Making Space for Nature on the Marlborough Downs
The Marlborough Downs includes a range of wildlife habitats and during the first three years of the project we focused on grassland, with the longer term ambition of applying lessons learnt on a wider scale to include other habitats such as woodland.
When we first started working together back in 2012, we discovered that there were only five Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs), and less than thirty Local Wildlife Sites (see Map 1). This meant that designated sites, both statutory and non-statutory, were under-represented in the area compared to Wiltshire as a whole. However, we knew that species-rich chalk grassland was present on other, non-designated sites, and were convinced that the habitat on some of these sites was of high quality.
By studying aerial photographs we found that many of the designated chalk grassland sites on the Marlborough Downs are linked by almost continuous grassland (see Map 2). So, working with Richard Aisbitt of the Wiltshire Botanical Society, we set about surveying all the grassland on the Downs to map our species-rich habitat. Once we'd got this information we were able to convince the Wildlife Sites Officer that more of our grassland deserved recognition, and have since had an additional nine sites added to the Local Wildlife Sites register (see Map 3). We were also able to see which other sites had the most potential for enhancement, and focus our resources and energy on these as a priority.
Chalk grassland management
Once we'd mapped where all our good species-rich grassland was located, we drew up management agreements with individual owners. These cover best practice in terms of grazing and mowing, and also identified what capital works were needed. These included things like fencing, water supply and scrub clearance. Once these were agreed, the project and the farmer shared the cost of implementing them. So, for example, where contractors were brought in to clear scrub, the cost of this was split; where fencing was required, the project supplied the materials and the farmer the labour. Thus we were able to stretch our budget and achieve far more than expected.
We have always been keen to increase our species-rich grassland resource and continue to work to achieve this on sites across the Downs. On some sites, we've taken arable land out of production and sown a mix of native grasses and wildflowers specially harvested from a Site of Special Scientific Interest in the south of the county.
Other sites were already grassland, but without much diversity so pretty uninteresting to wildlife. On these, we've carefully stitched bespoke mixes of wildflower seeds into the existing sward and are already seeing some spectacular results! Click on these before (2013) and after (2016) photos and judge for yourself.
Grassland for birds of prey and small mammals
The Marlborough Downs are home to a host of birds of prey, including red kites, buzzards, kestrels, hobbies, barn owls, little owls, over-wintering short-eared owls, and the occasional harrier!
Many of these rely on small mammals as prey, so we manage large areas of our less species-rich grassland to create good habitat for field mice and voles. This involves improving the structural diversity of the grasses by leaving some areas ungrazed and unmown each year. Over time, this creates a tussocky structure which provides shelter for small mammals, thus ensuring a plentiful supply all year round.
Stepping stones and wildlife corridors
Using the maps above we are able to decide upon the best management for each site and work with individual landowners to deliver a multi-objective, landscape-scale grassland strategy for the Marlborough Downs.
Our first major achievement in this context has been the creation of a continuous corridor between Fyfield Down National Nature Reserve and Barbury Castle Local Nature Reserve, and from the A4361 to the A346. This means that wildlife can move from north to south, and east to west, without having to cross any intensively farmed land! Click the map to see for yourself.