New Neighbours


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.


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

Chalara – Ash Die Back

Bepton Down is bordered by many trees some of which are Ash.

Unfortunately last summer it became apparent that some of these trees were becoming distressed and beginning to show signs of “drying”.  Branches were becoming bare and brittle and little new growth if any was taking place.  There was definitely a major problem.  In view of the fact that Ash Die Back or Chalara is now a major scourge I took some photos and sent them in to the TREE HEALTH DIAGNOSTIC & ADVISORY SERVICE which comes under Forestry Research.  This is a governmental bureau.

I received this reply:

I have had a careful look at your photographs and the ash you have reported is showing signs of Chalara ash dieback. The wilting leaves and bare branches are typical of the disease. The tree you have reported is within a 10km area where we have confirmed Chalara ash dieback in the wider environment.”

There is nothing to be done about this and although most if not all of the Ash trees present on Bepton Down and in the wider area will succumb to this disease it does not call for the felling of the affected trees.dsc00186

These will remain in situ unless the landowner decides to have them removed.  Eventually other species will take root as light unaffected by a canopy of leaves will reach the ground and encourage new growth.

The cause is a fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus. (The fungus was previously called Chalara fraxinea, hence the name of the disease.) Chalara causes leaf loss, crown dieback and bark lesions in affected trees. Once a tree is infected the disease is usually fatal. However there is a glimmer of hope as  evidence from continental Europe suggests that older, mature ash trees can survive infection and continue to provide their landscape and wildlife benefits for some time.

Just one other thing this disease does not affect any other plant species.


Unveiling of Bepton Down Panel.

Wednesday 13th July, 2016.

Neil Hart, one of the Deputy Lieutenants of Sussex who lives in Bepton Parish, was on hand to unveil the panel dedicated to Bepton Down SSSI.  Helen Hollowood, Member of the Bepton Down Conservation Group and instrumental in obtaining the grant which allowed the idea to become reality, made an introductory speech.  Also on hand was Simon Verrall, Chairman of the Bepton Down Conservation Group, who designed and produced the panel.

The panel has been dedicated to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth the Second’s 90th Birthday.

It is beautifully produced and is representative of the flora and fauna to be found on Bepton Down.  Situated at the T.junction at the foot of Bepton Down it will give the visitor much pleasure.  It is informative and will enhance everyone’s visit to the village and surroundings of Bepton.

A number of parishioners and others were on hand to witness this ceremony and despite yet another shower they were delighted by what they saw.

Bepton Down Conservation Group’s other two Committee Members, Irene Bridgmont and Beatrice Potter,  were also present.



Stop Press – Flora and Fauna

Just to let you know that this year the whole of Bepton Down SSSI was alive with carpets of cowslips which are now setting seed.

The orchids are putting in an appearance and there are already a multitude of Common Spotted orchids covering the whole of the site with many more on the way.

For those with keen eyesight the Common Twayblade orchid is present in a few areas in far greater numbers than in previous years. These are all in the general area of the solitary Beech tree.

The Greater Butterfly orchid has a stronghold fairly near the lower kissing gate and there are a number of them to be seen in flower at present.   They have recently been discovered in an area of Bepton Down which is non-access land (so closed to the general public) which is a welcome sight.

The White Helleborine is also present in just one small area and in fairly small numbers.  They favour beech woods so….. that is a clue.

Amongst the butterflies on the wing at the moment:  the Red Admiral and the Speckled Wood…

Enjoy it all.   However please remember that dogs must be kept of a short  leash at the this time of year (hares and their leverets are to be found in forms and there are also ground nesting birds).  Also tread carefully making sure you do not squash the rare Helleborines and the slightly inconspicuous Twayblades and Great Butterfly orchids.

White Helleborine with a Red Admiral (top right) and a Speckled Wood (bottom right).






Stop Press

Bepton Down is at last waking up from the winter blues and is showing promising signs of producing more flora and fauna of interest than in 2015.   This is due, in part, to  a much improved management scheme than in 2014.

Last year (2015) the commercial heifers put in an appearance in August a full month later than in 2014.   This meant that they had less time to trash the good stuff whilst totally ignoring the rampant brambles, dog roses, hawthorn, nettles etc which are the bane of the site.  In the interim the rubbish had really taken off.  Thanks to co-operation with the South Downs National Park the commercial heifers were removed and in September the whole site was sensitively cut thus removing all the woody undesirable vegetation to more or less ground level.  The cuttings were then removed which is necessary as rotting vegetation only serves to add nutrients to the soil.   Chalk downland species thrive on poor soil.

Later on a flock of Herdwick sheep was introduced courtesy of the National Trust.  This breed is a hardy hill sheep used to living off poor, unpalatable vegetation which most commercial breeds of modern sheep will ignore.  They spent a few weeks on Bepton Down and after their removal and  the earlier cut, the site looked far better than in previous years at the outset of the new year.

It is to be hoped that in 2016 the enlightened and less haphazard management program of 2015 will be repeated.  The commercial breeds of dairy cattle are useless and do more damage than good when present in the summer months when pyramidal orchids are still coming out and other species of orchids and flowers have yet to set  seed properly.   The rubbish has been so invasive in the last few years that a cut at the back end of the season (thanks to the S.D.N.P.) followed by the removal of the vegetation will be imperative and this should again be followed by grazing animals ovine or bovine in sensible numbers which are native and hardy.   The Herdwicks would be a welcome sight as would a few Belted Galloways.  We would be delighted if these could again be provided courtesy of the National Trust.




Spring has sprung

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.



Bepton Down in days gone by.

Then there was the chap who could be found on the Bepton Down every year at different times. His hobby was counting the orchids! He would turn up at the height of the flowering of each of the six types of orchids present and count them by using a grid system. To his delight (and ours) year on year he found they were increasing in number.

At that time the Access Area and the field above it were devoid of scrub. The area to the right of the restricted byway leading up to the lower kissing gate from the village of Bepton was incorporated into the main Access Area by the main fence line which ran along side the byway. It too supported many types of wild flowers and orchids.

Then times changed and new farming methods came in which meant that farm managers were no longer required. Gradually Bepton Down was forgotten and neglected. Scrub took over and the old fence line vanished under a seemingly impenetrable jungle of brambles, nettles and other more tenacious tree seedlings hell bent on taking over. Needless to say the piper did not return and sadly the orchid counter gave up too.

At some point a new fence line some way above the old was created using sheep wire. This is still in place though overgrown in many places as cascades of brambles, hawthorn and plants such as Mallow (which depend on rich soil) tumble over it obscuring it from view in many areas. Over the years this scrub has been allowed to take over and it is now widespread within the whole of the SSSI. The orchids still struggle to survive but really they are crying out for someone to care enough to cut the whole area at an appropriate time of year so that they are no longer stifled. They would also be grateful to those who might care enough to cut down the undesirable vegetation to then remove it so that it does not enrich the soil through decomposition thus depriving them of their ideal conditions for survival.

Cattle on Bepton Down

Cowdray cattle on and off Bepton Down

After speaking with Cowdray earlier in the year the introduction of cattle onto Bepton Down was delayed from the beginning of July until early in August. Their late arrival was intended to give the flowering orchids a chance to set seed, though many species including Pyramidal Orchids were still in flower when the cows turned up.

Cattle on Bepton Down
Two of the commercial cattle that have been on Bepton Down. They enjoy eating all the good things but don’t touch the unpalatable scrub.

The cattle came on to the site around 7th August. There were about thirty of them and they appear to have been removed on the morning of Saturday 22nd August. I went out on the hill at 7 a.m. today, Sunday 23rd August, and traversed both the Access Area, the area above it and the top field along the South Downs Way to make doubly sure that there was not a single heifer left. There were none. They are now in the field opposite the top field along the S.D.W.

It is just as well they have been removed. In the SSSI areas they have trampled down and eaten everything that was palatable to them. In some of those areas the vegetation has been browsed right to the ground. With the onset of rainy weather some areas are beginning to get too muddy for the number of cattle that were on site.

Unpalatable scrub

Their passage has revealed just how many areas of unpalatable scrub there are. These commercial breeds of cattle will never tackle any of this. The areas of brambles and other thorny material are increasing and there is also the small matter of the stands of Hemp Agrimony. These are quite substantial and are not tackled by bovine lawn mowers! There are far too many areas which are now being choked by this plant. Some is good, too much is much too much.

Hemp Agrimony Bepton Down
Tall stands of Hemp Agrimony invade Bepton Down. They look pretty but they’re pushing out the orchids and cowslips.

I revert to my not so stupid idea that (and as many other owners of wild flower meadows do) the whole area should have been cut at the same time. This would level the sward uniformly allowing the good seed to drop to the ground. The detritus (as it would have contained much rubbish) should then have been removed so as to prevent soil improvement. (Incidentally cow pats from 30 head provide quantities of unwanted nutrients too!).

Until Cowdray cut down and remove the scrub there is no end in sight. They should do this before some of the unwanted plants begin to die back.