Nature Stories at Wiston

We spoke to Matthew Thomas, Project Manager of the Steyning Downland Scheme, to see what has been going on in the local nature world this summer. SDS are a registered charity who manage 165 acres of Wiston Estate, within the South Downs National Park. They reconnect local people from all walks of life to the land, benefiting their mind, body and spirit. “We create inspiring opportunities for new people to join the community through active volunteering, engaging events and inclusive access, so improving this special place for wildlife and for present and future generations to enjoy.” – SDS.

Bushcraft Day with SDS, on the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, South Downs National Park
Conservation Volunteers clearing invasive scrub, SDS, on the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, South Downs National Park

The SDS have run a series of special events this year – everything from bat walks and glow worm treks, through to bird surveys that start in the early hours of the morning. These events are encouraging people who live in Steyning or the Upper Beeding areas to find out what wildlife is living right on their doorstep. The SDS have lots of other regular events for the volunteers, such as the Conservation Volunteers, who do practical habitat management – such as cutting down scrub that’s invading our chalk grassland, and improving footpaths. The SDS also run the Conservation Volunteers Lite, in partnership with the mental health charity West Sussex Mind. Matthew spoke to us about a research paper by Dr Bird, who discusses the health benefits of getting into the countryside – both physical and mental. These days are all about connecting people with nature through meaningful conservation activities and the SDS have had some encouraging feedback from these events.

Along with these special events, the SDS have various groups on site that monitor different things throughout the year. Everything from bird monitoring and butterfly groups to botany groups collecting plant data, particularly looking at chalk grassland. They are interested in trends in the data, focusing on positive and negative indicators. Matthew:“The Moth group collect data throughout the night with specialist lighting kit and have recorded 85 different species of moth this year. One of which is called a ‘Drinker’, who look as if they’ve had a few too many drinks, very relevant name!” New to the SDS this year is a Bat Group, who meet once a month at dusk and pick up on the sound frequencies of the different calls using specialist bat detectors. This summer the group heard a Noctule Bat – which isn’t very common.

Songs of the Dawn guided walk, SDS, on the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, South Downs National Park
Fitting a Nofence collar to a Dexter cow. SDS, on the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, South Downs National Park

Another exciting venture for the SDS is the ‘Nofence’ program for cattle. The idea is to do away with fencing for various reasons – some of those being, it’s not good on the landscape and can be expensive and time consuming to fence off a field. The benefits of Nofence allows SDS to target areas where they want to carry out conservation grazing without physically putting up an electric fence that will go across a footpath, and hinder public enjoyment of the land. With so many people walking on the land, electric fencing isn’t very popular with dog walkers. Nofence uses a satellite system via collars fitted to the cattle which creates an invisible barrier. When the cattle walk towards it, they get a small buzz which is a less powerful shock than an electric fence, and much better for their welfare. This also allows the team of volunteers who look after the cattle to find them more easily, and monitor grazing habits. This app is a great tool that can also be made public, so people walking on the land can look at this on their phones and see where the cows are and avoid this area if they have dogs.

Last winter the SDS partnered with Steyning Grammar School to plant a kilometre of new hedge. The hedge marks the boundary of a new land extension for the SDS, known as ‘Wylie’s Field’, kindly donated by the Wiston Estate. Plans for the field include encouraging plants for Mediterranean butterflies, which are already beginning to colonise the UK. Species such as the European Swallowtail, which looks very tropical, and the Long-tailed Blue, which is already breeding locally, will then be able to thrive. A rare positive for Climate Change!

SDS, on the Wiston Estate, West Sussex, South Downs National Park

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