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Restore the Downs! A vision for the ecological restoration of the chalk landscape from Eastbourne to Brighton and beyond.

The South Downs are a truly amazing place, stretching from Hampshire to East Sussex they are home to a huge number of species and many vitally important habitats but like so many places, this landscape is under threat. In a new blog, public policy consultant and writer Julie Bygraves shares her views on why an ecologically restored South Downs is vitally important.

March 2024

Along the English Channel, land and sea interact along the landscape of the south coast. An ecosystem restoration strategy for chalk grassland restoration, across the South Downs from Brighton, along the coast to Seaford and Eastbourne would contribute to rich onshore habitats and offshore water quality.

The Marine Conservation Zone would enjoy enhanced protection by increasing water quality via filtration through healthy chalk aquifers. Back on land, chalk grassland restoration creates a botanically-rich habitat that supports abundant invertebrates, particularly the insects providing crucial forage to starlings and a host of wild birdlife, as well as mammals, reptiles and amphibians. With pesticide control, an increased starling population could protect the return of awe-inspiring murmurations. Low key festivals could celebrate this winter-based natural heritage. Restoration of chalk grassland and grazing marsh could allow low intensity, high-welfare cattle and sheep grazing and organic dairy, cheese, wool and lanolin production, and contribute to the conservation of rare breeds of sheep, cattle and ponies.

A vision for nature could also encompass public amenity via public footpath enhancements: way markers and interpretation boards along cycle and rambling tracks, seagrass, reef and kelp bed restoration to create close offshore wildlife habitats, opportunities to protect and observe marine mammals, further efforts to tackle sewage releases to bring back greater incidence of bioluminescence, and dark skies for star gazing.

All this is an idyllic vision, and with the recent Government announcement of a super National Nature Reserve, the Seaford to Eastbourne Nature Recovery Project, large-scale vision is clear at the centre of Government. It’s not only desirable, but essential to support nature recovery, healthy ecosystems with clean air, soil and free of light pollution.

However, the opportunity will require policy levers, funding incentives, and political will to make it a reality:

  • Local Nature Recovery Strategies (LNRSs), which will identify and map important local wildlife sites, need to be swiftly implemented, covering a comprehensive range of important habitats and species. They must help protect key local habitats by being taken account of in local development plans and also help recover areas with nature potential by directing public (such as higher-tier Environmental Land Management schemes) and private finance.
  • Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes will pay farmers and land managers for undertaking environmentally beneficial activities on their land. There should be stronger links between ELM and LNRSs so that funding through higher-tier ELM schemes is directed towards the most important local nature sites.
  • Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG), a new policy which will see developments be required to deliver a 10% biodiversity uplift from before to after development, will provide a new funding stream to enhance and restore habitats. While the funding created is not likely to deliver landscape-scale restoration, it is one important tool for nature’s recovery. Local authorities should be supported in going beyond the 10% minimum uplift to deliver more for nature and supported with further resources to ensure robust scrutiny, monitoring, and enforcement of delivery of gains.

Some questions will remain

Could sites await ecological restoration, until they may, or may not benefit from future policy or funding streams? If important habitats do not fall within the priority areas identified by the Local Nature Recovery Strategies, will ecological restoration and conservation management be prioritised?

With nature in decline across the country, national policies and funding will be essential to support local action on the ground, to recover nature by 2030.


Species-rich chalk grassland on the South Downs contribute to ecologically rich habitats in all four geographic directions:

  1. species-rich chalk grasslands across the South Downs, encompassing the publicly owned estates in Brighton (13,000 acres, 20 times the size of the Square Mile of the City of London) and Eastbourne (4,000 acres, 6.25 times the size of the City of London);
  2. chalk streams and terrestrial grazing marsh habitats, with the Cuckmere and Ouse River floodplains, the Eastbourne Levels, even bisected in some places by a chalk-fed watershed. The Eastbourne Levels feed provide habitat connectivity for a rich migratory birdlife to the Pevensey Levels, an internationally recognised RAMSAR wetland site, also National Nature Reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest;
  3. a rich offshore ecology with the Beachy Head Marine Conservation Zone;
  4. the inland Weald, a farmed landscape, including woodlands and hedgerows.

The Living Coast, a UNESCO biosphere project where nature and people come together across the Downs, towns and coast of Brighton and Lewes, starts to emphasise the iconic natural potential of the region, and could now be extended to encompass globally important, but threatened habitats in and around Eastbourne and Pevensey.

    Julie Bygraves is a policy consultant and writer, with eighteen years’ experience in central government, translating complex information and ideas into briefings for Ministers and senior officials, and simple communication tools for the general public. Julie has an ecology training through her degree, and a Masters in Ecological Management from Imperial College London.

    You can follow her at @JulieBygraves on X and @wildbourne_ebn on Instagram. 

    The opinions expressed in this blog are the authors' and not necessarily those of the wider Link membership.