Last year, due to needing the fencing work completed, we were not able to do an early summer graze but had to be content with cutting half the reserve with a flail. This year, however, we have been able to graze, following this by a mow of the worst bramble areas. By doing these operations one after the other the amount of cut vegetation dropped onto the turf has been greatly reduced. Indeed, with the stock remaining on site during the mowing, this ‘dropped’ vegetation was even further reduced, an excellent outcome all round.
The grass is reducing in vigour and density over large parts of the site and we recorded the first Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) alongside numerous Pyramidal (Anacamptis pyramidalis) and Spotted Orchids (Dactylorchis fuchsii). A single plant of Harebell (Campanula rotundifolia), several plants of Common Milkwort (Polygala vulgaris) and quite a few of Salad Burnet (Sanguisorba minor) provided a welcome expansion of our known plant list for the site.
As reported last year, we have taken an approach of deliberately enriching the extant flora by means of spreading seed taken from our other downland reserves, or areas close to them. This seed was sown into both areas of finer turf and onto the bare ground scrapes created last year. Noticing germination in the established finer grasses is a distinctly difficult task; much more straightforward to find small seedlings in the bare ground scrapes. Here we have small plants of Vipers Bugloss (Echium vulgare), Mignonette (Reseda lutea), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria) and Wild Carrot (Daucus carota). It may take a couple more years before seed sown directly into the grass becomes visible as flowering plants.
I also tried planting out plug plants of several species, including Cowslip (Primula veris) and Devil’s-bit Scabious (Succisa pratensis) into the bare ground. Here a combination of extended drought this spring and hungry deer thwarted me: every plant was eaten off, pulled out of the ground and discarded on the scrape. Not worth it!
We will be collecting seed from the same kinds of plants later this year for more ‘in field’ sowing in the Autumn, hopefully after a second graze from the National Trust stock.
At Devil’s Jumps our intentions to restore areas of chalk heath continue well, not forgetting the high-quality chalk grassland on the Jumps themselves. Here the stand of Round-headed Rampion Phyteuma orbiculare, first seen almost ten years ago, now occupies several square metres. Small Scabious Scabiosa columbaria also is doing well, complete with the small specialist mining bee Andrena marginata.
On the acidic areas the heathers, Calluna vulgaris and Erica cinerea are spreading, the Erica possibly more so than the Calluna. One of the earlier small patches now covers a square metre. The drought has suppressed the grass growth considerably, providing small areas of bare ground where, with autumn and winter rains, we can expect yet more new plants to germinate.
All this is being aided greatly by the programme of mixed grazing and cutting being undertaken by the National Trust (grazing) and our contractors. This year the acid grassland was grazed in June whilst the chalk grassland was fenced off. A further area of the acid grassland was cut to help control Bramble in May. Some plants of Bramble close to heathers were dug out in early May and this will be repeated over the next year.
The contrast between the areas which have been cut over the past two years and those which have not been cut is most marked, not least because the cattle prefer grazing on the cut areas.
The uncut area, however, is, as at Heyshott Down, attractive to another important resident of the MDT Reserves, the small passerine bird the Tree Pipit. For a second year running a displaying male was present in this area. As we gain control over bramble and the threat of increasing European Gorse Ulex europaeus we will be leaving islands of more scrubby plants to grow for several years, mowing round them, before eventually they are taken back into the mowing pattern and new areas left. As part of this we intend to undertake another round of partial Birch removal over the winter.
Tree Pipits were again breeding on Heyshott Down, this time at both ends of the reserve. some of the islands of taller vegetation left at the Graffham End are now scheduled for cutting over the winter, with new areas being left in their place. The furthest cross dyke was cut over in May and this area is now in much better overall condition than it has been for some time past. As it is not possible to graze this area because we cannot fence through the Ancient Monument, this will always need to be managed through cutting.
Uncertainty over the route of the northern boundary fence has meant that it has not been possible to grazed the area for a second year and a May cut has been undertaken again. Here too, the drought has helped greatly in restricting the growth of grasses, with a sheer carpet of flowers covering many areas of the reserve in early August. The fenceline is now resolved, with great support from the Inspector for English Heritage and, as this is being written, work has re-commenced on completing this ready for grazing in the autumn.
We shall need to continue with cutting for some time to manage larger areas of Bramble, but we are confident this works well, especially combined with grazing. It is now quite hard to distinguish the former rough ’hedge’ alongside the trackway which was removed ten years ago!
Here, too, the eventual rotting of some of the woodlenfwnceposts has meant that we are not able to contain cattle and management has been through the stirling efforts of the volunteers alone.
Our major pre-occupation this year has been dealing with the fall-out from Ash Die-back, which has hit this section of the Downs with considerable force. We have concentrated our efforts on maintaining safety on the two ‘arms’ of the Escarpment, plus the lower trackway between these. The ‘Guardsman’s Path’ higher up between these arms is particularly hard hit. The steepness of the woodland either side of this path means that infected trees provide a threat over large sections and we have closed the path until it can be made safe again.
Trees which were clearly not going to leaf well in 2020 (their terminal buds were dead), were marked up and felled during the winter of 2019/2020, following Forestry Commission guidance. The biggest change here has been in the coombe and along the lower track. The several large trees which made this a very shut-in and shady place all had severe die-back and had to be removed. The outcome has been stunning, very much an unintended benefit - including to the good-sized Field Maple half-way along which has responded to the increased light and air with rapid growth. The track itself has dried out and become much more readily passable.
Some trees which appeared to be healthy were also marked to keep a watch on. Some of these, unfortunately, have since succumbed and we will need to commission a further round of felling in the coming winter. Hopefully that will mark the end of large-scale felling and we can consider how to replace the several large Ash trees which formed part of our overall plan for a sunny woodland glade.
Fortunately the timber we removed was still largely in saleable condition and we were able to off-set a helpful proportion of the overall costs of this clearance.
Once all the consequences of Ash Die-back, including ongoing damage to fencelines from falling and cutting trees, has been removed we hope to return to re-fencing. As elsewhere, this will be with Clipex as this has a 30+ year lifetime, against 6-10 years with wood. The major cost is not the material but the labour, especially with a site as awkward of access as Heyshott Escarpment.
Our smallest reserve and furthest away from the Midhurst area, managing this has been problematic since the retirement of the voluntary Warden David Petche and his associated helpers. Last year the owner of the field, Mr Bray, offered to help by putting his sheep into the reserve to graze. After two years of this management the grassland has become considerably less rank and they have made some impact on the Hemp Agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum. The woody Bramble Rubus species and Dogwood Cornus sanguinea are not so easily vanquished and, in order to make the best of the help being given, we need to organise some additional physical cutting management in the near future.