Spring on Stockbridge Down
We carry out conservation grazing on Stockbridge Down using both commoner owned cattle and our own flock of Wiltshire horn sheep. Grazing helps prevent scrub and dominant grasses from taking over the chalk grassland areas. The result is a landscape rich in different plant species - a haven for butterflies like the silver spotted skipper. From as early as March you’ll spot the first wildflowers – the start of the down’s transition into a spectacle of colour and scent.
Our sheep graze the western slopes, separated from the cattle by a strip of yew woodland. The sheep are looked after by our area ranger, Catherine Hadler, and a community of volunteer ‘sheep lookers’ - vital to our conservation grazing practices. These volunteers check the flock daily and report any issues such as injury or illness to the ranger.
Being part of the local community, they also help spread the word about why we graze and act as ambassadors for the management of the site. Stockbridge Down sees a high number of dog walkers, so our sheep lookers can help inform these visitors about our sheep grazing, to help avoid incidents.
The benefits of grazing
Our grazing regime has been in place for almost five years now, and we've seen significant improvement in the Down's vegetation as a result. Grazing helps prevent scrub from taking over the chalk grassland areas, and also reduces the dominant grasses. This allows an increase in the wildflower and herbage layer to occur, leading to greater diversity of plant species.
Our ranger monitors the vegetation using biosurvey data. This means we can alter the grazing accordingly if required, to ensure that it is always beneficial to the habitat. The stocking density of Stockbridge Down is very low, so the chances of over grazing are almost nil.
Other factors inevitably come into play which do impact on the vegetation, such as drought conditions from a very dry winter (such as 2016/17), or a very wet spring. The latter can create a huge spring flush, resulting in increased grass growth (such as spring 2016). These factors all have to be taken into account when looking at the management of a site and the grazing we implement upon it.
Thanks to this careful management, Stockbridge Down hosts an absolute spectacle of wild flowers during the spring and summer months. The slopes change colour as different species emerge: yellow with birds foot trefoil, horseshoe vetch and kidney vetch; purple with knapweed, wild thyme, and scabious; pastel blues and pinks with milkwort.
Rarities like round headed rampion and orchids pop up sporadically. Later in the year, the heady scent of marjoram is thick on the air as these deep purple flowers burst into bloom.
Wildflowers are vital as a nectar source for insects and as a larval foodplant for butterfly and moth caterpillars. Stockbridge Down is home to many varieties of butterfly, including duke of burgundy butterfly whose larvae require cowslips or primroses; pearl bordered fritillary which requires violets; grizzled skipper which feeds on agrimony and wild strawberry; and silver spotted skipper whose larvae feed off the sheep’s fescue grass.
This is why it's so important to ensure there is not just a few dominant grass species but a whole array of grasses and wildflowers for all invertebrate species to benefit from. We can only achieve this variety with a grazing regime.