The woeful state of Bepton Down

Bepton Down

How complicated can it be to maintain an SSSI properly?

Please read this blog and I’ll explain JUST HOW BAD the situation has become on Bepton Down – and why I believe that Cowdray Estate and Natural England are jointly responsible for the decline of one of Britain’s last remaining areas of Chalk Grassland.

What is Bepton Down and why am I kicking up a fuss?

I live in Bepton in the South Downs National Park, a couple of miles south of Midhurst in West Sussex. The residents of Bepton are lucky enough to have an area of chalk grassland called Bepton Down on their doorstep. It’s a Site of Special Scientific Interest (known as an SSSI) because of the unique and rich biodiversity of plants and insects that are found there.

I’m not a trouble-maker or a nerdy botanist or a dyed-in-the-wool environmental campaigner. But I do respect nature and the great outdoors, and I know the difference between right and wrong. Along with my neighbours I’ve been raising the decline of Bepton Down for more than 20 years. EVERY year I am forced to contact Natural England and Cowdray Estate to report the poor condition of the Down.

Why does this matter?

Two reasons.

Firstly, chalk grassland is rare these days. Since the 1950s we’ve lost around 80% of it, and just 4% of the South Downs National Park is chalk grassland. Most grassland areas in the park are small, it’s larger sites such as Bepton Down which are considered to be the most important. Don’t just take my word for it. This is what the national park website has to say:

These grassy downlands hold some of the rarest habitats in the UK… Look close enough and you may find 30-40 different species in just one square metre.

Look closely at the photo above and you’ll see that Bepton Down is swamped with invasive scrub. Dogwood, Roses, Hemp, Brambles, Nettles and Ash. These plants run riot if they’re not kept under control – believe me, you won’t find 30-40 species per square metre on Bepton Down. Where Hemp or Dogwood have taken over, you might find only a few species per square metre.

Secondly, you and I are paying for this. Taxpayer money is given to Cowdray specifically to maintain Bepton Down. How do you feel about the way Cowdray have spent your money? Here are a couple of key indicators to help guide your decision:

Invasive species such as hemp and dogwood should be less than 5% of Bepton Down – in November 2019 invasive species accounted for a staggering 70% cover.

In 1989 seven species of Orchid were recorded on Bepton Down. By the summer of 2019 just two species of Orchid remain. That’s five species lost during a period when Cowdray were receiving taxpayer’s money to manage the site. Thank you Cowdray for your high level of care.

Orchids are a barometer for the integrity of chalk grassland. When Orchids have disappeared you can be equally sure that many of the grasses, plants, butterflies and insects have gone too. Many will be gone forever. It takes centuries for habitats like Bepton Down to develop. Plants like the Bee Orchid don’t just spring up again – they’re gone and that’s that. Extinct on this site.

In an era when people are increasingly aware of biodiversity and habitat loss, I simply cannot understand how Natural England and Cowdray Estate have managed to oversee the ruin of such a precious ecosystem as Bepton Down.

It’s an utter disgrace. And believe me, I am going to be right on top of Cowdray and Natural England until Bepton Down has been restored to a reasonable condition and taxpayer’s money is being used properly.

Watch this space.


The seven species recorded in a 1989 census were: Common Spotted Orchid, Early Purple Orchid,  Greater Butterfly Orchid, Pyramidal Orchid, Frog Orchid, Bee Orchid and Musk Orchid.

In 2019 the Orchid species recorded were: Common Spotted Orchid and Pyramidal Orchid.

3 thoughts on “The woeful state of Bepton Down

  1. After posting this article, and after many weeks of emails with Cowdray Estate and Natural England, Bepton Down has now been cut. The cut should have happened in September but Cowdray have said the rain prevented them from cutting it during September, October and the first three weeks of November. Personally I do recall some rain, but there were plenty of dry days too. Just saying…

  2. As a long standing resident of Bepton Village, an area I have known since my late parents came to live here in 1972, I have watched the steady and seemingly irreversible decline of the SSSI. It is as if the powers that be just do not care enough and by ignoring it year on year it would then revert to scrub and they would no longer have to worry about it. For a number of years I contacted many people including those in charge of DEFRA and NE and then the SDNPA. The answer was always that they preferred to work with the landowner (Cowdray) rather than take control of it themselves. There have been 5 year plans which have never been adhered to and everything is done in a very haphazard fashion. There have been cuts but only when the pressure has been great to do so. The cattle and sheep used to graze the site are too highly bred to actual tackle the scrub as really primitive breeds would do. The indicator plant species are in sharp decline thus leading to the decline of others that depend on a huge variety of chalk grassland plants not smothered in brambles, dogwood, nettles, dog roses, hawthorn etc. They wish to see butterflies such as the Duke of Burgundy back on this site… The cowslip (food plant for catterpillars) are there but the conditions are not right. Yes it has now been cut and collected in its entirety but one has to remember that ALL THE ROOTS OF THE SCRUB ARE STILL UNDERGROUND and these will burst into life again next spring. Bepton Down needs continuous monitoring and management and the scrub should be dealt with more than once a year. If it cannot photosynthesise it will weaken. By the way this SSSI is also on the 2018 United Nations List of Protected Areas of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland. It was designated as such in 1986 under the Protected Area Management Effectiveness (PAME) methodology.

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