A shepherd’s life no more

The splendid Martin Down lies in Hampshire, close to the Wiltshire and Dorset boundaries.  It’s the scene of W H Hudson’s book, A Shepherd’s Life, where Caleb Bawcombe roamed day and night.  Regrettably there are no shepherds there today, but it does need to be grazed by sheep.

I first visited this magnificent common, in the Cranborne Chase and West Wiltshire Downs Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, a year ago, and I wrote about it here.  I was concerned then to see temporary fencing on the common (to protect potentially nesting stone curlews from people) which I did not believe had the necessary ministerial consent. I followed this up with Natural England (NE), since the site is a national nature reserve in its care, and was pleased that it reacted swiftly, removing the fencing.

My complaint prompted NE to consider the management of its commons in general, exposing that there was not consistent knowledge or awareness throughout the organisation; consequently the Open Spaces Society provided training for NE staff on commons law last year.  NE has now appointed Pippa Langford as its principal specialist on commons which is very good news.

Looking north across the common

Looking north across the common

Rob Lloyd, the manager of Martin Down, invited me back for a visit in August and it was a joy to walk over this open down with its wide skies and extensive views.  Little habitation is visible and it scores well on the ‘dark skies’ register.

The common is owned by NE, Hampshire County Council and the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Naturalists Trust.  The three owners want to put up temporary fencing on the common to enable it to be grazed more easily.  Rob has been enclosing under the exemptions process (whereby a manager can fence up to ten per cent of the common, or ten hectares, whichever is the smaller, for up to six months without ministerial consent).

Looking north west over an area which has been grazed

Looking north west over an area which has been grazed

He would like to graze about three or four small and well-spaced parcels for a few weeks at a time and to rotate the grazing. The application, under section 38 of the Commons Act 2006, goes to the Planning Inspectorate who determines the application on behalf of the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.  Because the grazing needs to be flexible the application is quite complex and Rob has done a painstaking job to make it comprehensive and coherent.

The land needs grazing to maintain its exquisite chalk-grassland vegetation and rich diversity of wild flowers.

Diversity of chalk-grassland flora

Diversity of chalk-grassland flora

It is at risk of being taken over by the tough, yellow Tor grass, Brachypodium pinnatum.

tor grass

Tor grass

Experiments with herbicides are helping but once treated the land must be grazed.  There is no Caleb Bawcombe to keep an eye on the sheep and prevent them from straying, thus the fence is necessary.


Herbicide has been tested here

Herbicide has been tested here

Flora after spraying, no tor grass visible

Flora after spraying, no tor grass visible








I strongly dislike fencing as a rule, but in this case I think it is acceptable.  The orange flexi-netting will look temporary, it will only be in place for a short period and it won’t block any normal means of access.  Walkers have a right over the whole area and riders enjoy the bridleways and some other routes by custom.  The application is for 15 years after which the whole regime will be reviewed to see if it is working—indeed by then an alternative means of containing stock may have been invented or developed, such as ‘invisible fencing’.  This is already being used in some places, like Burnham Beeches in Bucks.

We walked to the top of Martin Down, with its extensive views over the New Forest to the Solent, and on the top we saw clumps of heather, unusual on chalk (as I noted on Lullington Heath, West Sussex, here).  The acidic soils may be due to periglacial strata in the rock.

Heather in a chalk landscape

Heather in a chalk landscape

There are 17 scheduled monuments on the site.  Near the top of the hill there is a crossing of Grim’s Ditch and Bokerely Dyke—it is not clear which is the oldest.


Junction of Grims Ditch and Bokerely Dyke

Junction of Grim’s Ditch and Bokerely Dyke

This is a fascinating place and it’s good to know that many people care about it and local people treasure it.  There are turtle doves nesting here, which I did not see, and pasque flowers and a variety of orchids earlier in the year.  The stone curlews may even come back.

I too shall return.

The view north

The view north

About campaignerkate

I am the general secretary of the Open Spaces Society and I campaign for public access, paths and open spaces in town and country.
This entry was posted in Access, AONB, common land, Natural England, Open Spaces Society, riding, walking and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to A shepherd’s life no more

  1. stravaigerjohn says:

    Interesting to see a glimpse of the setting of one of my favourite books. Many years since I have been there.

  2. ossjay says:

    Lovely detailed information and such fine photos – thanks

  3. David Hodd says:

    I love Martin Down, and I like that it still feels like largely unenclosed land, and I love its distinctive flattish downland flora, and its scale is fantastic. However I have two problems in your otherwise informative article:-

    First are you contradictory statements “but it does need to be grazed by sheep” and “it is at risk of being taken over by the tough, yellow Tor grass, Brachypodium pinnatum”
    – Whilst there are no cattle on Martin Down, you will always lose the battle against Tor grass. Cattle control Tor grass effectively if present through the winter. They also break open the turf which is good for flowers and critters. Cattle are better in accomodating dog walkers too.

    Caleb Bawcombe never had to deal with Tor grass, but would not have been so sentimental as to rule out cattle if that was what was needed. He would have known more Tor grass means less palattable grass in the long run.

    Second, the ability for Martin Down to feel and function as an unenclosed landscape is limited by the A354. When did you last meet with the highways authority about they are doing to protect our open space here? it is noisy, dangerous, and commoners cannot exercise their rights effectively. As a walker, I am more impacted by the road than I am by electric fences.

    • Robert Lloyd says:

      As part of this fencing consultation and management plan review the management of tor grass has come to the fore. It is a problem but we need to find a suitable method that works for Martin Down. Martin only has common rights for sheep ; however we may need to consider alternative grazing options, which may mean cattle, in areas where the tor grass is dominating (actually about 6ha in total) – obviously we will need to consult widely particularly with the Commoners but we do intend to look at this option quite seriously. Otherwise as Kate says we are experimenting with sheep grazing and cutting at differing times of year (whilst not compromising the ecological interest) and also CEH is undertaking a small study to look at the effect of different herbicides.

      As a land manager the A354 is an inconvenience as much as anything else when moving sheep across and so unless there is an appetite for a tunnel or diversion I expect we will continue to have to live with it…

      I’ll be delighted to show you around if you fancy it- just let me know. Likewise if you have further ideas for tor grass management please contact me directly – I would be keen to learn of your experiences.

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