Cowdray, Natural England and the SDNPA

Bepton Down is part of the Cowdray Estate which belongs to Michael Orlando Weetman Pearson, 4th Viscount Cowdray.

Since the 1949 National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act of 1949 Sites of Special Scientific Interest have been further protected by the Countryside and Wildlife Act of 1981 and the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000 (known as CRoW Act).

SSSIs in England are designated and administered by Natural England, but many SSSIs are in private ownership and are run through a process of ‘mutual notification’. Natural England must provide official documentation for the site, including:
(i) a ‘citation’ document which details important features of the SSSI;
(ii) a map showing the location of the SSSI;
(iii) a Site Management Statement (SMS) and
(iv) a list of ‘Potentially Damaging Operations’ (PDOs).

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.”

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.  The scheme has three funding elements:

Entry Level Stewardship
Organic Entry Level Stewardship
Higher Level Stewardship

The first two levels are fairly self-explanatory, entry level stewardship is a non-competitive scheme for landowners who agree to undertake a basic level of environmental management (e.g. hedgerow management, stone wall maintenance) for which they will receive receive annual payments of £30 per hectare.  Organic entry level stewardship is an equivalent scheme for organic land holdings (payments are £60 per hectare per year).  Higher-level Stewardship (HLS) is more competitive and complex and focuses on high priority environments such as priority habitats listed under the European Habitats Directive and for designated sites.  Higher level funding is allocated according to specific criteria and involves a lengthy and detailed application process.

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.

For those of you out there who would like to learn more about how Higher Level Stewardship works there is a pdf entitled “Higher Level Stewardship – Environmental Stewardship Handbook – Fourth Edition – January 2013” (it is only 120 pages long!) and can be found on N.E.’s website:


Bepton Down forms part of the 78 West Sussex Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and is incorporated into the SSSI now known as Treyford to Bepton Down (it was formerly known as Didling Hill and Bepton Down).

It was notified in 1954 under the 1949 Act (the oldest one in West Sussex, Kingley Vale, was formed in 1952) and was so designated for its biological interest. A revision took place in 1980 and it was re-notified on the 30th October 1986 under section 28 of the Wildlife and countryside Act 1981.  It comprises 122.3 hectares (302.2 acres).   Grid Reference: SU840176.

In 1986 Natural England described the site as “The escarpment from Treyford to Bepton Down contains representative examples of unimproved chalk grassland and yew woodland developed on the Upper, Middle and Lower Chalk of the western South Downs. Both of these habitats are rare nationally: the area of unimproved chalk grassland in particular has declined dramatically over the last few decades.”

Natural England divides the area into three blocks: “The semi-natural chalk grassland, chalk scrub and ash-beech-yew woodlands have been fragmented and altered by the extensive planting of conifers along the escarpment.”

Of Bepton Down the description of some of the species of plants is a telling one: “Species-rich unimproved chalk grassland dominated by Sheep’s Fescue (Festuca ovina) and Upright Brome (Bromopsis erecta) occurs throughout, with herbs such as Round-headed Rampion (Phyteuma orbiculare), Horshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa) and Carline Thistle (Carlina vulgaris). Several species of orchid are present including the Frog Orchid (Dactylorhiza viridis), the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) and the Musk Orchid (Herminium monorchis).”  (Ref. Natural England: Designated Sites View.)

Since 1986 many species of orchids have literally vanished from this site and two of the ones mentioned above have not been seen on this chalk downland for many years.  These are the Frog Orchid and the Musk Orchid.

(In the area outside Bepton Down itself which is still part of the larger SSSI the Bird’s-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis) was also described as being present in the mature mixed woodland with yew.  This orchid, too, seems to have disappeared.)

In 1986 N.E. also pointed out that hawthorn was invading much of the ungrazed grassland.  Another plant was pointed out as being responsible for reducing diversity: tor grass (Brachypodium pinnatum).

The following information is freely available on Natural England’s Website (2015):

The person responsible for the whole of this SSSI is Nigel Hiscoke. (N.E.)  The chart describes 107.45 (88.43%) hectares as “favourable” whereas the remainder (Bepton Down) some 14+ (11.57%) hectares as “unfavourable and recovering”.

This website has drawn up a list of “Operations likely to damage the special interest” for the whole of the SSSI.  This list comprises 28 points.  A few might be food for thought for Bepton Down in particular:
Point 2    Grazing including changes in the grazing regime (including type of stock, intensity
or seasonal pattern of grazing and cessation of grazing).
Point 3 Stock feeding.  (In most cases supplementary feeding of livestock is not allowed with the exception of mineral blocks.  In special cases the feeding of concentrates in the shape of ‘nuts’ may be granted as long as this takes place within feeding troughs in an area unlikely to cause damage but they should never be fed directly on the ground as this leads to erosion and structural damage to the soil and the plants within it.)

The others are worthy of perusal and are to be found on “Natural England, Designated Sites View’.

This website (2015) also lists N.E.’s Views About Management (or VAM).  The part specifically addressing the issues of Bepton Down is as follows:

“Calcareous grassland:
In order to maintain a species-rich sward and its associated insects and other invertebrates, calcareous grassland requires active management. Without management it rapidly becomes dominated by stands of rank grasses, such as Tor-grass. These grasses, together with the build up of dead plant matter, suppress less vigorous species and lower the diversity of the site. Eventually, the site will scrub over. Traditionally, management is achieved by grazing. The precise timing will vary both between and within sites, according to local conditions and requirements. These may include stock type or the needs of particular plants or animals; certain invertebrates, for example, can benefit from the presence of taller vegetation. However, grazing should generally aim to keep a relatively open sward without causing excessive poaching. Light trampling can be beneficial by breaking down leaf litter and providing bare patches for seed germination and some invertebrates. An element of managed scrub, both within and fringing calcareous grassland can be of great importance to certain birds and invertebrates, but excessive scrub should be controlled.”

The condition reports for Bepton Down described as  the Eastern End of Bepton Down (SU859174)  as undertaken by Natural England and on their 2015 website are as follows:

25th February 1998  Unfavourable – No change (visited and assessed by Joan Lennon).
22nd July 1998 Unfavourable – no change (visited and assessed by Joan Lennon)
1st March 2000 Unfavourable – recovering (visited and assessed by Joan Lennon)
6th September 2000 Unfavourable – recovering (visited and assessed by Joan Lennon)
8th September 2008 Unfavourable – recovering (visited and assessed by Alex MacDonald)
Extra comment:  Poorly grazed and a lot of scrub, but existing ESA (Environmentally Sensitive Area) should address this.
The 8th of September 2008 is the last date to appear and is described as “the latest assessment date”.  Any further assessments have yet to be listed.  An update is, perhaps, in the pipeline.

Bepton Down became part of the South Downs National Park on 1st April, 2011.

Under The SDNP Report dated 14th July, 2015 and under the heading: “Central Downs Area” – Project EOI-010 Bepton Down reclamation – the SDNP received funding of £ 3,000 plus a further £ 5,800 ‘Match-funding’   bringing the total up to £ 8,800.   This sum enabled the clearing of a small area which had been totally overrun by scrub.  This was undertaken in the winter of 2014-2015.  The area was then re-fenced and provided with three gates.  In that year a contractor was also employed to cut and remove large stands of Hemp Agrimony.   All this work was carried out through the SDNP.  See “Agenda Item 10 – South Downs National Park Authority” page 49.

The once widespread Musk Orchid now vanished from Bepton Down,
The once widespread Musk Orchid now vanished from Bepton Down.

Further information on the Musk Orchid,  Thre Frog Orchid and the Bird’s-nest Orchid may be found under the heading: OTHER CHALK DOWNLAND ORCHIDS.

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