Managing the site for all wildlife
Although we have a very important plant on the reserve we mustn’t be blind to the fact that we also have plenty of other species in need of protection and each of them have requirements that must be maintained. This means that we must adopted a very careful attitude to managing the site and when we change something we must be aware of the effect that this change might have on other species. Management must be slow and planned well in advance to avoid a conflict of interests. The current management plan focuses on protecting the Monkey orchids and other rarities while generally improving habitats for all species.
We currently autumn/winter graze the whole site with a small flock of sheep. The site is divided into compartments which allow us to regulate the grazing and make sure that no one area is over or under grazed.
In 1992 we surrounded the main Monkey orchid colony with a rabbit proof fence and over the next 3 years the number of plants trebled. It is thought that the reason for this sudden increase was that prior to the fence, although the warden protected plants when they arrived on site in April, the rabbits had already eaten most of the earliest orchids which appear above ground as early as January. By protecting the plants all year round we have allowed all the plants to reach their full potential and without the presence of rabbits we can decide exactly how much grazing the slope gets.
In the 1980s scrub re-encroached over large areas of the reserve and since then we have made a concerted effort to re-claim areas of downland. The worst areas were clear-cut but where hedge-lines were too thick we have attempted to grade the height and soften the boundary between grassland and thicket. Where the hedges were thickets we have also scalloped them to create tranquil bays for butterflies to sun themselves in. Where we had to clear-cut we will control the regrowth of scrub by grazing and cutting but we hope to retain a fairly large amount of scrub as a rough mosaic of thicket and grassland.
We have been careful to leave areas of scrub to act as shelters for invertebrates and orchids and we feel that in the past too much emphasis has been put on the theory that Monkey orchids are a pure grassland species rather than a grassland-margin species. From our limited experience and looking at historical documents, we think scrub has always been very important to Monkey orchid success. It shelters the plants from the ravages of drying winds and grazing animals and the bare ground under dense scrub provides a good area for seed to germinate on. The problems occur when scrub is left for long periods to grow into thickets which shade the plants, and at this point it needs to be cut back to the ground to expose the dormant plants underneath.