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.

20150925_151321

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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Where have all the Flowers Gone…?

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 3 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…..

We are very fortunate to have a number of well-known and highly regarded chalk downland sites in this area of Dorset – good examples are Black Hill, Yelcombe and Giant Hill above Cerne Abbas; Lankham Bottom Butterfly Reserve above Cattistock and Hogcliff National Nature Reserve above Frampton and Maiden Newton.

But look at a map of Dorset and the UK and you will see that the chalk stretches from west Dorset at its SW corner to Yorkshire and Norfolk at the northern end and into Kent to the east. So why is this habitat such a rare commodity? In centuries past, the downs were grazed by large numbers of roving sheep flocks, while only steep flinty, less productive slopes would have been maintained as woodland (some of these ancient coppices still remain). Hawthorn, gorse and bramble would have been far less abundant, some it cropped as furze for fires, but most of it nipped off by the flocks as they passed through.

Hawthorn

hawthorn

Our ancestors would have cultivated some of the hilltops and the slopes but on a very small scale as the human populations were so low. You can still see relics of the celtic field systems in the Cerne, Sydling and Frome valleys, many of them pre-Roman. Chalk grassland and the butterflies and other wildlife it supports would have flourished from east Devon to Kent to Yorkshire.

gorse

gorse

 

Previously open stretches of chalk countryside were divided up by the 18th century enclosures but it was after the end of the second world war that the widespread arable cultivation of downland took  place, with the government encouraging farmers to ensure that we would never again be vulnerable to being starved into submission.

bramble-flowers1

Bramble

The scale of these operations has accelerated enormously during the last fifty years with the help of advances in technology which have not only given the farming industry larger more powerful machines to work on the steeper slopes, but also the chemicals to ensure that rivals for their growing space like insects and weeds (aka wildflowers) have become reduced to a minimum. Chalk soils drain very freely so fertilisers tend to get leached out of the ground by the rain. The free drainage and lack of organic matter in the soil mean that arable crops have to be treated continuously with fertilisers as well as pesticides and weedkillers.

The consequence of this arable revolution that began at the beginning of the 50’s is that chalk downland habitats have become reduced in Britain by over 90% , with the remaining sites now being restricted to steep slopes. Very few flat downland sites are to be found now – Martin Down on the Dorset/Hampshire border and large parts of Salisbury Plain still survive thanks to the involvement of the military.

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

Butterfly Cafe with a View

From Nigel Spring –

This is part 2 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.

Chalk downland is possibly the richest habitat in Dorset – one quick glance at the grassy sward on the slopes round the Cerne Giant will reveal perhaps a dozen obvious species of plants; if you look closely and count the species in a square metre you should be able to distinguish well over twenty, even thirty if you can identify the different grasses. They won’t all flower at once – the Cowslips, Early purple orchids and several violets tend to be first to bloom, while the vetches, Fragrant and Bee orchids and yellow dandelion-like flowers come out later and the Devilsbit scabious, Harebell, Clustered bellflower and Autumn hawkbit blooms signal the end of the summer.

Bee Orchids

Bee Orchids (Ken Dolbear)

Many of these plants are the caterpillar foodplants of the specialist butterfly and moth species that are so characteristic of this habitat. Blues like the Chalkhill and Adonis Blues need Horseshoe Vetch for their larvae; Birdsfoot Trefoil (sometimes called Eggs and Bacon) is the foodplant of the Common Blue, Dingy Skipper and the Burnet moths (those dayflying beetle look-alikes that buzz about the slopes in June and July)

.Adonis Blue butterfly                             Chalkhill blue

Adonis Blue (male)                                                       Chalkhill Blue (male)

Small Blues favour Kidney vetch and the Duke of Burgundy Cowslip or Primrose leaves. One of the scarcest butterflies to be seen on the slopes of Giant Hill in May and June is the Marsh Fritillary whose caterpillars need Devilsbit scabious: the female lays her eggs in batches of 50-200 and the larvae live in crowded clusters on the leaves of the plants. In recent years this species has done very well on some of its local sites.

Marsh Fritillary

Marsh Fritillary

As well as being important for butterflies and moths, the chalk downland on Giant Hill also supports good populations of Glow-worms, specialist bee and wasp species (not the stinging sorts!) – including the beautiful little bee, Osmia bicolor, which lays its eggs in the empty shells of downland snails (featured in 2014 in a wonderful short film on the One Show), not to mention the many species of ants (one of which, the Yellow Meadow Ant, lives in colonies in the grassy mounds that are a feature of our ‘warty’ downland slopes).

Osmia bicolor

Osmia bicolor

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

Mr and Mrs Badger

Almost a year ago I was walking one afternoon in the water meadow when the dogs suddenly shot off towards a boggy area thick with reeds.  The badger family galloped with surprising speed back under the fence and into  their sett – a row of holes not unlike terraced houses at a rise in the hedgerow.

I was surprised to see them and not a little worried.  About 2 years ago we had an adolescent badger take up residence in our paddock.  While it was amazing to meet one at such close proximity, we soon realised it was only because it was very unwell.  Bluebottles circled like vultures in the desert sun.  At one point it climbed up about 4 feet into a tree.  Every morning there were more mysterious ‘crop circle’ patterns in the grass – was it where the young badger was trying to get comfortable?  We tried contacting several ‘wildlife rescue’ groups and had no joy.  So I rang the vet, who said, “A badger out and about during the day?  It MUST have TB:  they are normally strictly nocturnal.”  She said she’d come and have a look but it died just before she arrived.

So was this a normal outing of a healthy family?  Given that the farm they were on is on the most high risk of TB list I was concerned.

Bovine TB has not been in badgers forever.  In fact, it was first observed in badgers in only about 65 years ago, in 1951 in Switzerland.  Badgers were believed to have contracted it from chamois (Rupicarpa rupicarpa) or roe deer(Capreolus capreolus). It was not detected in the United Kingdom until 1971 where it was linked to an outbreak of bovine TB in cows.

The story of bovine TB in the UK has been beset with bad judgement and wishful thinking from various directions.  Recent evidence indicates that the government’s decisions following the foot and mouth disease outbreak caused a quantum shift increase in the spread of bovine TB:  confident they had it under control and keen to help farmers get back on their feet, the government relaxed restrictions to enable restocking.

Meanwhile our local badger colony looks like it will soon be growing.  Walking through the meadow last week I saw a trail of reed-hay from the reed bed to one of the row of homes in Badger Terrace.  Wiki tells me that the young are born around January so it looks like Mr and Mrs are doing the badger version of decorating the Nursery.  Let us hope and pray that both parents are healthy, and that they rear healthy offspring, free of TB.

Mr Pygge

“The cottage is the thatched building on the right just before the corner as you go down the drive”, my friend said.

“Don’t you mean on the left just after the corner?”, I replied.

“No, it’s definitely that lovely long curved building on the right”, she responded.

I can understand why she thought it was the cottage, for it is truly beautiful, and very ‘twee’.  But it is not the cottage; it is the pig sty and horse box!  Such a gorgeous pig sty was crying out for a resident, and so when a local farmer had a spare weaner we couldn’t resist.  He became known as ‘Mr Pygge’.

Mr Pygge has connected us non-farmers with the total commitment required if one is going to rear animals for food.  He came at a good time of year; September, just as the cooking pears were dropping and littering the track in their hundreds (thousands?).  They were soon followed by apple windfalls, and then we discovered just after Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s food waste programme that the shop was delighted to give us wilted vegetables.  I once worried that Mr Pygge might be bored, but then someone commented, “on his diet of avocadoes, cauliflower, peppers and such he has enough food interest to keep him well-entertained!”  The local brewery provided bags of spent brewers’ grains – barley that had been malted so had lost its carbs but is still rich in other nutrients and fibre.  Meal made up mostly of grains grown on the farm augmented this, with slack periods being filled by pig nuts (a balanced pelletised feed).

Mr Pygge is now filling our freezer.  He ended his days at C&S Meats near Sherborne, a lovely little abattoir much used by smallholders in the area.  He was handed over to Dorset Charcuterie to butcher.  Within days we had a bag containing 2 kidneys and a large liver, and the reality of the food chain hit home.  The rest of Mr P has come home in dribs and drabs:  first the joints and sausages, then pancetta and bacon.  We are still waiting, several months on, for the deli type meats like coppa and it has hit home how time-consuming it is to make these semi-dried meat products….and helped us appreciate why they are so expensive!

He has been succeeded by ‘the pygges’- a male and a female weaner.  I am assured that they will too have gone to Holnest by the time hormones begin flowing and adolescent passions are raised.  They have picked up where Mr Pygge left off in turning windfalls into pork, and have done their bit (maybe) for international animal welfare by amazing a visiting Chinese postgrad student with their beauty and cleanliness!

Making Homes for Butterflies

from Nigel Spring –

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.

People taking a break whilst working on a hillside in Dorset

This work has been generously funded by the Patsy Wood Trust and the landowners themselves – these funds have enabled EuCAN to bring the mixed bunch of contractors with power tools, people from neighbouring towns with learning difficulties and in recovery from mental illness, as well the carers and a number of local EuCAN and Butterfly Conservation volunteers. It has all been great fun (especially the sausages and baked potatoes for lunch and the cakes for tea!) and we have been extremely pleased with the results.

To date, we have held over 50 sessions on 9 different sites and have involved 130 different people. Not only have we made a great impact on the ecology of the sites we have visited, but the participants have learned new skills, seen some wonderful wildlife and have had the benefit of the fresh air and exercise that probably they would not normally get (most of our sites are on 45˚ or 60 ˚ slopes, often very challenging!).

But why is this amount of effort necessary now? It has not always been the case and I shall try to explain why….

This is the first of four articles.  Keep an eye out for the rest of the story!

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

Testing for TB in Cattle

tb-testing

Almost 270,000 cows have been culled in the last eight years.  Click on the image for more information

I went for a walk today and met some neighbours en route.  “Are you doing the circuit?  Because they’ve been moving the cows and they are all gathered around the gate into the wood.  SUCH a nuisance!  I really don’t like walking through them.  I don’t know why they’ve put them there.”

I knew.

It means that testing for bovine TB has come around again.  The inconvenience of walking through a herd of cows pales into insignificance compared with the business of carrying out the testing.  It takes the best part of a day or two and happens many times a year….for we are in a bovine TB hotspot.

I haven’t yet written about bovine TB because the whole thing does, I admit, make me very angry.  I have read the opinion that it does not matter if cows are sacrificed because they are going to die anyway.  But the productive lifespan of a dairy cow can easily be 14 years.  And although cows may look the same to us laymen and women, the farmer knows them all as individuals.

Many dairymen are reluctant to let a relief farmhand do even a single milking because each and every cow is individually inspected when she comes in to be milked.  The dairyman feeds each according to her needs (which can vary considerably) and notices if she is offcolour – a possible precursor to mastitis.  With the profit margins so tight even the smallest delay in picking up a problem can make the difference between profit and loss.

It has often been joked around Cerne Abbas over Christmas that everyone else knows your business before you do.  But there is a perplexing gap when it comes to the farmers amongst us (who are VERY few these days.)  I was asked to start this blog in order that that gap may begin to be bridged.  These people are growing our food on our behalf.  I for one am deeply grateful that if it is wet and horrible I can stay in.  Those who grow our food do not have that choice.

The least we can do is be informed about the issues which affect them on a daily basis.  This link takes you to the UK government’s policy on bovine TB from 2010 to 2015.  This link takes you to a list of current government policies and reports on the subject.

This link takes you to an interactive map which enables you to see for yourself where TB outbreaks are.  They are very patchy.  But you can easily see how big the problem is in the southwest  – thousands of cases as opposed to tens (or fewer) everywhere else.

 

 

The Cerne Abbas Water Meadows

From John Staley, a retired estates manager who supervised the partial restoration of the water meadow –

Water meadows, constructed from the 16th to the early 20th centuries, were areas of grassland subject to controlled irrigation to increase agricultural productivity.  In Cerne Abbas we are fortunate to have a complex water meadow at Barton Farm.

The water meadow was fed by water from the River Cerne, diverted by a series of boards manually moved up and down in a channel which was called a carrier.  The first sluice controlled a series of four smaller hatches supplying a flow of water to the meadow.  Each section of the meadow was irrigated by a small channel called a main that carried the water to the crest of each ridge where it overflowed and trickled down the sides (the panes) to enter a ditch and so return the water to the river.

diagram of the channels dug to manage the water meadow

An irrigated water meadow accelerated the growth of grass as water warmed the land in the winter so as to encourage vegetation.  This was the result of a steady flow of water keeping frost at bay.  The early growth of grass enabled farmers to give their flocks, both cattle and sheep, “an early bite” some four to six weeks before normal pasture.

The water meadows were a remarkable feat of agricultural engineering constructed entirely with hand tools and over long hours of work.  The men who did the work were known as drowners and meadmen.

Visitors are welcome to walk through Barton Farm water meadow but are advised by the land’s owner, Cognatum Ltd, that they do so at their own risk.

HOW TO FIND BARTON FARM WATER MEADOW:  A public footpath and sign to the water meadow can be found at the entrance to the Tithe Barn in The Folly.  Please keep to the path as it crosses private property.  On passing through a gate turn left over a bridge to arrive at the water meadow.