It is often thought that farmers can either produce food from their land or conserve the landscape and wildlife that is found there. In fact these two things are inextricably linked, and are both part of modern farming businesses.
The mixed farming practised across the South Downs is especially beneficial, in itself providing a wide range of habitats and resources for wildlife.
Government funded agri-environment schemes provide a means of utilising less productive areas of the farm whilst contributing to the wider business, both financially and ecologically. For example, leaving grass margins around the edge of fields provides a home for beetles and spiders, which in turn prey on crop pests such as aphids, reducing the need for spraying to control them. This section looks at the range of conservation work that farmers are doing across the South Downs.
Wander through the South Downs and you will discover a rich mosaic of habitats, many of which are a result of the farming that takes place here. These habitats form a living network across the Downs, and provide us with many important ‘ecosystem services’ such as access and recreation, food, timber and pure clean water.
Our farmland has more to it than first meets the eye, with many farmers and land managers actively creating and managing these habitats. They include iconic chalk downland and other grassland habitats such as wet meadows and rough tussocky patures. Arable fields are managed to include a variety of habitats such as grass margins, low intensity crops, wild bird seed mixtures and pollen and nectar plots. Linking all of these together are a network of hedgerows, woodlands and copses that provide connectivity across the landscape.
The soils on the South Downs are usually described as being very ‘light’, which means that they generally easy to cultivate. With underlying chalk, most of the farmland on the South Downs also drains well. This is useful for farmers as it means that there are not many times when the ground is too wet to tend or harvest their crops. Cattle and sheep can also often be grazed outside during the winter on pastures that don’t become waterlogged. Bordering the chalk in the north and west is an area known as the western Weald, with light soils based on Greensand, and heavier clay soils, all of which are also farmed but can be prone to waterlogging during wetter periods.
Despite the variation in soil types, they all have one thing in common; they are the primary resource in which farmers produce our food. Soil conservation is becoming a key priority for the farming sector, and many techniques and methods are being employed to care for and rejuvenate this important commodity.
Farmland on the South Downs hosts an array of birds, plants, insects and mammals. They range from the skylark with its bubbling summer song, to rare arable plants such as the prickly poppy and brown hares that roam across the open landscape. Many of these species are farmland specialists, meaning that they rely on the way in which farmers manage the landscape and the habitats that they provide.
As part of the way in which they manage their farms, many farmers create habitats that are designed to benefit certain species or farm in a way that fits with their life cycles. This is not only because they want the countryside to be ‘alive’, but also because wildlife also has other unseen benefits or services on which we depend. Insects pollinate many of our food crops; trees act as carbon stores and provide woodfuel; wildlife such as fish, pheasants and deer are a source of food; and many wild animals control pests such as mosquitoes and aphids. So, protecting our wildlife not only benefits them but all of us as well.
Water on the South Downs takes two key forms, surface water including rivers and streams, and ground water that is stored in the chalk aquifer. Acting like a giant sponge, the famous white chalk of the South Downs hills soaks up and stores water for around 1.2 million people in the south east. Farming has an important link to this process, and can significantly influence the quality of the water that is stored.
Many farmers have adopted practices that improve the quality of the water in the aquifer by reducing the inputs that they use, specifically nitrates, and making sure that the crops they grow use it in the most efficient way. They are also starting to work with water companies to find cost effective and practical solutions that help to make our water cleaner at the source and therefore reducing the amount that is spent on treating and cleaning water before we can drink it.
In the river valleys, floodplain grassland becomes annually inundated by the winter rains. Farmers manage ditches and put intervention measures in place to stop the soil from being washed off the fields and contaminating watercourses in times of flood.