Martin Down is one of the largest areas of uninterrupted chalk downland in Britain.
It’s a registered common, national nature reserve and site of special scientific interest in Hampshire, extending for 342 hectares in a north-west/south-east direction, right on the borders of Dorset and Wiltshire. Sited in the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, it has a rich archaeology too. The views across the downs are magnificent.
I have known about Martin Down since 1984 when I was first at the Open Spaces Society. Tim Sands of the Royal Society for Nature Conservation, and Linda Bennett, the editor of its magazine Natural World, asked me to write an article about common land and nature conservation, when the Common Land Forum was deliberating the future of commons. I wrote then, in the article ‘The uncommitted reserve’ (autumn 1984), that on Martin Down ‘the Nature Conservancy Council [forerunner of Natural England] and the commoners have agreed a scheme of management whereby grazing is regulated in the interests of commoners, wildlife and walkers’, ie an early agri-environment scheme.
Since then I have driven past the down numerous times on the A354 between Salisbury and Blandford but at last, in September, I stopped and walked there.
It is really exhilarating to step out from the well-hidden car-park onto the extensive grassland, with the hills beyond.
The most significant feature in this ancient landscape is the Bokerley Dyke, an impressive earthwork which runs along the southern side of the reserve, dividing Hampshire and Dorset. It predates Bronze Age boundaries which stop here, and it distinguishes between the enclosed fields and the unenclosed grazing of Neolithic times.
As you walk south-east, the dyke is on your right, elegantly winding its way up on to the hill, beckoning you on.
In September many of the chalk-grassland plants were still in flower, although it was too late for orchids—of which there are 12 species on the site.
Martin Down has everything—space, history, habitat, wildlife, views. And until recently it also had unlawful fencing, with a sign to keep us out of part of the reserve because of stone curlews.
As this is a common, any fencing must have ministerial consent under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006 (it hadn’t), unless it fits within the exemptions, in which case the Planning Inspectorate must be told and it must be recorded on the PINS website (it wasn’t). I’m pleased to say that, soon after I reported this to Natural England, NE removed it.
I know that NE is now aware of commons law and is considering how best to manage the site. It was good to see two NE staff from this area at a training day which John Day of Footprint Ecology and I ran yesterday for common-land managers.