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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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/

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.