The decline of Bepton Down SSSI

Bepton Down SSSI
(part of the Site from Treyford to Bepton Down)

A lesson in:   How not to look after valuable chalk grassland.

Only 5% of chalk grassland remains in England and only 3% of the South Downs now qualify as such.

If one thinks this should ensure that Bepton Down is well-maintained under the SSSI scheme. Think again.

Bepton Down is unique and became a Site of Special Scientific Interest in 1954 (63 years ago). This was to afford it special protection and management.  Unfortunately consistency in this has not always been forthcoming and Bepton Down is now classed as being “unfavourable – recovering” by Natural England – the governmental body responsible for handing out payments to those landowners etc responsible for SSSIs.

It was last notified in 1986 under Section 28 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981.

The reason for notification for 14 hectares of chalk grassland (Bepton Down) was that “the area of unimproved chalk grassland in particular has declined dramatically over the last few DECADES”. That statement was made 31 years ago.

In 1986 it was already being described as “ungrazed” and being invaded by tor grass Brachypodium pinnatum. The report went on to state: “Hawthorn Crataegus monogyna scrub is now invading much of the ungrazed grassland, while a more diverse mixed scrub community with hazel Corylus avellana and guelder rose Viburnum opulus is established in other areas.”

(In 2017 other major stands of scrub include brambles which cover about 80% of the site, nettles, hemp agrimony, and dog wood. Looking more closely one will also find oak tree saplings and many other undesirable plants.)

In 1986 the site was deemed to have nine types of orchids: bee, common spotted, pyramidal, early purple, twayblade, greater butterfly, white helleborine, frog and musk.

The frog and musk orchids vanished many years ago. The early purple was last seen about eight or nine years ago. The bee orchid was not found in 2017 and neither was the greater butterfly. All these orchids have different life requirements and when these are not met or maintained then it is curtains.

If biodiversity is the key to a healthy chalk grassland where species -rich grass and floral communities create a tapestry supporting up 40 different plants per square metre this is certainly not the case here. Every year sees a continuous decline in the number of desirable plants present and a consequent inexorable decline in the number of insects reliant on that diversity. There are no Dukes of Burgundy, no Swallowtails. Apart from the odd Adonis blue Gossamer-winged butterflies are absent. The list is endless.

The next official report on the state of Bepton Down SSSI that is to be found is dated 25th February, 1998. Natural England’s assessor, Joan Lennon, classified it as “Unfavourable – no change”. On 22nd July, 1998, Joan Lennon again classified it as “Unfavourable – no change”. Joan Lennon returned on 1st March and 6th September, 2000, and classified it as “Unfavourable – recovering”. On the 8th September, 2008, a new assessor from Natural England, Alex MacDonald, assessed it as “Unfavourable – recovering”. He also added that “poorly grazed and a lot of scrub, but existing ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) should address this”.

So the sorry saga lurches on.

A voluntary management agreement can be entered into with Natural England by the landowner.   A management agreement is accompanied by a formal management plan which requires that, in this case, Bepton Down, is managed in a way that protects or enhances the conservation interest of the SSSI.  In compensation for this the landowner would receive an annual financial incentive.

In 2012 the farming area known as Cocking Farm and into which Bepton Down falls was incorporated into The Environmental Stewardship Scheme:

“Environmental Stewardship is a government-funded scheme administered by Natural England.  It is an agri-environmental scheme, which aims to secure widespread environmental benefits. 

In order to be considered for the Higher-Level Stewardship, a Farm Environmental Plan (FEP) must be completed and submitted to Natural England. This plan identifies priority features and habitats and develops specific management plans for their improvement and long-term management.
Bepton Down was awarded entry at the Higher Stewardship Level under Options for grassland: option HK7 “restoration of species-rich, semi-natural grassland which entitles the landowner to a payment of £ 200 per hectare.”  (Higher Level Stewardship – Fourth Edition January 2013 page 14.)

The benefits of H.L.S. Funding are multifold as a successful application will ensure funding for ten years.  It will incorporate clear aims and objectives for each year and a yearly payment plan to help meet these goals.”

As Bepton Down  comprises roughly 14 hectares the Cowdray Estate receives about £ 2,800 per annum to manage the area.

In addition to this as Bepton Down is part of South Downs Nature Improvement Area project the South Downs National Park Authority has funds to deliver Restoration Plans for high value grassland sites which need targeted management.

The Restoration Plan (for the first five years) for Bepton Down was delivered by CJH Agri-Environment Consultants Ltd on 14th July, 2014.

This five year plan officially runs out on 13th July, 2019. However the H.L.S. will not run out until July 2024.

In 2014 the condition of Bepton Down was described as being 80% covered in scrub of various natures.

Natural England have a legal responsibility for nationally important nature conservation sites (SSSIs).

Natural England can enforce the legal protection of SSSIs using warning letters, formal cautions and prosecutions.

In January 2007  N.E. stated ” We work with over 32,000 separate owners and land managers, many of whom work hard to conserve SSSIs.  We recognise that the best way of managing SSSIs effectively is to build and maintain relationships with these owners, land managers and public organisations.  In doing this, we aim to create an understanding of their  responsibilities and focus efforts on positive management which we hope will reduce the damage and disturbance caused to SSSIs and the need to take enforcement action.”

At the time the five year plan was drawn up The Cowdray Estate had a thriving dairy herd at Cocking Hill Farm so part of the management of the SSSI included grazing the area by up to 30 heifers at appropriate times. Initially the tenets of the plan were adhered to such as the clearing of rank areas of hemp agrimony. One major undertaking enshrined in the plan was the reduction of 50% of the scrub in a small area known as 0857 at the base of

DSC01295.JPG

Gate one into area 0857

the Down. This was the roll of the SDNPA and was undertaken in the winter of 14/15. They cleared the area, erected a new fence as well put in THREE gates. This reclamation cost the tax payer £ 8,800. The Estate was then to establish a water supply to this area. This never happened. It was suggested that this tiny, unsuitable area could then be grazed by beef cattle in the spring of 2015. Needless to say this never happened. In fact this area has never been grazed by anything since, nor has it ever been topped resulting in scrub taking over again.

It is fruitless to go into the details of the five year plan which have only been adhered to in a haphazard sort of way. Part of the problem lies in the shutting down of Cocking Farm Dairy which took place in 2016 so that no heifers were available for grazing the two main areas of Bepton Down. In the early part of the agreement five sheep were put on it for a whole winter and were seemingly abandoned. It took repeated communications to finally get them removed. Once some Herdwick sheep belonging to the National Trust were seen on the Down and they did some good. They were under the watchful eye of the people responsible for the Dairy at Linch Farm. That Dairy was also shut down.

In 2016 grazing was non-existent and consequently the scrub went rampant. It took several weeks to obtain a partial cut with the vegetation left to rot on the ground. This is anathema as it will stifle anything left under it and also enrich the ground. More weeks of pressure ensued with the rest of the Down finally being cut and the vegetation partially removed.

Both Linch and Cocking Farms have been taken on by sheep farmers whose agreement with the Cowdray Estate does not include Bepton Down. I have been reliably informed that they have to ask permission to graze Bepton Down SSSI every year. This is also a hit-or-miss undertaking. They were not given permission to put the sheep in in the autumn of 2016 which meant that any regrowth of woody material was left to become unpalatable. The green light was only forthcoming in January 2017 and the mob grazing by some 300 sheep did do some good but they will not tackle tor grass nor woody vegetation. By March 2017 they had been removed which is the right thing to do in view of the numerous cowslips which cover both parts of the main SSSI.

This form of random management has led to the continued overall coverage of scrub. By year 5, i.e. 2018 “cover of invasive trees and scrub including bramble, sycamore, blackthorn etc should be less than 5%”. This is far from the case as lack of grazing, cutting and removal of the material as led to the another explosion of scrub in 2017. At the time of writing i.e. 12th November, 2017, no cut and removal of vegetation has taken place.

 

As usual Bepton Down Conservation Group requested that the area be cut and cleared and that sheep be put onto the Down after the cut…. This was in mid-September. By late September the sheep farmer had been informed that the area was about to be cut and that he should not put the sheep onto the area. A flow of emails between Natural England, Cowdray and the SDNPA ensued and still no result.

I would suggest that too many bodies and people within those bodies are involved. Too many hoops to jump through and total lack of communication seem to be omnipresent.

Those responsible for the restoration and maintenance of chalk grassland at the SDNPA and at Natural England do not seem to have any in-depth knowledge of the 63 year old history of this SSSI. It has not been properly assessed since September 2008. No Assessor from Natural England appears to have been here since as NE’s website does not have any further updates. This month a local lead from NE and a ranger from the SDNPA came to look at the site. They were appalled. However they appeared to have no in-depth knowledge of the site’s history and seemed also to suggest that the usual channels of communications with the Estate and the local officer in charge of the SDNPA would have to be used.

In July 2014 I received an email from DEFRA stating “the preferred approach is to work together to enhance condition where there is a will rather than use SSSI enforcement procedures”.

As the conditions in existence when the 5 year plan was drawn up i.e. the dairy farm at Cocking no longer apply and as a new plan needs to be drawn up in 2018 to take the HSL agreement to 2024 surely a visit from an Assessor from Natural England head office (not any NE representative linked to the SDNPA) should be called upon to review the chalk grassland and then take appropriate measures to ensure that Bepton Down does not continue in the same way for another 63 years.

In view of the fact that the management plan of Bepton Down has failed to be kept and in view of the fact that the mis-management of this SSSI goes back decades surely it is now imperative that Natural England should step in and take this site under its own control. Relying on a bevy of local employees of the SDNPA seems totally ineffective.

Bepton Down is “unfavourable – no change”.

The SSSI enforcement policy statement includes the following:

“We use a range of enforcement methods to deal with cases. Depending on the circumstances of the incident, we may use one or more enforcement methods at the appropriate time during different stages of the case. In some cases, one level of enforcement action may be appropriate and effective in dealing with the incident. In other cases where an earlier enforcement action has been unsuccessful, legal obligations continue not to be met or damage and disturbance carries on, we will consider further enforcement action. We will investigate an incident as soon as possible
after we have become aware of it. We will try to contact the landowner or
land manager to discuss the incident and get permission to visit the SSSI to assess the damage or disturbance and collect evidence. If we are unable to get permission for a visit, we have a legal power to enter the land to find out if an offence is being or has been committed. We will assess the facts of the incident and take the appropriate enforcement action.”

Has the time finally come for decisive action to be taken rather than bumble along lurching from one year to the next with no progress made at all?

One possible solution nearly came to fruition in the autumn of 2016. The Murray Downland Trust already has leases on other SSSIs owned by the Cowdray Estate and when the Dairy Farms in the local area ceased to exist and when Bepton Down was excluded from the tenancy agreement with the local sheep farmer it was hoped that they could take on this SSSI. They were in talks with Cowdray and even came to survey the site but for some reason the Estate turned down the opportunity. Perhaps Natural England should consider applying pressure on the Estate to lease Bepton Down to the MDT.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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