Rottingdean residents may have seen sheep up on Beacon Hill over the winter and wondered why they were there.

The revival of traditional sheep grazing is part of a scheme by Brighton & Hove City Council to restore the wildlife and flowers of the South Downs at former pastures across the city, including Beacon Hill.

A hundred years ago sheep were a common sight on the Downs, helping to both fertilise the valleys for agriculture and control woody scrub on the slopes. However, sheep grazing declined with changes in farming methods, such as the introduction of artificial fertilisers. As a result, many grassland areas were overtaken by scrub and woodland.

Now, a flock of around 6oo north country mules and Herdwick sheep are helping to restore the chalk grassland of the Sussex Downs to its former glory.

David Larkin, Countryside Ranger with Brighton & Hove City Council, explains: “Over 97% of the old flower rich grassland has disappeared over the past one hundred years, so it is really important to get sheep back on the remaining sites to prevent the scrub destroying them for ever. Herdwicks are browsers rather than grazers so they eat woody scrub as well as coarse grass, which allows a greater diversity of wild flowers and other species like insects to thrive.”

Sheep grazing is also an ecologically friendly way to restore the grassland and provides a cost-effective alternative to mechanical mowing or the hand-cutting and composting of grass which is the only alternative on steeper sites, such as Whitehawk Hill and Wild Park.

The sheep have been used around the city for several years now and there is some evidence that rarer species are returning.

“The trouble with this sort of conservation scheme is that it is a long-term thing,” said David. “The grasslands have been in decline for about a hundred years so we won’t see a big impact overnight. But hopefully some species on the brink of decline will survive because we are creating more habitat for them.”

The sheep on Beacon Hill in Rottingdean are looked after by volunteer shepherds from the community, called ‘Lookerers’. The volunteer shepherds are crucial to the success of the scheme, providing daily checks to ensure the sheep are healthy and safe. Anyone interested in becoming a Lookerer next winter should visit the Council’s web site at: