Natural England - Wye: history

Wye: history

Fossilised sharks teeth have been found here on Wye Downs. They are a reminder that this area of Kent was covered with sea water 85 million years ago when the chalk of the North Downs was formed from the compressed remains of billions of small sea creatures from this time.

The coombes in the area, such as the Devil’s Kneading Trough, were created towards the end of the last ice age, between 9000 – 8000 BC. During this period of intense freezing and thawing of the chalk surface, torrents of water from melted snow and ice flowed down the slopes, carving out the chalk and forming the coombes. You can find a 3D tactile sculpture of the Devil’s Kneading Trough near the coach park.

The site has been used since prehistoric times and there is evidence that the land was cultivated during the mid-Neolithic period (around 3000 BC). The intriguing ridges on Broad Downs are known as terracettes and are thought to have been formed by sheep walking along the hillsides as they grazed. Wye Downs are mentioned in the Domesday Book (1086 AD); during this time it would have been used for grazing sheep.

Wye NNR was used for military training during the First and Second World Wars. Evidence of rifle and artillery practice has been found on Broad Downs, and there is evidence of a shooting range in the bottom of the Kneading Trough.

The site because a nature reserve in 1961 when a local nature enthusiast realised the importance of the site for the species it supported and wanted to ensure that it was protected.

What are we doing to manage the NNR?

Managing the chalk grassland is vital for the continuing protection of the rare flora and fauna species found on the Reserve.

The steep gradient of Wye NNR means that mechanical cultivation is very difficult, so historically the area was grazed by sheep and cattle. As a result, the meadows on the Reserve have been unimproved (not cultivated) since Tudor times. As many wildflower species grow very well in a low-nutrient environment, this is what has led to the rich collection of different species and outstanding variety of wildlife.

The many different wildflowers, moths and butterflies at Wye NNR need varying heights of grass to thrive, so careful management is required to maintain a mix of grassland. This is achieved by controlling both the length of time and time of year that sections of the Reserve are grazed, and by moving the animals on a rotational basis. Furthermore, different grazing animals produce different results. For example, cattle produce an uneven sward of long and short grass, while sheep produce a very short, even sward. Goats are browsing animals, which help to keep the scrub in check.

The scrub on the Reserve is rich in plant species such as hawthorn, wayfaring tree, wild privet and traveller’s joy, and is important for all sorts of wildlife, including the nightingale, but it does spread rapidly, and can easily encroach on the chalk grassland that is so important at Wye NNR. By removing encroaching scrub we ensure that the grassland is not overwhelmed and that orchid and invertebrate habitats remain in good condition. Scrub clearance is an ongoing activity which maintains the downland’s condition, but can be tricky as a lot of the scrub is on the steep slopes which means it needs to be cleared by hand.

The hazel woodland is managed by traditional coppicing methods. Coppicing is when a tree is cut down to just above ground level, which encourages new growth of multiple shoots. After a few years, the wooden shoots (called rods) can be harvested. Hazel coppice rods can be used to make wattle hurdles for fencing, tools, domestic utensils, and many other purposes. Coppicing promotes biological diversity because more light can reach the woodland floor, encouraging the growth of wildflowers. Also, because coppicing can be managed to produce wood of different ages, it can provide a variety of habitats and resources for wildlife.

As well as managing the grassland, scrub and woodland for the benefit of Wye NNR’s rare wildlife, we work to manage to Reserve for visitor’s benefit. In recent years, we have improved the steps up the steep coombe, installed new information boards and sculptures, improved the nature trail, added an audio trail, and installed new benches and a walker’s shelter.

Our Volunteer Task Force are crucial in helping us manage the habitats and help improve access at Wye NNR. If you would like to get involved to help us manage this special Reserve, please see the Volunteer page.