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 the start of our new Stewardship agreement we applied for a grant to remove all the tree stumps left from the initial plantation clearance some ten years ago. This was to make subsequent cutting management to control bramble much more readily achieved. The work was duly carried out during January and February, with a huge pile of ripped-out stumps made at one end of the Reserve. The visual impact of this work surprised everyone, we had considered this to be an open landscape, with little interference from the stumps: we were mistaken! The real benefit was when the worst bramble areas came to be cut. Now there are no ‘hidey-holes’ around stumps and a more complete cut can be achieved. In order to protect the heather areas from an inappropriate cut all the patches we could find were marked with a post knocked securely into the ground.
As with Underbeacon, a graze by the National Trust stock preceded the work and only half of the total area was cut. Due to the late grazing many flowers will be later in showing this year, but the overall outcome will be worth it.
Although we have the requisite permissions to re-fence the SSSI and the Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM) we are still waiting for permission from the Forestry Commission to fell a 3m strip of the plantation which abuts hard onto the SSSI and even crosses the SAM in places. We are grateful to the Cowdray Estate Woodlands Manager for helping with this, but he has many other calls on his time - especially with the dramatic impact of Ash Die-back on safety along roads and public paths, and we must wait our turn. Those sections of fencing outside the felling area are, however, being re-fenced as this is being written.
To continue the bramble control management at Heyshott Down a half-area cut has been carried out this year too. There are some areas where we felt that the previous two-years’ worth of cutting had resulted in considerable reduction in bramble, and other areas where bramble is becoming a clear problem, so there is some difference in the areas being cut.
At all the Reserves these areas are recorded on a cutting plan for 2019, so that we know where we managed before planning next year’s cut. All cutting aims to provide a variety of structural features in the grassland spread across the site - described to me by a pair of intrigued American visitors I met at Devil’s Jumps as ‘drunken mowing’. At both Heyshott Down and Devil’s Jumps the ‘drunk’ had clear instructions to miss certain areas where it was thought there was a Tree Pipit nest site. Mission accomplished, the Pipit was seen to fly up at Devil’s Jumps the very next day.
All our fencing is failing at the same time, probably because most of it was installed at about the same time; the exception to this being the very first fences on the eastern side of the Escarpment. The posts here are treated with tin-based preservative, which has now been phased out due to problems of leaching into water supplies. Never-the-less, even this is starting to fail and, once Heyshott Down fencing is completed, our attention must turn to the complex and demanding task of dealing with fencing on the steep slopes of the Escarpment.
Needless to say, this will also be based on metal posting - with a 30 year guaranteed life, much better than the 7-9 years we are getting from chestnut in most situations. This lack of effective fencing means that grazing has been delayed here too; most grassland management relying on the heroic efforts of the Trust’s volunteers, led by Mike Hadley and John Murray. A spectacular area on the eastern side was cut, raked up and burnt over the winter.
We shouldn’t overlook, however, the management provided by walker’s shoes. Whilst regular heavy walking pressure kills everything - the cliff path to Seven Sisters from Seaford being a striking example of this - a little, occasional treading, such as the lesser-used paths on the Escarpment can be a good management tool, keeping the more strongly growing species in check and allowing space for less competitive species to show. Close by the path past the reservoir on the western escarpment is, this year, a good-sized clump of one of our rarest downland plants at Heyshott - Round-headed Rampion Phyteuma orbiculare and, for the first time which I have noticed on the reserve, a single plant of the showy Greater Knapweed Centaurea scabiosa, certainly one to try and spread seed of at Underbeacon.
Prize for tenacity under footfall - indeed even an absolute requirement for it - must go to the tiny liverwort Jungermania atrovirens which was growing on the damp chalk towards the inside of the steps going up the hill on the eastern side. It needs to be on rock and damp, something which several important mosses and liverworts at Heyshott require. Keeping areas of bare, damp chalk is rather a challenge, so thank goodness for visitors!
On the general theme that it never rains but it pours: your Trustees are now considering what the Trust should do about Ash Dieback. For several years we have been looking at the Ash on the Reserve and thinking ourselves lucky that we seemed to be escaping - not any longer! Large sections around the Shoot Ride (between the eastern and western spurs of the Escarpment) are seriously affected, as are several large trees on both spurs. The issues are:
Diseased trees may pose a danger to visitors to the reserve as they start dropping dead branches.
Diseased trees are best removed before the disease has taken a serious hold as such trees become very dangerous, even impossible, to fell the further the disease progresses.
There will be some trees which are resistant to the infection and we want to conserve these, without compromising the safety of visitors and contractors.
The site is very difficult to work and removal of timber felled for safety is not possible or practicable in many places.
Felling trees may be expensive, especially on the steepest slopes. Some off-setting through sales of firewood may be possible, but this assumes that the wood can be moved easily to a collection point- not always practicable.
This problem is not going to go away any time soon; much of the established landscape of the western South Downs scarp will be changed through the loss of most of the Ash, in a similar way that the Sussex Coastal Plain landscape changed during Dutch Elm disease fifty years ago. We will get used to this - indeed over half the current inhabitants of Sussex have never seen the coastal plain differently - but during the change it may be quite uncomfortable. The recent clearing along the Midhurst to Chichester road has generated much understandable, but poorly considered, negative comment: we must be prepared to justify our actions as we deal with the situation.
As reported last year, the ongoing management of this Reserve is under some doubt with the resignation of our long-standing volunteer Reserve Manager David Petche. Several attempts have been made to find a replacement solution to this and we have settled, eventually, for asking Andrew Bray, the farmer, whether he can help with grazing the site. This has been agreed and Buriton will be grazed by his sheep at the end of July. After this we need to have a look and see what other management needs to take place and whether we are in a position to undertake this.