17th November 2021
Being a student at Sparsholt college, it was a privilege to take a walk around Martin Down with Mike Fussell, the Countryside Ranger for Hampshire Council and Roland Hughes, the Ranger for the Chalke & Chase Landscape Partnership Scheme and look at some of the conservation challenges and projects at the site. We started from the car park and headed toward the ancient dyke that crosses the site. We talked listening out for the cuckoo that has been a regular visitor to that area of the downs.
Walking through to an open flat area of grassland we knelt down to study the plants beneath our feet.
There was an astounding variety of tiny plants including vetch, knapweed, yarrow, burnet, hawkbit and more, this was a truly rich and unique area of chalk grassland.
Looking up there were many large-dotted shrubs towering over these little plants. Things like hawthorn, blackthorn, gorse, and heaps of brambles shielding saplings can quickly invade these grassland areas.
Areas of chalk grassland like this have historically been maintained by grazing animals. Thousands of years ago, iron age people had cattle and sheep grazing the land.
To keep the rare (and some protected by law) species now present on the grassland it is necessary to keep a rotation of grazing animals to keep scrub from growing, as well as remove some of the scrub/young trees to ensure the little plants have room to thrive.
This is all part of the management plan for Martin Down. As we moved further through the grass, we approached the ancient dyke – Bokerley Ditch. Mike explained the importance of preserving this ancient monument. (It dates back at least 1500 years!) Again, the scrub and young trees need to be regularly removed to preserve the archaeology and prevent the dyke losing its form.
We passed a beautiful late-flowering devils-bit scabious (see photo) which is a food source for the very rare butterfly – the Marsh fritillary. Further on was a strange looking brown plant, a knapweed broomrape.
It is parasitic to the knapweed and doesn’t contain chlorophyll so it’s completely brown (and looks a bit dead!). Knapweed is very common at Martin Down; it looks a little like a purple thistle without the prickles.
Walking along the dyke we crossed the road and entered the fields opposite the car park, heading to the Roman road. We spotted a rare and beautiful ‘Adonis Blue’ butterfly near the bank that feeds solely from the nectar of horse-shoe vetch plants.
Approaching an old dried-up chalky hollow (see photo) Mike explained this was soon to be lined and transformed into a new wildlife pond.
The liner would prevent it from drying out – this hollow no longer supported year-round water due to changes in drainage/climate.
This new pond he explained was going to provide a fantastic water-source for the wildlife nearby and a create a new habitat for water species such as dragonflies or damselflies.
He explained the ambition was also to have a warm open bank to one side providing an opportunity for many other creatures such as mining bees or basking reptiles such as adders or lizards.
Just as we rounded the pond area, I was delighted to see a common lizard dart in front of the grass ahead. How fantastic!
Conversation turns to slow worms as this is something I had been working with recently – moving a vast number of slow worms away from a building site in Salisbury.
Slow worms are legless lizards – they look quite snake-like but and are completely harmless to people. Areas of grassy heath such as at Martin Down can support many reptiles like slow worms that need sunny open spots to bask in as they are cold-blooded.
We walked into the field managed by friendly black cows, and in the distance, I spotted the gorse on the far side of the downs all looking brown. Mike explained these bushes dotting the grassland had been treated and killed with a chemical, this was another conservation method used to preserve the grassland species and keep the numbers of shrubs in check.
As we walked alongside the Roman road to our left, Mike explained how, just like the dyke, the old road also needed protection to preserve it. There were a few areas of hawthorn and bramble swamping the old ridge earmarked for cutting back.
The best time of year to manage these areas is winter as this minimizes the impact on the environment, no birds are nesting and there are no food sources (berries) left that would be removed.
Both Roland and Mike both had ‘scrub bashing’ volunteer groups arranged doing this essential work to preserve so many species dependent on the grassland as well as safeguarding important archaeology.
Walking back to the car park, we noticed that the area under the cattle grid had become filled with water. It was a hidden little pool which had water plants and even a couple of reeds growing in it, its own mini wetland habitat. If this is what can happen to a little opportunity for wildlife under the cattle grid, I can’t wait to see the development and habitation of the large new pond, it’s a really exciting project and I am very much looking forward to visiting it over spring and summer next year.