The ecological costs of selling off Eastbourne’s downland

Catherine Tonge, who used to work for Natural England, has been doing some research for us about the environmental management of the Eastbourne Downs and how a sell-off of most of it would have serious consequences for the small bit of public downland remaining. We think you’ll agree with us that her research reveals the folly of giving up public control over most of our public downland!

MANAGING THE EASTBOURNE DOWNLAND ECOLOGY:

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1 Like any public body, Eastbourne Borough Council (EBC) is obliged to have regard to the conserving of Biodiversity in exercising its functions under the Natural Environment & Rural Communities Act of 2006. It also has a duty to contribute to the Government’s target of a net gain for Biodiversity by 2020.

2 Eastbourne relies on tourism for its survival and its proximity to the South Downs is a major reason for people to visit the Town. The experience is not just walking on the strip along the edge but the sensation of being immersed within the entire Downland landscape. Many people do not even get out of their vehicles but just drive up to enjoy the views. Any threat to these views, be it change of land use, fencing, decrease in biodiversity, inappropriate development and artificial lighting is a threat to Eastbourne’s ability to market itself as a tourist destination

3 Since 2007 over £717,600 has been received from taxpayer funds for land management measures to benefit wildlife and protect the aquifer from which Eastbourne derives its water supply. The area was also included as one the Government’s pilot Nature Improvement Areas (NIA) in 2012, thereby securing over £3 million for the entire project from DEFRA and partners. The benefits this has brought about can be reversed in a very short amount of time, overnight in some cases by simple measures such as applying fertilizer, changes to land use or just stopping grazing and/or controlling scrub. The potential threats are clearly laid out in Eastbourne Borough Council’s own Downland Management Plan. Changes to this fragile environment can also have unforeseen consequences such as accelerating soil erosion which may increase water flow, increasing flood risks to Eastbourne itself.

4 Money for agri-environment schemes currently comes from the EU. While it is probable (though by no means certain) that this sort of funding will continue to exist after Brexit, nobody knows what form it will take, what the criteria will be or how much will be available. It is therefore impossible to have any meaningful or legally-binding condition to ensure that environmental management remains in place after this land is sold.

5 Far from being inaccessible land that the public doesn’t even notice, as claimed by EBC, this land forms the backdrop to Eastbourne by those travelling via the A259. Eastbourne, rightly, markets itself as the gateway to the South Downs National Park. We are already on the verge of losing the last uninterrupted view of the South Downs from those approaching from the North by train with the proposed development at Brodricklands. It is vital to ensure that the fields on the Western approach continue to provide open views unobscured by fences, hedges, agricultural paraphernalia etc or visitors could be forgiven for missing Eastbourne’s South Downs setting altogether.

6 EBC has stated that it will retain the coastal section of Downland for now and set aside £1 million for management including signage and path improvement. This is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and the Council has a duty to manage it responsibly. Currently EBC hires in ponies from the Sussex Pony Grazing Conservation Trust but relies heavily on livestock borrowed from the tenant farmers to fulfil its grazing regime (a range of livestock is essential to maintain the condition of the grassland). Should the land management change on the surrounding farms, it will be increasing difficult and more expensive to maintain the condition of the Council-held strip of land. [Note that the England Coastal Path will be completed by 2020 and this already offers potential for improvement of signage and paths].

7 One of the key levers in Eastbourne’s success in securing inclusion in the NIA project was the fact that this large area of Downland was in public ownership and could therefore be managed on a landscape scale in line with government policy. Future funding will be more difficult to achieve if land falls into private ownership as funders require security and assurances that achievements are long term. EBC may even find it harder to attract grants for its remaining strip of land, despite its SSSI and Heritage Coast status as it becomes isolated between fragmented farmland and the cliff edge. Species such as skylarks and butterflies will suffer if the fragile conditions required for their success are altered and this will impact on the visitor experience on EBC’s own land

8 The SSSI areas within the land to be sold forms part of the larger Seaford to Beachy Head SSSI. Eastbourne Borough Council will retain the bulk of this as it is not currently proposing selling the coastal section of land. EBC is obliged to maintain the condition of the SSSI and has spent many years and a lot of public money doing so. If the land north of this SSSI falls out of good management, not only will EBC’s land be more difficult (and expensive) to manage as it will be isolated from the ecological network which currently helps support the protected features. Furthermore, if the small SSSI sections within the farmland fall out of good management, this will reflect in the condition of the site overall, regardless of any good management undertaken by EBC on its own land.

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