Caring for the Downs in autumn

Taking care of Dunstable Downs Bedfordshire

Summer is the busiest time for most people at the Chiltern Gateway Centre but for the countryside team the main conservation work is carried out as the weather gets colder. Whilst birds are nesting and the chalk grassland plants are in flower, the team are careful not to disturb them but from late August the real work begins.

Our wonderful chalk grassland

Chalk grassland flora thrives in soil that is low in nutrients. Once the plants have gone to seed the grassland can be cut, the material removed and usually burned in designated areas, or removed from site. This is to remove the nutrients stored in the plants. This process is carried out between August and December by teams of staff and volunteers with brushcutters and also by contractors over seven sites in Bedfordshire. A second reason for cutting the grass areas is to stop scrub returning. Not all the grass is cut, this is to leave refuge areas for small mammals and to provide a seed source for birds over winter.

Autumn is also a perfect time for the Fungi species that live in the trees and on deadwood. Consequently this is when we check the health of our trees on all our sites. Surveys carry on from September through to December and trees may have to be felled if a harmful fungus or disease is detected.

Chute Wood

In Chute Wood, our much loved little wood with a natural play area, annual tree thinning occurs. This is to improve the health of the woodland, allowing trees to grow to their full potential and for an understory of trees to establish. Over at our Northern sites, woodland work is also carried out at Sharpenhoe Clappers to remove self-seeded ash saplings, which are not only growing unhealthily close together but are at risk of damaging the archaeology below ground.

Arable reversion meadows

In our arable reversion meadows the hay cut may look like a bad haircut, but each meadow requires a different cutting technique. One meadow was grazed by sheep in early spring and therefore had a much later flowering period. This had been a popular spot for second broods of skylarks, so has been left untouched this year. Most of the meadows have been forage harvested but 5% of the summers’ growth has been left for birds to nest in over winter. Another field which was grazed by sheep in late spring has been cut into strips to keep a nectar source for pollinators throughout the field.

In our jubilee orchard the fruit trees are still young so benefit from formative pruning. From late summer the stone fruit trees can be pruned and the surrounding meadow has a final cut before winter.

If you would like to support our conservation work, you might consider becoming a member of the National Trust.