The woeful state of Bepton Down

Bepton Ranger

Bepton Down

How complicated can it be to maintain an SSSI properly?

Please read this blog and I’ll explain JUST HOW BAD the situation has become on Bepton Down – and why I believe that Cowdray Estate and Natural England are jointly responsible for the decline of one of Britain’s last remaining areas of Chalk Grassland.

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Winter Leisure for the Bepton Down Sussex Cattle

The lovely Sussex Cattle which spent many months keeping most of tbe SSSI sward down (not the dogwood which they do not find to their liking)  are now spending quality time in the warm and dry.  They are ensconced with others from the Findon Park Herd with the Hodgkins at Linch in an airy barn together with a number of Belted Galloways which are a fairly rare breed.IMG_0876.JPGIMG_0877.JPG

They are now primarily raised for the beef market as their meat is highly prized and is mainly bought by specialist butchers and restaurants. The first Official Herd Book recording calves born form 1840 was published in 1879 and a polled section was added. They have lovely dark red-brown coats and creamy white tail switches. An animal without this white tail switch has been the produce of a cross sometimes with an Ayrshire.

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The Hodgkins also have a herd of Belted Galloways which, in some ways, are more rustic than the Sussex.  The cows can live for anything up to 20 years. They are naturally polled hill cattle which are eminently suited for converting rough grazing into lean meat. Their double coat of long hair sheds the rain, and their soft undercoat, for warmth, eliminates the need for expensive housing.   Ha Ha but they do not mind good hay and the lack of mud.

The Belted Galloway is a very distinctive breed with its characteristic white belt which encircles the body, the rest of the body being black, dun or red in colour. The distinctive white belt found in Belted Galloways often varies somewhat in width and regularity.  The white contrast to the black coat, which may have a brownish tinge in the summer as it bleaches in the sun, sets the breed apart with its striking colour pattern.

The Belted Galloway Beef  only contains about 1% saturated fat. The Belted Galloway beef has the same fat content as chicken and fish so fits in well with a healthy diet. Belted Galloway beef is exceptionally tender, full of flavour and juicy…..

As it has evolved in the harsh conditions of Scotland this breed is highly resistant to disease.  They do not develop much fat under their hides; instead they have a double coat of hair consisting of a dense, soft, short undercoat and a long, shaggy overcoat, which is usually cast in hot weather. This double coat provides excellent protection in cold, wet, windy weather. In contrast, most other British beef breeds put on a thicker layer of uneconomical fat under their hides to provide the necessary insulation for protection against severe weather conditions. IMG_0881.JPGIMG_0879.JPG

The docile bull just gazed at me!

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Summing Up for 2018

Although 2018 has been positive in many respects it appears to be drawing to a close on a negative note.

Matthew Dowse our SDNP Ranger for this area left for sunny Spain and has been replaced by Kate Dziubinska.  I hope to meet her soon and to find out what plans are afoot for the continued enhancement of Bepton Down in the winter of 2018/19.  Rebekah Smith who was also to the fore in this area of the SDNP is to leave to become an Assistant Ranger in the Western Area of the Park.  I have enjoyed working with both of them and they have been instrumental in seeing to the organisation of working groups to ensure certain areas of Bepton Down were cleared.  I gather from Bekah that she and a group of volunteers were up on the Down in September and managed to clear some of the Hemp Agrimony in the main grassland area before moving to below the three gates to cut back some of the regrowth.  Whilst it sad to see people whom one has grown to know and like over the last year leave I hope that the good working relationship with the working parties organised by the SDNP and their volunteers will continue in the months ahead.  On behalf of Bepton Down Conservation Group I would like to wish both Bekah and Matt all the best in their future work.

The gorgeous Sussex Cattle are still on the Down and doing an excellent job in the grassy areas of the SSSI that they seem to enjoy.  They do not, however, like the areas of brambles, dogwood and dog roses that have sprung up since the spring following the systematic cut and collect of the whole area in late 2017.  It was inevitable that growth would happen but we had hoped to see a systematic cut and collect this autumn.  However the cut, such as it was, took place in the grassy areas and a few of the ruderal growth areas leaving tracts of rubbish in situ for no apparent reason.  This is really upsetting and disheartening as it would appear that these areas are now left for the winter and will, if left unchecked, continue to grow in 2019.  All these undesirables stand about 2′ or 60 cm high at present and will double in size next year.  In next to no time we will be back to the bad old days of Bepton Down being totally out of control again.

It is hard to understand why those in charge of the management of this SSSI just fail to capitalise on all the hard work undertaken since the end of 2017.  Why would anyone work so hard to bring things under control only to let it all go again?

It is my understanding that the cattle will soon be replaced by sheep.  These could be the teaser rams that were present last winter or barren ewes….  Watch this space.

The following photographs show the state of the place now with all the rubbish left to take hold.

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The Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer

DSC01915.jpgNever has the sun beaten down so strongly upon Bepton Down as during the late spring and summer of 2018.

After a very wet and fairly cold winter spring brought welcome relief and lovely warm days.  This set Bepton Down on quick recovery from a very slow start.  A deluge of rain occurred on the 28th May at around lunchtime.  It did not last long and came after several weeks of dry weather.  Little did we realise then that this was to be the last of proper rain for weeks.  This was to come during the weekend of the 28th/29th July.  On the Sunday the rain came in a gentle but steady flow and the air temperature was at last cooler than the high twenties which had been the norm for days on end.  Unfortunately it turned hot again after that and the beneficial moisture was soon gone.

On Bepton Down the slow start gave way to a frenetic burst of floral life which came and went far more quickly than in most years.  The orchids were excellent for the most part but did not last nearly as long as usual.  Even the later flowering pyramidal orchids seemed to be going over a month earlier than usual.

The good work done by the teaser rams belonging to local sheep farmers, Laura and Andrew Hodgkins,  proved invaluable in the initial stages as the sward had been kept short after the total cut and removal of spent vegetation in the late Autumn of 2017.   The cowslips were magnificent.  The work put in by Matthew Dowse, South Downs National Park Ranger, and his team of volunteers in the winter in the lower portion of the Public Access Land was also beneficial and we hope for a continued effort in that line in the coming colder months.

However Rome wasn’t built in a day and some of the undesirable species such as Hemp Agrimony, brambles. dog wood etc were soon showing signs of attempting to make a rapid comeback.

A small herd of Sussex Cattle belonging to the Hodgkins family put in an appearance in July and soon got to work on the sward.   They are an ancient breed descended from the draught oxen which were a common sight on the Weald in days of yore.  It is basically a beef producing breed which is suited to both cold winters and hot summers as they have a thin summer coat and many sweat glands, but grow a thick coat in the winter season.  They are medium sized animal with dark red-brown coats and creamy white tail switches. They have a relatively long body. The breed is naturally horned, but polled animals are commonly seen.

Matthew and another team of volunteers came and spent a few hours on the Down on the 18th July and did a sterling job of work on some of the stands of undesirable vegetation.  This was duly removed so as not to enrich the ground.

So far 2018 has been a vast improvement on previous years and seasons and slowly but surely Bepton Down will continue on the long road to recovery as long as this impetus is maintained.

Our thanks to all those who have been contributing factors in the progress witnessed so far.  Bepton Down looks forward to having another cut where needed in the autumn of 2018  to remove areas of unpalatable growth which the beautiful Sussex Cattle have shunned.  It also looks forward to the return of the teaser rams once their job is done during the tupping season.

 

 

 

 

Spring is in the air

Version 2I went for a superb walk on the Downs this morning.   The climb up Cardiac Hill yielded three fallow does and although the weather was damp and misty at the top I was glad to be there.  I then made my way to the old woodsman’s cottage now in ruins but where there are carpets of snowdrops at this time of year.  There are clumps of single and double ones in full bloom at the moment and it is always a joy to see them as they are the harbingers of spring.

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Then on to where there is an active badgers’ sett in the woods before I made my way across the South Downs Way and onto Bepton Down.

As I approached the teaser rams on part of the SSSI I noticed two reddish brown four-legged creatures amongst them.  I paused and leaning on a gate I took some rather blurry photographs.   I was a distance away and it was misty but I managed to capture another aspect of spring which one does not normally see.   I suppose I was down wind and so the pair did not get a whiff of me.  The fact that they were out in the middle of the morning suggested that they had other things on their mind.  I watched them for about twenty minutes until they vanished from sight over the brow of the hill.

Magical moments indeed.

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Scrub Clearance

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Things are finally happening on Bepton Down SSSI. In late 2017 following a complete and thorough cut of most of the scrub on all three sections, all the dead vegetation was removed. Then our local sheep farmer, Andrew Hodgkins, put nine teaser rams on the two main areas of the site where they should remain until the end of February. This should ensure a good start to the 2018 season as long as the amended management plan is adhered to.

On Friday 12th January, 2018, Matthew Dowse, Ranger for the Central Downs area of the South Downs National Park, put together a party of scrub clearers to tackle some of the brambles and other scrub on the northern most part of the Down. This is a small area which was partially reclaimed in the winter of 14/15 and was then again neglected. Unfortunately sheep cannot yet be allowed into this area as they would get entangled in the brambles.

Beatrice Potter, from the Bepton Down Conservation Group, joined Matthew, Becca, both from the SDNPA, and three volunteers to help in the clearance. Despite the rain in the morning a great deal was achieved in five hours. A number of stunted hawthorn trees complete with brambles and huge woody stems of Old Man’s Beard were felled, Matthew is excellent with a chainsaw. The lower fence line was cleared of invasive scrub by Becca using a brush cutter and a fairly large area of low growing brambles was also cleared. Matthew had a huge fire going which was welcome in the prevailing conditions.

This area looks a lot better than it did and it is hoped that cattle will be able to graze it and the rest of Bepton Down during the course of 2018.

I gather that Matthew is planning more sessions in the not too distant future and would welcome more volunteers from Bepton. All the tools are provided but one is advised to bring picnic items for lunch and the mid-morning break. When the dates are known these will be advertised on the notice board near the post box at the southern end of Bepton. Should anyone be interested I would be happy to hear from you and would contact you as soon as further dates are known. My email is:

beatrice.potter@btopenworld.com

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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

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Robin’s Pincushion

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One of the undesirable plants on Bepton Down is showing odd features!

The Dog Rose is one of the thorny invasive plants which, although attractive enough in its own right, is a menace on a SSSI chalk downland.  If left to do its own thing it quickly grows tall and woody becoming difficult to get rid of.  This year, 2017, not so many of them are thriving thanks to the cuts and removal of cuttings which take place in the early autumn.  This is good practice to ensure the weakening of such species as brambles, hawthorn…. and dog roses.  It is fervently hoped that a systematic cut of the whole site will take place in the coming weeks.

Robin’s pincushion otherwise known as Rose bedeguar  is a gall.  It is harmless and will not kill the plant.  However it is the nursery for the young of the gall wasp (Diplolepis rosae).

The adult wasp lays eggs in the buds or developing leaves during mid-summer period. The eggs hatch into small white maggots that secrete chemicals that cause the abnormal growth.

Instead of buds developing into normal shoots and leaves, they are converted into hard woody structures that have an outer covering of moss-like leaves, which are either reddish pink or yellowish green. The internal part of the gall contains a number of chambers in which the grubs develop. The galls are fully developed during August and the insects overwinter inside the galls as pupae. During the autumn the outer covering of moss-like leaves tends to decay and this leaves the hard woody centre exposed.  The adult wasp emerges in the spring.  The females do not require the male as they reproduce parthenogenetically.

The female insects are about 4 mm long; parts of their abdomens and legs are an amber/chestnut colour, while the rest of the body is black. The male (length of about 3 mm) is very rare. It is black and its legs are bi-coloured. The gall is more likely to be seen than the adult wasp.

 

 

 

 

New Neighbours

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Last year the Cowdray Estate decided to close down two dairy operations and put two farms up for rent.  Andrew Hodgkins managed to obtain the lease on both Cocking Hill Farm and Linch Farm.  His parents run Wairere U.K. (New Zealand Romneys) sheep farm at Locks Farm, Washington, near Pulborough in West Sussex.   So Andrew and his fiancée, Laura, have brought with them a few thousand pure Romney sheep and are running them in strict rotation along the South Downs Way above Cocking, Bepton and Linch as well as on the north side of Bepton Down and Linch.

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These Romney sheep are descended from stock imported from New Zealand.  They live outside year round and lamb in the open in March/April.  The ewes prove to be excellent mothers and produce fast growing lambs.  They have a sturdy constitution and are long-lived.  The aim is to produce quality Signet SRS performance rams and thus offer for sale shearling and lamb rams.   Top quality shearling and lamb ewes are also produced.dsc00297

In the last week Bepton Down Conservation Group has been delighted to note the presence of at least two hundred Romney ewes on the access area of Bepton Down SSSI.   After having eaten up the more palatable  areas they are now beginning to munch their way through the tussocks of rougher vegetation.  They should reduce the sward to an acceptable level for the flora and fauna of chalk downland to flourish come the spring.  Once they have completed their duties on this area of the Bepton Down no doubt they will make their way into the top half of the SSSI in the top field which is not part of the access land area.

They are beautiful ewes, in tip top condition, and I have yet to notice lameness or any other ailment in them.  The Bepton Down Conservation Group are delighted to have them and hope they will continue to perform their duties on Bepton Down in the years ahead.

Andrew and Laura are more than welcome in our area and we hope they will be very happy here.   We wish them luck with their gorgeous sheep which enhance the area which, after all, was once famed for the sheep kept and produced here.dsc00315-copy