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.

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 Seven Sisters Country Park?

This month you may be surprised to know, that is the 50th anniversary of the Countryside Act 1968, which allowed for the creation of our Country Parks. These have played a crucial part in allowing people to visit the countryside, spend the day exploring, getting away from the hustle and bustle, or perhaps to introducing their young families to the great outdoors.

There are more than 400 recognised Country Parks in England and Wales, attracting millions of visitors a year. The majority are owned and run by local authorities but there is a real risk that cuts to green space budgets for staff, maintenance and a lack of funding and investment will mean that increasingly, some country parks will and indeed are facing decline in the coming years.

Recently, there were two article on the BBC’s Countryfile programme of August 12th 2018 highlighting the dilemma of East Sussex County Council (ESCC).  From its budget of £371M per year, its 10 countryside sites cost in the region of £400K per year – and that is currently with insufficient staff to carry out all the necessary work.  The two largest sites that they manage are the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat near Seaford and Chailey Common Local Nature Reserve, (the latter which they do not own).  The ESCC is currently reviewing how to manage these important sites in the future bearing in mind that in the coming financial year they have got to find another £17M of savings.  See the following link for further details:

https://democracy.eastsussex.gov.uk/documents/s20912/LMTE%202018.07.16%20Countryside%20Access%20Strategy%20Report.doc.pdf

Of particular concern to me is the Seven Sisters Country Park – one of the earlier and larger country parks created; it is already being poorly managed through government-induced cuts incurred by ESCC and a lack of supervision of the huge subsidy that the current farm tenant receives because of the emasculation of the government’s own conservation organisation, English Nature.  The conservation value of this Country Park now falls far below of what it was decades ago.  Options to be considered leading on from the above report include various combination of shared responsibility to the out-right sale of the property.

I have worked in countryside management and conservation for 40 years, half of that time being closely involved with the Seven Sisters Country Park.  Based upon that experience and in particular having worked with both the front runners for involvement in the Country Park – the Sussex Wildlife Trust and The National Trust, I would say after careful consideration and without reservation, that The National Trust’s involvement with managing at least, the landscape and conservation elements of this large and popular countryside site would be far and away my preferred option.  The National Trust already has a large landholding within the vicinity of the Seven Sisters Country Park – Birling Gap, Crowlink, Gayles Farm, Exceat Salting, half of Chyngton Farm, Frog Firle and The Clergy House.  They have the in-house experience of managing buildings and visitor services, they holding an international reputation in this field.  They also have an outstanding countryside team based at Birling Gap who manage their wider countryside estate, which has access to a wide field of specialist advisers – archaeology, farm management, vegetation etc.

Courtesy of Svetla Petkova Atanasova

 

New Bridge for Exceat

Two similar schemes were drawn up during the 20th century regarding Exceat Bridge. Refer to my book “Seven Sisters” for more.  Available from www.montylarkin.co.uk or local bookshops & countryside centres.

Cash Boost To Tackle East Sussex Congestion Hotspot.  [Abridged]

Brighton News, Wednesday, June 28th, 2017.

EXCEAT BRIDGE. IMAGE CREDIT OAST HOUSE ARCHIVE CC BY-SA 2.0

Members of East Sussex County Council’s cabinet agreed plans to use a government grant to build a new two-lane bridge to replace the current one-lane Exceat Bridge over the Cuckmere river.

The Government has confirmed that East Sussex County Council will receive £2.13million from its National Productivity investment fund – a pot of money designed to help councils improve journey times and cut congestion.

Cllr Rupert Simmons, the county council’s lead member for economy, said: “We want to improve connectivity across the county and have, for some time, been looking for solutions to the issue of Exceat Bridge. As well as being frustrating for motorists, the bottleneck does nothing to help the businesses in our county.

“Our own limited resources would not stretch to funding the construction of the new bridge, but I am delighted that we are able to put government funding designed to address these kinds of problems to good use.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, members were told that this was a first stage in an extensive design, costing and planning process and that any proposal would be subject to discussion and approval from the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA).

Funding of £500,000 has already been approved by the council for maintenance of the bridge – this funding would go towards the construction of the new bridge, should the scheme be successful.

Cllr Simmons added:  “We have considered a number of options to deal with the problems at Exceat, including traffic lights, but it is felt that a new two lane bridge is the only way to effectively deal with the congestion created by the current layout.

“The location of the new bridge is a sensitive one and will need to be carefully designed to minimise the impact it has on the South Downs National Park in which it sits. We look forward to working closely with the SDNPA, doing everything we can to deliver much needed relief to motorists using the A259 and taking steps to help the growth of our economy.”

Possible designs and costings will be reported back to Cabinet in early 2018.

Thoughts on Farming and Rivers

June 17.  A dear friend of mine went for a walk out from Alfriston today, in the heart of the South Downs and through the Cuckmere Valley.  He was commenting on the “crops gently swaying in the breeze. How lucky we are to have such diligent farmers growing our fine food.”  I don’t know about diligent, they and the agro-chemical industry have certainly messed-up the once wonderful balance that used to exist between farming and wildlife.

There is a middle way of doing things, note The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s Allerton Project is based at Loddington in Leicestershire – (https://www.gwct.org.uk/allerton/about-the-allerton-project/ )  Or the RSPB’s Hope Farm, a 181-hectare (450-acre) arable farm in Cambridgeshire (https://www.rspb.org.uk/our-work/conservation/conservation-and-sustainability/farming/hopefarm/the_farm.aspx )  The government and public opinion just need to encourage and finance farming post Brexit along that route.

Yellowhammer RSPB

He wrote on: “The Cuckmere river is in a state, either side of white bridge it can’t be more than 6′ [feet] wide, strangled with weed & silt!”  Man interferes with rivers at his peril – note all the Environment Agency schemes across the country reinstating river’s natural features and their courses, back to how they naturally once were in various places across the country. So maybe as it’s not built over, its time to consider breaching the Cuckmere’s banks and let the river re-connect with its floodplain?

Building a CD Library: Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony and Cuckmere Haven!

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b082k795

Building a Library: Vaughan Williams: A London Symphony.

Mark Lowther makes a recommendation from the available recordings. Despite the sound of the famous Westminster chimes, the composer said that while the title may suggest a programmatic piece it was intended to be heard as absolute music. He suggested that “Symphony by a Londoner” might be a better title.

I have just listened to Radio 3’s discussion of recordings of Vaughan-Williams London Symphony, a piece finished in 1914 and which I find particularly moving.  Interestingly, of the two versions I possess, they were both highly praised.  The presenter’s first choice however, was by the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Vernon Handley and recorded in 1957, (he being a champion of British music).

Composer Vernon Handley at Cuckmere Haven.

Composer Vernon Handley at Cuckmere Haven.

He died a few years ago, but I was honoured when in 1987 I negotiated and attended a small BBC film unit, which filmed him on the beach down at Cuckmere Haven discussing the music of composer Frank Bridge who used to live at nearby Friston.  In between shoots, I was lucky enough to be able to talk with him; one thing he said was that in another life, he would have loved to have worked in wildlife conservation!

Erosion of Chalk Cliffs in East Sussex – New Research

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-37893804?utm_content=buffer234ec&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Cosmic clue to UK coastal erosion

By Jonathan Amos, BBC Science Correspondent

7 November 2016

Recent centuries have seen a big jump in the rates of erosion in the iconic chalk cliffs on England’s south coast.  A new study finds that for thousands of years the rocks were being beaten back by the waves at perhaps 2-6cm a year.  The past 150 years has seen this retreat accelerate 10-fold, to more than 20cm a year.

The speed-up was clocked with the aid of a smart technique that tracks changes induced in rocks when they are exposed to energetic space particles.

The research, led from the British Geological Survey and conducted by Martin Hurst and colleagues, is reported in the leading American journal, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The group believes the findings will help us understand some of the coming impacts of climate change.  “Our coasts are going to change in the future as a result of sea-level rise and perhaps increased storminess, and we want this work to inform better forecasts of erosion,” Dr Hurst, currently affiliated to Glasgow University, told BBC News.

The research was centred on East Sussex and its towering cliffs at Beachy Head and Hope Gap.

Originally laid down 90 million years ago, these soft chalk faces are now being eaten away by the relentless pounding they get from the sea.cliffs-1Rood and Hurst on the platform.  Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL

Image caption

Care is needed because the platform’s exposure can appear more recent than is really the case.

Dr Hurst’s team was able to estimate the pace of this reversal by examining the amount of beryllium-10 in nodules of flint embedded in the eroded platform in front of the cliffs.  The radioactive element is produced when cosmic rays – that constantly shower the Earth – hit oxygen atoms in the flints’ quartz minerals.  The longer the nodules have been exposed, the greater their build-up of beryllium-10.

At Beachy Head and Hope Gap, the gently sloping platform, which is only uncovered at low tide, extends seaward several hundred metres.  It represents all that is left after millennia of cliff removal.

“The lower rates of erosion that we report – about 2.5cm at Hope Gap and around 6cm at Beachy Head – are averaged over that timeframe – through about the past 7,000 years of the Holocene,” explained Dr Hurst.

“But comparing that to observations based on topographic maps and aerial photography of the last 150 years – the difference is quite stark. These historical observations from 1870 to the present suggest erosion rates of 20-30cm a year at the two sites.”

cliffs-2

Flint nodules.  Image copyrightMARTIN HURST ET AL

The team removed flints for beryllium testing in a line perpendicular to the cliffs.  The estimates of change in the deep past are tricky because the platform appears younger than it really is.  This stems from the fact that its surface continues to erode downwards, removing its oldest exposed flints. The regular tidal covering of water also has to be considered because it will restrict the flux of cosmic rays reaching the platform, thus limiting the amount of beryllium that can be induced in the nodules.

But the team is confident in its analysis and puts forward some ideas to explain the recent big up-tick in erosion.  These concern the available gravels at the foot of the cliffs that constitute the beach.  Ordinarily, this material acts as a buffer, limiting the energy of crashing waves.

But there is good evidence that the beaches in this region of the south coast have got thinner through time and perhaps therefore offer less protection today than they once did.  In the modern era, groynes and sea walls have been erected further down the coast and these may have interfered with the along-shore transport of gravels. And further back in time, several hundred years ago, it is possible also that there was a phase of more storms. These could have removed significant volumes of gravel and pushed the rates of erosion into a new, more aggressive regime that persists even now.

Co-author Dr Dylan Rood from Imperial College London told BBC News: “The coast is clearly eroding, and Britain has retreated fast. A nearly tenfold increase in retreat rates over a very short timescale, in geological terms, is remarkable.

“The UK cannot leave the issue of cliff erosion unresolved in the face of a warming world and rising sea levels. Cliff erosion is irreversible; once the cliffs retreat, they are gone for good.”

 

Parrotfeather – An Invasive Water Plant

Yesterday, I stopped off to view West Dean Brooks, situated in the Cuckmere Valley near Seaford, part of the Seaford to Beachy Head SSSI… I was alarmed by the amount of Parrotfeather growing in the roadside ditch.  I recall that some 20 years ago, when part of my remit was a management input into this area, I would occasionally stop-off and carefully hand rake out, the small quantity then growing.  Routine mechanical weed clearance by the EA over the years has very likely spread this weed along the main feeder ditch.

weed_parfeather2_gm parrot image

No ecological benefits are associated with Parrotfeather ( Myriophyllum aquaticum), it being an introduced specie native to the Amazon in South America. It prefers a warm mild climate although it can survive temperate winters.  Parrotfeather grows best in still waters such as lakes, ponds, quiet streams and drainage ditches and is also able to survive in rivers. Vegetative reproduction is the only likely dispersal agent because female plants are not found in the UK.  Fragments can be carried by water birds and floodwaters from one location to another.

Parrotfeather readily takes over lakes, ponds and streams outcompeting native plants. It is an especially problematic plant because it is so difficult to control.  Once it enters into a water body, it takes a considerable and costly effort to eliminate it.

Parrotfeather provides an ideal habitat for mosquito larvae and the mass of the plant can increase the likelihood of flooding occurring. It may also block passage for fish species when they navigate up watercourses to spawn.  In addition, it can cause pH and other water quality issues in still water areas.  The tough stems make it difficult to boat, swim or fish.

While Parrotfeather may provide cover for some aquatic organisms, it can seriously change the physical and chemical characteristics of lakes and streams. Infestations can alter aquatic ecosystems by shading out the algae in the water column that serve as the basis of the aquatic food web.

Treatment Options.

Various herbicides are produced which can be applied to aquatic habitats but they are indiscriminate with regard to native plant species, are of course poisons and chemical treatment is expensive and would probably require several applications.

Physical Removal Options.

Mechanical cutting, nets and rakes can be used to control Parrotfeather BUT without great care, fragmentation is very likely to cause further dispersal as even tiny fragments can re-grow.  Therefore, mechanical control is not recommended unless the waterbody in question is significantly infested.  Cleaning and inspection of machinery and tools before being transported on to another aquatic site is recommended.

Plant Description.

Parrotfeather is an herbaceous aquatic plant that grows to a length of 6.5 to 16 feet. Its stems are greenish blue with numerous small leaves that resemble feathers. The leaves are either submersed or emergent and grow in whorls of 4 to 6 around the stem. This species is easily confused with the native water milfoils but those don’t have above water leaves.

Look for:

  • Bright green fir-tree-like; emergent leaves and stems
  • Leaflets arranged in whorls (4-6) around the stem
  • Leaflets with feather-like leaf arrangement
  • Dense mat of intertwined brownish stems (rhizomes) in the water
  • Reddish, feathery-leaved, limp, underwater leaves may be present

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.