post by dave bangs
Current discussions of landscape in BDA have largely been subsumed under the discussion of chalk grassland...and that makes a sort of sense...because the restoration of chalk grassland has to be done at a landscape scale.
However this topic has a very much larger presence.
Conserving diverse landscapes types is an imperative, in tandem with conserving diverse species and ecosystems
On one level 'landscape' is just the MACRO expression of ecosystem or systems. The Wealden landscape IS its woods, in the sense that those woods are the dominant expression of the particularity of that landscape.
When we flag up the issue of diversity in our discussion of the conservation of nature (species, ecosystems) we ALL agree that diversity is key...that is, the most biodiverse ecosystems must be the most important for us.
Yet the issue of diversity of landscape is rarely recognised to anything like the same degree in public discussion. It is absent or marginalised.
The specialness / uniqueness / particularity of the treeless open pastoral landscape of the eastern Downs is under-recognised managerially as a quality of value in its own right. This specialness is recognised as a value at the level of individual (fragmented) chalk grassland sites...but not at the level of its expression as 'landscape'.
Cultural bias in landscape conservation
We note that the Stanmer Park sub-landscape gets a special option box in the WEP options on line survey...whereas the Castle Hill sub-landscape gets no such special treatment. Yet Castle Hill's sub-landscape is the only place which has an INTERNATIONAL level of recognition for its public value...as an SAC (Special Area of Conservation) as well as NATIONAL statutory protection as an NNR (National Nature Reserve) and SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest). Objectively Castle Hill's sub-landscape is by far the most important sub-landscape-scale conservation responsibility for our City, and yet its level of recognition pales compared to the recognition and resources that Stanmer Park enjoys.
Class, access & mobility, and history
Landscapes are valued culturally in ways that are influenced by class, access and mobility, and history. Kim Wilkie (the landscape architect contracted to BHCC for the WEP consultation) and Savills (BHCC agricultural agents) highly value aristocratic designed ornamental parks like Stanmer. They share that aesthetic with many of their wealthiest clients / customers.
Brighton people value Stanmer because of its high and uninterrupted levels of public access of a high standard and its proximity to the urban fringe...and we have a high regard for its extensive inter-connected woodlands. Yet woodlands of vastly greater extent and biological and cultural richness exist just 'over the hill' in our nearby Weald...the most wooded landscape in Britain...with the greatest percentage of ancient woodland. Travelling times are not much greater for City of Brighton people to many Wealden woods as to Stanmer, yet the Wealden woods much smaller cultural recognition and poorer public access leave most of them unknown to us folk in Brighton.
In our recent history many cultural workers - writers, painters et al - valued Brighton's "wise turf" and "bare" downs - "blunt, bow-headed and whale-backed" - and valued their sharp contrast with the glimpsed views of the Weald's "wooded, dim blue goodness". Now that outpouring of creativity has dried up in the face of the trashing of the chalk grassland mantle by agribusiness and food imperialism.
It was not always as it is now
Over 2OO years ago the Prince of Wales chose Brighton as a resort, in part because its unimpeded high, inter-visible open sheep walks were a kind of paradise for horse racing aficionados like him and his class. Through the next 150 years ordinary folk too came to share that love (through new rail & road access and rising levels of leisure).
Appreciation of the unimpeded open Downs grew through the whole of the 19th century and right up to the post-World War Two period, when the last phase of breaking and fragmentation of the down pasture mantle destroyed our Downs as a 'landscape of freedom' and left its aesthetic of organically shaped rolling openness anchored merely in its landforms and no longer in its extraordinary richness of wildlife.
Thus, the qualities of openness survived at the MACRO level (huge, inter-visible uninterrupted views) but were destroyed at the MICRO level - the flowers, the scents, the sky music of larks, the humming richness of little beasties, the fencelessness, the soft and springy turf...
When, about 1990, I came back to Brighton (my home town) after more than 20 years away (in part to take part in Downland conservation campaigning after the trauma of the Brighton Bypass building) I was shocked to discover that the cultural resonance of the open treeless Downs had declined even further in those decades (though it was already greatly weakened beforehand).
Brighton is a town of new arrivals and many / most of those arrivals did not know what had been so recently taken for granted here. Monbiot's 'shifting baseline syndrome' (i.e. 'moving the goalposts') had stepped up its work in those decades.
Many Brighton people have not been given the sense of the open, smooth, rolling, treelessness of the Downs as being core to its specialness, its distinctiveness...though we would readily recognise that openness as a special quality of moor and fell on Dartmoor, Exmoor and the Peaks.
The move to uniformity as nature fades away
As they decline we see our ecosystems shed their multitude of specialised and scarce species and move toward the dominance of a small number of opportunist and generalist species.
On Whitehawk Hill we see the Dartford Warbler, Stonechat and Linnet, the Warblers, the Skylark and Meadow Pipit replaced by Wood Pigeon, Blackbird, Robin and common tits.
We see this process of simplification and loss even on our bird tables.
This process has its corollary in our landscapes too. The difference and the diversity of the Weald and the Downs - which was as sharp as black and white 150 years ago - is fading under the influence of agribusiness farming and neglect of relict high value ecosystems.
We must reverse that process of loss
The Whole Estate Plan gives us a chance to plan the reversal of this process of simplification and banalisation of nature and landscape.
Our eastern, bare, open Downs with their rich mantle of "wise turf" were always at the core of the 80 years old project for a South Downs National Park. Those landscape qualities that drove that project to success must be at the centre of our Brighton Downland Estate management too...