Grazing animals return to save Chailey Common’s heathland

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Grazing on an historic area of East Sussex heathland is “the only way” of saving it for future generations, its custodians have said.

Hebridean sheep, Sussex cattle and Exmoor ponies will return to Chailey Common this month for the second successive year, part of a scheme to halt the encroachment of invasive trees and plants which threaten the ancient habitat.

An application by East Sussex County Council, on behalf of Chailey Common Management Committee, to fence the five commons which make up the nature reserve and allow livestock to graze the site was approved at a public inquiry in 2009 and grazing was reintroduced last year.

Two of the Commons, Red House and Lane End, were individually fenced, however at the request of the owners of Pound and Romany Ridge Commons, these, along with Memorial Common, were fenced as a single unit, necessitating the installation of cattle grids in North Common Road and Beggar’s Wood Road, which run between those Commons.

John Smith, Chairman of the Chailey Common Management Committee, said: “The grazing should be seen as a long term, ongoing project, and experts from Natural England advise it is the best way of sensitively managing the site for wildlife and opening up more of the Common for walkers and horse riders.

“Heathland is a very scarce, diminishing resource. Without action now it will be lost forever, and if you lose the heathland, you lose all the wildlife which goes with it.”

Around 90 per cent of funding for the fencing and grazing project has been obtained from the EU through Natural England.

Meanwhile, the grants received from Natural England for maintenance of the Common have significantly increased as a result of a switch from funding through the Countryside Stewardship Scheme (CSS) to the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme, which aims to deliver significant environmental benefits in priority areas.

As well as allowing grazing to be reintroduced, the extra funding enables more mechanical clearance and tree cutting, which is vital to maintaining the open heathland habitat and ensuring the historic landscape can be enjoyed by the public for generations to come.

Unfortunately, last year there were a number of sheep killed on the Common by dogs. Owners are advised to keep their dogs on a lead or under close control at all times, or alternatively to use one of the Commons where sheep are not grazing.

When the livestock returns, there will be improved signage and volunteers will operate to monitor dog behaviour.