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