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.

 

News from ‘British Wildlife,’ April 2017

BATS.  Two interesting facts on long distance migration of bats have been made known.  In December 2013, a specie of Pipistrelle was found in northern Netherlands, having been ringed in Somerset some three years earlier.  The second involved one being trapped during October 2015 in East Sussex, it having been ringed as a sub-adult two months earlier in Latvia.  In its first year of life, this bat had made a journey of 1,460km over a period of some seven weeks.

COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP.  England’s agri-environment scheme is said to be a shambles.  With an inflexible start date of 1st January, some farmers are being left financially high and dry because their previous HLS Scheme ends after 1st January, they then being out of pocket for 11 months.  Complexity of CS and insufficient Natural England staff to administer the scheme are making matters worse.

PESTICIDES and GAMEBIRDS.  Work carried out in Sussex by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust have shown that foliar insecticides and insecticidal seed dressings are having a significant effect on the species of insect that are important food sources for young game birds.  No wonder many of our farmland bird species are struggling!

PESTICIDE BAN.  Meanwhile, perhaps France is showing the way forward, for there will be a total ban on pesticide use in public gardens, parks and forests.  As from 2019, this ban will be extended to prohibit use in private gardens (apart from use by professionals).  This seems a good idea when seeing the amount shelf space devoted to pesticides in our garden centres (not to mention the stench coming from them).  Many people reach for their killer of choice without a clue of the environmental damage some of these concoctions can have!

NITROGEN.  The Plant Link UK network has issued a new report, ‘We Need To Talk About Nitrogen…’ and it has the backing of the National Trust, Woodland Trust and the RSPB.  It highlights the serious damage that nitrogen deposition is having upon the UK’s semi-natural habitats and wildlife.  I’ve been banging on about this problem for years, one which partially instigated my setting-up in the 1990’s of conservation grazing by ponies in Sussex.

Prof Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been appointed Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative.  Prof Sutton said that ‘in the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around 14 billion Euros per year, equivalent to losing 25% of the European Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10% of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain.’

DEFRA DEFICIENT.  There’s a widespread feeling in Westminster that DEFRA will not be up to the job of sorting out the huge amount of environmental law and new agricultural regulation following Brexit.  Since 2006 the department has lost 2,285 members from its core staff. It has also suffered from crippling and on-going cuts to its budget.  Put in context, currently the Civil Service is leaner than it has been since the Second World War and simply does not have the capacity to deal with the gargantuan task of leaving the EU.

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).

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.

 

National Trust Calls for Complete Reform of British Farm Subsidies

This is one of several articles I have just posted, all connected with the future of the countryside and farming following the UK decision over Brexit.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/04/national-trust-calls-for-complete-reform-of-british-farm-subsidies?CMP=share_btn_tw

National Trust calls for complete reform of British farm subsidies
pigs

Piglets on a organic farm in Wales, UK  Photograph: Herb Bendicks/Alamy

 

John Vidal, The Guardian, Thursday 4 August 2016.

The National Trust has called for complete reform of the British farm subsidy system after Brexit, by ending payments for owning land and only rewarding farmers who improve the environment and help wildlife.

“The subsidy system is broken. It is not working. Farmers are going out of business. The state of wildlife is in steep decline and large parts of that is because of intensive agriculture. The vote to leave the EU allows us to think radically about the future of the entire system,” the trust’s director general, Dame Helen Ghosh, told the Guardian ahead of a speech at Blenheim Palace on Thursday.

“Taxpayers should only pay public subsidy to farmers in return for things that the market won’t pay for but which are valued and needed by the public. The current system rewards people for the hectares they own, with very inadequate standards for wildlife and the environment,” she said.

“In the long run there’s no conflict between maintaining our ability to grow food and looking after the land and nature on which it depends. The first is utterly dependent on the second.”

The proposals by the trust, which calls itself “Britain’s largest farmer” and is one of the biggest recipients of European common agriculture policy (CAP) payments, would see the basic income support system of subsidies scrapped and farmers being paid out of public funds only for environmental services such as flood prevention, wildlife and nature protection.

“It is essential to act now as 60% of species have declined in the UK over the last 50 years. Habitats, breeding grounds and food sources have been lost, soils have become depleted and natural fertility impoverished,” Ghosh will tell a BBC Countryfile conference.

“This has happened in large part due to the industrialised farming methods incentivised by successive funding regimes since the second world war. So it is not the fault of farmers but the fault of the system which is flawed and expensive,” she will say.

The biggest farms currently receive the biggest cheques but they often do the most harm to the environment. A new system could swing subsidies towards small farmers, benefiting those who protect soils and rivers, she said.

“Unless we make different choices, we will leave an environment that is less productive, less rich and less beautiful than that which we inherited,” she said.

The EU pays British farmers up to £3bn a year, of which around 20%, or £600m, is paid to farmers to protect the environment. The trust, which owns 618,000 acres of land and has about 2,000 tenants and 4 million members, received £3m in direct subsidy from CAP last year and £8m for environmental stewardship schemes. All the money was spent on conservation, it said.

Ghosh said she did not expect the price of food to automatically increase with the elimination of subsidies for land ownership. “The price of food is already affected by the global market. Only about 8p of the price of a loaf of bread is the cost of the wheat that it is made from. The link between the subsidy system and the price of food is not absolute.”

She said that many upland National Trust farmers already managed their land for the benefit of nature and landscape rather than for food production. Renewable energy, flood protection services and eco-tourism could pay more than subsidies.

Ghosh envisaged a phase-out period during which farmers would continue to receive payments for land ownership. “It cannot be done overnight. It is not clear yet when the current subsidy system will phase out. But all interested parties are asking for it to remain until 2025,” she said.

“We may need some kind of transition period to get there but that means payments for goods that go beyond food production – for the wildflowers, bees and butterflies that we love, for the farmland birds, now threatened, for the water meadows and meandering rivers that will help prevent the flooding of our towns, and for the rebuilding of the fertility and health of the soils on which both nature and production depend.”

Ghosh laid out six principles of farming and conservation which she said should apply in the new, post-Brexit system:

  1. Public money must only pay for public goods. There will need to be a transition to the new world but this basic income support payment should be removed.
  2. It should be unacceptable to harm nature but easy to help it. In the future, 100% of any public payment should be conditional on meeting higher standards of wildlife, soil and water stewardship.
  3. Nature should be abundant everywhere. The new system needs to support nature in the lowlands as well as the uplands.
  4. We need to drive better outcomes for nature. Nature needs joined up habitats on a landscape scale with subsidies implemented on a farm-by-farm basis.
  5. Farmers that deliver the most public benefit should get the most. In the future, those farmers and land managers who get the most public money should be those who deliver the best environmental outcomes.
  6. We must invest in science, new technology and new markets that help nature. Public money should help create ways of farming that benefit nature and help develop new markets to reward farmer for storing carbon, preventing floods and promoting biodiversity.

The National Farmers Union, with around 47,000 farmers, is consulting all its members before proposing a future domestic agriculture policy.

But its president, Meurig Raymond, rejected Ghosh’s proposals: “The picture the National Trust is trying to paint – that of a damaged countryside – is one that neither I nor most farmers, or visitors to the countryside, will recognise.”

He added: “We should not be contemplating doing anything which will undermine British farming’s competitiveness or its ability to produce food. To do so would risk exporting food production out of Britain and for Britain to be a nation which relies even further on imports to feed itself. In our view, food security should be considered to be a legitimate political goal and public good.”

Ross Murray, president of the Country Land and Business Association, said he was: “concerned by the Trust’s vision for a policy that sets solely environmental objectives. Only a profitable farming sector present throughout our countryside will ensure we have the people, the resource and the experience to deliver the environmental improvements the Trust rightly seeks to achieve. The policy that replaces the CAP must provide support for productive farming.”

Adverse Hold of Power of NFU Over UK Governments

Part of an article concerning the continuing adverse hold of power of the National Farmers Union over UK governments and the environment.

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2016/mar/23/has-the-nfu-presidents-farm-led-by-example-when-it-comes-to-bad-practice-in-the-countryside?CMP=share_btn_tw

George Monbiot, Wednesday 23 March 2016.

“It’s simple,” a civil servant at the government’s environment department, Defra, once told me. “When we want to know what our position should be, we ask the NFU [National Farmers’ Union].”

There are not many organisations in Britain – though this country is infested with lobbyists of every persuasion – with a grip on policy as tight as the National Farmers’ Union. Vast conservation bodies (the National Trust, RSPB and Wildlife Trusts have a combined membership of some 6 million) are locked out, while the NFU seems to get everything it wants.

It looks to me like a champion of bad practice. On one issue after another it has demanded that the protections for people, places and wildlife are diluted. And in almost every case it has succeeded.

It insisted that the agricultural wages board, which protected farm labourers against exploitation, should be abolished. The last government gave it what it wanted.

It lobbied for an exemption from the ban on treating flowering crops with neonicotinoid pesticides, that are ripping through our populations of bees and many other animals. Not only did the NFU succeed, last summer, but the government also gagged its own expert advisers, perhaps to prevent us from seeing that they had counselled against the exemption. The government also refused to reveal the basis on which the NFU had lobbied it, claiming, preposterously, that this was “commercially confidential”.

The NFU demanded a badger cull, though a £49m government pilot programme demonstrated that it was not only useless, but counterproductive. It won, and badgers are being killed at the cost of £7,000 an animal.

It insisted that there should be no cap on the amount of money a landowner could receive in farm subsidies – and won.

It campaigned, with the help of successive British governments, against the European Union’s proposed soil framework directive, which sought to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. Once more, it won, and for the first time in the European Union’s history, a legislative proposal was abandoned.

In January, just after the Christmas floods had abated, the environment secretary, Liz Truss, announced that she would allow farmers to dredge watercourses crossing their land, without regulation or coordination. This is a perfect formula for catastrophe downstream, as it speeds up the flow of water to the nearest urban pinch-point.

It was as if she had got together with her officials to devise the most perverse possible response to the flooding. In reality, however, it seems that she was simply responding to the NFU’s lobbying. As its president, since 2014, Meurig Raymond, explained, “The NFU has pressed Defra and the Environment Agency to enable farmers to undertake minor works for many years.”

But this is not the only influence the National Farmers’ Union has sought to exert over the state of our rivers: a state that is frankly shocking. Figures from the Environment Agency suggest that just 0.08% of rivers in England are of high ecological quality, while only 17% are judged “good”. One of the principal reasons is diffuse agricultural pollution: the constant seepage of slurry, fertiliser and pesticides from fields and farm buildings.

It’s hardly surprising, as the Environment Agency has more or less stopped enforcing. When I came across a severe case of pollution in a Devon river last year, and reported it to the agency’s pollution hotline, the only action they took was to produce a list of crap excuses for looking the other way. After I wrote about this scandal, I was contacted by one of the agency’s staff, who told me that, as a result of pressure from the government and the massive cuts imposed by Truss, the staff there have been instructed to ignore all reports of grade three and grade four pollution, which accounts for the great majority of water poisoning in this country.

This puts the government in a difficult position, as all rivers in this country – not just 17% – were supposed to have been in good ecological condition by the end of 2015, under the European water framework directive. The government is now in danger of a massive fine, which ultimately will come out of the pockets of taxpayers.

It has now published a consultation on diffuse water pollution. The NFU has made its position clear, objecting to the government’s proposal to “maximise reductions in diffuse pollution and benefits to the wider environment”. Instead, it says, protecting our rivers should be left to “voluntary measures”.

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.