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.
Early in the week, I had to check the 12 ponies on the combined commons at Chailey. They were together with the 9 longhorn cattle, both groups in exactly the same spots, the ponies grazing, the cattle laying down chewing the cud, again exactly the same. Very dé-jà vu!
Wednesday, 1st. A cold, windy and at times, wet day with the wind from the north-west and unseasonably cool. There’s still a lot of truth in the old saying, ‘cast not a clout till May is out.’ I always maintain the weather is always very variable through much of this month of May.
As I was leaving the downland escarpment above Berwick, driving parallel along the base of a spur that runs out from the main escarpment, I noticed about 200m, away a buzzard making hard work of gaining height, into the strong wind. What really caught my eye, was what was hanging from its talons? I quickly reached for my binoculars and trained them on the bird; it had caught a middling-sized rabbit which was held by its back, the rabbit appearing to be looking down though in reality it was probably dead. Having gained a considerable height, it then let the wind carry it away to the south-east and out of site over the spur.
Thursday, 2nd. Whilst checking out a potential pony grazing site that the Trust had been approached about to the east of Woodingdean, I walked past a small, isolated group of elm trees high up on the wind-swept Downs just to the lee of the crest of the hill. I last walked past these in the early 1970’s with a party being led by my great friend, David Harvey of the then Nature Conservancy Council. I believe they might be of the Cornish clone of the smooth-leaved group? Anyway, they are currently free of the dreaded dutch elm disease.
Saturday, 4th. Whilst driving home, particularly in the Wilmington/Berwick area, I was amazed by the number of moths on the wing. They were probably very largely, all a small whitish specie. The last time i saw numbers like that was whilst driving one evening in the Brecon Beacons nearly 20 years ago.
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.
“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.”
Tues. What a cracking day – well at least weather wise! We spent the morning in ‘hunt the missing Lullington ponies!’ I ended up walking from the SD Way above Jevington to just above Friston pumping station. Eventually all seven appeared from out of Friston Forest half way along the gallops. Once located, we drove them back – they knew towards the end of which, where home was and how to get there!
The local farm is having a major security drive at the moment with a number of vehicle barriers being erected on access points in the Litlington area. Joy riders have become apparently an almost nightly occurrence up on the Downs. These pests had left both gates open where the ponies are and elsewhere, literally driven through some gates in the forest!
In the afternoon at Chailey, we managed to only gather 15 ponies for the night.
Weds. Come the morning, the ponies were still contained within the temporary fenced-off area. Luckily, just outside of which, were standing the missing five ponies. While I made the trip with the first load of ponies to Ashdown Forest, where I became temporarily stuck on the greasy clay created by the overnight rain and had to un-hitch and extract the trailer. Meanwhile back at Chailey, the other five were coaxed in and eventually corralled. By the end of the day, we had five ponies on site on the new grazing area on Ashdown Forest near Nutley, eight ponies on Red House Common and seven ponies awaiting to go to another new site just outside of Brighton.
Wednesday. We removed the three ponies from Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Chailey Warren reserve, one of which was returned to the herd grazing across Chailey Common, bringing the number there up to 20 ponies. (Recently, we obtained another 5 ponies from Suffolk for Chailey). Pic below was taken immediately after it was re-introduced back into the herd – the scene resembled the Serengeti !
Friday. Site meeting to discuss which areas to pony graze on Eastbourne’s coastal downland, the ponies being due to return in late autumn. Eastbourne Borough Council recently approved their new Downland Management Plan in which, pony grazing is now an important element.
Saturday. Went and watched the new film ‘Mr. Holmes’ based on the idea of an elderly, retired Sherlock Holmes played by Ian McKellen. Set during 1947 in East Sussex with Cuckmere Haven, Seven Sisters, Winchelsea and Pett Levels used as locations. I didn’t know there was a railway station at Cuckmere Haven!
[Photograph by Anna Bogg]
Thursday. Five new ponies arriving at Chailey Common having travelled down from Suffolk, after being kindly given to the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust. This takes the number of ponies we now have grazing at Chailey to 19.
March has been and gone… It was what I term ‘a hungry March’ for due to the relative coolness and often cloudy conditions, the native grasses on our pony grazing sites has been very slow in growing. However, an advantage with this situation is that on the three current downland grazing sites, means the ponies are still grazing the ‘thatch’ from last year.
Thursday, March 12th. My daughter – a primary school teacher, had asked be if I would give a talk to her class on 18-19th century smuggling in Sussex, they currently doing a local history project on it. I duly put together a talk for her Year 4 pupils only to then be told that now the whole year was going to attend. Today, the appointed day arrived and it went off very well, they being attentive and asking a lot of questions afterwards. I sensed there was a warm, friendly atmosphere in the school; I also felt very proud of my daughter. School’s so very different from my day!
Friday, March 13th. Today we gathered in the four ponies on Lane End Common at Chailey, there being little left for them to eat and one pony was losing body condition. Commenced feeding the remaining 14 ponies on Red house Common; they will move to the un-fenced common when the road signs are in place. Later, we erected 800m of electric fencing on the National Trust’s Frog Firle property in readiness to move 11 ponies on to the steep Hindover Hill.
The Cuckmere valley still looks very wet – we being lucky for the water level had dropped sufficiently to drive along beneath Hindover to carry out the fencing. The problem I believe, is that the outfall flaps along the riverbank were when installed in the late 50’s, installed too low. They silt-up easily and require regular maintenance and now presumably with the EA’s cut-backs, they’re not being kept operational?