When most people think about wildlife on the Downs, they think of chalk grassland. Classic chalk downland is one of the richest habitats on earth when viewed close up; there can be over 50 species of plants per square metre. Many of the specialist plants have romantic or just plain strange names; Squinancywort, Autumn Ladies Tresses, Bastard Toadflax. The best time to see the chalk grassland in its full glory is from late spring through until August - on sunny days the hills will be alive with butterflies then, too.
Farming and the Downs
The short downland turf has been created by millennia of grazing dating right back to the wild herds of cattle and ponies that were here at the end of the last Ice Age. Grazing keeps the grass short and the soil poor, allowing many plants to thrive rather than just a few of the most vigorous species. It also helps to keep scrub at bay.
From about 6000 years ago domestic stock replaced the wild grazers, and while farming had its ups and downs, and more or less land was ploughed according to the demand for corn, large scale grazing was pretty constant up to WW2. During the War years even more land was ploughed as Britain struggled to feed herself, and the drive to self sufficiency in food continued long after peace returned.
It was the introduction of chemical agriculture from the 1960s that changed the Downs for ever. Armed with the new fertilisers and herbicides farmers could "improve" or plough virtually every scrap of land that could be reached with a tractor. "Improvement" meant getting rid of the ancient flower rich turf and replacing it with a productive sward of imported ryegrass. What land could not be fertilised was often abandoned, and left ungrazed it soon became overgrown with scrub. Today only 3% of the chalk is still covered in flower rich grassland.
Do your bit
You can do your bit to help protect what is left by buying local meat, especially lamb, and supporting conservation organisations such as The Wildlife Trusts or the National Trust. Government support is mainly through the South Downs Environmental Stewardship Scheme (ESS) which pays farmers to manage their land sympathetically.
Winchester to Queen Elizabeth Country Park
The woodlands along this part of the South Downs Way are often full of bluebells in spring. The traditional English bluebell carpet is unique to these islands, as on the continent it is too dry for the bluebells to be so abundant.
South Downs Way are often full of bluebells in spring
Later in the year look for flowers in the hedgerow rather than the woodlands. The ancient trackway of the South Downs Way is often the last refuge of flowers sprayed out of the wider farmland. Look for the delicate pink of wild roses brightening up the hedges and the strange flowers of Broomrape by the side of the path. This parasitic plant makes no food from sunlight - hence its brown colour and lack of leaves - and produces striking flower spikes up to 50cm high.
Later still, as autumn, approaches, the hedges are full of wild fruits; rosehips, hawthorns, and blackberries. All sorts of small birds can be seen eating their way through this natural harvest, fattening up for winter.
In the relatively intensively farmed landscape of east Hampshire many of the little woods and shaws (woodland strips) are kept for pheasants - you are bound to see a few. Buzzards are also often seen, wheeling overhead and making their curious mewing call. If you are really lucky you might see a Red Kite with its distinctive notched tail. This is one of the areas where Kites have been reintroduced to England after many years' absence. Other common but attractive birds include flocks of Goldfinches, especially in autumn when they feed on thistle down, and in summer the sparrow sized Yellowhammer (the females are greenish but the males are bright yellow).
Two of the best places to see chalk grassland (rather than hedgerow) flowers and a wide variety of birds are the two National Nature Reserves at Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill.
These sites, together with The Caburn near Lewes, are owned and managed by English Nature, the Government conservation agency.back to top
Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Upwaltham
This part of the walk has some fine areas of chalk grassland, notably at the National Trust property at Harting Down. Look out for Juniper just south of the Trail between Harting Down and Beacon Hill - this is the conifer that produces the berries used to make gin. It is the dark (last year's) berries that are edible, not the green ones first produced each autumn.
Change can be for the good
Juniper illustrates rather well the fact that, within limits, changes are often ecologically good. It needs bare ground, such as that found after a fire or created by very heavy grazing, to get established. It then needs little or no grazing until the seedling has had a chance to form a bush that is too big to be eaten whole, after which it needs moderate grazing to keep down other competitive shrubs. Eventually it needs more grazing (or no grazing, to build up fuel followed by a fire) so that the cycle can start again.
There are stunning displays of wild daffodils in March and other wild woodland flowers a month or so later
The woodlands either side of the South Downs Way are mostly young plantations of beech and pine - much of the area was blown down in the 1987 "Great Storm". Some of these plantations were originally created not on open ground but after felling native forest. A surviving bit of natural woodland is just under a mile south of the South Downs Way, by the bridleway through West Dean Woods Nature Reserve (see www.sussexwt.org.uk for details). Here there are stunning displays of wild daffodils in March and other wild woodland flowers a month or so later. Interestingly much of this woodland, although it looks like it has been there for ever, is only a few hundred years old. There are signs of mediaeval ploughing preserved as banks and dips under the hazel bushes.
Some of the woods on the steep scarp slope are much older, however, some of them possibly dating right back to the Ice Age. These woods are one of the few places in Britain where Large Leaved Lime still grows wild - it disappeared almost everywhere else in prehistoric times.back to top
Upwaltham to Upper Beeding
Much of this stretch of the South Downs Way crosses arable cropland or plantations. There is some good chalk grassland, however, especially at Amberley Mount where the rare but stunning Adonis Blue butterfly can be seen in late May and late August.
Looking North from Amberley Mount you can see the expanse of Amberley Wild Brooks and Pulborough Brooks stretching along the banks of the river Arun. Until the 1970s the Wild Brooks were often flooded in winter, attracting thousands of birds for months on end. The Ministry of Agriculture then proposed a scheme to enable the farmers to drain the Wild Brooks and plough the area up, all using taxpayers' money.. Although a strong campaign by conservationists and local people saved the area from drainage and ploughing it was still "protected" from the natural winter floods, and nowadays the spectacular floods, and the great flocks of birds, usually only last a few days. The ditches remain full of rare and beautiful plants and animals however, and breeding birds are starting to return now that much of the area is a Sussex Wildlife Trust/RSPB Nature Reserve. Ironically it is the next generation of farmers who are now keeping the grassland in just the right state for the birds by carefully managing the grazing pressure. The Brooks can be visited from the Wey South Path which meets the South Downs Way at Amberley village.
Just east of Chanctonbury Ring is a fine example of a dew pond. These rain fed ponds were originally dug, and lined with clay, to provide water for farm animals on the otherwise dry chalk downs. Today some have been restored and are again wildlife oases with dragonflies and all manner of birds coming down to drinkback to top
Upper Beeding to Rodmell
This stretch has some of the best chalk grassland on the whole South Downs Way, usually with views north to the wooded Weald and often south to the sea, too. Look especially for orchids where the ancient trackways or bostals cut into the chalk as they head off down the steep scarp slope. The area around the National Trust land at Devil's Dyke and the Sussex Wildlife Trust reserve at Ditchling Beacon are especially good. Often it is only the steep slopes that retain much interest (everywhere else having been ploughed or fertilised) but at Ditchling Beacon the flat area above the scarp is recovering quite well. It was last ploughed in 1976.
The first orchids are the Early Purple Orchids, flowering around May in damp spots and woodlands, often alongside Bluebells. In June and July there can be great swathes of Common Spotted Orchids (also purple, but much pale, even pinkish, with spotted leaves) and Pyramidal Orchids (red-purple with a distinctive pyramid shape) on sunny banks. Perhaps a favourite is the Bee Orchid with flowers that really do look like bumble bees. Male bees are fooled into thinking that the flower is a female bee, and so they spread the pollen between one supposed mating to the next.
Orchids are almost mystical plants, popping up in strange places while sometimes vanishing for years from once favoured locations.
Orchids are almost mystical plants, popping up in strange places while sometimes vanishing for years from once favoured locations. Their seeds are tiny, like dust (crumble a dried seed head in late summer to see how fine the seeds are). The seeds have only minute reserves of energy because the orchid has a specialist relationship with a soil fungus. The fungus "infects" the tiny orchid seedling but instead of rotting it the tiny plant is actually fed by the fungus - one reason why orchids thrive on poor soil. Once the orchid has grown bigger the fungus continues to feed the plant with nitrogen and phosphate, while the orchid feeds the plant with energy giving sugars (made from CO2 and sunlight) in return. If the fungus is killed, perhaps by fertiliser, the orchids die off too. Conversely if the seed lands in so much as a plant pot that happens to have the right fungus growing in its soil a new colony springs up.back to top
Rodmell to Eastbourne
This section contains some of the finest chalk grassland scenery in the UK. All along the steep scarp slope of the Downs there is fine, fragrant chalk turf, often only a few centimetres high and springy underfoot.
Along the river Cuckmere below Alfriston wide range of breeding and wintering birds can be seen - the river is at its most interesting during the rare floods. Seven Sisters Country Park is the best place to look as the South Downs Way footpath nears the river mouth. Here too you can see the scrub bent flat by the wind, twisted away to the northeast, and see the way that the salt trims the chalk turf even shorter. Fulmars, the north Atlantic's albatross, nest along the cliffs (they look like gulls but with fatter bills). Recently Peregrine Falcons have made a welcome return - if you are really lucky you can see one "stooping" on a pigeon in a spectacular dive.
It has proved harder to bring back chalk downland than it was to ban DDT and allow the Peregrines to recover. Eastbourne Borough Council owns that farmland along Beachy Head, and over the last 10 years or so they have been restoring the cropland to chalk grassland by seeding it with a mixture of native grasses and wildflowers. Grazing helps other species to spread from the relict cliff top grassland to the new areas. The new grassland still doesn't look quite like the old, and certainly hasn't got the same diversity of species, but the hope is that it will continue to improve. The famous white chalk cliffs erode a little every year so without the chance to "retreat" the clifftop plants would certainly be lost in the next century or so.
In clear water you can walk or wade through are sponges, breeding cuttlefish, a variety of small crabs, prawns, and lots of other colourful marine life.
If you've walked from Winchester there is one last place you might like to visit, to cool your heels at Eastbourne, if you arrive on a hot summer's day. At the western end of the promenade is Eastbourne Pound, at low tide a 2ha (5 acre) rockpool. In clear water you can walk or wade through are sponges, breeding cuttlefish, a variety of small crabs, prawns, and lots of other colourful marine life. You will have seen the wildlife of the Downs on your trip; here is the hidden chalk habitat, the internationally important undersea chalk reefs, exposed for once in a place that ordinary people can reach without diving. If you can bring goggles or a snorkel and mask so much the better - when you emerge there is café with hot chocolate and chips where you can sit back and decide which is your favourite part of the South Downs Way.