Grassland managment on Banstead Commons

September 2023

The UK has lost 97% of its wildflower meadows since the second world war.  We are proud that Natural England have judged that the grassland areas on the Banstead Commons are in favourable condition.  Our dedicated management has enabled rare and vulnerable chalk-loving plants and animals to return and flourish.

Approximately half of the 1350 acres of Banstead Commons is designated “priority” grassland.  Two of our chalk downland sites – Banstead Downs and Park Downs – are Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and Banstead Heath is a Site of Nature Conservation Importance (SNCI). This places a legal obligation on the Banstead Commons Conservators to ensure that our management optimises the preservation and enhancement of their ecological health.  There are three main techniques that we deploy on the Commons depending on resourcing and the topography of the grassland – essentially “cut and collect”, mowing and grazing.

Ideally, we would always use the traditional pre-mechanisation system that led to the creation of the open downland habitat and its unique flora and fauna in the first place. Where timing and resources limit our flexibility and we have to use machinery, we try to do the opposite of what most people are familiar with when you’re managing your garden and allotments!   The rare plants we are trying to encourage depend on the soil being nutrient-poor because there is less competition from lush and aggressive grasses and other dominant plant species. We must therefore prevent any additional nutrients from returning to the soil so the Conservators use a Flail Mower Collector which is similar in principle to your home lawn mower (if you fit the collecting box on the back!). Cut and collecting is time intensive.  To get a clean cut the tractor must travel at low speeds, the box gets full very quickly and it has to emptied frequently well away from where we have mown, to ensure the nutrients don’t leach back into the soil.  If you spot a large compost pile hiding in the undergrowth on your next walk on the Heath, you will now know why it is there and that its location is not itself a “special” site!

 

Flail mower collector on Banstead Downs

 

In some areas, we have to use a Rotary Flail.  We do this most often when managing bracken which, despite being a native plant (with an interesting ecosystem of its own) can become so “invasive” that it crowds and shades out everything else.  This method is much faster, and therefore more economical, but it is less helpful to improving the grassland sward because of the “thatch” that gets left behind and adds nutrients to the soil.

 

Rotary Flail in action on Banstead Heath

 

Our much-preferred technique is Conservation Grazing.  This is the most effective form of management for species-rich grasslands because it reflects our heritage that led to this valuable and attractive habitat and preserved it without external intervention until only a few years ago.  Banstead Downs and Park Downs have been conservation grazed regularly by sheep for over ten years and this year we are working in collaboration with the Downlands Partnership to introduce a mixed sheep flock to Banstead Downs and goats and sheep to Park Downs.  Whilst the animals are working hard to graze the woody scrub and grasses, staff are also kept very busy.  Commons Legislation and our Byelaws prevent the installation of permanent fencing and we have a total of six enclosures to erect (and later dismantle) each season to ensure the livestock can be moved to new areas across the sites.  We also recruit a team of volunteers to carry out daily checks on the welfare of the livestock and ensure that the perimeter fencing is secure to prevent dogs from entering the enclosures.

The Banstead Common Conservators are looking to recruit new volunteers to help us carry our grassland surveys on our site next year.  If you have an interest in botany and would like to get involved, please get in touch to find out more.  Training will be provided and no previous experience is required, although a passion for the natural environment and commitment to learn are essential.

Lucy Shea, Clerk to the Conservators

 

Pygmy goat grazing scrub on Park Downs