The South Downs National Park
Old Winchester Hill NNR
Male Duke of Burgundy
The South Downs National Park covers an area of 1,600 km2 offering a landscape that is both varied and breathtaking. These spaces include: Green rolling pastures, open spaces, ancient woodlands and river valleys. While busy towns and traditional villages that are rich in history offer lots of opportunities for cultural understanding and activity.
The South Downs is a living, working place that has changed over several thousand years of relationships between people and the places they live and work in, and this is still the case today.
The chalk hills made this area of England good to farm and therefore attracted settlers. Almost every stage of the British human history can be seen in the way the land has been developed and changed. The type of land and natural resources of the National Park have influenced the patterns of agriculture, settlement, industry and culture. The places we now see as special are the result of these interactions between people and the places they live and work in.
Fantastic opportunities exist for you to enjoy the area’s special qualities through the rights of way network. The extraordinary South Downs Way offers a real opportunity to escape the hustle of everyday life. Along this 160 kilometre National Trail, you can walk through ancient woodlands, carpeted with bluebells; watch roe deer darting through wildflower meadows; witness hares boxing or even spot a red kite hunting above.
We all have a shared responsibility to care for the National Park and the South Downs National Park Authority works closely in partnership with local communities, conservation organisations, volunteers, local authorities, businesses and farmers.
The South Downs National Park is a rich mosaic of habitats, the product of centuries of human and non-human interaction with the landscape.
This relationship between people, grazers and geological forces has created truly unique habitats that allow rare and internationally-important species to thrive and flourish.
Butterflies are one of the most important features of the south downs National Park the extremely rare Duke of Burgundy has become a symbol for the efforts of conservation members and trusts, and there has been concentrated efforts to reverse its decline, especially in Sussex (see Dukes on the edge page). Some of the best colonies though are still in Hampshire in the Meon Valley at Butser Hill and outlying areas. Also the Adonis Blue and Silver-Spotted Skippers which rely on Chalk or Limestone grasslands have expanded their ranges thanks to efforts to conserve these species.
Wander through the South Downs in East Hampshire and it is impossible not to be impressed by the beauty of the wooded hills.
You can lose yourself in steep valley sides cloaked in hanger woodlands.
Many fish, amphibians and invertebrates thrive in the chalk streams of the Meon and Itchen whilst rare butterflies flourish on the flower-rich chalk grasslands.
A rich diversity of landscape areas exist across West Sussex.
The distinctive Wealden Greensand ridge, formed from deposited sands and clays when this part of Britain was under the sea, shares the same sloping landform as the chalk hills. River valleys support wetland habitats and wildlife.
Lowland heaths provide shelter and breeding grounds for reptiles and heathland insects.
Ancient woodlands, beech plantations and mystical yew groves offer secluded habitats for specialist species.
On the iconic sheep-grazed downland you will find rare plants such as the round-headed rampion, many orchids, delicate butterflies such as the Adonis and Chalkhill Blues, and a wealth of other wildlife.
The chalk sea cliffs, shoreline and the Cuckmere Estuary along the Heritage Coast at the eastern end of the National Park host a wide range of coastal wildlife.
Male Adonis Blue
Male Dark Green Fritillary
Male Silver-Spotted Skipper
Wild Flowers in a meadow after grazing
Early morning mist and sunrise in winter at Small Down
Cowslips are very common in the park foodplant for the Duke of Burgundy
The 160 odd kilometres of pathways along the whole of the South Downs National Park go through some of the most spectacular scenery there is in the UK
The South Downs Farmers Group aim is to bring more bio-diversity to the landscape, this is near Small Down close to Butser Hill.
Orchids are one of the most beautiful flowers found on the downs: This is a Bee Orchid
The early morning landscape in the national park looking over towards the Sussex border
Most of the Beech woodland across the down have good areas of Bluebells in the spring
The smell of wild garlic also known as Ransoms along a woodland path is quite overwhelming but unforgettable.
Common Spotted and Pyramidal Orchids in a meadow in all their glory sights like these are all to rare these days.
The national park comprises of many chalk downland escarpments with many coombes of woodland mainly Beech and Oak where there is a good mix of flora and fauna. This is the Meon Valley from Beacon Hill NNR
Cowslips in all their glory on a scrubby hillside in the South Downs National Park are quite commonplace, although the Duke of Burgundy is harder to find!
Red Kites are becoming a very common sight now in the Meon Valley, as they are frequently nesting in the small coombes in the Beech trees especially on Beacon Hill and Butser Hill
It certainly a place to relax and enjoy your surroundings, here at Butser the call of the Buzzard overhead, or the sound of the Skylark or the Cuckoo in the distance can be most rewarding.
The commonest form of grazers are sheep, particularly the Herdwick sheep, which is a very hardy animal and can stay out in all weathers.
Another common grazer is the Highland cow, which has become associated with grazing on downland, for they are a very hardy animal, although can look quite intimidating!.
Why grazing can be amazing for conservation
Livestock are a common sight in the South Downs, but what role do they play in the eco-system? Katy Sherman is an activities and engagement officer for Heathlands Reunited, a National Lottery Heritage-funded project working to save our heaths, and delves deeper into the importance of grazing. She also reveals what types of livestock you might see on heaths!
Across the National Park there are livestock of all different shapes, sizes and breeds grazing on a variety of different landscapes. To ensure that wildlife habitats are managed for the greatest environmental benefit, the type, number and timing of livestock grazing is tailored to the needs of each individual site.
Different types of livestock graze in different ways and this influences their suitability for grazing individual habitats, such as farmland, chalk grassland and heathland. Even within livestock types individual breeds can graze differently. So this is why you will see a mixture of horses, cows, sheep, and goats in the South Downs National Park.
Conservation grazing plays a key role in maintaining rare habitats like heathland by controlling aggressive species which would otherwise dominate areas through scrub encroachment. In the past, the countryside would have been grazed by wild animals or through traditional farming and common land grazing practices. Many landowners seek to replicate these kinds of grazing systems to maintain and increase biodiversity. Livestock grazing removes plant material more gradually than cutting or burning and is a very natural and sustainable way to manage a landscape.
When livestock are allowed to graze freely, they can pick and choose what and where they eat. This selective eating creates a mix of different conditions benefiting a wide range of wildlife – from insects, birds, reptiles, mammals, plants and fungi. For example, when cattle eat grass they curl their tongue around the sword and pull, creating tussocks of differing heights and structures. This creates the ideal habitat for small mammals and insects. Meanwhile, ponies and sheep are nibblers. Sheep create a fine lawn-like habitat, while ponies are more selective which can result in some taller vegetation remaining untouched.
Light poaching of the ground by grazing animals also creates bare ground in which wildflower seeds can germinate. This open ground creates a whole micro-climate in itself, attractive as a home and hunting ground for warmth loving invertebrates and reptiles. And let’s not forget about the wonders of cattle dung. Over 200 insects and invertebrates are associated with this wonderful stuff! So if you are out and about getting your daily exercise in the South Downs National Park watch out for our helpful grazing friends hard at work and remember to #TaketheLead and keep your dogs on a lead around livestock.
These Dung flies might not be the most glamourous of species but have a very important niche in our flora and fauna
Three butterfly gems of the South Downs National Park, The Green Hairstreak can be found in the scrubby Hawthorn rich areas, the Brown Argus in the flowery rich gullies and the Chalkhill Blue will be so plentiful they will shimmer on the downland as there are normally counts running into the thousands in July.