60 years of decline at Bepton Down SSSI
Bepton Down is 14 hectares of unique chalk grassland on the north face of the South Downs overlooking Bepton. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and an area of national importance.
An introduction to Bepton Down
Only 5% of the UK’s chalk grassland remain, and we’re lucky enough to have a significant example in Bepton. Because of its unique qualities, Bepton Down was designated as an SSSI in 1954, which provides it with special protection.
Bepton Down is owned by the Cowdray Estate. Cowdray receive subsidies and SSSI payments for Bepton Down from Natural England, which is a public body funded by DEFRA. The South Downs National Park Authority also takes an interest in Bepton Down and they too are funded by the Government.
Given its SSSI status, subsidies, governance and management one would expect Bepton Down to be a shining example of chalk grassland. Sadly this is not the case.
The decline of Bepton Down
In the years after receiving its 1954 SSSI status Bepton Down fell into a long period of decline, to the point where it was notified in 1986 under the Wildlife and Countryside Act. Despite the notice it continued to decline. In 1998 and 2000 Natural England assessments found it to be ‘unfavourable’. Another Natural England report in 2008 still found it to be ‘unfavourable’. The next assessment in 2014 described the condition of Bepton Down as being 80% covered in scrub. What on earth has happened to this unique area of chalk grassland in the 60 years since receiving its SSSI status?
In 2014 a five year grassland management plan was put in place between Natural England, the SDNPA and Cowdray Estate. This was intended to turn around the decline but it has been largely ignored by Cowdray and not enforced by Natural England or SDNPA. It’s nothing short of a total mess. The situation is now worse than ever before.
What has been the impact on Bepton Down?
Chalk grassland should be a species-rich environment of grasses and flowers. Typically one might expect 40+ different species per square metre. Natural England’s own expectations for the autumn of 2017 was for a sward height of 2-10cm with less than 5% coverage of undesirable species, but Bepton Down is swamped with invasive species that have overrun the native plants. There are vast stands of dogwood, hemp, nettles and brambles. Ash, beech, hawthorn, dog rose and oak saplings are everywhere. And when these plants die back in the autumn they rot and enrich the soil. Chalk grassland needs poor, thin soil; this is what makes chalk downs unique and the rank vegetation is literally destroying the ground beneath it.
If you like orchids then you will be horrified by these statistics:
- In 1989 Bepton Down had nine species of orchid*
- By the mid-90s the Frog and Musk orchids had vanished
- The last time Early Purples were seen on Bepton Down was in 2009–2010
- During the summer of 2017 there were no recordings of either Bee or Greater Butterfly orchids
Can you believe it, under the protection of an SSSI status Bepton Down has gone from nine species of orchids to four? These plants can’t just be re-seeded or reintroduced. They have disappeared because their unique habitat has been destroyed. In all likelihood they have gone forever.
Orchids are just a visible indicator of habitat change. The knock-on effect of Bepton’s decline extends to many other plants and insects, birds and butterflies too. A few miles away at Heyshott Down there are birds such as Woodlarks and butterflies including the rare Duke of Burgundy. Unlike Heyshott we simply don’t have the habitat to support these species. We should have the right habitat but the land hasn’t been managed in the right way.
In 2015 a group of local residents formed a support organisation called the Bepton Down Conservation Group. We’ve tried to raise the profile of the Down amongst local people and to prompt natural England, SDNPA and Cowdray when we see things going wrong. Sadly our voices have been largely ignored. Despite our efforts, Bepton Down is currently in the worst condition it has been in for decades.
As a Parish we are truly privileged to have a nationally important area of chalk grassland right on our doorstep. Yet Bepton Down has become an area of neglect and decline for more than 60 years. Its future is in the balance and it desperately needs support.
If Bepton Down disappears it will literally be gone forever. The UK has already lost 95% of its chalk grassland and it would be unforgivable if we allow Bepton Down to go the same way.
*Orchids recorded in 1989: Bee, Common Spotted, Pyramidal, Early Purple, Twayblade, Greater Butterfly, White Helleborine, Frog and Musk