The South Downs is a farmed landscape. Centuries of cultivation and management have shaped the landscape, producing quality food and providing a wide range of habitats.
History of the Downs
Bronze Age agriculturalists first cleared extensive tracts of woodland from the South Downs 6,000 years ago. Medieval sheep farmers grazed the chalk grasslands, creating the conditions for wildflowers and butterflies to flourish. Today progressive farmers manage the rolling landscape by growing a variety of crops and grazing livestock.
The history of the Downs, and the way it looks today, is inextricably linked with the history of farming. It is a place marked by centuries of cultivation without which we would not have our patchwork pattern of fields, sweeping chalk grassland and extensive network of field boundaries.
The Downs today
The South Downs is very much a mixed farming landscape, with many farmers both growing crops and producing livestock. Crops grown include wheat, barley, oilseed rape, linseed, peas and beans. The predominant livestock are sheep and cattle, which graze the grassland areas and produce lamb, beef and milk.
In many cases, the thin free draining chalk soils of the Downs allow stock to graze right through the winter and crops to be planted in the spring as well as the autumn. This means that farmers are able to utilise the land in many different ways, which not only benefits their farming business, but also provides a wide range of habitats for wildlife to use throughout the year.
What holds it all together
Other farming operations on the South Downs include vegetable growing in the more fertile soils around Petworth and a flourishing number of vineyards utilising the warm south facing slopes to produce wines that rival those of Champagne.
As the tapestry of fields, villages, vineyards and rural communities attest, the South Downs is very much a shared endeavour. It’s farming that holds it together.