Some 80 million years ago the area in which the South Downs lie was part of a shallow tropical sea which covered the whole of south eastern England. Over time the soft rock that is chalk limestone was laid down thanks to the fossilization of billions of sea creatures that inhabited this ancient ocean. These deposits formed layers which accumulated over time and created a huge ridge of chalk some 100 miles (160km) long.
18,000 years ago glaciation took place and ice covered the British Isles as far south as the what are now known as the South Downs. Weathering of the chalk ridge began to take place through a process know as weathering. This occurs when glacial meltwater freezes over again in the rocks expanding them and breaking them up when a thaw occurs. Over the next few thousand years this changed the landscape through erosion creating ridges, valleys and downland.
The old English word for a hill, a moor, or a mountain was “dun” hence the modern word Down used to describe the rolling hills found in southern England.
Some six thousand years ago much of the woodland was cleared for agriculture during the Bronze Age. Later, in the Medieval Period, much of the area was grazed by sheep. In the 14th century the Sussex flock was estimated to number 110,000 animals. Prior to the late 1700s the Southdown sheep were blessed with combined qualities not seen in other breeds as they possessed fine fleeces which fetched excellent prices in the wool market; they did exceedingly well on poor grassland producing good hindquarters which in turn provided full-flavoured meat. As early as 1780 John Ellman began to fix certain qualities in the breed which lead to faster growth and better meat productivity. The breed’s improvements opened the way towards a breed standard. In the 21st century sheep farming on the South Downs is a fraction of what it was in its heyday. The extensive use of sheep over the centuries opened up the sweeping grasslands of the Downs creating the perfect conditions for chalk downland and the wildflowers they support. With the disappearance of the vast flocks much land was given over to cultivation which resulted in the loss of most of the chalk grassland.
Bepton Down is part of a very rare landscape as it consists of chalk grassland which now only covers about 3% of the total area of the South Downs. This situation was caused by and continues to be exacerbated by modern farming, development and the intrusions of scrub which ends up by altering the soil. This type of downland is rare worldwide and thus when it does occur it needs special protection and management.
In the 1970s some of the local children would go up onto Bepton Down where a chalk escarpment was clearly visible (it then became covered in low lying vegetation and is now under scrub of various heights including saplings). It was easy then to see visible remains of ammonites, shell fish and other creatures. Those fossils that were easy to extract were then brought down and treasured. However nowadays it is best to leave such things in situ as excessive removal also creates long term problems.
Bepton Down is therefore unique and became a SSSI (a Site of Special Scientific Interest) in 1954. 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.