This section comprises plants that are specific to the habitat afforded them by chalk downland as well as others that are beneficial to wildlife in this type of setting. They should all be found in unimproved in chalk grasslands but given the actual site this may not always be the case. Bepton Down is a SSSI but has been sadly neglected over a number of years and this has resulted in patches of rank, coarse grasses more likely to be found in “improved” pastures. This has occurred due to the lack of consistent management fine tuned to this type of grassland habitat. What makes this even more regrettable is the fact that it is an extremely rare, fragile and threatened habitat. Various elements can be linked to the encroachment of coarse grasses but one of these stands out. The lack of management over a number of years resulted in massive encroachments of scrub including such plants as brambles, hawthorn, dog roses, nettles and Hemp Agrimony. These plants were allowed to grow unchecked and on dying back in the autumn and winter increased the deposits of nitrogen in the soil which in turn leads to high levels of nutrients unsuitable for chalk downland plants.
Each chalk downland site requires careful management which needs to be adapted to the year in question and the slight changes to be found in the different seasons. In the case of Bepton Down the situation had deteriorated to such an extent that suitable grazing alone was no longer feasible. In general cattle, sheep (and rabbits) are welcome in reasonable numbers at appropriate times as they will keep down different types of undesirable vegetation and open up the soil sympathetically so that seed is allowed to germinate. The animals used have to be suited to the conditions and should not be left in situ should the ground become too wet as they will then destroy it. It is also a fact that native (primitive) animals such as those found amongst the rare breeds are more suited to this type of vegetation and will even tackle such plants as brambles and hawthorn. They are smaller and hardier than present day commercial farm animals. However even these will give up when the plants have become too coarse and tough. Commercial cattle in particular are too “soft” and find such thorny plants unpalatable. They do not do well on them and tend to leave them alone allowing them to increase uncontrollably.
In the case of Bepton Down systematic cutting of the whole site is the only feasible solution. This year, 2015, the South Downs National Park together with the Cowdray Estate cut down all the vegetation to a uniform height within the site. This was done at the back end of the summer in early September which is the correct time of year for this type of job. The only fly in the ointment was the fact that 30 heifers had been allowed onto the site prior to this and had made an excellent job of trashing all the orchids that were still in flower as well as the plants that had already set seed leaving all the scrub totally untouched! However having cut down the vegetation they then proceeded to remove it which is excellent news as otherwise it would have rotted down in situ thus improving the soil and creating a vicious circle.
In 2014 the S.D.N.P. had already cut back several of the huge suffocating stands of Hemp Agrimony.
This is therefore work in progress and one hopes that over a period of time possibly running into several years, this site will revert to being a gem amongst the other chalk downland SSSIs.