Sussex Downs and East Hampshire Downs

Geographical, April 2007 | Go to article overview
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Sussex Downs and East Hampshire Downs

Rattling and bumping along little used tracks at the edges of snow-covered fields, the progress of the farmer's 4x4 is slow. Millions of people across Britain had awoken this morning to the inevitable travel chaos caused by a few centimetres of snow. But the conditions weren't severe enough to prevent Tom Tupper, whose farming roots on the South Downs go back to 1811, from venturing up to 225-metre Bignor Hill to check on his herd of very special, and some might say ecologically important, sheep.

From the top, we're treated to fantastic 360[degrees] views across the southeast of England that, on a clear day, take in Bognor Regis, the Isle of Wight, Devil's Dyke and the Hog's Back (or North Downs), which stretches across Kent and Surrey.

Extending from near Winchester to Eastbourne, the South Downs is a ridge of chalk that runs parallel to the North Downs. Both ridges were once part of a chalk dome--or anticline--the centre of which has gradually eroded away into a flat area now known as the Weald.

The landscape here represents several thousand years of human history, and a staggering number of archaeological sites are scattered throughout, including 670 Scheduled Ancient Monuments and Cissbury Ring, the second largest hill fort in England. A bewildering array of protection statuses are in place across the downs, including four National Nature Reserves and several Sites of Special Scientific Interest. The Seven Sisters Country Park and Beachy Head near Eastbourne are Heritage Coast sites, and much of the steep chalk slopes were designated an Environmentally Sensitive Area in 1987 because the rare remnants of ancient downland turf that cover them support a rich diversity of flowers and butterflies. In addition, the South Downs is the only area of chalk downland in the UK to have been considered and proposed as a national park a status that it's still chasing.

It wasn't until the 1960s that the South Downs as a whole received any kind of protection under the AONB system. The problem was that the enormous chalk ridge transcended the boundaries of 15 local authorities, which made the process of protecting it quite complicated. The downs within East Hampshire were designated an AONB in 1962, but it took the Sussex Downs another four years to be designated. Combined, the AONBs cover most of the area proposed as a national park and are managed jointly by the South Downs Joint Committee (SDJC).

The hold-up in the South Downs' progress towards national parkhood is the result of an assessment by the National Park Commission, which found that heavy ploughing had severely diminished the region's recreational potential. This is one of two crucial criteria that must be met by an area seeking national park status, the other being natural beauty, which the region has in abundance.

After both the First and Second World Wars, there was a drive to become more self-sufficient: farmers were paid to grow more crops and landowners were encouraged to plant trees for fuel and timber. "During the post-war era, the government gave farmers almost unlimited scope to intensify agriculture," explains Neil Hill, SDJC's Landscape Enhancement Initiative project coordinator.

This intensive farming diminished much of the South Downs chalk grasslands--those characteristic rolling open hill-tops--which had been maintained by sheep grazing since the Bronze Age, enabling a very specialist community of plants and animals to exist there. At the right time of year, butterflies such as the rare silver spotted skipper, duke of Burgundy and Adonis blue can be seen fluttering between coniferous juniper trees and flowers such as the round-headed rampion, the protected early gentian and two types of orchid. Skylarks, corn buntings and grey partridges also benefit from the chalk grassland habitat.

Landscape managers soon realised that in order to maintain these communities, it was important to bring back the sheep.

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