Making the Connections – Joining up the Chalk Downland Habitats in the Cerne Valley

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 4 of a four-part article.  Since 2012 a team of volunteers and contractors working through EuCAN Community Interest Company and Butterfly Conservation has been working on the chalk downland sites between Lyons Gate and Godmanstone to remove the invading bushes and trees that are threatening to destroy the last vestiges of this incredibly biodiverse habitat in this area of Dorset. The plumes of smoke from the hillsides on Thursdays between September and March cannot have gone unnoticed…..

And it is not just human factors that have led to the destruction of the orchid- and butterfly-rich habitats that we appreciate so much. Nature has done its bit too. Many of the arable farms on the chalk had no place for livestock, so the remaining steep patches of downland did not get grazed by animals as they would have been in previous centuries. In consequence, on these effectively abandoned oases of chalk grassland there has been a huge increase in the growth of gorse and thorn which gradually develops into thickets and ultimately into ash, sycamore and oak woodland.

These can be wonderful habitats in themselves providing nest-sites for birds and niches for species which are not found in open grassland. However, once the downland is lost by natural succession to climax woodland, the soils change irreversibly and the original habitat is very unlikely to to come back for a long time. Hence the importance of preventing the invasion of downland by thorn and gorse scrub.

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The white spots are the ashy remains of bonfires in which scrub covering the brown areas was burned.  Next year the downland flowers and grasses will begin to return.

So there are many isolated fragments of chalk downland habitat between Lyons Gate and Dorchester and stretching westwards to Eggardon Hill. They are separated by acres of inhospitable arable land, now effectively devoid of the wildlife that once flourished there, and are themselves threatened by a tide of bramble and thorn which is tending to turn them into woodland. All these processes are happening very rapidly. It doesn’t take long for the chalk flora to vanish under the scrub and the smothering carpet of ivy that frequently accompanies it.

We would like to open up a chain of connecting areas of chalk grassland between Dogbury above Lyons Gate and Charminster. Many species of insects and other wildlife will not cross habitats that are unsuitable for them, even small distances, so by producing a linked up chain of suitable sites for them, we will be greatly increasing the territory available to them and thereby their chances of survival, so that our children and grandchildren can continue to appreciate them as we have done. We will always looking for new volunteers – you would be very welcome to help with the cutting and burning up or (very important!) to make the tea….

Further information can be found on the EuCAN website http://www.eucan.org.uk/uk/dorset/cerne-valley-project/

 

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