Bepton Down is waking up and the first signs of the changing season are to be seen in the form of cowslip rosettes some bearing tiny bud heads. These will soon swell and grow stronger and burst into a shimmering carpet of saffron heads nodding furiously in the upward spiralling breeze. On closer inspection the whole hill is covered in these tiny leaves. Surely a sight to behold towards the end of April, if not before.
I am now on the hunt for the early purple orchid which was always present on Bepton Down until 2015 when it was conspicuous by its absence…. Who knows there might still be a few out there.
The fifty Herdwick sheep, kindly loaned by the National Trust, did a wonderful job of eating down much of the unwanted coarse grasses and other undesirable leftover vegetation from the previous season during the course of November. They are excellent lawn mowers as they are a hardy hill breed used to surviving on practically nothing. So much better than the soft commercial breeds of the modern era which are incapable of eking out a living off scrub.
We hope they will grace us with their presence again towards the end of 2016.
Another welcoming sight in the autumn of 2016 was the tractor which plied up and down the slope cutting everything down to the ground. Thus ensuring that the ubiquitous brambles, dog roses, hawthorn, nettles, hemp agrimony and other rubbish were levelled off and then removed.
The cut and the Herdwicks have ensured that 2016 has got off to a great start.
Complacency must not be allowed to set in however. The good work needs to be maintained. It is to be hoped that the Cowdray Estate and the South Downs National Park will realise that the way forward is the use of native breeds at appropriate times of year as well as the need to cut the scrub down again in the autumn. The brambles will re-emerge as, although weakened, the roots and short stalks are still there. They must be cut down to size every autumn for the foreseeable future to ensure that, over time, they pose less of a threat to the rare flora present on the chalk downland.
It is to be hoped too that they will forebear from putting in thirty odd commercial heifers mid-summer. Each time this has been done the poor “soft” dairy youngsters have eaten and trampled on the flora thus precluding the earlier orchids from setting seed and the later ones (pyramidal) from flowering well into August. They have not touched the scrub…. Conclusions need to and must be drawn from this.
Neighbouring SSSIs, such as the Murray Downland Trust, which leases land from the Cowdray Estate and other landowners in the area, have used the National Trust’s Belted Galloway cattle to excellent effect in the dead season. These small hardy woolly cattle will eat anything and do not inflict as much damage on the land as their commercial cousins….
For those of you itching to see wild flowers before Bepton Down truly comes to life there are treats to be had on the south side of the Down. The bluebells are coming into flower everywhere at the moment. The best sight of all at present are the carpets of wild daffodils in the West Dean Woods in an area managed by the Sussex Wildlife Trust. This year they are a truly remarkable sight as they seem to have thrived on the soaking this past winter has provided.