On Tuesday 13th May the volunteers were at Cuddington Meadows to remove some of the overgrown ground elder (Aegopodium podagraria). Cuddington Meadows is still one of the best chalk grassland sites in Sutton and contains key chalk grassland species, as well as the largest population of Small Blue butterfly (Cupido minimus) in the borough.
Cuddington Meadows is also one of the few chalk grassland sites in the borough to be grazed by sheep. The sheep, provided by the Old Surrey Downs Project, graze the site to help control the growth of scrub and coarser grasses. Their grazing results in smaller patches of scattered scrub, surrounded by grasses of different lengths – ideal conditions for a variety of chalk-loving plants and animals. The sheep found at Cuddington are a mix of hardy breeds, which are able to cope really well on conservation sites.
Grazing is a more natural means of managing the land, and ensures that shrubs and trees don’t start growing and changing the grassland into woodland (in a process known as succession). Sheep graze close to the ground, nibbling any scrub and saplings that should shoot up. The sheep will also graze on the more dominant plants, which stops scarser plants from being outcompeted, and increases plant species diversity. Sheep are fairly selective grazers though, and will nibble flower heads if they can! To ensure that the sheep at Cuddington don’t munch away at our rare chalk grassland wildflowers, such as Kidney Vetch (Anthyllis vulneraria), the sheep are only left to graze during the winter months.
The other benefits of grazing are that insects can move away and structures such as anthills remain unharmed, compared to mowing. As sheep graze very close to the ground and are selective feeders they keep the grass height really varied and uneven. Where the grass is cut short and where bare patches become exposed by trampling, it creates warmer patches within the grassland. These warmer patches attract a variety of insects that like to bask in the warm sunlight. In an effort to create more of these warmer patches, bare chalk scrapes were recently put in at Cuddington Meadows. These scrapes have sparser plant growth and are a great place for butterflies and moths to breed, feed and bask.
The sheep will be returning to the site towards the end of the year, but we can still see the benefits of grazing in the run up to summer. A variety of different grass heights, bare chalk patches and choosy grazing has left Cuddington with a lovely rich and diverse array of chalk grassland plants and wildlife. And volunteers were even lucky enough to spot a Small Blue at Cuddington after the downpour on Tuesday!
SNCV Biodiversity Assistant