Crambe cordifolia, in flower, in Seaford – before being attacked by the wind!
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.
Saturday June 1st and what a stunning start to the month – perhaps it will turn out to be a proverbial ‘flaming June?’ During the morning we walked up over Seaford Head. The first image shows the difference where Sussex Wildlife Trust have winter-cut the invasive tor grass and where not; note the cut, flower-rich lower RH side of image against the rank LH side of the image.
On the bare chalk area on the Hawks Brow area, noticed at least 6 vertical seems of flint within the chalk, flint normally having been deposited horizontally within the bedding of the chalk. Note one of these peculiar features running from right of centre at bottom of image towards right of person, the adjacent chalk being more eroded towards the cliff edge and so highlighting it better.
Attended the Southease Open Gardens event. Some idyllic houses and beautiful gardens, all set-off in a quintessentially English fete-like atmosphere, accompanied by the brilliant The Maestro Big Band from Newhaven playing 40’s swing music.
Take a look at the following link concerning the Rewilding Europe organisation which was set up in 2011 to encourage rewilding in suitable areas across Europe, with much of the funding coming from the EU’s LIFE project. Items in the attached link include: Rewilding of peatlands in Finland, making community forests in Portugal more wildlife friendly, the RSPB’s Wallasea Island project in Essex, the bio-diverse Rhodope Mountains in Bulgaria (I have been there – fantastic!) and habitat restoration in the Oder Estuary in Germany.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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!
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.
Saturday, July 7th. Had a beautiful, enjoyable afternoon, including a trip down Memory Lane! Went to an Open Garden event in aid of the Family Support Group at The Long House in West Dean near Seaford. The owners have over the past six years created an extensive, beautiful but compartmentalised cottage garden containing a wide variety of plants.
After, we visited the nearby churchyard and church. I used to know the village well and a number of its then inhabitants when I lived and worked over the hill at Exceat during the 1970’s and 1980’s.
Upon leaving the village spotted one of the last fair-sized elms in the area starting to die from Dutch Elm Disease. Further up the valley at Lullington and especially sad for me, one of the last sizable elms has at last surrendered to this dreadful disease. It is the only example in the area of a Smooth-leaved Elm of the variety diversafolia.
I managed the East Sussex Dutch Elm Control project between 1997 and 2004. Due to mis-management and cost-cutting, it unraveled two years later and failed, after a total of some 30 something years and the expenditure of millions of pounds of public money.
Well, here we are in the far west of Wales in the Gwaun valley nestling below the Preseli Hills Mountains; the weather is wall to wall sunshine, not too hot at the moment but that might change…
On the drive down on Friday, 22nd taking the scenic route to the north of the Brecon Beacons, we saw many dying ash trees – ash dieback I wonder? Upon arrival at our little cottage, greeted by swallows, house martins and swifts! Indeed, upon driving around, there are quite a number of swifts over countryside and the local towns -so this is where all our swifts are?
Geologists list it as one of most important meltwater channels in Britain from the last Ice Age. The valley is pure rural idyll, thick with beech and hazel, ash and oak. Sightings of pied flycatcher, wood warbler, redstarts, marsh tit, nut hatch and tree creeper are recorded. We watch from the cottage, buzzards, kite and (our) four young swallows on the overhead cable opposite.
Up on the mountains, bog aspodel, sundew, cotton grass, heathers, western gorse(?) and a small pink flower I shall have to look up upon my return oh and ponies! Farming appears to be fairly benign , it mostly on the intermediate middle ground just above the valley. The road verges are quite floristically rich – the foxgloves are spectacular at the moment!
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.