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Wildlife conservation of local downland and heathland

What is conservation grazing?     

Conservation grazing is a method of environmental management now in widespread use across the UK and increasingly, around the world. Broadly speaking, it is used to replicate an ecological function once provided by pastoral farming practices.

Many of the most important wildlife habitats that exist today have been created through centuries of human management, often associated with the grazing of livestock. The effect of these activities is to consistently halt the natural plant ‘succession’, that is, the progression from lower plants through to the 'climax' vegetation, usually woodland. This creates what is called a ‘plagioclimatic’ or ‘semi-natural’ habitat, meaning a human influenced habitat, of which chalk grassland and heathland are both examples. Over time, many species have evolved interdependently with these environments and therefore the cessation of grazing and resultant habitat loss, threatens their continued survival. Livestock grazing is necessary to maintain the habitat structure and composition upon which a variety of plants and animals now depend.

 

Local context

In East Sussex the topography and soils place limitations on arable farming of the land, therefore much of the county has traditionally been given over to grass, giving it a long history of livestock farming. On the chalk downs, where soils tend to have low fertility and the steep slopes limit cultivation, sheep farming has predominated, creating the characteristic species-rich short turf and clear vistas. In contrast the lower land to the north of the downs, known as the Weald, has very clayey, wet and unworkable soils. On its sandy ridges, areas of heathland have developed in conjunction with the activities of commoners, grazing livestock and cutting wood and bracken, creating a dramatic, open landscape.

 

A combination of factors throughout the second half of the 20th century, including the widespread introduction of fertilisers and the decline of the wool industry meant that the production of livestock on these extensive, low-input systems became less viable. This led to either the conversion or abandonment and consequent degradation of much of the farmland, in Sussex and countrywide.

Large proportions of chalk grassland and heathland have now been lost (see boxes, right) and of what remains, much is considered to be in poor condition. The remainder and that considered ‘recoverable’ is offered the highest environmental protection and the continuation or reintroduction of grazing is a vital tool in helping maintain and enhance their natural and cultural value.

 

What does grazing achieve?

 There a several key functions of grazing for conservation:

  • Maintenance – the removal of vegetation whilst maintaining a varied sward structure and composition, which mechanical methods often destroy.
  • Restoration - controlling more aggressive, dominant species which increases competition and consequently, biodiversity. Preventing and reducing scrub invasion thus halting succession.
  • Removal of nutrients. It is partly the low nutrient value of soils on chalk grassland and heathland that maintains the biodiversity by not allowing any one species to flourish at the expense of others. Although animal dung adds nutrients, there is still a net overall loss, so long as the animals receive no additional feed.
  • Grazing animals can also be used to assist in habitat re-creation, such as woodland or arable reversion. See the testimonial from the Broadwater Warren reserve manager  for an example of this.

It is not only ponies that carry out conservation grazing, livestock animals such as cattle and sheep are widely used and sometimes even goats and pigs. It is usually the more primitive, therefore hardier breeds that are utilised as they are better equipped to deal with harsh conditions and tend to forage on species that commercial breeds will not. Each graze in slightly different ways and therefore produce slightly different ecological effects. The choice depends upon the conservation objectives of each individual site. To ensure the greatest ecological benefit it is also crucial to consider the number of animals and the timing of grazing as under-grazing or over-grazing can have deleterious effects.

       Gorse browsing on Chailey Common.

Because animals are selective in their grazing they achieve effects machinery cannot. Grazing some areas very short and leaving taller areas, ‘tussocks’ creates a mosaic of micro-habitats that support many different animal species. Being a more gradual method of removing vegetation than alternatives such as mowing or burning, grazing is also kinder to these inhabitants, giving them time to escape and relocate. Further benefits of grazing animals are that they push through and break up the sward with their feet and trample invasive plants such as bracken. They also create areas of bare ground by 'poaching' the soil with their hooves. This provides a seed bed for regenerating species and an important habitat for reptiles. Animal dung can also provide a micro habitat for some important species such as beetles.

 

Benefits to local communities

Nowadays it is very difficult to make any commercial gain from livestock production in these low intensive systems, particularly farming the more primitive breeds but grazing is still considered by many to be the more ‘traditional’ way to manage land which holds a 'cultural' significance. This intrinsic ‘heritage value’ of the connection between human activity and the creation of these ancient landscapes is increasingly recognised to be important by society and policymakers and places a non-commercial value in the continuation of grazing semi-natural habitats.

The South Downs National Park is the most densely populated of all the National Parks in the country. Together with the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty they attract millions of visitors each year with nearby conurbations of Brighton, Eastbourne and Tunbridge Wells and London within easy driving distance. So besides the conservation gains of grazing, which help maintain the high wildlife interest upon these sites, the aesthetic improvement to the landscape and the attraction of the animals themselves are to the benefit of residents and visitors and the local tourist economy.  

Many of the sites on which pony grazing is carried out have public access in the form of public footpaths and bridleways. Many of these areas have additional significance from a recreational standpoint, having been identified for use as areas of 'right to roam' under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000.

For more information about some of the sites that our ponies help to conserve, see the pony map here».

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Chalk grassland

Chalk grassland occurs on shallow, lime-rich and nutrient-poor soils. It is characterised by short, springy turf, made up of mainly grasses and wildflower species, many of which are rare and threatened. There can be up to 50 plant species per square meter, supporting many rare and specialised invertebrates, as well as birds and mammals, making it one of the most biodiverse habitats in Western Europe.

Early spider orchid 
 (photo © C. Upson)

The UK is thought to have around 50% of the worldwide resource of chalk grassland, 15% of which occurs in Sussex (approx 2,600 hectares) on the South Downs. The most highly valued chalk grassland communities now account for only 3% of the area they once covered.                  

Chalk grassland is an extremely rare and therefore internationally important habitat and recognised as a Category V Protected Landscape by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). It is an (Annex 1) priority habitat type, protected under the EC Habitats directive and a target habitat under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan (BAP) and Sussex Habitat Action Plan (HAP). 

Wartbiter cricket  (photo © N. van de Vlasakker)

Wartbiter cricket
(photo © N. van de Vlasakker)

 

Lowland heathland

Lowland heathland is recognised as one of Europe’s most important habitats for biodiversity and wildlife conservation. It occurs on nutrient-poor acidic soils, at altitudes between 250 and 300m above sea level and where human exploitation has limited development to woodland.

Marsh gentian (photo © B. Kennedy)

It is dominated by dwarf shrubs, heather and gorse and characterised by an open ‘wilderness’ feel. 86% of lowland heathland that was present in Britain in the 1750’s has now disappeared. What is left is now very fragmented and still under threat. The UK, having 20% of the remaining international resource has a great responsibility for its conservation and is protected as such. Lowland heathland although intrinsically low in diversity supports a number of nationally and internationally rare plant, invertebrate, bird and reptile species. There are a number of species in the UK that depend directly on heathland, those include the Dartford warbler, smooth snake and many specialist invertebrates.

 

 

 

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