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Moulsecoomb sheep help restore ecosystem balance
The hardy Herdwick Cumbrian sheep are a popular sight on the hillsides of Moulsecoomb Wild Park, giving a lovely country ambience to what is essentially a city park. However, the sheep are not just there to make the park more attractive but they have a very important part to play in maintaining the balance of the ecosystem.
Since their introduction in 2008 to improve the chalk grassland area there are signs of rare plants beginning to grow again and the rare Adonis butterfly has made a re-appearance. David Larkin, Brighton and Hove county park ranger, explained how the sheep are making a difference to conservation in Moulsecoomb and other parks around Brighton.
Mr Larkin said the sheep scheme began in Bevendean 8 years ago with the aim to bring back grassland. If the grass was not grazed by the sheep then bushes grow and the grass disappears.
The ranger indicated where, on the hilly sides of the Wild Park, horseshoe vetch (a very small plant with yellow buds) had started to grow. He said this plant was the only food the rare blue Adonis butterflies eat, and the small patch on the hillside was all that remained. This area that the park rangers are trying to conserve and develop is the most diverse for plant life.
Most of these plants had existed on the ancient grassland but many had died out as shrubs took over because the shrubs blocked out the sun. Mr Larkin explained that butterflies were actually monitored as they are a good indicator of plant growth. He showed other plants had begun to grow, including medicinal plants like milkwort, and also rock rose.
As seeds from elsewhere pollinate on the hillside, thorns and other plant life grow which is not helpful for the rare plants that the rangers want to encourage to grow, so they have to be weeded out by hand.
The ranger explained that the short flowers need short grass. If they are shaded they die. When the natural plants to the area die it affects the ecosystem as the wildlife that feed on them also die and do not return.
Before the council began to redevelop the land they sent out a questionnaire to 16,000 people. 70%-80% were in favour of what they were trying to achieve but many people did not understand why trees were being cut down.
David Larkin said, “People associate trees with being good, so if you cut them down people automatically think that is bad.” He explained the rangers were planting more trees but initially they needed to cut some down so that sunlight could nurture the ground and grass and plants could grow again, restoring the ecosystem balance in the habitat in the Park.
He said it could take as long as 10 years to see real change, although in the last three years a lot of progress had been made (which was visible - where some sheep were sheltering under shrubs you could see there was no grass beneath at all, compared with on the hillside where grass and plants were beginning to grow and insects and butterflies such as the rare Adonis were returning to the hillside. During this interview the beautiful blue Adonis butterfly was visible on the hillside.
Herdwick Cumbrian sheep were specifically brought in to the parks as these are hardy sheep that can cope with dry conditions and less grass. The ranger explained that commercial sheep are used to lusher pastures, and would not be suitable for redeveloping the grassland on the rough terrain.
He said the Moulsecoomb sheep will go back to the farm in the summer months so after June people will not see them on the hillsides until later in the year. This will give the land chance to develop and next spring when the shrub shoots begin to show up the sheep will be able to eat them and remove the growth from last year and this will control the shrubs that keep the grass out.
The furthest area that appears barren at the back of the Wild Park is actually land which has been redeveloped and is part of a corridor linking to the present area where the sheep currently graze.
The countryside rangers have specifically thought out how to reclaim the land so that it will all be connected and not just in random patches. Now within three years grass has actually begun to grow again and they want to keep it that way.
The sheep have been a popular fixture since they were introduced three years ago. When the Council asked for volunteers for trainee shepherds, literally hundreds were interested. David Larkin said there are currently 100 trained volunteers, and 30 are on a waiting list.
One volunteer, Lois Underwood, 49, Hove, said she had been a volunteer since last Sep 2010. She had previously done volunteer work on a farm when younger. She thought it was a good thing for the city to have sheep there, particularly since some local children have never seen them. Certainly the three orphan lambs were very popular all day with children coming to stroke them at the Moulsecoomb Family Fun Day event.
Lois said the shepherds had had one day’s training. They had learnt why the scheme was being introduced and how the land was being managed. They were taught how to care for the sheep, what should happen and what to look out for. The shepherds were put on rotas over different areas.
She said some volunteers do several sites, some have just one. She covers three sites.
Lois explained some of their duties were checking the fences were secure not broken or damaged. They also had to check that the sheep were well and had sufficient water and cut them out if they got stuck in bramble bushes. Then they had to report to the rangers and give updates accordingly.
If a sheep was limping or unwell they should call the rangers or the farmer. Lois said she checks the site twice a day but some other sites are checked more often up to 5 times a day.
Lois has lived in Brighton 20 years but said by helping with the sheep she has seen different parts of Brighton she would not otherwise have seen. She said it was good to get out into different areas. She had seen kestrels while looking out for the sheep, which she said she would normally not have seen.
Paula Bristow, 47, from Ovingdean, solicitor turned shepherd said she found looking after the sheep “very therapeutic”. She trained last summer. She had seen a leaflet about volunteering to be a sheep carer at Rottingdean village fair. She said she looked after the sheep on Beacon Hill last winter when it was snowing and she has really enjoyed it.
David Larkin said the next course for the volunteer shepherds will be in autumn. He also said he would be organising educative walks in the areas so people could learn more about the environment or just come out for walks to be healthy and enjoy the area.
So the Moulsecoomb sheep are not just pleasant to look at for the locals and the area but are serving a very important purpose.
FORTHCOMING EVENTS: Sunday 22nd May Discover hidden wildlife treasures of Moulsecoomb and Bevendean. The Park rangers will help you to identify rare plants and creatures that make the area so special.
12 noon- 4pm Meet Coldean Lane, junction with Lewes Road opposite The Hikers Rest.
Monday 30th May Dyke Road Community Day 11am-2pm Meet at the Café. (Bus 56) Join the Park Ranger and learn about wildlife in this urban park.
Sunday 5th June 10am – 5pm Stanmer Park Join the Rangers and Sussex Wildlife Trust for a whole day out celebrating wildlife.
Stroll around the Farmer’s market and enjoy refreshments and local food from Sussex.
Buses: Springwatch Special 78 from the city centre every 15 mins 25 from Palmeira Square, every 12-15 mins.
5 min walk to the festival.
Train: Falmer. 10-15 min walk from station to park.
Car parking: £5 per car