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.

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.

 

Beautiful June 1st!

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.

Rewilding Making Strides Across Europe

Balkan chamois

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.

https://rewildingeurope.com/category/news/

 

Farewell Dear Ponies…

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.

June 2018. Ponies grazing on Gayles Farm.

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.

Sussex police briefly close the busy A272 at Chailey Common to enable Sussex Pony Grazing’s ponies to cross to summer grazing area. (Image courtesy of Linda Ball).

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.’

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

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.

Wild Sussex Downs – Take a Walk on the Wildside.

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!

It is also an example of how the invasive tor grass which is native to the Downs has spread due to fertilizing from modern-day atmospheric pollution.  look for the bright green patches – that’s it!

Plight of Our Chalk Grasslands

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.

 

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.

Staying In An Countryside Idyll.

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!