Our downland nature reserves at Malling Down and Southerham Farm sit on the fringes of the East Sussex county town of Lewes, with Malling Down dominating the easterly skyline of this quaint historic town.
Both sit within the chalk massif of the Lewes Downs and are part of the South Downs National Park. They share their space with Glyndbourne and Glynde estates and the Lewes Golf Course. The ancient hillfort of Mount Caburn is found on the south-easterly corner of the Lewes Downs, overlooking the main stretch of the South Downs separated by the River Ouse and surrounding wet meadows that extend down to the sea at Newhaven. This ancient hillfort is often highlighted by paragliders hanging in mid-air above its earth works.
Malling Down and Southerham Farm are exceptional examples of the rare chalk grassland habitat found across the South Downs. In serious decline, these endangered meadows are one of the country’s richest habitats floristically. Thin, infertile soils sitting over chalk produce amazing flower-rich grassland. The thin soils and porous chalk, a rock made up of millions of sea creatures laid down in a vast shallow ocean over millions of years, provide the key elements of this rich grassland. Poor in nutrients and dry as a desert in the summer, plants have adapted to the harsh conditions. No one plant has the vigour to outcompete its neighbour, with a huge range sitting cheek by jowl. Traditionally a square metre of turf can hold up to fifty different plants, with grass only making a small percentage of the mix. Alongside this plant diversity, one can find many butterflies and insects that rely on specific food plants and nectar from this wealth of flowering flora.
This landscape is the result of man’s influence over millennia. Grazing animals, mainly sheep, have been the prevalent farming practice across the South Downs since man first began farming in the south. This pastoral landscape evolved because of its thin soils, too shallow to successfully grow crops, scrub and tree cover were easily and quickly cleared and the grassland dominated. Reliance on man to maintain this grassland has never gone away. Without intervention, this rare habitat would be lost. With the decline in grazing in the mid twentieth century, the South Downs lost 95% of its chalk grassland. Trees and scrub quickly began to recolonise, reducing this habitat to steep, inaccessible Rabbit-grazed slopes and lone farms which continued to graze with sheep. We continue this historical management using our own livestock to maintain the grassland and hundreds of volunteer man hours are spent restoring lost grassland by clearing scrub and trees.
Walking on Malling Down you can see a marked difference from its sister site Southerham Farm. Visitors can lose themselves in the ancient grass-covered mounds of the quarries or the deeply cut dry valley of the grassland, which provides shelter and a wide range of habitats for wildlife. Standing at the highest point looking north, you can look across the Sussex Weald and see the Ashdown Forest in the far distance. Looking south, Lewes dominates both visually and by smell with the local brewery emanating the aroma of cooking hops, part of its beer making process.
Orchids have been an important component of Malling Down with the Common Spotted and Fragrant Orchids frequently seen in the early summer on the sheltered slopes of the northerly quarries. You can try to find our rarer orchids such as Musk and Frog Orchid barely 5cm tall, remember to look before sitting down. Walking the Coombe in early summer you can see the bright yellow of Horseshoe Vetch covering the ‘snout’.
The ‘snout’ is a great place to look for the Adonis Blue butterfly, which has over the years bucked national trends at Malling Down by increasing in numbers. The vivid blue of this busy butterfly can be seen on the short turves of the southerly slopes together with the Silver-spotted Skipper. Both butterflies have benefited from conservation grazing along the South Downs. The Coombe is also a great place to look for the yellow Common Rock-rose the food plant of the scarce Cistus Forester, an iridescent green day-flying moth.