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.

Royal Sovereign Light Tower Construction

I remember this being built.  It was to be the first of several to this design but I believe because of construction delays and costs, no others were built.  I recognised one local face in the construction crew; in the film, there is at times some rather grating accompanying music.  Note the masses of ‘personal protective clothing’ worn!  The tower, as were all lighthouses in the UK, was later converted to run automatically.

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.

May Sightings

And so the cool, dry spring continues without much prospect of change until towards the end of May…

May 6th and during the evening there was a group of 7 swifts hawking for insects in the cold easterly wind, high over St.Leonards old town.  Still numbers of turnstones along the beach.  May 8th and as I sat down to my breakfast, 6 swallows flew across the street at window height in that purposeful, determined flight behaviour that characterises swallows on migration, heading north-westwards.  I wished them well.

May 8th.  There’s still a reasonable population of english elms in the vicinity of the station at Pevensey.  Also nearby, are a number of trees (poplar?) with thriving plants of mistletoe high in their crowns; nice to see.

May 18th.  In the following pic, scrub-bashing with a difference!  These fellas are removing dense ivy from off the cliff face at Rock-A-nor at Hastings in order to attach steel mesh safety netting as can be seen above them.  They’re working from off ropes using pneumatically powered equipment.

 

On the same day in the evening, saw this amazing ‘barley-twist’ cloud formation.

May 24th.  There were 10 swifts over St.Leonards old town as I sat having breakfast. Went for a walk in Ham Street Woods National Nature Reserve in Kent, a lovely wood but unfortunately there appears to be not a lot of coppicing now going on – how this wood was traditionally managed.  Saw this tree which many years ago had suffered severe trauma, survived and prospered!

Nearby the entrance to the woods stands a row of four Victorian(?) cottages.  I thought they were very unusual in that the upper storey is clad all around the entire block with butt-jointed slates with strips fixed over the vertical joints.

On this jaunt I travelled by train and spotted just west of Winchelsea good and bad farming practice – the latter almost certainly contravening government/EU regulations by cultivating as close to a watercourse as physically possible.  The adjacent water must be receiving a very unhealthy cocktail of fertilizer and chemicals  First, good practice with 2 metre wide uncultivated headlands on a neighbouring farm and then the bad.  Apologies that the second doesn’t make the point very obvious but the train was going quite fast! Stile and post are on nearside of watercourse.

In the evening, saw my first painted lady butterfly; it was in beautiful condition and probably had not long arrived from across the Channel.  About 10 swifts screaming high overhead mid-evening.  I’m not religious but full marks to the Pope for giving Trump some serious reading matter today!

April Sightings  – All and Sundry

Up until the early part of the month (including the winter), I’ve been surprised just how tolerant of people that the dozens of turnstones that wintered/rested on the beaches of St.Leonards and on the ironwork of Hastings pier are.

Moving on, a couple of days ago, many of the birds in the centre of the town flew-up and seemed uneasy for a few minutes; I scanned the skies and sure enough, a couple hundred yards away and high up, was a circling sparrowhawk.

Went for a lovely walk with a friend in the Iden area on Sunday, April 9th – that really warm day.  We walked through an area of working coppice with a beautiful display of bluebells and lesser celandine.  After refuelling, on the return leg we saw two swallows, one settled on a nearby telephone wire giving out that gorgeous trilling song as if to say, ‘well, I’m glad to be back.’  Walking along part of the banks of the Military Canal, we were treated to a short, announcing blast from a cetti’s warbler emanating from out of the bordering reeds.

Back at home, somewhere not far from the house, there seems to be a pair of goldfinches possibly nesting; lovely to sit on the steps by the front door and watch them frequently pass over with their singing, resembling a bunch of high-pitched jangling keys.

April 26th and on a walk near Matfield in Kent, we came across a small meadow which was stunning!  It had thousands of cuckoo flower in full bloom, a real high-point in the day.

I’m now able from my window, to take an interest in the shipping passing down the Channel – ships being a subject that I’ve been fascinated by since a child.  I’m surprised by the sheer number of container ships passing by with quite a number owned by the MSC shipping company – the second largest container fleet in the world with 490 ships, four of which are the largest in the world.

The ill-fated Crystal Jewel anchored off Newhaven, after its encounter with the tanker British Aviator in fog off Beachy Head back in Sept 1961.

 

 

Week Ending February 28th

A busy week again managing the pony grazing…

Monday.  We reached agreement with Natural England and a local farmer to spring/summer graze asap ‘Berwick Down’ near Alfriston.  This is a fairly large site of about 20 hectares.  Following 2/3 years of this action to hopefully remove much of the offending bulk of the tor grass, the plan is then to change to a winter grazing scenario which should encourage the other flora and fauna.

Tuesday.  Run around day, checking ponies at Hastings, Beachy Head, Belle Tout and Lullington Heath.  At BH we last week opened up a further section of grass reaching almost to the cliff edge; the ponies had now found this.  At BT the ponies are on course to finish grazing there in the coming fortnight before perhaps going on to a new National Trust property?

Wednesday.  A damp start but during the afternoon it was glorious!  We erected some 1200 metres of electric fencing in readiness for bringing the 18 ponies over from Lullington Heath next week.  To begin with, our 4×4 truck had to claw its way up a very muddy track, followed by us having to hump material up to 400 m away.  Phew!  Late afternoon and as we were about to come down off the downland escarpment, we spotted two short-eared owls quartering across the rank grassy slopes, presumably hunting for voles.

Saturday.  We almost finished the electric fencing at Berwick Down today – in fairly trying conditions, with near gale force winds and drizzle.

December 12th – A Wild Night & An Early Start

During the night, an Atlantic depression whipped up by the jet stream, swept across southern England accompanied by strong winds and heavy rain.  At 5am the Greenwich Light weather buoy some 20 miles off the Sussex coast recorded a maximum steady strength of the wind of 49 knots, that is, Storm Force 10 on the Beaufort Scale.  At 8am it recorded a minimum atmospheric pressure of 994 millibars.

Having heard during the night the wind at times roaring over the rooftop some 30 miles inland, I decided on making an early move, leaving the house at 6-30am, togged up in full waterproofs.  When having reached just half a mile from the coast at Birling Gap I encountered the full might of the angry weather just as daylight was breaking.  A squall accompanied by almost horizontal rain hit the truck and for the next 10 minutes, the view through the glass was reminiscent of a blizzard!

Once it had passed, I made my way around the mile of electric fencing securing loose fence stakes and also having to repair a long broken section, the plastic tape snaking away before the wind.  Next port of call was near the summit of Beachy Head some two miles to the east.  On the way, passed two large round bales of haylage laying in the road, blown by the severity of the wind from off a neighbouring slope.  After arriving, found a section of electric fence running down a steep downland spur, was stretched across the grassy slope like an abandoned washing line.  Later, the boys from Eastbourne Borough Council rectified this later in the morning.  In both cases, the ponies were taking shelter on lee slopes so did not make a bid for freedom!

Then it was on to Hastings to check the next herd of ponies, these however being within proper stock fencing.  All in a days work…

Week Ending October 18th

Tuesday, 14th.  Though mainly grey and wet, the weather continues to be mild.  At Hastings Country Park situated on the coast of the English Channel, small groups of house martins were observed feeding as was the occasional easterly trickle of swallows on migration.  Work started here today on removing an area scrub to encourage the return of heathland.                                                              In the Ashdown forest area, bell heather, heath milkwort and ragwort are still to found in flower.  As our villages Parish Tree Warden, I was requested to inspect a large magnificent beech tree as to its safety; outwardly it appeared well.

Thursday, 16th.  Have now got approval to increase the Trust’s number of ponies by 10 to total 80 ponies!  Met with representatives of the National Trust and Eastbourne Borough Council this morning to discuss the finer points of this coming winter’s pony grazing at Birling Gap, Belle Tout and Beachy Head.  A glorious, mild sunny morning on this spectacular coastline.  (Yesterday, a German couple returned from the beach to the car park at the ‘Gap carrying a WW2 live shell, placing it behind their car and then informing the staff there.  The authorities when informed, nearly had kittens!).

This Weeks Pony News – Aug 30

Tuesday.  Hastings Country Park.  Met up with 5 new Lookers (volunteers who assist with checking the ponies); we now have an almost full complement there now.

Thursday.  NT’s Blackcap nr Lewes.  We erected some 400 m of electric fencing in readiness for the arrival of 12 Exmoor ponies next Tuesday.  This was I suspect, some of the steepest ground that I’ve had to work on!  Driving down the trackway below it was somewhat tricky to – steep and muddy in places.    *While having lunch, a large group of house martins were feeding above us including at least 2 swifts.

Friday.  We had the second of our Pony Trust’s work groups on Chailey Common, engaged in removing birch tree saplings from one of the more specie diverse areas of the Common.  Rewarding but hard work!

Saturday.  Big, two-day ‘Spartan Race’ endurance event being held at Pippingford Park in the Ashdown Forest area; I decided to go back during the early evening.  Just as well, as several gates left open, which could have led to the ponies going walk-about!  I politely expressed my displeasure to the organisers, we parting amicably, they accepting weaknesses in their organising.

Comment.  I find it frustrating that these thousands of participants burn all that energy for no material benefit.  It’s rather like jacking up the wheels on your car and then getting in and putting your foot down on the accelerator!  I and my colleagues in wildlife conservation could find a mountain of tasks that could be carried out for a fraction of that determination and energy.  How about it?