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 includes four acres of a large adjoining block of ancient woodland.  This is composed mainly of ash with some mature 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.

 

Monday, March 23 and another harbinger of spring made itself known – a chiffchaff calling 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.

The wood has been so wet this winter!  Being situated on Ashdown Clay which provides little drainage, it has 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 and being on north-facing slope, the cottage and the woods are being buffeted by a strong and quite cold north-easterly wind, sunshine and hail, making the air feel relatively quite bitter; we’ve resorted to firing up the wood burner!

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.

Countryfile Calendar Competition 2020

As the Sussex Pony Grazing & Conservation Trust is probably about to cease operation, lets send them out on a well pubicised high!  Help Simon King, John Craven and Cerys Matthews to choose the favourite to feature on the front cover of the 2020 Countryfile Calendar.  So ring the tel number below to register your vote for the Exmoors grazing at Belle Tout!

 

https://www.bbc.co.uk/…/the-countryfile-photographic-compet…

My choice is: ‘Pony Trek’ by Ashley Hemsley.

Postscript to this thread:  I recently sent this e-mail to BBC Countryfile concerning the winning entry.

“Dear Countryfile,

I have lived and worked in conservation for 40 years…

The person who won the public Countryfile photo vote took her photo in a studio.  The judges knew this but we the public did not and when we were asked to vote this information was not disclosed.  It may have been on the website but a lot of people, like me, vote with their hearts when they watch the programme.  The picture chosen to grace the cover of the Countryfile calendar is very good but as it was a staged photo in a studio it just can’t compete with the pictures taken in a natural environment.  I find this completely unacceptable; entries should only be considered that are caught live in the wild, outside theatre of the countryside.
To use that dreadful term, this entry amounts to fake news!”

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.

 

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

 

A West Dean Garden and Elm Loss

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.

Part of the garden at The Long house.

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.

Variety ssp. diversafolia back in 2012.

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.

Cull of Ashdown Forest Deer.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-england-sussex-43006793/ashdown-forest-deer-cull-necessary-to-save-lives

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.

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.

Storm Angus

Storm Angus.  Well, after a night of listening to the wind in the trees and the rain lashing down, I received text at 6-30am from my colleague Sally saying as she lives not too far away, she’d go and check the electric fencing on the 3 coastal pony grazing sites near Beachy Head.  7-30, she text to say she’d sorted the battered fences at Frances Bottom.  8-30am and another text, saying that the cliff top fence at Shooters Bottom towards Belle Tout was in one hell of a mess, so I phoned and said I’d set set-off immediately to assist her.  This fence would have taken the full brunt of the storm.

When I arrived on site at 9-30, I’ve not seen electric fencing so blown about, some it in small heaps even with the odd metal stake still attached and within it!  We basically had to untangle the three lines of wire and tape, and re-erect most of the 850 metres of the cliff facing fence, we finishing at about midday.  Conditions were very windy at first and quite cold but at least it was dry.

20161120_094656

20161120_094707

These two pics I took just before 9-30, before starting work and showing the white surf on the rocks below Belle Tout and the fencing largely laying on the ground.

We then went on to Birling Gap and fortunately Nick the looker there for today is quite practical and he’d turned the power off and had just about finished re-ercting sections by the time we arrived. Fortunately, it usually works that the ponies move away from the wind thus retreating from where the fence is being damaged and where they could get out.  Just for good measure, I then walked the 1700 metres of fencing at Ashdown Forest on the way home.

Statistics.  The shipping forecast was for the possibility of a Force 10 Storm but out at the Greenwich Light Buoy, 20 miles out from the coast off Peacehaven, the maximum wind speed briefly recorded was at 7am and at 75mph, technically into the Force 12 Hurricane zone.  (This, it has to be remembered is over open sea where wind speeds are a little higher).