What is it?
Rudyard Kipling described the South Downs as "Our blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs”. This landscape of rolling hills and valleys is underpinned by its geology. Thin soils and unimproved flower rich grassland overlay white porous chalk (limestone) made up of dead marine animals laid down over millions of years. This porous rock holds much of the drinking water the people of Sussex rely on. Clean chalk springs surge from the base of its scarp slopes, such as the one found at Fulking and Edburton. These springs fed streams meander through the landscape supporting an unusual diversity of wildlife including important fish populations and many specialist insect species.
An iconic landscape of Sussex and Hampshire this linear feature is made up of closely cropped grassland, arable fields and steeply growing “Hanger woods”. Archaeological evidence has revealed that this landscape has been inhabited and utilized for thousands of years. This can be seen in the ancient hillforts and earthworks found along its length. Many of its rare habitats are the result of this human influence, something we try and emulate to avoid further loss.
Why is it Special?
Downland turf is one this country’s richest habitats. One of the most common statistics used to define this unimproved grassland is “up to 50 different plants can be recorded in one square meter of turf”. More plants can be found in a square of Downland turf than in any other habitat. These include many rarities such as round headed rampion, chalk milkwort and bastard toad flax. These rare species sit cheek by jowl with different grasses including quaking grass and sheeps fescue, flowering plants including birds foot trefoil and wild thyme, orchids such as burnt orchid and musk. All provide valuable food and shelter to many species of insect and butterfly. Downland butterflies include Adonis blue and silver spotted skipper and moths such as scarce forester.
However this rare chalk grassland habitat has declined by over 90% over the twentieth century. Neglect and changing farming practices have seen many flower rich meadows disappear under scrub, woodland or just ploughed up.
How do we manage it?
Historically this landscape was the result of hundreds of years of intense sheep grazing. However with many ancient meadows now under scrub and woodland its management is much harder. Grazing with sheep and cattle though still at the heart of how we manage this habitat many hours are spent clearing scrub and woodland from its steep slopes. Over the winter month’s volunteers help clear areas of scrub followed in the summer with more cutting and raking off of the regrowth. This is always followed up with grazing.
Restoration of these rare and rich grasslands can take many decades of aftercare once lost.
When to visit?
Winter can provide you with views of the beautiful bare bones of this rolling landscape. However summer is the best time. Between May and August many of our rare butterflies and wild flowers can be enjoyed. You have two opportunities to see Adonis blue butterflies as they have two broods, one in May then again in August.