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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
BATS. Two interesting facts on long distance migration of bats have been made known. In December 2013, a specie of Pipistrelle was found in northern Netherlands, having been ringed in Somerset some three years earlier. The second involved one being trapped during October 2015 in East Sussex, it having been ringed as a sub-adult two months earlier in Latvia. In its first year of life, this bat had made a journey of 1,460km over a period of some seven weeks.
COUNTRYSIDE STEWARDSHIP. England’s agri-environment scheme is said to be a shambles. With an inflexible start date of 1st January, some farmers are being left financially high and dry because their previous HLS Scheme ends after 1st January, they then being out of pocket for 11 months. Complexity of CS and insufficient Natural England staff to administer the scheme are making matters worse.
PESTICIDES and GAMEBIRDS. Work carried out in Sussex by the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust have shown that foliar insecticides and insecticidal seed dressings are having a significant effect on the species of insect that are important food sources for young game birds. No wonder many of our farmland bird species are struggling!
PESTICIDE BAN. Meanwhile, perhaps France is showing the way forward, for there will be a total ban on pesticide use in public gardens, parks and forests. As from 2019, this ban will be extended to prohibit use in private gardens (apart from use by professionals). This seems a good idea when seeing the amount shelf space devoted to pesticides in our garden centres (not to mention the stench coming from them). Many people reach for their killer of choice without a clue of the environmental damage some of these concoctions can have!
NITROGEN. The Plant Link UK network has issued a new report, ‘We Need To Talk About Nitrogen…’ and it has the backing of the National Trust, Woodland Trust and the RSPB. It highlights the serious damage that nitrogen deposition is having upon the UK’s semi-natural habitats and wildlife. I’ve been banging on about this problem for years, one which partially instigated my setting-up in the 1990’s of conservation grazing by ponies in Sussex.
Prof Mark Sutton from the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology has been appointed Chair of the International Nitrogen Initiative. Prof Sutton said that ‘in the EU alone, the fertilizer value of nitrogen losses from agriculture is around 14 billion Euros per year, equivalent to losing 25% of the European Agricultural Policy (CAP) budget (or 10% of the entire EU budget) up in smoke or down the drain.’
DEFRA DEFICIENT. There’s a widespread feeling in Westminster that DEFRA will not be up to the job of sorting out the huge amount of environmental law and new agricultural regulation following Brexit. Since 2006 the department has lost 2,285 members from its core staff. It has also suffered from crippling and on-going cuts to its budget. Put in context, currently the Civil Service is leaner than it has been since the Second World War and simply does not have the capacity to deal with the gargantuan task of leaving the EU.
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.
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).
A couple of days ago I stopped-off at Birling Gap to have my lunch…
I noticed while standing at the top of the steps that go down to the beach, how grey and course the shingle appeared. Presumably this indicated that this material is of relatively newly exposed flint. There was a large cliff-fall mid-way along the Seven Sisters back in the summer which no doubt has contributed,it now completely dispersed by the sea. Shingle is in the main, of a brownish hue due to exposure over time to iron compounds in the seawater.
The land to the east of Birling Gap appears much improved from the now regular winter pony grazing. This week there were still a number of plants still in flower. Scrub clearance by National Trust staff and volunteers has also had a marked effect on this once un-managed area.
A herd of ponies were grazing on Eastbourne BC’s Belle Tout area, the first of the autumn/winter grazing of four sites within the Birling/Beachy Head area this season.