Giving our House Sparrows a Home

The House Sparrow (scientific name Passer domesticus) is one of the most iconic urban birds in Britain, sharing our urban areas with us. In fact they have spread out from Europe and Asia to be found on all continents, making them probably the most familiar wild animal in the world – given their close associations with humans which date all the way back to the Stone Age!

The numbers and familiarity of the House Sparrow has led to it frequently being used to represent the common and vulgar, and their high fertility meant their eggs were once believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac! Historically, because of their great numbers, sparrows used to have a price on their heads, and during World War II there were anti-sparrow clubs persecuting them to protect our wartime food supply.

House Sparrows at Hove Lagoon (c) Colin Leeves

Although we are all still used to seeing this social little brown bird hop and shuffle around our gardens, this perky bustling bird is now in fact in serious trouble! Over the past 25 years – or one human generation – there has been a worldwide decline (hence there is a World Sparrow Day each year on 20th March) and here in the UK a nationwide collapse in house sparrow population sizes.

Recent estimates suggest a drop of 71 per cent between 1977 and 2008, with substantial declines in both rural and urban populations. This is particularly acute in urban areas; for example in Greater London they declined by 68% between 1994 and 2009 to the point where they have virtually disappeared from the city’s centre. It would be terribly sad if the same thing happened here in Brighton and Hove!

Their decline is believed to be primarily a result of the loss of suitable habitat and a reduction in their insect food availability. A shortage of nesting sites caused by changes in urban building design is probably a factor. Declines in insect populations result from an increase of monoculture crops, the heavy use of pesticides, and the replacement of native plants in cities with introduced plants and parking areas.

House sparrows do not move around much, so once a colony is gone it is difficult to restore. However there are practical steps which we can take to help them.

Brighton and Hove’s Wildlife Forum – working with the RSPB, Sussex Ornithological Society, the University of Brighton and other environmental groups – are developing an exciting new project over the next 3-5 years which, it is hoped, will lead to an increase in house sparrow numbers in our city.

Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrows Project will:

  1. Raise awareness of the plight of these birds
  2. Take practical steps to help them
  3. Monitor their progress

The first stage of the project will be to investigate and work to understand how Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrow population is faring.

We’re putting a call out for volunteers with a few hours to spare to survey house sparrow numbers in Brighton and Hove during April or May on a day which suits you. Training will be provided in late March. If you’re interested in taking part please contact or on our website

We would also like to hear about house sparrows in your neighbourhood, and would be particularly interested to hear about any colonies which you remember from past years, but have now disappeared. Please let us know through our online public survey form. We’re then recording this information on our Distribution Map (below) to build up a picture of the sparrow situation in the city.

3 simple steps to help our house sparrows that we can all take have been identified by a number of different studies in recent years:

  1. Nest Sites – Sparrows prefer to nest in a hole in a building or a nest box (with an entrance 32mm diameter) preferably at least 2m above ground level. They like to nest in colonies, but the entrances ideally need to be at least 30cm apart in special nest boxes called ‘sparrow terraces’.
  2. Food – They eat seeds, mainly from the ground plus some berries such as elder. Insects such as caterpillars and aphids are crucial for the growing chicks. Providing mealworms (dried ones are fine!) during the breeding season will help the chicks to thrive. Filling our gardens with insects and avoiding use of chemicals will of course benefit.
  3. Habitat – Sparrows appreciate gardens that include native plants and are a little untidy! They enjoy gossiping sessions (‘chapels’) in thick bushes or hedges and love bathing in the dust.

House Sparrow (c) Colin Leeves

Brighton and Hove’s House Sparrows project team are always looking for new members to help with surveying local House Sparrow colonies, building sparrow boxes, running workshops and events for the public, along with fundraising and publicity. If you’re interested in getting involved, please contact us at .
For more details about the Brighton and Hove House Sparrows project please visit our website and you can follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

Please help us to make the once-common commonplace once again!

Anne Hyatt
Brighton & Hove’s Wildlife Forum

Elm Haven

Our precious National Elm Collection

Our Biosphere is naturally unique by being the host of the National Elm Collection in Brighton & Hove, boasting some of the rarest elm tree varieties in the world in our parks, streets, schools and gardens.

Whereas many areas in the UK lost their mature elm trees long ago to Dutch Elm Disease, Brighton & Hove has the largest remaining population in the UK due to the natural barriers and concerted efforts of people that have protected it.

In 1970, during a destructive outbreak of Dutch Elm Disease, the then borough councils of Brighton and Hove introduced a Dutch Elm Disease management plan which has been maintained ever since. The city has seen its population increase to around 50,000 trees, the highest since records began! This is despite the ever present threat of disease and the huge losses suffered in the Great Storm of 1987. Elms are well-suited to our coastal city: they tolerate our heavy chalk soils and strong sea winds, that often make life far too difficult for trees like oaks.

Believe it or not, for many years much of the area that we now see graced by elms was treeless. One of the few estates that hosted elm was Preston Park – the 400 year-old Preston Twins are living examples of hedgerow trees that once occupied narrow field systems and open parkland there.

Preston Twins in Autumn

Before the arrival of the Prince Regent, estates like Stanmer, Hodshrove in Moulsecoomb, West Blatchington Farm in Hove and the surrounding area of Portslade planted English elm Ulmus procera and Wych elm Ulmus glabra. When the Prince Regent began visiting the area in the early 1800s, elms like the Dutch elm Ulmus x hollandica ‘Major’ were introduced. The diversity of species on our residential streets is a legacy of the Stanford family who planted many rare elms on the streets of their residential estates. Much more recently the two borough councils planted many rare elm tree varieties from Europe.

In 1997 the council successfully applied to include the entire city in the National Elm Collection. This reflected the fact that elms were well-established with 120 different varieties spread across the city, and despite huge losses in the Great Storm of 1987 thousands of the trees survived including many extremely rare species. A recent survey indicates that we probably have more diversity of elm trees than any other city in the world!

Do take a look at our colourful new leaflet of special elm trees to be found in parks in the city’s central parks, as well as our childrens activity guide available for younger enthusiasts too!

Other places of particular local interest for their diversity of species include Hove Recreation Ground, Crespin Way (below), Stanmer Park, Happy Valley Park, Stanford Avenue and Old Shoreham Road.

Himalayan elms in Crespin Way, Hollingdean

Many of the varieties of elms in the city are now scarce and endangered. Some of the clone elm trees in Brighton have been declared as unique by Professor Hans Heybroek in his most recent visit in 2010, a Dutch expert who has been coming to appreciate our trees since the 1960s! We are now working to propagate these rare trees, with another Dutchman nurseryman Ronnie Nijboer, to ensure their future survival and hence genetic diversity. Monitoring of the population is being carried out by the organisation Plant Heritage, with my help, and we are currently cataloguing each prized rare elm.

Any resident interested in the elm tree population, including guided walks, can enquire further by contacting me at

Peter Bourne
Peter is a researcher of elms who has been studying the tree genus for over 25 years. He helped to found the Tree Register, and contributed data for the council to achieve a successful application for National Collection status for their elm population.

Natural Outlook

2017 – Tigers up, Beetles down

On a crisp and frosty January morning the South Downs are stunning.  Each blade of grass becomes a glistening jewel.  This sparkling landscape stuns us throughout the year, its gentle inclines and steep scarp slopes contrasting so perfectly to the towns below on the coast, Weald and flood-plains.

So what does 2017 have in store for the natural wonders of our Biosphere, you may ask?

I read an article yesterday informing me that 2016 had been a great year for Pandas and Tigers.  Whilst I love a good news conservation story, I would rather be telling people about what has been happening closer to home!

Although 2016 was an unexceptional year for our downland butterflies, trends in British invertebrates have shown a staggering reduction in the last 45 years.  59% of British invertebrate species have declined since 1970 according to the recently published State of Nature.  If this statistic doesn’t shock or disturb you, you are possibly, like many others, suffering from an ‘environmental emotional detachment’.

Why should we care so much about these invertebrates?  Pollination aside, they are what our larger and more ‘charismatic’ species eat, where Chinese Pandas rely on bamboo, our Skylark chicks need flies and beetles to survive and thrive – when we no longer have skylarks filling the air with their song over our Biosphere we will all be wishing we had done a bit more to look after the insects on which they depended. A simplified version of a brutal truth.
Is 2017 going to reverse this trend?
Will we see more insects in the Biosphere, securing the destiny of future skylarks?

Skylark (c) BARRY YATES/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Skylark (c) BARRY YATES/Sussex Wildlife Trust

Much of the internationally rare chalk grassland of the South Downs National Park, including the part in the Biosphere, is in poor condition.  As managers of chalk grassland ourselves, we are only too aware of how difficult it is; the challenges of balancing grazing pressure, stock availability, public access, removal of invasive species or the reversing of natural succession is tough and resource-heavy.  Long term under- or over-management has a long term impact on insects (and the rest of our wildlife) as we lose the fine flora of species-rich chalk grassland, and its rich nectar, for the depleted poor-quality grassland.

The marine environment is another key part of our Biosphere.  2017 has an altogether more solid outlook out to sea than the risks being faced by the terrestrial Biosphere.  2017 should see more progression in the establishment of Marine Conservation Zones.  The Biosphere’s coastal chalk reef habitats, east of Brighton Marina, have already been designated.  This exciting designation process is fresh and new but takes time.  A Conservation Management Plan has not yet been agreed for our Biosphere’s site, but 2017 will no doubt see continued balanced discussions to progressing the positive future of this area.  Our chalk reefs are home to important populations of seahorses.  These beautiful creatures, with whom we share our Biosphere, mate for life and perform courtship rituals to each other daily, often for several hours.  Whilst you have read this blog, a seahorse is dancing, not far away, and 2017 will hopefully be a good year for them.

Short-snouted seahorses (c) John Newman – The Seahorse Trust

Short-snouted seahorses (c) John Newman – The Seahorse Trust

As we head closer to triggering Article 50 and our exit from the European Union, there is still huge uncertainty around not just the environmental legislation that will protect our biosphere, but also the funding mechanisms that will maintain its conservation value.  Indeed, the Government’s own Environmental Audit Committee recent report has just warned of their concerns of a lowering of standards and the need for a new Environmental Protection Act to be introduced.

We need our exit from the European Union to recognise these issues, and for our legislation and funding mechanisms – currently championed by Europe – to be not just equivalent to current levels, but even better!  2017 is definitely the year to be exerting influence and passion on this topic, lobbying MPs (take action here) and other decision-makers.  Watch this space as the Sussex Wildlife Trust and others start their campaigns to secure a vibrant future for the Biosphere.  We will all be asking for your support, in caring about the issues and letting other people (especially politicians) know that you care.

Looking forward with hope,

Henri Brocklebank
Head of Living Landscapes and Living Seas
Sussex Wildlife Trust

Festive Flora

Your tinsel covered Christmas tree may be a big part of your festive celebrations but, as we pass through winter, there are a number of native evergreen plants in our Biosphere that provide a vital service for our wildlife – notably Ivy and Mistletoe.

The beautiful flowers which have filled our countryside and gardens with colour, and provided our insects with nectar, have shut up shop come the autumn. But our Ivy only revealed its cryptic flowers in October, opening for business long after the others have closed their doors. In some ways ivy is the kebab shop of plants – it offers welcome nourishment for those insects that like staying out late in the year! And, like a kebab shop, you’re going to find a right old mix of characters queuing up for that one last meal before they go to sleep for the winter: beautiful butterflies dine alongside wasps; bumblebees jostle with hoverflies; our ivy bushes literally buzz with life.


The importance of ivy to wildlife cannot be understated. Aside from this vital late-season nectar supply, ivy’s evergreen leaves also feed caterpillars – including those of the Holly Blue butterfly and the delicate Swallow-tailed moth. These leathery leaves provide a hibernating site for Brimstone and Peacock butterflies. On cold winter evenings the ivy sings with the chatter and chirp of an invisible Starling and Sparrow choir roosting in the waterproof warmth. Its black berries keep our winter Thrushes filled up, and in the spring it is a nesting site for our Robins and Wrens. Ivy is a miniature nature reserve that can cover a blank brick wall like a piece of living graffiti!

But despite all the life it supports, ivy has a reputation as a killer, its roots sucking the life from the trees it covers. This simply isn’t true – ivy manufactures its own nourishment, just like any other honest plant! And we can’t forget the important service that ivy provides for us humans. For centuries ivy has protected us from house goblins. Bringing ivy into your home as a decoration at Christmas (the time when goblins are apparently at their most pesky) will ensure that your festive season passes without a burnt turkey or a blown fairy light!

But there is another festive plant which is partly parasitic (a ‘hemi-parasite’), obtaining some of its water and nutrients by vampirically sucking them from its host tree: Mistletoe. It still has the decency to do a bit of photosynthesis itself however, so it’s not 100% evil! In fact research has proved that mistletoe is an ecological ‘keystone’ species – without it there just isn’t as much life in our woodlands. Birds feed on their juicy white berries, which appear to be as messy to eat as a treacle and melted mozzarella pizza. Gooey beaks have to be wiped on a nearby branch, allowing any seeds to stick and sprout someplace new. Either that or the birds disperse the seed in the more traditional intestinal way.


Mistletoe is of course infamous for its power to draw people very close, but what compels us to kiss under the mistletoe? Other plants could claim similar magic powers. A few glasses of fermented French grapes or a shot of Scottish malted barley will conjure up enough Dutch courage for some botanically inspired Christmas smooching!

It’s easy to see why mistletoe would appear to hold mystical qualities. As autumn strips a tree back to its bark bones it reveals an evergreen mistletoe heart; a beacon of life in the dead of winter. This apparent immortality inspired many ancient fertility rituals. Druids, armed with gleaming golden sickles, would perform a mistletoe harvesting ceremony under a waxing moon (and slaughter two white bulls for good measure).


The practice of hanging mistletoe at Christmas didn’t turn up in a written document until the 1600s, and mention of lips meeting underneath it didn’t appear in print until 1817. Unsurprisingly, any ‘tradition’ involving kissing quickly became popular and since then everyone from Norse Gods to ancient Greeks, Gauls and Romans have been trying to claim that the first snog under the mistletoe was their idea.

So this Christmas keep looking high up in the tree tops to spy any mistletoe. Whilst I haven’t seen any yet as I walk around our Biosphere, I have seen plenty of proof that it’s still working its magic on the people down below! Season’s Greetings!

Michael Blencowe
Lewes Community Wildlife Officer
Sussex Wildlife Trust

Meet the Family!

Our Biosphere Region of the Brighton & Lewes Downs has been a proud member – #ProudToShare – of UNESCO’s global family of Biosphere Reserves for over two years now, since the summer of 2014.

We are a small but dynamic piece of the World Network of Biosphere Reserves, that now number 669 sites spread across 120 countries around the globe, connecting communities who are pioneering a positive future for people and nature – today. We share this common purpose with our sister sites, along with the three aims to:

  • conserve our natural environment
  • develop ourselves sustainably
  • engender environmental knowledge, learning, awareness and engagement


The global network now has a new strategy and action plan for the next ten years, agreed in Lima Peru in March 2016, and the UK has been an influential player in this process. We have four shared objectives to:

  1. Conserve biodiversity, restore and enhance ecosystem services, and foster the sustainable use of natural resources
  2. Contribute to building sustainable, healthy and equitable societies, economies and thriving human settlements in harmony with the biosphere
  3. Facilitate biodiversity and sustainability science, education for sustainable development (ESD) and capacity building
  4. Support mitigation and adaptation to climate change and other aspects of global environmental change

The World Network includes some exotic places far distant from our own local nature, including such icons ranging from Uluru (Ayer’s Rock) in the Australian outback to the Central Amazon rainforest and great Pantanal wetland in Brazil. But our Biosphere has claims to fame too, from our internationally rare chalk grassland on the Downs to our National Elm Collection in Brighton & Hove and our renowned culture. Having a well-known city at the heart of our Biosphere also helps to make us stand out, a situation shared with a handful of other places only – such as the green belt of Sao Paolo in Brazil, the city of Agadir in Morocco, and Dublin Bay.

Back home, there are five other UK Biosphere Regions, all found on the western side of Britain:


Biosffer Dyfi: the area of the river Dyfi catchment and coast by Aberystwyth in mid-Wales contains inspiring landscapes and wildlife together with a local community passionate about their nature and culture.

Galloway and Southern Ayrshire: covers over 5000 square kilometres of SW Scotland based upon an upland catchment area and extending down to the coast, home to impressive nature and a population of 95,000 people.

Isle of Man: this new Biosphere covers the entirety of land and sea of this self-governing island in the Irish Sea, recognising its spectacular coastal nature, traditional management through fishing and farming, and rich cultural heritage.

North Devon: this longest-established UK Biosphere reaches up to the heights of Dartmoor and Exmoor and extends out to sea to the island of Lundy, covering a landscape loved by locals and tourists alike.

Wester Ross: the newly expanded Biosphere extends along over 5000 square kilometres of the wild west coast of Scotland, a remote mountainous region that is one of the UK’s most scenic and least-populated areas.

The UK Biospheres also work closely with the new Dublin Bay Biosphere in Ireland, taking in the highly populated urban and rural coastal catchment which has rich marine wildlife right next to the capital city.

Together we collaborate under the auspices of the UK Man and the Biosphere Committee that twice-yearly convenes our diverse suite of Biosphere Regions together with an array of national bodies and experts in environmental sustainability.

A wider network meeting of the UK’s Biospheres (and Eire) has just been held, in October 2016, in Dumfries hosted by the Galloway and Southern Ayrshire Biosphere – to enable key people from the different areas to come together to share good practice and discuss common challenges. Our stimulating discussions ranged from partnership building and financial sustainability, through to the role of citizen science, landscape arts and environmental education – including presenting our pioneering work with local schools using our virtual Biosphere.

There are also opportunities for us to collaborate more widely through the ‘EUROMAB’ network, extending across both Europe and North America.

The UK is home also to a diverse network of other UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) sites and initiatives, all connected under its mission to “promote a culture of peace by fostering intercultural dialogue and international cooperation through collaborative work in the fields of education, the natural and social sciences, culture, communication and information”. The UK National Commission acts as the central hub to support the UK’s contribution to UNESCO and bring the benefits of UNESCO to the UK.

Other UNESCO designations in the UK include for example:


  • World Heritage Sites e.g. the Jurassic Coast, of Dorset and East Devon
  • Global Geoparks e.g. the North West Highlands of Scotland
  • Creative Cities e.g. Liverpool, UNESCO City of Music

It’s clear that being a member of the global UNESCO network offers us unique opportunities to communicate our story, raise the profile of our area and its environment, and learn from the experience of others – all strong reasons for us to play a full part in our recently adopted family!

Rich Howorth, Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere – Programme Manager
Professor Martin Price, UK Man & the Biosphere Committee – Chair

The Dark Side of the Downs

The nights are now drawing in, the days are getting colder, which to the South Downs International Dark Skies Reserve (IDSR) can only mean one thing…open season!

Designated in May 2016 by the International Dark Skies Association, the South Downs joins an illustrious family of UK and overseas reserves, parks and communities that protect intrinsic dark what are dark skies? Simply seeing stars isn’t enough. For a site to be considered for special protection, you need to be able to see our galaxy of the Milky Way with your naked eyes. Although the entire National Park area is designated as the Reserve, the real dark skies can only be found in a central core in Hampshire and West Sussex that surrounds the towns of Petersfield, Midhurst and Petworth. In this core area, the Milky Way can be clearly seen and will twinkle in front of your eyes. If you managed to get to the right place at the right time, then you can even see galactic scale structures! These include the dark lanes of dust that obstruct our view of the central Milky Way, as well as some fuzzy deep space objects that tantalise the imagination.

This time of year marks the end of the bright summer nights and the setting of the centre of the Milky Way that sits low in the southern sky – an amazing sight. But as winter approaches and the night skies get earlier to view, some of the firm favourites begin to rise.

On a moonless night, just below the easy-to-spot “W” of the constellation of Cassiopeia, lies a little fuzzy, elliptical patch of sky.   If you give your eyes 20 minutes to adjust to the dark, eventually you will see that this little fuzzy patch is in fact the Andromeda Galaxy – our nearest neighbour, containing a trillion stars. Being able to see this galaxy is another indicator of being under dark skies – and there are plenty of spaces throughout the entire National Park that you can see this.

Andromeda galaxy (Steve Futcher)

Andromeda galaxy (Steve Futcher)

Orion Nebula (Simon Downs)

Orion Nebula (Simon Downs)

As we go into the new year, perhaps the best and most familiar constellation is Orion the Hunter. But give yourself a challenge!…instead of concentrating on the whole constellation, take a look towards the sword that dangles rather ominously between the legs. At the tip there is another little fuzzy cloud. However, this isn’t another galaxy, but rather a vast cloud of hydrogen gas called the Great Orion Nebula.

To see these sights, the best places are marked as Dark Sky Discovery Sites, which are easily accessible car parks across the South Downs. Seven are designated at the moment, with more to come, which from west to east are:

  • Intech Science Centre in Winchester
  • Old Winchester Hill
  • Butser Hill
  • Iping and Stedham Common
  • Devil’s Dyke
  • Ditchling Beacon
  • Birling Gap

However, don’t be satisfied with having to go to these sites – get out on the Downs and find your own place to view the night sky. Hill tops are usually good, unless of course they are wooded where the obscured view won’t be so great! Check the Dark Skies map for ideas.

South Downs Dark Sky Reserve - Biosphere section

South Downs Dark Sky Reserve – Biosphere section

Within our Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere region of the South Downs, darker spots can be found in the following places:

  • Truleigh Hill
  • Southwick Hill
  • Devil’s Dyke
  • Ditchling Beacon
  • Mount Caburn
  • Ouse Valley at Rodmell (YHA)

Here are some top tips to help you make the most of stargazing in the South Downs:

  • Check the phase of the moon to plan your trip – stargazing is best before a full moon
  • Take a blanket or mat to lie on
  • Wrap up warm
  • Take some snacks and a hot drink
  • Take a compass or use the one on your smart phone
  • Download a star gazing app to help you identify constellations and stars
  • Allow time for your eyes to adjust – this takes around 20 minutes so turn off any lights, torches and put your mobile phone away!

Lastly, if you want to try your hand at astrophotography then here’s some tips:

  • Use a manual setting with the exposure to 30s with an ISO of 1800
  • Use manual focus and use a tripod and a delayed shutter release.

It’s then just a case of practise, practise, practise, but you can get some easy results by just pointing the camera straight up.

One last vital piece of advice…..don’t forget to wrap up warm!

‘Dark Skies’ Dan Oakley
Lead Ranger, South Downs National Park Authority

What Lies Beneath?

Our care of the local environment rightly focusses on its thin living surface – the “biosphere” in fact! – where wildlife lives and thrives, and where we humans carve out our lives. But geologists look a little deeper than this, seeking the root causes of what we see expressed on the surface – informed by knowledge of what lies beneath. And for the main part in our own Biosphere area – that means Chalk!

We are familiar with the Chalk here firstly through its weathered effect on the landscape – the smooth, strong ‘whale-backed’ rounded contours of our hills and the dry coombes and denes valleys in between. It all seems topsy-turvy to call the ‘ups’ by the term ‘Downs’! Until one remembers that the word ‘Down’ comes from a Saxon word ‘dun’ which translates into ‘hill’.

Chalk downland at Castle Hill NNR, nr Woodingdean

Chalk downland at Castle Hill NNR, nr Woodingdean


Perhaps there is nothing more beautiful than a pristine Chalk landscape, such as our Biosphere has aplenty, but with our growing need to cope with a hungry and thirsty population and all it demands we must take care to look after our natural heritage, for as Kipling wrote:

“On the Downs, in the Weald, on the Marshes. I heard the Old Gods say:
Here come very many people: We must go away.
They take our land to delight in, but their delight destroys,
They flay the turf from the sheepwalk. They load the Denes with noise.”
(‘Very Many People’, Rudyard Kipling 1926)


So what is this Chalk that we owe so much to?  It is perhaps hard to imagine that the Chalk is made of the remains of trillions upon trillions of microscopic marine algae that once lived in a deep sea which covered much of Europe between 98.5 and 65.4 million years ago. This amount of time is mind boggling to us mere humans.

The Earth was an amazing place at that time – sea level was up to 300 metres higher than today; it was on average 10 degrees Centigrade warmer than today with sea water temperatures at the surface some 20-30 degrees higher. There were no ice caps. Exceptional conditions compared to now, but perfect then for the blooming of marine algae called coccoliths, minute flora whose remains after their short lives rained down on to the sea floor for perhaps 40 million years!

The limy shells of such small organisms created a chalky mud on the sea floor at the rate of only 25mm in each thousand years but because it happened for 40 million years this adds up to a kilometre of chalky mud! And in the time since this hardened to form our familiar Chalk. You can also see horizontal layers in the Chalk, together with layers of flint nodules, the story of which will have to wait for now!

The period of time in which this happened is known as the Cretaceous (latin Creta- means Chalk). Since its formation the Chalk and all the layers of rock that make up the British Isles have been lifted up by the huge planetary forces which created the Alps and the north Atlantic Ocean, and weathered into our present landscape by rain and ice.

In those warm Cretaceous days all those millions of years ago, marine algae were not the only form of life living in the clear seas. Sea urchins, fish, starfish, shellfish, sharks and marine reptiles have all been found as fossils. Whilst it’s not always easy to find them these days, a visit to the Booth Museum of Natural History on Dyke Road in Brighton is a must to see the displays of splendid Chalk fossils collected in the past.

Fossil Fish in Chalk from Upper Cretaceous period (Booth Museum)

Fossil Fish in Chalk from Upper Cretaceous period (Booth Museum)

A5 Fossil Fest flyer front-001You can find out more also by going to the Lewes Fossil Festival on the weekend of 24-25th September 2016, where there will be lots of free family fun activities themed on dinosaurs and inspired by the local Victorian natural scientist Gideon Mantell. And for all things local and geological, take a look at the excellent work of the Sussex Geodiversity Partnership.


To see our Chalk at its best, visit the natural cliffs eastwards beyond Saltdean and on to Newhaven, but watch out for the tides! The Chalk cliffs can also be seen safely all along the Undercliff Walk from Brighton Marina eastwards to Saltdean. Inland the Chalk quarries near Lewes, especially those near Malling Down, provide views of Chalk rock also.

Undercliff walk east of Brighton Marina to Saltdean

Undercliff walk east of Brighton Marina to Saltdean

John Cooper
Keeper Emeritus, Booth Museum of Natural History, Brighton

Wildflowers for the People!

All across the city and towns of our Biosphere, colourful wild flowers are now appearing in parks and other green spaces that aim to “bring the countryside to town”!

All three councils here (see below) are leading projects to convert patches of grass to beautiful diverse wildlife havens that not only look great right now in high summer, but also help to fuel our precious insect pollinators such as bees and butterflies.

Brighton & Hove City Council City Parks led the ‘Downs to Towns’ project, with government funding (2013-15) and support from partners to create 15 new chalk “Bee & Butterfly Banks” of 25 species of downland wildflowers, as well as diversifying 25 other green spaces including parks, housing estates, schools, allotments and cemeteries. Over 250 volunteers have helped with local seed collection, propagation at Stanmer Nursery (where local wild flowers are available for sale to the public) and planting of around 180,000 plug plants! This good work is now continuing through the Biosphere programme, including landscaping of two new rain gardens in Portslade and creation of a ‘Bee Bed’ as a public demonstration area at The Level park in central Brighton.

B-Bank blooming in Whitehawk, Brighton - June 2016

B-Bank blooming in Whitehawk, June 2016

Adur District Council and Worthing Borough Council Parks department meanwhile is both planting new and nurturing existing wildflower areas across its parks, gardens and open spaces this summer. They have planted an area of almost 5,000 square metres with wildflowers across 17 sites spread throughout Adur and Worthing, such as at Lancing Manor Park, Southwick Green, Brooklands, The Gallops and Worthing Seafront. Plants include annual plants from chalk downland and cornfield ‘weeds’, as well as other wildflowers which are rich in nectar sources for pollinating insects and produce a visually stunning backdrop. This is in addition to the existing meadows that they manage which totals nearly 14,000 square metres of wildflower verges, banks and borders.

Wildflowers sewn in Sompting

Wildflowers sewn in Sompting

Lewes District and Town Councils and others are leading the exciting new campaign ‘Wildflower Lewes’ to get the town buzzing with bees, fluttering with butterflies and rainbow-coloured with beautiful wildflowers! Wildflower Lewes has set out to create wildflower habitat throughout Lewes, wherever they can find small patches of suitable land. The aim is to make stepping stones and corridors of beautiful wildflower habitat that connects the town to the downs and the rest of the countryside; and give people an opportunity to enjoy and care for the nature on their doorstep, and bring colour into the town. The project brings together Town & District Councillors, Lewes District Council Rangers, the Sussex Wildlife Trust, the Railway Land Wildlife Trust, and local ecologists and interested wildflower enthusiasts; and it is also supported by the Brighton & Lewes Downs Biosphere programme.

Wildflower Lewes logo

It’s a well-cited fact that there has been a 97% decline in wildflower meadows since WWII. Lewes is lucky to be situated in chalk downland; rare worldwide, but locally abundant, and particularly species-rich. They’d like to find space in Lewes to bring the downs into the town, and create space for other natural habitats that celebrate our wild heritage.

They are asking for people in Lewes to help identify possible patches of land near their houses that they would like to become wildflower patches and giving people the chance to get involved in creating and looking after spaces for wildlife. They are also looking at suitable land owned by the Town & District Council to create more natural wildflower habitat through changes in mowing regimes and selective planting of native species. If you are interested in taking part in the or simply want to learn more visit their Facebook page, by searching ‘Wildflower Lewes’, or visit the blog site.

Wildflower Lewes launch with textile sewing map

The ‘Wildflower Lewes’ campaign was officially launched at the ‘Place to Think With’ Festival held by the Railway Land Wildlife Trust on Sunday 3rd July 2016 at the Linklater Pavilion. This innovative centre for the study of environmental change was the perfect place to act as the hub for the campaign and now houses a ginormous specially commissioned textile map of Lewes town! When new wildflower areas are created, the canvas can be rolled down and members of the public or groups can sew onto the canvas their wildflower area! The first area was sewn to mark wildflower planting within a specially designed mathematical planter built by Priory School pupils led by designer Tom Daniell and funded by a Railway Land Wildlife Trust Heritage Lottery Funder Project.

Opening the 'Place to Think With' planter at the Railway Land in Lewes

Opening the ‘Place to Think With’ planter at the Railway Land in Lewes

Dan Fagan, Community Ranger for Lewes District Council says: “in many ways the town of Lewes is like a barrier blocking insects and plants from travelling across the downs or along the river Ouse. This project aims to make holes in that barrier by creating green paths and corridors that wildlife can use”.

So, wherever you live in our Biosphere, you can get involved by visiting wildflower areas, appreciating their beauty and importance, and coming up with local places yourself where you think that there is the potential to make a difference. Why not start in your own garden?!

Swifts – The Sound of Summer

“They’ve made it again,
Which means the globe’s still working, the Creation’s
Still waking refreshed, our summer’s
Still all to come”
(Ted Hughes ‘Swifts’)

Swift, A.apus, three in flight, Spain

Swift, A.apus, three in flight, Spain

The birds you can see at the moment performing aerial acrobatics and skidding madly over houses in Brighton and Lewes in their ‘screaming parties’ are swifts. Each summer we look forward to welcoming home ‘our’ swifts from their winter grounds in Africa, as one of the iconic sights and sounds of summer over our city and towns. Swifts are the best house guests you could ever dream of, so please help by welcoming them to your home!

As the fastest birds in level flight, swifts travel non-stop from Central Africa and return faithfully each May to the same nest sites to raise their baby swiftlets. Incredibly, swifts spend almost their entire life on the wing – including eating, mating and sleeping – and the only time they ‘land’ is when they enter a nest to breed. Fact. Indeed, it’s estimated that swifts fly around 190,000 kms each year, including an average of 500 kms per day! Lunch in Paris anyone?!

We are incredibly lucky to be able to enjoy these stunning migrant birds, as their numbers have been in steep decline: more than 40% fewer swifts than just 20 years ago. Because of this they are now an amber-listed species on the list of Birds of Conservation Concern. These birds really do deserve our respect and help!

The reduction in swift numbers is in part due to a loss of nest sites. Swift colonies tend to be loyal to nesting sites, returning annually for many generations to nest inside the roof space of older houses in particular. Ironically, the more we insulate and protect our homes, the fewer opportunities swifts have to breed – as they rely on very small gaps in roofs to make your house their home. But you can do something about this!

swift on wall (lr)

Many of the swifts flying over Brighton & Lewes will be nesting here but you probably wouldn’t even know it. Why not? Because they:

  • Are very quiet when on the nest
  • Only present for 12 weeks a year
  • Leave (next to) no trace

So what can you do to help swifts?

Consider putting up a simple, unobtrusive and inexpensive swift nest box. Visit the link above or Swift Conservation for a wide selection of readymade or DIY options.

  • If you are putting up scaffolding to work on the roof, try and be bird-friendly and don’t do this in breeding season of May-August (this applies to ALL roof nesting birds).
  • Tell us if you have seen swifts flying low in between houses at street level (this means they might be nesting nearby), or especially if entering a possible nest site. The more we know about where they are, the more we can do to protect them and encourage others to join in.

Do please get in touch if you have any questions about helping swifts or if you would like to get more involved.  As a community, we can come together to protect these magnificent animals in our Biosphere.

Rebecca Ashwood
Volunteer Swift Advisor at the RSPB, SE area office – Brighton

Helpful links:

RSPB swift survey
Action for Swifts
Sussex Ornithological Society


SOS – have your Say on Our Sea!

SOS – have your Say on Our Sea

Our Biosphere coastline, extending out half a nautical mile seawards between Brighton Marina and Newhaven, and eastwards beyond to the Heritage Coast of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, has been designated as a Marine Conservation Zone (MCZ) since 2013. Now new measures are proposed to sustainably manage this iconic area of the Sussex coastline which we are consulting on, and we need your views!

‘Beachy Head West’ MCZ is one of five such marine sites in Sussex, and a total of just fifty in England currently. This spectacularly rich marine site encompasses extensive intertidal and subtidal chalk reef, one of the best examples of this rare and fragile marine habitat in the south-east. In a European context, the UK is very important for marine chalk habitats, with over half of Europe’s coastal chalk recorded from the southern and eastern coasts of England.BHW MCZ at Birling Gap

If we visit nature reserves inland we can see how diverse the chalk downland is for wildlife, similarly chalk reefs under the sea are at least as rich in life but much more poorly known and appreciated.

Short-snouted Seahorse - Sussex SeaSearch (c) Gerald LeggL)Chalk reef supports abundant wildlife, including rare and threatened species such as blue mussel beds and native oysters. This MCZ site also contains rare short-snouted seahorses and is known to be a key nursery and spawning ground for several fish species, especially flat fish including sole, plaice, turbot, brill, and dab.

Short-snouted Seahorse – Sussex SeaSearch (c) Gerald Legg

In amongst the abundant seaweed smothered gullies and rock pools, hide well-known favourites such as crabs, limpets and prawns. It’s possible to find and see a host of marine life including brightly coloured sponges, mauve and green snakelocks anemones, candy-stripe flat worms, odd looking masked crabs, sea toads (a species of spider crab) and large yellow sea slugs known as sea lemons – to list just a few fantastic and wonderfully named creatures.

Sponge & Sea Squirts – Sussex SeaSearch (c) Gerald Legg

The intertidal beach zone is enormously popular with the public, with both children and adults visiting to find the fascinating life present in the rock pools that are revealed at low water. Many of us have clambered over rocks with a net to explore the curious landscape and wildlife a spring tide reveals. We want to encourage this so children and adults understand how fantastically diverse Sussex marine life is and to value these biological treasures.

Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA) is the body responsible for managing sustainable fisheries and conservation of the inshore marine environment here. Since Beachy Head West was designated as a new MCZ, we have worked extensively with the community to develop appropriate fisheries management proposals for the site. Working with the Marine Conservation Society, earlier informal consultation was supported through a unique process called the ‘Community Voice Method’. This included the production of a short film showing how individuals are linked to the site and their views of marine protected areas. The film was shown at workshops to help participants understand one another’s views and to encourage discussion and selection of potential management options.

Sussex IFCA members at the MCZ at Birling Gap

Now the proposed management for Beachy Head West will protect the habitats and species within the site, and make it one of the first partially intertidal MCZ sites to be protected in the UK. We aim to introduce a combination of voluntary agreement and regulation of commercial and recreational fishing that promotes compliance and support from the community, while meeting the conservation requirements of the MCZ, as follows:

  • All year round there are proposed restrictions on trawling activities that are considered damaging to the rocky reef within the site.
  • For those who gather shellfish and species such as prawns and worms for fishing bait, prohibitions on the removal of particular species and bag limits on what can be gathered for personal use only are proposed.
  • Two Education Conservation Areas are also proposed, one in the Biosphere area at Friar’s Bay just west of Newhaven, and the other at Birling Gap near Beachy Head in the Sussex Heritage Coast Area, which will be a valuable resource for schools and ecologists alike.

To help protect marine fauna and flora for the future, we have introduced these two large educational areas in which everyone can continue to explore the coast’s rock pools but are asked not to remove wildlife. This is the first Marine Conservation Zone in which such protective measures will be introduced in the UK. We thus hope that the Beachy Head West MCZ site as a whole will be a significant Sussex natural asset for generations of fishers and rock-poolers to come.

The proposed management of this important site will make a vital contribution to the creation of the “well-managed, ecologically coherent network” of Marine Protected Areas around the UK coast committed to by Government. This network, supported by wider environmental management measures, is essential for promoting the recovery and conservation of marine ecosystems, and therefore helping support sustainable fisheries.

We invite you to have your say on the proposed management of the MCZ, by providing a representation in writing before the 27th June 2016 to:, or by post to the Chief Fisheries and Conservation Officer, Sussex IFCA, 12a Riverside Business Centre, Shoreham-by-Sea, BN43 6RE.

Please visit Sussex IFCA’s website to read the full details of the draft Beachy Head West MCZ Regulatory Notice, the associated Impact Assessment, and proposed voluntary code of conduct.

Erin Lawes
Conservation and Research Manager
Sussex Inshore Fisheries and Conservation Authority (IFCA)