Future of the Exmoor Pony Grazing Scheme

Ponies being released at Hastings Country Park.

Popular Exmoor ponies to be removed from Hastings Country Park by                    Andy Helmsley, ‘The Hastings Observer,’  Monday 05 August 2019.

The well-loved sight of Exmoor ponies at Hastings Country Park is coming to an end with the ponies being removed.  The Sussex Pony Grazing Conservation Trust who manages the ponies has told the council their organisation now has an uncertain future and they will no longer be able to manage the ponies.  As a result they are moving them to a different location.  The ponies have been grazing the slopes and glens of Hastings Country Park for the last six years.  Their conservation grazing habits have transformed Warren Glen from a bracken dominated habitat to one where native coastal grassland and heather now dominates.

Cllr Colin Fitzgerald said: “We are really sorry the Trust is taking to ponies away. They have been a great attraction for the public and they have done a fantastic job of recovering threatened and rare coastal habitats.  As a conservation tool, they have been invaluable in helping the council retain their green flag awards and receive a special award for conservation grazing from the Keep Britain Tidy Group.  However, we wish them well in their new home.  We will be contacting other organisations to see if we can bring another set of ponies to the reserve “

Exmoor ponies are particularly suited to the rugged terrain of Hastings Country Park and they have become a familiar and well-loved site at the Country Park.  Together with the Belted Galloway cattle they form the conservation grazing backbone for managing the rugged and inaccessible areas of Hastings Country Park.”

The background to this story is that once I had retired in 2017, the Trust’s small, voluntary, long-serving but wherried committee had served for far longer than they had expected to and were in a sense, burnt-out.  On the ground, there simply wasn’t the continuing level of commitment or mental drive that I had as founder, this not being helped by a general failing to continue to engender in the Lookers (volunteers) a feeling of involvement and not using their co-operation with sharing some of the practical elements of the fencing and gathering-in work that was required.  Additional practical concerns were, a small vociferous section of the dog-walking fraternity on Eastbourne’s coastal downland objecting to the essential temporary electric fencing.  Another factor has been the increasing storminess of our weather due to climate change, increasing the struggle to maintain this fencing in a stock-proof condition during stormy weather thus ensuring that the ponies didn’t break-out and put themselves and possibly motorists, at risk.

The current position of play at present is that the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust will announce its formal winding-up by the coming autumn and nearly all the remaining 65 ponies being split three ways – 22 having already been purchased by farmer Duncan Ellis for use on the chalk downland of the Folkington Estate which they tenant and along the Firle Escarpment SSSI Continue reading

Common Butterwort

Despite its English name of Common Butterwort this plant is rare in southern England, indeed, this tiny colony is the only colony in East Sussex.  After a while today hunting within the Ashdown Forest SSSI we eventually re-discovered it again.  Still only six plants – the same as four years ago but, all these tiny plants in flower or are about to.

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.