In praise of the South Downs National Park volunteers

by Francis Buner, Senior Conservation Scientist, GWCT

The Rotherfield Demonstration Project is as much about wildlife as it is about game. It is also about communicating to the outside world what we are aiming to achieve and involving others wishing to take part.

Last week the South Downs National Park volunteers, co-ordinated by Rob Nichols, came along for a day to help with some urgently needed habitat management. A massive thank you to everyone who was involved right here at the beginning!

South Downs vehicle
The South Downs National Park volunteers are a great and indispensable source of help
when it comes to managing areas that are not in an Environmental Scheme.

I have worked with Rob on several occasions over the past few years – be it to clear shrubs, cut hay or put up barn owl boxes.

Regardless of the occasion, Rob always sparks with enthusiasm and energy like a volcano that is in full eruption. Basically you can’t stop him. It is a great joy to work with him and his team.

This time we were tackling some ongoing grassland management along a derelict railway line built in the late 1800s that runs right through the middle of our project area.

Old railway lines are generally great places for wildlife anywhere in the country and often act as vital corridors in our otherwise heavily fragmented landscape.

However, typically they tend to be a bit neglected and this is not any different in our case as ours is completely overgrown with trees and shrubs of which most parts have turned into woodland since the last train rattled along it, filling the air with steam.

The stretch we started clearing four years ago was in fact the last spot on the estate where the red-listed Duke of Burgundy butterfly was recorded. A good place to start, I would say.

They lay their eggs on Primulas on which the caterpillars live, typically in the semi-shade of a bush facing westwards. Can you get much fussier than that?

Anyhow, unfortunately our eyes fell on the area a little too late, it seems, as no Duke of any sort has been seen at the location in question in recent years. Luckily the next thriving population is only a few kilometres away and so there is real hope that this pretty butterfly will be able to recolonise the area it has lost without any further help.

Disused railway line
A formerly overgrown disused railway line is quickly turning into a flower-rich meadow.

In order to prevent the hawthorns, blackthorns and their companions from taking over the quickly developing meadow, cutting it at least once a year is very important if we want to maintain a flower-rich habitat, which is good for a countless number of other insects too.

Leaving a minimum of one third uncut – ideally an area with lots of flowers – combined with some light winter sheep grazing and some bushes left to grow, provides the final touch to turn any neglected meadow into a wildlife heaven for the years to come.

However, without the help of volunteers managing odd places beneficial to wildlife like this one, it can be very difficult. The costs involved, lack of manpower and knowledge of what rare or interesting species may be around usually prevents any continuous management.

Clearing shrubs
The South Downs National Park volunteers clearing the worst areas affected by
regrowing shrubs in an otherwise very quickly developing species-rich meadow.

Getting in touch with a local ecologist who has good all-round knowledge would certainly be a step in the right direction to start the ball rolling in your area!


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