My Autobiography Soon to be Published!

I am proud to announce the publication of my long awaited autobiography, ‘Monty Larkin – A Rural Biography.’ This covers such topics as: family background, child and early adulthood, Seven Sisters Country Park, downland conservation, wildlife and weather observations, the fight against Dutch elm disease, environmental considerations, love and relationships and, contains a substantial chapter concerning my two decades of managing conservation grazing across Sussex using iconic Exmoor ponies.
This softback work of 496 pages, is fully illustrated in black & white and colour and retails at £17.99 I am now taking orders for its planned publication during September 2020. Contact me at montylarkin@yahoo.co.uk to place your order.

Subterranean Thief Appears.

In my friends area of East Sussex High Weald ancient woodland, at least five examples of a strange plant have recently appeared.  I was at a loss on seeing this broomrape-like plant until back at home this week I managed to track it down.  It is Toothwort (Lathraea squamaria).  There are only six recorded locations for it in the county, these not including this site, so a good find!

Toothwort is a highly unique plant: all Broomrape family plants steal nutrition from neighbouring plants and also assimilate themselves, but toothwort is the only one that is fully parasitic.  The species’ scientific name means ‘hiding’, and indeed most of this completely non-chlorophyllous plant’s life happens out of sight under the ground. Toothwort’s rootstock’s branches have sucking nodules (haustoria) between the branches which attach early in the spring to the host plant’s rootstock.  This thankless task is on this occasion performed by hazel or hornbeam?  Occasionally lime, ash, maple or alder are used.  Scaly leaves next to the ground help toothwort dissipate water, which improves the plant’s ability to suck nutrition from the host plant.

Self-Isolating in Glorious Countryside

Following government advice, and discussions with my dear friend Helen, I and my puss Goldie, have temporarily moved out of St.Leonards and are self-isolating with Helen at her beautiful cottage deep in the rural countryside of the High Weald.  I have lots, indeed more than enough to keep me busy – gardening, working on the advanced draft of my autobiography, reading and taking walks in the woods with her three handsome Gordon Setter dogs.

The property is set within an extensive garden with a stream flowing through it and additionally there are four acres of a large adjoining block of ancient woodland.  This is composed mainly of ash, with mature hornbeam, oak and beech with an understorey of hazel.  More about this woodland as this rolling blog continues…

 

 

A view of the woods during mid-March.

Mid-March.  The wood has been so wet this past winter!  Being situated on Ashdown Clay which provides little drainage, it’s been tricky walking along the paths but during the past week, the sunshine and drying breezes have transformed matters, we now being able to wear boots instead of the ubiquitous wellies!  This weekend, being on north-facing slope, the cottage and the woods are being buffeted by a strong and quite cold north-easterly wind, with sunshine and hail, making the air feel relatively rather bitter; we’ve resorted to firing-up the wood burner!

Monday, March 23 and another harbinger of spring made itself known – a chiffchaff calling from the tall willows and birches on the edge of the garden area.  In the woods this week the primroses at the top of the wood look resplendent with their massed two-tone pale yellow flowers being in full bloom.Small patches of the tiny, delicate moscatel are in flower with their minuscule green and yellow flowers forming small patches.  Hornbeam trees and the few hawthorn are now sporting small, delicate light-green leaves that are growing by the day.  Hornbeam forms almost pure stands in other sections of the wood; soil or possibly past harvesting practices causing the difference?

Monday, Mar 30.  Heard my first blackcap of the year.  Carried out a lot more gardening this week – I’ve worked off my small tum but the trouble is I fall asleep in front of the tv!

Friday, Apr 3.  More gardening including felling a small ash tree with only a bowsaw – phew!  Carried out some repairs to the revetment to the stream that flows under the footbridge to the cottage, and on through the garden.  A hum from the bees in the tall willows was easily audible today.  The coming anticyclone and its accompanying warmth and southerly winds should bring quite a fall of migrants over the coming days.  Reliably informed that the migration has been slow so far this spring.

Saturday, Apr 4.  The first warm and sunny day of spring! sat outside late afternoon in shirt sleeves watching the birds – great and blue tits, lesser woodpecker, chaffinch and coal tit.  Counted only four aircraft in about an hour, blissfully peaceful!

Monday, Apr 6.  After carrying out a large food shop in Crowborough we drove back over Ashdown Forest; the car parks were very quiet.  Gorse in flower; other areas of gorse having been cut, the Conservators of the Forest appear to have a monumental battle upon their hands fight the large areas of gorse.  I consider they should resort to the traditional practice of selective burns of small areas.  Conversely, reading in the RSPB’s latest update on their local reserves, they are going to create enclosures at Broadwater Warren and plant gorse.  I wonder if future wardens of the reserve will be riled by this introduction!  They have also discovered that they have the uncommon potter wasp, the nearest colony previously in Surrey.

Wednesday, Apr 8.  Saw my first brimstone butterfly today; they are not so common hereabouts? Looking through the woods, there is now a green haze with the millions of tiny leaves unfolding on the trees, especially the hornbeam and hazel.

Thursday, Apr 9.  Orange-tip butterfly seen for first time.  While sitting on the patio at about 6pm, did I fleetingly see a cuckoo fly over (or a kestrel)?  Have today started renovating a teak outdoor table; I bought on-line, a set of cabinetmakers scrapers and made a start on what will be a slow process – an antidote to self-isolation!

Friday, Apr 10.  Good Friday.  Saw my first holly blue butterfly today.

Saturday, Apr 11.  Have finished queaking the long chapter in my autobio concerning my 20 years of being involved with using Exmoor ponies for conservation grazing.  Carried out two repairs to the deer fencing around our woodland.  The neighbouring woodland has little understorey as the deer browse-off nearly all of the young saplings and flowers.  (See the two following pics).

Sunday, Apr 12.  Easter Sunday.  First small white butterfly seen, temperature reaching into the low 20’s C.  Road was very quiet today there being no shops open; very few aircraft seen today including two into Gatwick.  We spent much of the day sitting on the patio overlooking the woods, finishing off with taking dinner there in the early evening.

Monday, Apr 13.  Bank Holiday.  A strong, cold NE wind today with the sun not appearing until late-morning.  We spent a couple of hours in the afternoon plotting and marking out the un-fenced section of Helen’s boundary in the woodland.

Sunday, Apr 19.   This morning we went for a walked in the main part of the wood that is not owned by Helen and is in effect, abandoned.

It contains a few more substantial oaks and beech’s and plenty of middle-sized hornbeam and ash but little ground vegetation or saplings – anything edible being eaten by deer (they excluded form our part of the wood).  Bluebells are however are now putting in an appearance.  Found several largish medieval iron ore quarries (see below) and a piece of iron slag; hundreds of years ago this wood would have been a hive of industry.  Will go back tomorrow and take some pictures.  It’s like entering another world – on the face of it, appearing untouched by man and no outside of the wood sounds whatsoever – mystical!

Sunday, April 26.  Thought I may have heard a garden warbler singing?  Along a footpath just outside the boundary of the wood, I saw my first small copper and comma butterflies; also found the showy marsh marigold in a nearby boggy area.  I shall be returning home tomorrow, so am signing-off this particular blog.

Data Reveals Poor Conditions at Protected Wildlife Site

The following article reiterates what I have observed and have been saying for years – that many of our Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs) are in a parlous state.  For example, most of the Firle Escarpment has not been inspected for 5 years!  Significant areas are now degenerating into bramble and scrub due to poor management by some farmers – ML.

Pevensey Levels ‘at risk’ – new data reveals poor conditions at protected wildlife site.

By Ginny Sanderson, Sussex Express.

Tuesday, 21st January 2020.

Waller’s Haven on Pevensey Levels looking towards Herstmonceux in the late afternoon winter sun.

More than half of all inspections found poor conditions at the wildlife haven, which is among the country’s precious few Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs).  An investigation has found the protected area is among thousands of beauty spots across the country which are in a poor state and facing unsatisfactory conditions.

The area is home to many rare creatures, and is considered to best site in Britain for freshwater molluscs, including the endangered ram’s horn snail.  Extremely rare aquatic plants can also be found in the marshland, which stretches from Bexhill to Hailsham.  The 3,600 hectare site is in peril alongside other East Sussex areas Romney Marsh and Rye Bay, and Dungeness in neighbouring Kent.

Many SSSI sites have not been assessed for years, leading environmental campaigners to fear the situation could be even worse.  Wildlife charities have branded the findings “shocking”, while the government says it is taking action to restore sites.  Paul de Zylva, of Friends of the Earth, said it was “shocking that our top wildlife sites are in such poor condition”.

He said, “If we can’t even protect the jewels in the crown, it’s little wonder that UK nature is in such poor shape.  The new government must make the protection and restoration of our natural environment a top priority.”  While Nikki Williams, The Wildlife Trust’s director of campaigns and policy, said bodies such as Natural England, which monitor the condition of sites, had been starved of funding.

She called for them to get a substantial cash injection “to enable them to carry out their functions effectively and to ensure our protected sites are restored and enhanced.”  In England, SSSIs are inspected in smaller sections called units.  More than half of these units (53 per cent) are in an unfavourable condition, inspection data shows.

Guidelines state SSSI features in England should be assessed at least every six years, but analysis by the JPI Media Investigation Unit found more than half (12,394) of sites have not been assessed since 2011.  A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) said while most of England’s SSSIs were either in a favourable condition or were recovering, they recognised that “more needs to be done to improve these vital sites”.

They said, “England’s Sites of Special Scientific Interest protect our most rare and threatened wildlife and represent the best in nature this country has to offer.  While 94 per cent of these are currently in a favourable or recovering condition, we know more needs to be done to improve these vital sites. That’s why we are focusing on restoring those sites that are still in a recovering condition so we can enhance these important areas.”

Investigative reporting by Aimee Stanton of the JPI Media Data Unit.

Today – 20 Years of Pony Grazing!

Today, I sent the e-mail below to fifty of the longer serving pony Lookers – volunteers who (used to) check the Exmoor ponies on a regular basis come rain, wind or snow.  I have hesitated in the tense of the last sentence as I gain the impression that many of the Lookers have been made redundant by the pony trust or sadly fallen by the wayside through lack of communication.

 

 

 

The first 15 ponies about to reach Drusillas roundabout after travelling from Exmoor.

 

On the fist site above Alfriston with the BBC filming them.
“On November 22 1999 –  20 years ago today, our first 18 ponies were driven on the hoof from Frog Firle to the very first grazing site situated above Alfriston, doesn’t time (and hooves) fly!  
The reason for e-mailing you is that when I retired in February 2017, I’d been seriously ill with flu, followed almost immediately by my move to St.Leonards.  Therefore, I never got to thanking you myself for the many hours and toil – often in inclement weathers, that you loyally gave lookering our wonderful five herds of Exmoor ponies.  Today seems a good day to correct that…  So, thank you all very much from my innermost self, for your commitment across the years to the ponies and to helping wildlife conservation.
During the last couple of years, I gather a number of changes have come about concerning the Trust – not all of which I’m happy about but, times change and I’ve retired and no longer have any connection with our dear four-legged friends.”

Some of the first Lookers about to erect the corral for the first time.  L to R Brian Miles (hidden), Alan Holyoak, Brian Sandham, ?, Alan Skinner, Emrys Hughes, Mike Bridges.

Cuckmere Estuary

There has been a lot of disquiet in recent weeks about flooding in the Cuckmere valley and also the build-up of shingle within the river mouth.  See my previous post concerning the sad demise of the Cuckmere meanders area.

On Wednesday, November 5th I did go and view the river mouth and it looks quite different to how it used to be, that is, discharging directly straight out into Cuckmere Haven.  Now, it turns abruptly east and flows along for about a third of the length of the east beach as seen below.  It actually appears far more natural!

 

This has arisen due to a decision by the Environment Agency not to carry out further work on river maintenance south of the A259 unless there was a real threat to homes and businesses, so no maintenance of floodbanks, groynes or shingle dredging. It was understood that the EA did intend to maintain some existing structures after the above decision but what happened to ‘contingent evaluation’ – the value of a rural, landscape experience to visitors, high in my opinion for the meanders at the Seven Sisters Country Park.

This decision takes account of their limited budget due to government budget cuts and the inevitability of losing the fight against sea level change from global climatic processes. There is not the money to protect a relatively small amount of grazing land when many communities across the country are under real threat.  The river estuary if left to the forces of nature will change as pictured below, this being taken two years ago.

 

 

Within the last two days, an excavator has appeared on site presumably to clear out the original man-made channel and reduce the overall height of the river back up through the valley, this presumably being paid for by the local water catchment board?

 

 

Flooding to the north of the A259 (picture above) though not unconnected with the above is largely due to when the east riverbank was rebuilt during the 1960’s and the then East Sussex River Board coming under pressure from the local farmers to install the new sluices at a very low level.  (I was informed of this fact recently by a retired former senior ESRB drainage engineer). It means that the river-side flaps of the 4? sluices are unable to open because they’ve become buried by silt due to their low positioning.

Cuckmere Meanders Flooding.

Below is the letter I sent off to the media and local MP’s this morning after making a visit yesterday.  A sad state of affairs…

ENVIRONMENTAL DAMAGE at CUCKMERE, EAST SUSSEX.

 

© Jon Rigby/Eastbourne Herald.

People from across the country and abroad, travel to Exceat near Seaford to view the world famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs and the majestic, winding meanders of the Cuckmere River set within a green baize, one of the best examples of a meandering river on the planet…

Well regarding the second point, not at the moment!  Nine days ago the BBC’s South East Today ran an article concerning the flooding within the Cuckmere valley and the fact that the world famous meanders were no where to be seen, they literally submerged beneath ‘flood water from the recent heavy rains.’

On Wednesday, October 30th I visited the area, the meanders are barely discernible, they still being largely masked by flood water.  I will digress here for a moment if I may.  I worked on the Country Park through which the meanders wind, for twenty years including two short period of managing it.  We would in those days monitor and finely adjust the height of the water level in the meanders.  Over the following ten years I also had an input into managing the Country Park.    The meanders have not been as high or surrounding meadows so completely flooded like they are at present, in living memory.  So I do understand in minute detail how the drainage system there works.

Back to my visit…  Upon inspection during the afternoon, there was a spring tide within the tidal river so its level was understandably high.  On the landward side of the floodbank however, water was alarmingly racing through the metre diameter sluice from the tidal river and welling-up in the meanders as a large pool of angry, swirling water.  Yes, the sluice instead of draining the meanders, was actually allowing seawater into the meanders!  Somebody has at some point, tampered with the sluice by ‘obstructing’ one of the large cast-iron sluice flaps and very likely though not visible, also having ‘adjusted’ the sill of the sluice that controls the height of the meanders.  A canoeist, vandals?  Debris in unlikely.  Where the water level had dropped away from its maximum height two weeks ago, the grass was brown and possibly has been killed.  Tourists are going to be somewhat disappointed when coming to view the meanders, they winding through a large tract of brown dead grass!

Later in the afternoon I managed to speak with a local Environment Agency official who said that though they are not responsible in managing the meanders, they were aware of the problem and were monitoring the situation and when it becomes possible to gain access when the river levels drop, they will rectify the situation.  They no longer carry out work on the river towards the sea because they only have sufficient funds to carry out essential works where flooding of the built environment may occur.

The meanders and the surrounding land are part of an extensive Site of Special  Scientific Interest (SSSI) designated by another government agency, Natural England.  Damaging such areas is a criminal offence; however English Nature does not now have the staff or expertise nowadays to monitor and safeguard SSSI areas or enforce their protection, they now possessing too few staff.  Flooding of the area containing the meanders with largely seawater has probably caused untold damage to the surrounding specie-rich grasslands, polluted and destroyed the rich biodiversity of neighbouring ponds and ditches – these also now unfit for watering of livestock.  The meanders are now more salty than they would normally be, so affecting the life within them.  The grazier of the Country Park will have temporarily lost a significant amount of his grazing pasture.

Funding cuts by successive Conservative governments have emasculated the above two important statutory agencies, one supposedly protecting us from pollution and rising sea levels, the other supposedly acting as guardian against damaging land management, short-sighted development of our diverse countryside and is now banned from criticising government policy.  So the moral of this sad microcosm of a tale with the approach of a General Election is, if you value our public services, value your countryside and its wildlife, then whatever you do, oppose the Conservative Party!  Regarding Brexit, if enacted, we are likely to be saddled with lower environmental regulations than in Europe.

Monty Larkin      (www.montylarkin.co.uk)

cc to the following:

BBC South East                  south.today@bbc.co.uk

Eastbourne Herald           laura.sonier@jpimedia.co.uk

The Argus                        editor@theargus.co.uk

The Guardian                  alan.evans@theguardian.com   and                                             natalie.hanman@theguardian.com

Sussex Express           sussex.express@jpress.co.uk

Eastbourne and Lewes respective MP’s.                                stephen.lloyd.mp@parliament.uk    maria.caulfield.mp@parliament.uk

 

Future of the Exmoor Pony Grazing Scheme

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.

October 2016. Ponies grazing at Shooters Bottom near Beachy Head.

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.

 

Ash Dieback Predicted to Cost £15B in Britain

by Hollie Anderson, PR Officer & Celebrity Liaison, The Woodland Trust.

May 6 2019.

Wilting leaves on an Ash tree.

A team of researchers from the University of Oxford, Fera Science, Sylva Foundation and the Woodland Trust has calculated the true economic cost of ash dieback in Britain which are staggering:

  • The total cost of ash dieback to the UK is estimated to be £15 billion.
  • Half of this (£7 billion) will be over the next 10 years.
  • The total cost is 50 times larger than the annual value of trade in live plants to and from Britain, which is the most important route by which invasive plant diseases enter the country.
  • There are 47 other known tree pests and diseases that could arrive in Britain and which may cost an additional £1 billion or more.

The predicted costs arise from clearing up dead and dying trees and in lost benefits provided by trees, e.g. water and air purification and carbon sequestration.  The loss of these services is expected to be the biggest cost to society, while millions of ash trees also line Britain’s roads and urban areas and clearing up these dangerous trees will cost billions of pounds.

Dr Louise Hill, researcher at Plant Sciences at the University of Oxford and lead author of the study, said: “The numbers of invasive tree pests and diseases are increasing rapidly, and this is mostly driven by  human activities, such as trade in live plants and climate change.  Nobody has estimated the total cost of a tree disease before and we were quite shocked at the magnitude of the cost to society.  We estimate the total may be £15 billion – that’s a third more than the reported cost of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak in 2001. The consequences of tree diseases for people really haven’t been fully appreciated before now.”

Dr Nick Atkinson, senior conservation adviser for the Woodland Trust and co-author of the paper, said: “When ash dieback first entered the country, no one could have fully predicted the devastating impact it would have on our native habitats.  To see how this has also affected our economy speaks volumes for how important tree health is, and that it needs to be taken very seriously.  It is clear that to avoid further economic and ecological impacts, we need to invest more in plant bio-security measures. This includes better detection, interception and prevention of other pests and diseases entering the country. We need to learn from past mistakes and make sure our countryside avoids yet another blow.”

The scientists say that the total cost could be reduced by replanting lost ash trees with other native trees, but curing or halting the disease is not possible.  They advise that the government’s focus now has to be on preventing introductions of other non-native diseases to protect our remaining tree species.

Background.  Ash dieback is a fungal disease, originally from Asia, which is lethal to Europe’s native ash trees. It was first found in Britain in 2012 and is thought to have been brought to the UK years earlier on infected imported ash trees. It is expected to kill 95-99% of ash trees in Britain.