  This stems from the fact that its surface continues to erode downwards, removing its oldest exposed flints. The regular tidal covering of water also has to be considered because it will restrict the flux of cosmic rays reaching the platform, thus limiting the amount of beryllium that can be induced in the nodules.

But the team is confident in its analysis and puts forward some ideas to explain the recent big up-tick in erosion.  These concern the available gravels at the foot of the cliffs that constitute the beach.  Ordinarily, this material acts as a buffer, limiting the energy of crashing waves.

But there is good evidence that the beaches in this region of the south coast have got thinner through time and perhaps therefore offer less protection today than they once did.  In the modern era, groynes and sea walls have been erected further down the coast and these may have interfered with the along-shore transport of gravels. And further back in time, several hundred years ago, it is possible also that there was a phase of more storms. These could have removed significant volumes of gravel and pushed the rates of erosion into a new, more aggressive regime that persists even now.

Co-author Dr Dylan Rood from Imperial College London told BBC News: “The coast is clearly eroding, and Britain has retreated fast. A nearly tenfold increase in retreat rates over a very short timescale, in geological terms, is remarkable.

“The UK cannot leave the issue of cliff erosion unresolved in the face of a warming world and rising sea levels. Cliff erosion is irreversible; once the cliffs retreat, they are gone for good.”

 

Birling Gap Observations

A couple of days ago I stopped-off at Birling Gap to have my lunch…

I noticed while standing at the top of the steps that go down to the beach, how grey and course the shingle appeared.  Presumably this indicated that this material is of relatively newly exposed flint.  There was a large cliff-fall mid-way along the Seven Sisters back in the summer which no doubt has contributed,it now completely dispersed by the sea.  Shingle is in the main, of a brownish hue due to exposure over time to iron compounds in the seawater.

Large cliff fall along Seven Sisters during May captured by tourist Wang-Feng.

Large cliff fall along Seven Sisters during May captured by tourist Wang-Feng.

The land to the east of Birling Gap appears much improved from the now regular winter pony grazing.  This week there were still a number of plants still in flower. Scrub clearance by National Trust staff and volunteers has also had a marked effect on this once un-managed area.

A herd of ponies were grazing on Eastbourne BC’s Belle Tout area, the first of the autumn/winter grazing of four sites within the Birling/Beachy Head area this season.

 

Pony Grazing During February 2016

The frequent occurrence of gales and the odd storm force winds have kept us on our toes this winter with regard to two of the three groups of Exmoor ponies on the coast. These two herds are contained only by electric fencing and the strong winds have put a great deal of strain on these fences.  Due diligence and also being proactive have paid off, with failures being kept to a bare minimum.

Have noticed yet again how hardy and resilient our Exmoor ponies are. I happened to observe a group of the much-vaunted Konik (Konik Polski) ponies grazing on purple moor-grass (Molinia) on another heathland area in SE England.  The overall grazing conditions were very similar to what three groups of our ponies are currently grazing; the body condition between the two was very noticeable.  There could be admittedly other factors at work, but I for one put my money without a hint of doubt on good old British stock!

On a cool but beautifully sunny Thursday (25th), we gathered in Herd 5 which has been carrying out grazing for a month not far from the summit of Beachy Head.  With help from volunteer Laurence and Eastbourne Borough Council’s two estate workers, we very quickly had all 15 ponies gathered and corralled and by early afternoon, all transported off to their next job of work and all the electric fencing taken up.

The only glitch was a failure on my part with the first load, to ‘read’ correctly the clay-with-flint ground conditions at Gayles when the truck, trailer and three ponies forward motion abruptly stopped and sideways motion began! After letting the ponies off and much pondering, I made a sharp sideways turn and went downhill – a rather a nervous moment!

Their new place of work is a return to the National Trust’s recent acquisition of Gayles Farm in the vicinity of the Seven Sisters cliffs. This is a fairly extensive area of chalk grassland where sheep grazing over the past two decades have failed to control the relentless spread of tor grass across these floristically bountiful slopes.  This is likely to be a long-term collaboration with the National Trust.

Week Ending Saturday, November 7th

Monday.  During the afternoon, we gathered-in and corralled the 10 ponies at Shooters Bottom.  These were then trailered up to Lullington Heath to re-join their Herd 2 companions.  The exercise was something of a race as the hours of daylight decrease; luckily the ponies ‘co-operated’ with us, we only having to use headlights to dismantle the corral in the failing light.  Fog or low cloud over the last couple of days has made the lookering of ponies on the high ground of the Ashdown Forest area somewhat tricky.

Wednesday.  The start of several days of wet, dank and often windy weather.  Today saw the 15 ponies of Herd 5 driven from Belle Tout around to Shooters Bottom.  They have done an excellent job on the former site, we having grazed this early in the season so as not to risk compromising the orchid colonies there next year.  We also managed to take up all the electric fencing.

Friday.  While checking the ponies at Shooters Bottom, I noticed that autumn hawkbit, clustered bellflower and common centaury were still in flower.  The temperatures this week have been abnormal with them reaching the upper teens on a daily basis.

Saturday.  The autumn winds of the last two days have ravaged the magnificent autumn tints.  This notable show of colours was due to the trees not being drought-stressed during the summer, few frosts and warm or mild temperatures up to the present time.