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.


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.



A Criticism of Knepp Estate’s Rewilding – My Rebuke

Following a very critical letter in the British Wildlife journal from Sussex campaigner Dave Bangs, below is my response to BW on his views on Knepp, conservation funding, estates in general, land use and ownership:

I would like to respond to Sussex campaigner Dave Bangs letter (BW 27: 455) in response to Peter Marren’s inspiring article concerning rewilding on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex (BW27: 333-339).

Firstly, the comment DB makes about ecologists lecturing on behalf of wealthy estates and concurrently the loss of posts in public-sector conservation bodies are not directly connected.  The withdrawal of Government monies from these bodies (and the NHS), is part of a much wider debate concerning this country living within its means and poorly considered political decisions made by the previous Government.  Maybe the odd conservation body should reconsider how they spend their budget?

Sadly, the rosy days of funding for wildlife and conservation during the 1990’s now seem far behind…  I feel quite angry when I see decades of my own work unravelling before my eyes!  Chalk grassland ungrazed; rights of way now largely un-maintained; the loss of tens of thousands of elm trees – a speciality here in East Sussex.  Then there is the neutering Natural England…

He argues that this and other lands should not be favoured with public monies.  I feel that strategically placed, relatively modest-scale projects such as Knepp should be encouraged in the hope that they will provide oases for the more mobile wildlife species (and people).  The small percentage of land involved in such schemes is on a world-scale, not worth even contemplating.  I would be the first to agree that the current agri-environment scheme is not ideal but I disagree with DB’s left-wing, politically-tinged assault on the amazing work being carried out at Knepp.  Also in Knepp’s defence, it does produce a quantity of excellent meat.  As DB states, it is part of the somewhat “more resistant farmlands of the Weald,” land that often requires a great deal of effort, inputs and capital, to make a living from within these difficult times.  Sadly, global food prices are a part of today’s modern world – farmers cannot exist within their own little economic bubbles.

The statement concerning Eastbourne Borough Council’s decision to “sell its iconic and wildlife-rich downland estate around Beachy Head” smells a little of red herrings.  Admittedly not a decision I am happy with but the selling of four mainly ‘grassed-down’ arable farms (this sale being made incidentally with no public consultation input), does however, not include the “iconic” coastal chalk grasslands.  The other estate referred to is presumably the Rathfinney Estate vinyard near Alfriston, which one has to say is a great improvement on the rolling, sterile acres of cereals that were its former use.  Additionally, this Estate has made efforts to conserve scrubby, previously long un-grazed chalk downland and to encouraging wildlife elsewhere within its landholding.

I feel that sustainable food production should be concentrated on the good productive lands that (currently) have little wildlife interest, but, with a modest amount of tweaking based on work such as carried out at the RSPB’s Hope Farm.  The current rewards for ‘lip-service’ to the current agri-environment scheme,  that is often the case at the moment must be ended.  Let us hope that post Brexit, we will gain a far more wildlife-friendly agri-environment scheme, fair to our wonderful landscapes, fair to farmers and sustainable – but I for one, will not be holding my breath for that!

Monty Larkin.  (Has worked for the Sussex landscape and its wildlife for 40 years.  Founder and until recently Grazing Co-ordinator of the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust.  Visit

Victory in Campaign to Widen Gatwick Flight Paths

Victory in campaign to widen flight paths.

13th July 2016.

Anti-noise campaigners were celebrating last week after Gatwick airport agreed to bring in flight paths operating across a wider area from the end of this month.  Local groups have fought for two years to stop the constant stream of incoming aircraft at the Sussex airport being concentrated on a narrow strip of landscape.

The swathe of the flight paths has now been increased from two nautical miles to six, bringing it back in line with the dispersal that was in operation until 2013.


The decision was made at the inaugural meeting of the Noise Management Board (NMB) on June 21. The airport also recently agreed to increase the number of public representatives allowed to sit on the board from two to four.

The umbrella body was set up after being recommended by the Independent Arrivals Review in January. It includes the main aviation stakeholders and local community action groups.

Gatwick Airport Ltd issued a statement which said it ‘has been able to confirm that the proposal to widen the arrivals swathe will create a fairer and more equitable distribution of aircraft noise, more closely emulating that experienced by communities prior to 2013’.

While the move is significant, there was a word of warning from Graham Lake of the Arrivals Review team, who said: “It would be prudent, while acknowledging the very good progress made to date, to remind your readers that it’s not done until it’s done.”

Protesters are remaining cautious while further changes are awaited, not least because Gatwick had said in March that it ‘has accepted or is minded to accept all of the recommendations of the Review’.

One example of the work remaining to be done is the implementation of Continuous Descent Approach (CDA), which refers to how smoothly an aircraft descends, thereby reducing the noise it makes.

The Review has called for the CDAs to start at a higher altitude with a smoother descent, and for the airport to implement a more consistent quality threshold.

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.


Elm Tree and the Lone Goldfinch

I took a trip today into Brighton for a wander around…

From the bus on the way back, I thought I glimpsed one of my (now almost rare) former elm ‘flock.’  It stands in the middle of a 70’s development to the south of Lewes prison and its owner, a Miss ? used phone me most years to ask if Mark or I would carry out an inspection and also to enquire whether she should have any pruning work carried out upon it.

If I was looking at the same tree, I could clearly see where she had spent money on having a limited crown reduction carried out years ago but no attention in recent years in evidence, so guess she’s moved on, perhaps to the next world…  [I was Dutch Elm Supervisor for East Sussex CC between 1997 and 2004 while working for the Sussex Downs Conservation Board. Sadly the scheme has since gone belly up].

Earlier, while walking along Western Road, the air filled with the drone of passing busses, I noticed a high-pitched trilling sound. Upon looking across the road, I noticed an apparently solitary male goldfinch 30 feet up in a roadside tree singing his heart out.  Seemed rather surreal!

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.


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:


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


Bird Brick Houses

A brilliant idea to help some of our declining bird populations and give an added enjoyment to your home!

The genesis of Bird Brick Houses can be traced back to 2001, when Duncan McCutchan (co-founder along with his wife Jenny) while rebuilding his parents’ home, incorporated nest holes in the flintwork walls. The nest holes were an immediate success, with birds proving keen to take up residence.

Duncan and Jenny’s farming background, passion for wildlife and the countryside, allied to Duncan’s building expertise (he still runs a longstanding building business alongside Bird Brick Houses), created the perfect synergy for taking this early, somewhat niche success and developing it for far wider use in brick walls. Brickwork presents entirely different issues when incorporating nesting boxes, but the realisation dawned that if a design could be found for an integral solution, the wildlife benefits would be endless, given the prevalence of brick usage in construction.

During 2002, when not working on building projects or installing and monitoring barn owl boxes in East Sussex, Duncan started work on a prototype bird brick house, which then collected dust on the bedroom floor for 6 years. No progress was made until 2008, which saw Duncan working on a barn conversion to be featured in the TV programme Restoration Man. He incorporated a nest hole in the structure and the subsequent airing of the show, in March 2010, gave him the impetus to see the bird brick house idea through to fruition.  After much trial and error, the design and the mould were finalised during 2012.

In 2013 Bird Brick Houses was formed and the first bird boxes were produced. The fledgling company constructed a stand for the Ecobuild 2014 exhibition at the Excel Centre, London. Duncan and Jenny were astounded by the extraordinary level of interest; Bird Brick Houses carried off two significant show awards and numerous other awards have followed.

Eco build 2014, Ian, Caroline, Jenny and Duncan.

Bird Brick Houses is proud to have supplied many construction companies including BAM, Barratt Homes, Berkeley Construction, Kier Group, Redrow, Telford Homes and Wates Construction.

Bird and bat boxes are manufactured at Bird Brick House’s premises in East Sussex. Variations on the basic design continue to evolve, as a result of bespoke requests for boxes to be used either in unusual applications or in conjunction with non-standard construction methods.

Duncan and Jenny’s aim is to make people aware that despite inhabiting a highly populated world, ways need to be found of nurturing and protecting wildlife for this and future generations. They strongly believe that bird and bat boxes are an excellent way of providing for wildlife in every building.

The founders would like to thank friends and family for all their support and belief in our venture to get us to where we are now. Thank you!

T:01323 488732 Follow us: Twitter | Facebook | LinkedIn

Bird Brick Houses Ltd. The Old Parlour, Wilbees Farm, Arlington Nr Polegate East Sussex BN26 6RU Patented Product UK No: 1005180.3 Registration Community Design No’s: 001319065-0001/0013190650002