The South Downs – inspiration and identity for a conservationist

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The South Downs – inspiration and identity for a conservationist

Young conservationist, Elliot Dowding of New Nature magazine, takes a look at how visits to South Downs inspired a lifelong passion for wildlife.

I’ve been visiting the South Downs since I was a child, years before it became a National Park, and it would be no overstatement to say that it’s a landscape which has shaped who I am. My mum would take my brother and I on regular expeditions to such beautiful spots as Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon and Chanctonbury Ring. We would go bug-hunting or kite-flying, have picnics and just mess about on the open slopes with the wide, wide sky open above us – in my memory all those trips were on hot sunny days, but I’m sure that wasn’t the case.

Elliot Dowding in South Downs National Park. 

My childhood love for nature has since grown and refined into my passion as an adult. Now I write for New Nature magazine, drawing on my early exposure to the natural world, particularly in such a stunning landscape, to share this passion with others.

These days I try to make regular visits to the South Downs, mostly for the purposes of hunting wildlife such as butterflies or wildflowers or just to fill my lungs with fresh air and clear my head in the buzzing meadows. Even in-between visits (the Downs are never far from view in Sussex) it’s difficult not to gaze southwards on a train or car journey across the county and see the long, grey-green ridge peeping from between the trees, sometimes just a hazy blue line on the horizon. They are hills that seem to have more moods than most; some days they can be bright green chocolate-box perfect rolling slopes, then other days they can be cold, grey and harsh, or smothered in low brooding cloud that adds layers of mystery to them.

No matter how the Downs make you feel, it cannot be denied that they are home to some truly special and spectacular wildlife. Thanks to the chalk bedrock that they have been sculpted from and centuries of sheep-grazing, the steep north slope and ridge-top possess highly biodiverse low-nutrient grassland which in high summer is glowing with 50 or more species of flower and humming with thousands of invertebrates. I recall a trip I made a few years ago, in the summer, to a slope of the South Downs near Plumpton, I’d never been there before and it was a bit of a walk from the station, but it was well worth the effort. I discovered a very steep meadow on the north scarp slope, just off from a farm track, it hadn’t been recently grazed and was bursting with more wildflowers than I’d ever seen before in such a small area. Species like Squinancywort, Harebell, Marjoram, Small Scabious, Round-headed Rampion, Yellow-wort, Fairy-flax and the tall spikes of Common Spotted Orchid.

Another time, at the other end of the Downs in West Sussex where the ridge becomes more heavily wooded, I visited a nature reserve where the wood had been cleared away on the north side and was a haven for butterflies. Here, amongst the lumps and pits of an old chalk works I saw my first ever Duke of Burgundy butterflies, a real rarity, as well as Dingy Skippers and Green Hairstreaks – just a small but beautiful selection of the wealth of insect life I have come across while wandering these hills. Of course, it’s not all about what wildlife lives on the South Downs, there are also many ancient historical sites along the ridge.

The fact that such an open landscape exists in the otherwise road-riddled, squashed-in South-east of England is miraculous and a blessing to all those that live near it. There are other wildlife havens in this part of the country, but none of which I would argue, are as culturally important, nor as influential to both poets and scientists as the South Downs.

Simply put, the South Downs is one of my sources of inspiration, now I write about the beauty in the natural world as well as the environmental challenges faced by our wildlife; everything from the majesty of the clouds to the great loss of UK species. Who knows, without those childhood visits to this special place I may not have become so enthralled by nature, which would have been a great shame indeed.

Elliot Dowding is an editor and content writer for both the Cloud Appreciation Society and New Nature magazine. Check out his blog Wildlife and Words.