Some of our most iconic cultural sites are based in rural areas, but what role does farming play in their preservation? Danusia Osiowy finds more about the conservation and restoration work on the White Cliffs of Dover.
It is one of the most iconic rural landmarks of our time, the gateway to Britain, and enveloped in huge nostalgia. The White Cliffs of Dover dramatically punctuates eight miles of our coastal landscape and are central to our rural heritage and identity, its military significance immortalised by Dame Vera Lyn.
As thousands of people visit Kent to see the Special Area of Conservation it is now part of, tourists find themselves able to enjoy multiple coastal walks and observe its unique environment, wildlife and flowers synonymous to the area. But such beauty requires consistent management and is something the National Trust has been partly responsible since it acquired 72 hectares (178 acres) of the White Cliffs between the South Foreland lighthouse and Langdon Cliffs in 2017. Wanstone Farm, as the area is known, is the connecting strip between the two points and is managed by a local farmer who farms Lincoln Red cattle nearby.
In 2017, after learning the landowner was planning to sell the area directly behind the cliffs, the trust launched a national appeal asking the public to help them raise the £1.2 million needed to save it from potential developers. The trust covered more than half the purchase price with the help of legacy funds, but still needed to find an extra £1m to safeguard its future. To make it all the more frantic, it had just three weeks to raise the cash. The campaign, backed by Dame Vera Lynn, saw more than 17,500 people donate and allowed the conservation charity to secure a further 700,000sq.m of land behind the cliff face.
With more than 40 species of nature and wildlife, the flower-rich grassland of the cliffs has been primarily managed through equine grazing over the last 20 years. Lead ranger Rob Sonnen heads up the management team along with a small team of volunteers who undertake daily maintenance tasks and wider projects such as scrub clearances.
Rob says: “We utilise a herd of Exmoor ponies extensively to help us look after this special place without the need for intensive human intervention.
“The ponies are very docile and act as the natural equivalent of a lawn-mover for the cliffs, keeping the grass, hawthorn and thistles under control.
“Managing the grazing does call for a careful balance: too little and the coarse grasses, bushes and trees take hold; too much and the delicate plants are unable to flower and set seed.”
“The ponies themselves are relatively low maintenance and are managed as a semi-wild herd. We check them regularly, and vets perform a general assessment every year to make sure they’re in good health.”
Although Exmoor ponies are an ideal breed for the cliff top environment, the trust also use sheep to graze more of the flat areas to the west of the site. But, in the areas where it is impossible or dangerous to graze the ponies, the volunteer ranger team are deployed to cut and manage the grassland with machinery. Another key focus for the rangers is to record wildlife numbers and feed the information to a national database service and also internally to monitor progress and soil conditions.
“We use the data to see what is establishing, monitor numbers and record all the different varieties of wildlife and chalkland flowers. It is this that gives us an indicator of good, healthy soils,” says Rob.
Such intricate recording is not just utilised by the trust and wider conservation charities, but also to directly benefit the 500,000 visitors the cliffs welcome every year, as Richard Henderson, assistant director of operations, explains.
“The health of our landscape directly impacts the well-being of the nation. We want to demonstrate you can balance productive farming with land management and conservation.”
The trust now owns more than 8.5km of the area and although their recent land acquisition on the cliffs was only completed in September, there are already plans to have larger margins, to farm the land in an environmentally friendly way and preserve existing historical military features.
Richard says: “We are in talks with Natural England to place our acquisition into a countryside stewardship scheme across two areas.
“We want the area nearest to the sea to revert back to chalk grassland whereas the northern part will be converted to a low input arable system, growing spring barley.
“A key change will be having no winter crops,” he adds.
“One of the first changes we made was to increase the field margins on the farm and we have already seen a huge increase in birds and butterflies. Yellowhammers and Adonis Blue butterflies have tripled in less than one year.
“Our ultimate aim is to get the right balance between public access, conservation and a productive landscape – which of course gives future generations a legacy that we can all be proud of.”