Behind the Scenes

Flora and Fauna on Wiston Estate

Flora and Fauna on Wiston Estate

Duke of Burgundy and Brown Hairstreak butterflies are just two of the Steyning Downland Scheme’s Sussex conservation success stories. The charity, established in 2007, manages 67 hectares of land in the South Downs National Park, which has been set aside from the Wiston Estate by the Goring family for the local community. 

Matthew Thomas joined the project eight years ago as the Project Manager. He explains why rare butterflies are making a comeback, how they are working to make the land a friendly place for dog walkers, as well as wildlife, and plans to get young people more involved. 

Q. What kind of wildlife can people expect to find around the Steyning Downland?

The Brown Hairstreak is quite a rare butterfly. It’s hard to find and tends to be very scattered across the countryside. Their food plant is blackthorn and when the project started, there was a lot of it spreading into one of our fields. Somebody thought it would be a good idea to mow the whole lot to the ground, to the horror of local butterfly enthusiasts. 

But what we weren’t aware of at the time is that the Brown Hairstreak lays its eggs on blackthorn at a particular stage of its development. The Blackthorn soon grew up again, and it all arrived at the right stage of development for the butterfly at the same time. The following summer, there was a huge emergence of Brown Hairstreaks, which amazed everybody. 

Since then, SDS volunteers have been cutting that block of blackthorn in a rotation, so that there’s always at least a third of it in exactly the right state of growth for the Brown Hairstreak butterflies. Apparently, at least until recently we’ve been known as the best site to see Brown Hairstreaks in the UK. I’ve seen up to 30 people in the field watching them, some who have travelled from as far afield as Birmingham and the West Country.

Very recently we’ve been excited to welcome the Duke of Burgundy back to the SDS. The butterfly was almost extinct in the UK and hadn’t been seen on our downland for decades, but it’s now making a comeback. A few years ago we started working in partnership with the South Downs National Park Authority, Wakehurst Kew and local expert Neil Hulme to recreate the ideal conditions needed for them to recolonise our chalk downland.  

We had a team of SDS volunteers, who did most of the work. They cleared back invading scrub and also grew thousands of cowslip and primrose plants from wild harvested seed. Then we had a mass planting day in 2016 to attract the butterflies to lay their eggs.  Then to everyone’s amazement, the Duke reappeared on the Steyning Downland during lockdown in 2020 and they’re back even stronger this summer. 

Brown Hairstreak butterflies photographed by Neil Hulme.

Q. What challenges do you face when improving people’s access to the land?

Steyning Downland is neither a nature reserve nor a country park. We’re trying to bridge the gap, to conserve biodiversity and at the same time encourage local people onto the land. Access to nature has all sorts of benefits to our wellbeing as well as being an opportunity to better understand the nature that lives ‘on our doorstep’. But encouraging people to access the countryside also creates some interesting challenges.

Public awareness is an ongoing issue. Shortly after I arrived we did a survey on the high street and found that only one in ten people had even heard of us. That didn’t bode very well for the conservation messages we were trying to get across. We’re now up to about 800 households who are signed up to our newsletter, we have around 100 people volunteering for us, and we have 60 people on our ‘Friends’ scheme, but that’s still a very small proportion of the people we hope to reach in future.

One area where people and wildlife can conflict is dog walking. We’re keen to keep people visiting the land with their dogs, but when dogs misbehave, they can have devastating effects on ground-nesting birds, our grazing animals, deer and our ancient pond. We’re thinking of setting up an area where people can let dogs off the lead to run around and we’ve recently begun a Dog Ambassador scheme to help people to understand more about good and bad dog behaviour. But we don’t want to simply point the finger and tell people off! It’s a whole culture change, and we want people to know that dogs are welcome on site. 

Q. What were you most proud of this year, and what changes should locals look out for in 2022 and beyond?

Publishing our first ever book of poetry, ‘Up on the Downs’ has been a real success during the COVID restrictions. For a couple of years we had been leaving small, blank notebooks in tins around the land with signs encouraging people to jot down their musings. These ‘poetry tins’ were a roaring success and we had hundreds of contributions. During the lockdown we had to completely stop our events programme and this freed up time to compile the poems and publish them.  The book has since sold out and we’re contemplating a second print run!

Our ‘big push’ for the next couple of years is going to be engaging young people with the land. Steyning has one of the biggest secondary schools in the UK, and for several years now we have been organising events and conservation activities with them. Lots of young people also come to the Steyning Downland of their own volition, but unfortunately this has led to problems with vandalism, graffiti, litter and fire lighting. We’re now actively working with the school and Sussex Clubs for Young People to reach out to young people. The ‘twinkle in the eye’ is a junior management board, where young people can get involved in making decisions about the land and take an active interest in looking after it. 

Looking further ahead, it would be interesting to explore working more closely with local churches. As a charity working to a Christian ethos, we’re interested in people’s spiritual needs, an area which is often overlooked. There could be an opportunity to develop something a bit innovative, like a ‘green’ church with open air services, to welcome people who love nature, and possibly people who might be turned off by ‘normal church’. 

To get in touch with Matthew about the young people’s board, events or volunteering, email Matthew on [email protected]