Posted on

Special Sanctuary for Nature

Noar Hill

The gentler landscapes of the National Park in Hampshire have their own special beauty. The open western Downs are some of the most tranquil areas in the Park. From the scarp slope north of Petersfield and the internationally important ‘hanger’ woodlands, to the chalk rivers of the Itchen and Meon and the Yew forest of Kingley Vale, the western end of the Park contains a variety of landscapes and important wildlife habitats. Amongst the latter are areas of chalk grassland, including Noar Hill, a special sanctuary for nature, a 63-hectare biological Site of Special Scientific Interest and part of the East Hampshire Hangers Special Area of Conservation, near Selborne.

Noar Hill photo courtesy of Ian Cameron-Reid

A 20-hectare section of Noar Hill is managed by Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT) which, with the support of thousands of members, supporters and volunteers, has protected and cared for wild spaces and places in Hampshire for more than 60 years. The Trust manages more than 65 nature reserves across Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, while also working with partner organisations and landowners to protect and connect wildlife sites across the two counties and inspire local communities and young people to care for wildlife and take action for nature’s recovery.

Noar Hill is one of the Trust’s most important and well-known sites, being one of its ‘Chalk Gem’ nature reserves. The Nature Reserve is nationally renowned for a wonderful array of chalk downland flowers, such as Juniper and Pyramidal Orchid. Every spring and summer, the vibrant flowers and butterflies which nectar on them create a magnificent canvas of colour against the backdrop of surrounding crop fields. Once the site of medieval chalk workings, a walk through this landscape always offers a fascinating experience with its ridges, banks and hollows creating niches for a wide variety of wildlife.

Our Support of this Special Sanctuary for Nature

Friends of the South Downs Council has agreed a donation of up to £20,000 during this year to support the Trust’s vital work at this popular and special sanctuary for nature. This donation will help fund a range of works with benefits to wildlife.  These include surveys that will enable the Trust’s team to record and monitor the rarer species at the site, helping to guide practical habitat management to ensure these species are protected. A programme of scrape creation will prevent scrub from dominating open areas, provide conditions for early, pioneer plant species, and create micro-climates offering warmth, protection and the right conditions for butterflies, an array of orchids and other chalk flora.  Some species require scrub (e.g. Brown Hairstreak, Duke of Burgundy, and rare hybrid roses), so scrapes will be sited away from the most sensitive areas.

The provision of ‘no fence’ cattle collars will optimise conservation grazing efforts for the benefit of wildlife, whilst new and updated signage and interpretation will help to deepen awareness, connection, understanding of, and support for, Noar Hill its wildlife, the HIWWT and the Friends.

These works will directly further the first purpose of National Parks: to increase the enjoyment of the landscape and help preserve the South Downs for future generations.  The project also represents our first truly environmental project and one of our first in Hampshire. We are therefore delighted and excited to be working in partnership with the HIWWT on this important and ground-breaking project.

For further information on Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, visit hiwwt.org.uk

Martin Small

Trustee

Fragrant orchid and Common twayblade photo courtesy of Mike Read
Posted on

Responsible Dog Walking

The South Downs National Park encourages responsible dog walking to help farmers and wildlife. Take the lead and keep those paws on the path! That’s the call to action to dogwalkers from the South Downs National Park Authority as ground-nesting bird and lambing season starts this March.

With dog ownership at an all-time high post-pandemic, the National Park is re-energising its “Take The Lead” campaign, which encourages responsible dog walking with simple actions, such as keeping canines on leads around livestock and bagging and binning dog poo. Since the National Park Authority came into being in 2011, the number of dogs in the UK has significantly increased – from around 8m in 2011 to around 13m today – meaning it’s more important than ever to follow some simple guidelines when walking your dog in the countryside.

Responsible Dog Walking

The four messages for Take The Lead are:

  • Keep dogs on a lead near livestock
  • Bag and bin your poo, any public bin will do
  • Stick to the path. Protect ground-nesting birds by sticking to the paths, especially between 1 March and 15 September during the breeding season.
  • Do not enter military training areas when the red flags are flying

To mark the campaign, the National Park is inviting dogwalkers to enjoy the stunning views and snap a picture of their pooch on the lead and sticking to the path in the South Downs. The competition starts on 15 March and runs through the Easter Holidays and Discover National Parks Fortnight, finishing on 14 April. The prize for the best image will be an amazing dog hamper full of tasty treats for your four-legged friend and a “poop scoop” Dicky Bag – an award-winning neoprene bag that’s lightweight, airtight, washable and leak proof to store your dog poo bags until you find a suitable bin.

To enter simply post a picture with #PawsOnThePath and #TaketheLead on Instagram or facebook. Dr Marc Abraham OBE, or ‘Marc the Vet’ as he’s usually known, a multi-award-winning veterinary surgeon, author, broadcaster, and animal welfare campaigner, will be judging the entries.

Unfortunately there have been several reported incidents of sheep worrying in the South Downs over the past couple of years and statistics from the National Sheep Association show that 70% of UK sheep farmers have experienced a sheep worrying attack in the past 12 months. It’s not only young lambs that are are risk from being chased by dogs, pregnant ewes can abort their unborn lambs if scared by dogs. For any farmer it’s devastating emotionally and financially to discover any of their flock has been injured, or worse, killed, in a dog attack.

Sticking to the paths is particularly important at this time of year as many birds, such as nightjar and curlew, lay their eggs directly on the ground and can easily be disturbed by a curious canine. Mothers will often abandon a nest and her eggs if disturbed.

Andy Gattiker, who leads on access for the National Park Authority, said: “Our focus at the National Park is on education and engagement when it comes to dogwalking.

“Responsible dog walking is a great way for people to get out, get fit and experience the National Park. However, we also understand that having dogs off leads can potentially have a devastating impact on farmers, as well as fragile wildlife-rich habitats.

“The aim of our ‘Take The Lead’ campaign is to help everyone, including dog walkers, to have an enjoyable and safe experience in the National Park.”

One of the “myths” that often arises at the National Park’s engagement events is that dog poo enriches the soil and helps plants and animals.

Andy said: “Many of the habitats in the National Park, such as chalk grassland and heathland, have actually developed over thousands of years because of soil that is low in nutrients. This gives the amazing array of specialist species that we see today. Introducing dog poo can change this soil profile and interrupt these fragile ecosystems. It’s also very unsightly when you’re trying to enjoy this beautiful landscape and carries the risk of serious bacterial infection to humans.”

Sussex-based vet, animal welfare campaigner, and South Downs enthusiast Dr Marc Abraham OBE said: “Once again it’s a huge honour to judge the South Downs National Park’s #TakeTheLead and #PawsOnThePath photo competition. Dog ownership is at an all-time high post-Covid, so it’s never been more important to make sure our four-legged friends are kept under control at all times, which means sticking to the paths during ground-nesting bird and lambing season, as well as picking up their poop and disposing of it safely and responsibly, plus highlighting a new online ‘toolkit’ for communities looking to set up their own dog ambassador schemes.”

Dr Marc Abraham OBE

If you’re looking to raise awareness in your local area about responsible dog ownership you may want to think about setting up a dog ambassador scheme. Having regular dog walkers in your area talking to other dog walkers can be a great way of helping educate people about how they can ensure they have a fun and safe visit to the countryside with their pooch. The National Park has created an online toolkit, full of useful information on setting up a dog ambassador scheme, and it can be seen here www.southdowns.gov.uk/take-the-lead/dog-ambassadors-set-up-your-own-scheme.

For more information on Take The Lead visit www.southdowns.gov.uk/take-the-lead/

Posted on

Your Opinion Matters

Friends of the South Downs was established 100 years ago by ordinary people taking action to protect our precious Downland landscape. Over the past 100 years, our charity’s growth and the achievement of National Park status has been down to the continued involvement of people who care. Now, as we make plans for the next 100 years, we are keen to discover your views on our charity and the issues that you feel most deserve our attention going forward. Your opinion matters to us.  We value your contribution to our future planning and look forward to sharing the results with you in future.

The Friends of the South Downs is owned and run by its members and there are many ways in which you can help. We have many volunteering opportunities for people of all ages, abilities, skills and fitness levels. If you are able to give up some of your time to help us, you’ll meet many interesting and sociable people who really care and work hard to help protect the landscape and heritage of the South Downs.

We are almost totally reliant on our volunteers in helping us achieve our aims and objectives so anyone offering to become a volunteer is always made very welcome.

Here is an example of some of the typical activities you can help us with:

Walks & Strolls Leaders

If you have local knowledge of the South Downs and are good at organising events you can help research our annual programme and lead one or a few of our over 200 walks and strolls.

Trustees / Council Members

If you want to be part of setting the strategic direction of the Society and making sure that its aims are achieved then you would be welcome as a Council member. Your opinion matters. Council meets four times a year but in addition, most members are active in other areas of the Society’s work.

District Officers

Help us keep an eye on and comment on planning applications in your own locality.

Get in touch today!

Posted on

The Pump Barn

Seven Sisters Country Park was transferred from East Sussex County Council to the stewardship of the SDNPA in 2020 and remains in public ownership. Since then, several improvements have been made including a visitors centre at Exceat, a food outlet, offices and toilets. But the authority, due to financial constraints, was unable to fund the refurbishment of the largest structure on the site of the visitors centre, the Pump Barn, a magnificent 18th century building.

Seven Sister Pump Barn
Photo by Ian Lancaster

Friends of the South Downs Trustees agreed at the end of 2022 to provide £60,000 to refurbish the Pump Barn. The centre has up to 750,000 visitors each year who visit the Seven Sisters Country Park and walk the South Downs Way. The Pump Barn is structurally sound, has facilities for local businesses, meetings, presentations and other activities. These are the facilities that we are funding, and will include a section dedicated to the Friends of the South Downs.

Trevor Beattie, Chief Executive of the South Downs National Park Authority, said: “Seven Sisters Country Park offers some of the most stunning views in the world but it could be so much more.

“We would like to make it a national centre for biodiversity, conservation and climate change, telling the story of this extraordinary landscape to a wide audience and using it to test out new approaches to the national challenge of climate change.”

Friends of the South Downs dedicated the newly refurbished Pump Barn on Monday 25 September 2023 with Alistair Appleton, who held an inspirational talk at the facility.

Generous legacies have enabled the Society over the years to provide financial support to projects it feels worthwhile. To the National Trust for Harting Downs and Devils Dyke, as well as to helping provide a bunkhouse at Gumber Farm, Slindon. Supporting East Sussex County Council towards converting the barn at Foxhole Farm to a Bunkhouse and improving the car park at High and Over, with Disabled access to the nearest viewing point. Small donations have also been made to projects such as the Jack and Jill Mills at Clayton, St Mary’s Church, Stoughton, the Sussex Rights of Way Group and others.

If you would like to consider remembering us in your Will, please see our Legacy Giving page.

Pump Barn photos by Graham Stockley
Posted on

The Belloc Way

The Belloc Way is taking shape. The project is not yet finished, but there is an end in sight. We have now walked its full length for the first time. It was just under 100 miles and we did so over six days, averaging about 16.5 miles a day and walking Tuesday/Wednesday/Thursday of the first two weeks of August.

the belloc way photo by jeremy bacon
Photo by Jeremy Bacon

The core group was four. We were three men and one woman and on different days, we were joined by various other members.

The challenge all along was to devise a walk that was true to the spirit of Belloc, but which at the same time, would be attractive to walkers. I have therefore tried to avoid roads wherever reasonably possible; not always easy given that the original walk was almost exclusively on public roads.

The Belloc Way Week 1

The night before we started, we stayed at The George. It has new owners. Some of the Belloc memorabilia had been destroyed in the move and they knew little about Belloc himself. The first day took us to Blackboys by way of Brightling, Mad Jack Fuller and his follies. It goes through the High Weald and enjoys some lovely countryside and great views.  It was probably the part of the route I knew least. Perhaps because of that it was one of my favourite days.

High Weald phto the belloc way
The High Weald photo by Laura Libricz

Day 2 took us from Blackboys, through Uckfield by way of a surprisingly pleasant through path. Then it was over Piltdown Golf Club, where there is no shortage of signage, but it did not all seem to be entirely accurate! After that it was on to Fletching, which has to be one of the most unspoilt villages in Sussex. Sadly, at that point it started raining and didn’t relent for the rest of the day. Heaven Farm was far from that and by the time we reached Ardingly, we were all soaked to the bone.

ouse valley viaduct the belloc way
Ouse Valley Viaduct photo by Laura Libricz

The rain stopped overnight and it was sunny as we walked out of Ardingly down the hill to the reservoir with the Ouse Valley Viaduct in the background. In fact, as we neared the Viaduct it was apparent that much of it is currently swathed in scaffolding while repointing work is carried out. Then on to Staplefield, under the M23, Slaugham and Warninglid, before reaching the Crabtree and on to the old Railway Station at West Grinstead.

Week 2

Resuming walking on Tuesday the following week, took us to the Roman Catholic Church of Our Lady of Consolation and St Francis in West Grinstead where Belloc is buried and then on to Kings Land in Shipley where he lived most of his life. His descendants do still live there but clearly care little for living in an historic building as I had the front gate closed in my face as I tried to take a photo of it. That was fast forgotten though as we walked on through the Knepp Estate of rewilding fame, before crossing the A24 and on to The Fountain in Ashurst and then to Steyning.

First thing the next morning, it was Steyning to Washington, home to what was in Belloc’s day the Washington Inn and ‘the very best beer I know’. It is now the Frankland Arms and whilst it is a perfectly serviceable pub, you would be very hard pressed to describe its beer as the ‘best’. From Washington the route took us to Sullington where the priest came out of the church as we sat having a mid-morning break to offer us communion, a first, at least for me. Then it was on to Storrington, Parham Park and The Bridge at Amberley, another pub Belloc was fond of. The afternoon saw us push on to Bury, West Burton and finally to Sutton where there is a pub I am very fond of, The White Horse.

The final day, we walked out of Sutton on a lovely morning heading towards the Downs over a freshly harvested field. It was beautiful and would have been little changed over the centuries for all Belloc’s misgivings. The next stop was Duncton and The Cricketers (you should have noticed a theme by now); then Graffham, Heyshott and Cocking. Up on to Cocking Down and along the South Downs Way for a few miles before reaching the Devil’s Jumps and then down to Elsted and The Three Horseshoes, where the Four Men broke bread and pledged each other for the last time. From there, just like the Four Men: ‘ … and then again we took the road, and went forward as we had gone forward before, until we came to Harting.’      

It has to be said there was a sense of satisfaction when we finished, tempered by a realisation that there is still work to be done. I am proposing to do a commentary as an aide to anyone planning to do the walk. It would include maps, directions and some basic information about places of interest along the route. This is almost finished.

David Green, Trustee

Posted on

Be a Friend

Celebrating our Centenary this year, we have some exciting events planned as well as funding some projects that will make a real difference on the Downs. We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all our members for their continued support and invite all our new friends to join us today. Be a Friend of the South Downs.

Be a Friend of the South Downs

As a member, you have access to over 200 walks and strolls a year. Your membership helps support our team of District Officers who monitor planning applications throughout the South Downs National Park. Your membership also helps support our extensive educational programmes with schools.

The Friends of the South Downs has agreed a major programme of spending totalling over £100,000 in our Centenary year, to benefit the Downs in the short term and the long term. The Friends can spend this money because they are fortunate to have recently received two substantial legacies. You can help us make these legacies go even farther by supporting us. Be a friend.

Bigger Items of Spending in the Plan

  • £60,000 to the National Park Authority for the refurbishment of the iconic 18th century pump barn building at the Seven Sisters country park, which will be used to showcase the Downs for visitors and provide space for activities.
  • £20,000 for projects to encourage children to learn about and appreciate the South Downs.  We’re running the projects with bodies like the National Park Authority and Youth Hostels Association.  We’re aiming at children for groups who are less likely to visit the Downs.  The plan is to teach them about the landscape and history, and most of all encourage them to appreciate and value the Downs.

Be a Friend and Support our Projects

  • providing attractive wooden benches, converting stiles to gates to improve access and placing information boards at significant locations.
  • helping make a path more accessible for people with limited mobility, planned location Devils Dyke. 
  • Contributing to the cost of staging a play based on Hilaire Belloc’s famous book The Four Men about a walk across the Downs.
  • Financing prizes at Brighton University for academic work relevant to the South Downs.

Upcoming Centenary Events

Be a friend and join today!

Posted on

Our Youngest Downlanders

“It is rather wonderful that some of our youngest downlanders have been able to celebrate the Centenary of the Friends of the South Downs, by marking out ‘100’ on the greensward of the Downs. Bury School, nestling, as it does in the heart of the South Downs, has worked with FSD on two of our schools’ projects and are now taking part in our latest educational project called South Downs for All. Only last month, I accompanied some of the Year 5 and Year 6 children on an eight-mile walk over the downs from Slindon to Bury. A great school with a real commitment to sharing the joy of the South Downs with all their pupils.” Chris Hare, Project Manager

bury school friends of the south downs south downs for all

Our latest educational project, South Downs for All, is a programme aimed at bringing together eight South Down schools and the FSD to enable more children to enjoy the South Downs and learn about the heritage of this wonderful landscape. Chris Hare is also project manager of South Downs Generations, a unique partnership between FSD and four West Sussex Primary schools. That project brings together young and old to explore our common downland heritage.

Year 5 and 6 children at Bury School proved their downland credentials by walking from Slindon to Bury, a distance of some 12 km. The day was perfect – warm but not too warm.

We walked by Slindon Folly on Nore Hill, built for the Countess of Newburgh over 200 years ago, and trod the route Roman soldiers took 2,000 years ago along a surviving stretch of Roman road at Stane Street, that once led all the way from Chichester to London.

There were plenty of stops, including one at Bignor Hill, where the fingerpost points to destinations written in the original Latin.

Finally, we descended Bignor Hill and came across a bubbling stream, fed from a spring in the Downs. On returning to Bury School at just after 3:00pm, all the party – adults, as well as our youngest downlanders, were pleased to rest weary feet and limbs. But all agreed: it had been a great day.

bury school south downs for all our youngest downlanders
Posted on

Kipling and the Seven Sisters

No tender-hearted garden crowns,

No bosomed woods adorn

Our blunt, bow headed, whale backed downs

But gnarled and writhen thorns

Most readers will instantly recognise these lines from the poem Sussex by Rudyard Kipling. Few poems capture the spirit and the beauty of the Downs which he had come to love at the turn of the 20th Century. It was written in the summer of 1902, just a couple of months before he and his family moved from Rottingdean, where they had been living for the past five years, to Bateman’s near the East Sussex village of Burwash, where they would live out the rest of their lives. They had moved to Rottingdean in 1897 at a time when he was one of the most popular and admired writers in the country, having captured the public’s imagination with his tales and poems of India which had earned him the soubriquet ‘The Laureate of the Empire’.

Kipling and the Seven Sisters friends of the south downs

Overall, the Kiplings’ stay in Rottingdean appears to have been a happy period in their lives, although clouded by the death of their eldest child, Josephine, who had died of pneumonia at the age of just six years old whilst they were on a visit to America in 1899. Looking back at their time in the village, writing in his autobiography Something of Myself, Kipling recalled, ‘I do not remember any violent alarms and excursions other than packing farm-carts filled with mixed babies […] and despatching them into the safe clean heart of the motherly Downs for jam-smeared picnics, […] Those were exceedingly good days, and one’s work came easily and fully.’

However, the Downs that Kipling eulogised in his poem were in a state of crisis. From the 1870s onwards, Britain had experienced a prolonged agricultural depression, brought about by cheap imports of wheat, meat and wool from abroad.  Land prices had plummeted and by the beginning of the 20th Century much of the downland lay derelict. However, where many saw crisis others would see opportunities. In 1915, a property developer called Charles Neville bought up land on top of the cliffs west of Newhaven, and after the war, divided the area up into plots of land for people to build their own houses on. With virtually no planning restrictions, the new ‘town’, which was given the name ‘Peacehaven’, was described as ‘a rash of bungalows, houses, shops, shacks, chicken runs, huts and dog kennels’.

The despoilation of the Downs at Peacehaven was, of course, the spur that led to the foundation of the Society of Sussex Downsmen (as it was then known) in 1923. Its first chairman was the journalist and newspaper proprietor, Arthur Beckett. At the Society’s inaugural meeting in January 1924, Beckett proposed that, ‘Mr Rudyard Kipling be asked to be President, or failing that, Patron of the Society.’ Kipling was a notoriously private person, and nothing appears to have come from Beckett’s proposal.

However, whilst he may have shunned the idea of an honorary post in the Society, Kipling obviously felt deeply about saving the Downs from development. In 1926, the Crowlink Estate, which comprised 480 acres of land along the top of the Seven Sisters cliffs between Seaford and Eastbourne, was bought by a building syndicate for £9,750.  In an effort to prevent development taking place, the Society approached the syndicate to buy the land to protect it. The syndicate offered to sell the land for £16,450 so a national appeal was launched to raise the money. As part of the appeal, a leaflet, entitled, ‘The Beauty of England must mean something to you!’ was printed to publicise the campaign. The leaflet describes the beauty of the Downs and states: It might have been this very beauty that inspired Mr. Rudyard Kipling when he wrote the fourth stanza of his Sussex:

Clean of officious fence or hedge,

Half-wild and wholly tame,

The wise turf cloaks the white cliff-edge

As when the Romans came.

What sign of those that fought and died

At shift of sword and sword?

The barrow and the camp abide,

The sunlight and the sward.

It is just this ‘wise turf’ and this ‘white cliff edge’ of Crowlink that have been threatened with defacement in our commercial age.

These lines could only have been printed with Kipling’s permission, and by allowing his lines to be quoted he would have added much weight to the appeal. The appeal caught the public’s imagination and the necessary funds were swiftly raised whereupon the Seven Sisters ultimately passed into the guardianship of the National Trust. In addition to Kipling lending his name to the appeal, Arthur Beckett writing in an article for The Sussex County Magazine shortly after Kipling’s death in 1936, tells us, ‘When I asked him if he would subscribe to the purchase fund initiated by the Society of Sussex Downsmen to save the Crowlink Valley […] he sent a cheque for a substantial sum.’ Kipling’s involvement in the appeal clearly demonstrates his concern over development that was taking place in an area of countryside that he had come to love.

Although the Seven Sisters had been saved, insensitive development would take place on the cliff tops to the east of Rottingdean. In his autobiography, whilst remembering the happy times at Rottingdean, Kipling regretfully observed, ‘Today, from Rottingdean to Newhaven is almost fully developed suburbs, of great horror.’ 

It is evident that Kipling loved the Downs and was happy to do what he could to protect them, whilst his evocative poem Sussex would go on to inspire others to go out and do the same. His role in the campaign to save the Seven Sisters undoubtedly contributed towards the success of the appeal and in many ways, he was in the vanguard of what today we would call the conservation movement.    

Richard Howell            

Richard Howell is a Council member of the Kipling Society. He lives in Sussex, and has recently completed an M.A. thesis on the history of the Bateman’s Estate.       

Posted on

A Year in the Life of the South Downs

The Friends of the South Downs are appealing to young people in Sussex and Hampshire to write about the South Downs, either as a short essay or a poem. Chris Hare, project manager for ‘South Downs for All,’ a project funded jointly by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and the Friends of the South Downs, aimed at teaching school students about the heritage of the South Downs, is currently working on a lavish picture book, A Year in the Life of the South Downs, that will show the landscape in all its different forms and moods over a twelve month period.

a year in the life of the south downs
Chris at Cissbury Ring

As Chris explains: “We photographed the downland landscape under the influence of the four seasons, from snow dusted hill tops, through bluebell woods in spring, to summer wheat fields and the red and golden leaves of autumn. We also photographed human activity across the year, such as the World Marbles Championship at Tinsley Green at Easter, to Lewes Bonfire celebrations in November. We have the photographs, all we need now are the words!”

As ‘South Downs for All’ is focused on working with schools, the project team felt that it is the children who should provide the words for A Year in the Life of the South Downs, rather than being written by Chris or other adults working in the field of heritage.

“I could write about the history of the downs for A Year in the Life of the South Downs and the traditional activities that take place there,” Chris explains, “as could many other South Downs authors, but the children are our future and they will be custodians of this wonderful landscape in the years ahead, so we want to know what the feel and respond to the South Downs – landscape and people.

Sheep Fair

Chris says that they are primarily looking at responses from children aged 8 – 12, but they will consider submissions from any school-aged children. Essays and poems should be no longer than 300 words and can be on any theme that has a South Downs connection. To help inspire young writers, the South Downs for All website has a gallery section of photographs, set out under seasonal headings. It is hoped that looking at these photographs will act as a prompt to imaginative thoughts.

Any young person whose work is included in the book will be fully acknowledged, including their name and town or village of residence. They will also receive two free copies of the colour, hard-backed book and an invitation to the launch event which will probably take place in late November this this year.

The photograph gallery can be found here

All entries should be submitted to Chris Hare by 31 May 2023 at chris.hare@friendsofthesouthdowns.org.uk All enquiries about the project should be mailed to Chris at the same email address.

Posted on

Silviculture

Woodland is an integral part of our lives. It provides fuel, food for farm stock and materials from which we build shelters, fences and tools. This may have started as random harvesting of material but silviculture, the management of trees, soon developed into various forms of woodland management.

Silviculture Friends of the South Downs photo by Glynn Jones
Ancient Pollard

In the UK, woodland has been defined as ‘land under stands of trees with a canopy cover of at least 20% (or having the potential to achieve this), including integral open space, and including felled areas that are awaiting restocking.’ That’s an area largely taken up by trees and associated clearings which when viewed horizontally appears to be homogenous.

You will all know from your own garden that vegetation is constantly trying to change into something else. This process is known as ‘natural succession’. During the last ice age (10,000 years ago), the northern part of the area we now know as The British Isles was covered in an ice sheet with temperatures permanently below freezing and glaciers scouring the landscape. To the south, we had Tundra, an area subject to long winters below freezing but with short summers enabling thawing. It is in Tundra that vegetation can begin to develop and take hold. Tundra is known for large stretches of bare ground and rock and for patchy mantles of low vegetation made up of ‘pioneer species’ such as mosses, lichens, herbs, and small shrubs. As the climate warmed, the bare ground revealed was colonised by these pioneer species and vegetation began to develop and change. This process of change continued until the climate settled and the ‘climax vegetation’ was established. Over most of what is now lowland Britain the climax vegetation will be a type of woodland.

Silviculture Friends of the South Downs photo by Glynn Jones
Young Coppice Stool

As the climate improved and the vegetation developed, so the fauna changed as insects and animals took advantage of the new opportunities revealed. The fauna that explored and established itself as a result of these new opportunities included primitive, hunter-gatherer, nomadic humans and they colonised what was a largely wooded landscape. Human activity soon began to affect that landscape and some of the earliest changes and examples of silviculture would have been clearings artificially created to attract grazing animals to hunt. Approximately 6,000 years ago, Neolithic culture spread into Britain. The people lived in settled communities whose lifestyle was largely based on farming and was powered by flint tools. Flint was no longer utilised as ‘found’ nodules but was actively mined by sinking shafts into our chalk landscape to harvest the seams of flint below. It can be claimed that the first ‘industry’ in Britain was flint mining and the production of stone tools (bi-facial axes) with large complexes of shafts in places such as Grimes Graves in Norfolk and Cissbury, Church Hill, Harrow Hill and Blackpatch near Findon.                                                      

Neolithic farmers cleared the well-drained, relatively shallow soils on our chalk downs. They were wooded and beneath the tree cover was a layer of fertile ‘forest brown earth’ soils overlaying the chalk. The Neolithic farmers were probably ignorant of all but very basic soil husbandry techniques and these soils were quickly depleted and eroded, leaving a few inches of nutrient-poor free draining soil (rendzina) which probably led to those fields being abandoned in favour of newly cleared plots leaving the old arable areas to colonise with local plants and be utilised for rough grazing. The colonising plants that were best able to survive the grazing pressures formed the basis of what is now our chalk downland.

Woodland was still an integral part of the lives of these Neolithic communities; it provided fuel and food for the settlers and their farm stock together with materials from which they built shelters, fences and tools, etc. This probably started as random harvesting of material but then developed into what we now call silviculture various forms of woodland management.

Mature Coppice

Felling

By felling, I mean the simplest and most basic harvesting of the timber by cutting through the tree’s trunk just above ground level. Once felled, the branches and trunk of the tree are accessible and can be utilised for their various purposes.

Shredding

Woodland was a source of fodder for grazing animals and one of the earliest examples of silviculture. This form of silviculture was known as ‘shredding’. This is the process of stripping the side branches from a tree so that they can be fed to farmed animals who would eat the leaves, tender shoots and the bark. What they couldn’t eat could later be utilised as firewood and the tree could be left to grow on upwards for later felling.

Coppicing

‘Coppicing’ is the silviculture technique whereby a tree is cut off just above ground level leaving a stump or ‘stool’. The following spring, the stool will sprout new shoots and because they are being fed by an established and relatively extensive root system they will grow quickly and vigorously, competing one with another as they grow towards the sunlight. This has the benefit of making the grain of the new wood straighter than slower grown timber and, consequently, it will cleave or split more readily. This is very useful for converting the harvested poles for their various uses as the heavier poles can be readily broken down into smaller sections by splitting or ‘cleaving’. The shoots are left to grow for a varying number of years, depending upon the species of tree and the intended use of the poles. Today we will be most familiar with Chestnut poles, usually cut on a ten to twenty-five year cycle, used cleft or whole for fence stakes, or split down into ‘pales’ for Chestnut paling fencing. On a smaller scale and a shorter cycle, Hazel is used for woven Hazel hurdles or bean poles and occasionally as thatching spars. Many hardwood trees will respond to coppicing although not all produce useful timber. Oak and Hornbeam have been extensively coppiced to produce firewood or charcoal especially in the iron working areas of the Weald, and Willows are coppiced or pollarded to be harvested as ‘withies’ for basketry.

A coppice worker can only cut so much timber in a season and they usually plan their work so that the area of coppice (a copse) is split into a number of sections or ‘coups’ so that, as they work from coup to coup in a circular fashion year on year, they find themselves back at the place they started when the stools are ready for harvesting again. This has significant wildlife benefits. The clearing of a coup leaves relatively bare ground, flooded with new light and perfect for woodland-floor plants to thrive and to be colonised by the animals and insects from the adjoining, albeit one year older, coup. In this way the varying wildlife interests are cycled around and around the copse.

Trees being coppiced don’t die of old age as coppicing maintains the tree at a juvenile stage, allowing them to reach immense ages. The age of a stool may be estimated from its diameter; some grow so large — as much as 5.5 metres (18 ft) across — that they are thought to have been continually coppiced for centuries.

We are beginning to see a resurgence in the interest in silviculture with the establishment of coppices with fast-growing species such as Willow, Alder and Poplar for ‘energy wood’ which is then mechanically harvested and used to fuel electricity generation.

Silviculture Friends of the South Downs photo by Glynn Jones
Full-grown Coppice Stool

Pollarding

One of the problems with coppicing is that grazing animals can cause serious problems by browsing on the coppice regrowth. The coppice worker attempts to reduce the damage by stacking the less useful ‘twiggy bits’ over the freshly cut stool to keep animals away but this is not always 100% successful. They can fence out animals altogether but that can waste a potential grazing resource. The answer is ‘pollarding’ which silviculture defines as ‘coppicing at a height’. The cut is made about five feet from the ground, out of reach of most grazing animals. In this way the woodland can provide grazing and timber. This land use is known as ‘wood pasture’. The tree’s response to being cut is similar to a coppice stool with a new crop of vigorous shoots that could be harvested in a sequential rotation on the appropriate timescale.

As with coppicing, pollarding keeps a tree young and our most ancient trees in the UK are often old pollards. This longevity led to the use of pollards to mark important boundaries.

There can be an issue when the cropping cycle is abandoned. The harvesting cuts made when pollarding are wounds and, as such, susceptible to fungal infection and this often leads to the hollowing out of the main trunk. This is not a problem whilst the tree is being regularly cropped, as a tube is nearly as strong as a solid bar. However, when the regrowth is not harvested the heavier limbs developed can tear open the trunk in strong winds.

Glynn Jones

Youngish Pollard with Highland Cattle