Ashdown Forest, a site of special scientific interest in East Sussex, needs to be grazed to keep the balance of heather, gorse and grasses, to maintain a rich balance of species and get it into favourable condition. It is an open landscape, common land with free access.
I was therefore delighted to learn that the Ashdown Forest Conservators, with Natural England, is promoting the use of invisible fencing to contain livestock, under a ten-year Countryside Stewardship scheme. I visited on 29 November, on a glorious autumn day, with Louise Hutchby from Natural England, Caroline Fitzgerald, the conservators’ grazing officer and Brendan Clegg, the Open Spaces Society’s local correspondent.
We started at Wren’s Warren on the north east side of the forest, and ‘saw’ the line of the invisible fencing on the hillside. It encloses about 60 acres.
As explained here, the fencing is cable buried about six inches deep and carrying an electric charge generated from a box.
The cattle wear collars and as they approach the ‘fence’ they get a noise, which they learn means they should stay away from the fence. The cable is visible where it crosses a stream.
The untrammeled views show the benefits of invisible fencing.
A notice board (which should have been removed when the cattle are not present) explains where the fencing lies. Twenty cattle graze from about May to September and do good work on the Molinia. The aim is to create some bare ground for heather regeneration.
The conservators plan to have a number of invisible fenced loops so that they can move the cattle around. They have a community herd: the animals are owned by the commoners but managed by the conservators, and the conservators sell meat boxes through the Forest Centre at Forest Row. It is grant aided at present but the aim is to make it self-sustaining.
Invisible fencing seems an ideal solution in this landscape so it is worrying that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ chief vet has apparently expressed concerns about the welfare aspects. He needs to provide evidence of this, because there are plenty of welfare benefits, such as stock not being killed on roads or chased by dogs.
Further along we came to a traditional electric-fenced enclosure.
This contained a herd of six Exmoor ponies, doing useful conservation grazing.
Nearby, the common is infested with bracken: this too needs to be grazed.
One problem is the busy main roads across the forest, in particular the A22 and A26; they have a 40-mph speed limit which needs more enforcement, and there is some fencing here. Road accidents caused by deer are particularly worrying, and there is a project to cull the deer to a more practical level.
We drove to Friends’ car park near Nutley and walked to the clump of trees, planted on the hilltop as a shelter-belt in Victorian times.
A bench had been placed here so that people can enjoy the view, but now they can only see a wall of gorse. This shows the changing management, in the past the gorse would have been kept at bay by the stock.
We walked a bit further and had a lovely view over the forest, where the land is grazed by a traditional commoner and it pays; the vegetation is a good mosaic of species.
There used to be wildflower meadows around the edge of the heathland, which were important to provide a habitat for the invertebrates which winter in the gorse, but these have largely been destroyed. The conservators are providing alternative nectar sources, in fields and on roadside verges.
There is much good work being done here, thanks to enthusiastic managers and the Countryside Stewardship scheme. Post Brexit such schemes will be put in severe jeopardy. What future for the forest then?