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Geology & Archaeology

Timeline | Chalk Grassland | Coastal Erosion

Timeline

10,000 BC - The dry valleys, ridges and escarpments of the Eastbourne Downland were formed by glacial action during the Ice Age. The chalk of the cliffs, however, was formed over a period of 30 million years when a warm sub tropical sea covered the area, between 95-65 million years ago. The shells of billions of microscopic planktonic algae formed a deposit which eventually hardened into layers of white rock a thousand feet thick. This has since been uplifted due to continental movement and subsequent erosion has created the Downs seen today.

8,000 BC - End of Ice Age as temperatures increase. Sea levels rise and flood a valley to form the English Channel, enabling the sea to flood through to the South Downs. Marine erosion of cliffs begins. Mesolithic hunter gatherers explore the region.

4,000 BC - Neolithic Man attracted to the well-drained chalklands of the Eastbourne Downs which offer fertile grounds for crops. The area is gradually cleared of wild wood for grazing & crops. Flint tools from this period have been found in the area and there is a Neolithic causeway camp on Combe Hill upon the Northern Escarpment.

2,000-1,500 BC - Bronze Age peoples clear woodland to create space for settled agriculture - evidence of hut sites and domestic pottery found near Belle Tout. Numerous burial mounds, 'round barrows', are located upon the escarpment ridges.

600 BC - New, Iron Age settlements indicated by numerous field banks in area, particularly at Bullock Down and near Jevington.

50 BC - Romans take control of south east England. Increasingly efficient farming - remains of Roman farm found on Frost Hill.

400 AD - Romans leave Britain. Eastbourne Downland used for grazing.

1250 AD - Medieval farms and settlements established.

20th Century - Farm mechanisation and decline of traditional farming methods. Increased demand for food leads to loss of chalk grassland to intensive farming with the use of artificial fertilisers. The loss of traditional landscapes and habitats leads to the rise of the conservation movement in the late 20th Century and the protection of the Eastbourne Downland.

Chalk Grassland

The chalk grassland cover of the Eastbourne Downland provides one of Britain's richest wildlife habitats with up to 40 plant species growing in one square metre of turf. The thin, poor quality soil encourages slow growing plants and the long history of sheep grazing, which continues today, has led to the development of the springy turf.

The downland supports a wide variety of plants which can only survive in chalky soils and also the butterflies and other insects that these plants attract.

The Eastbourne Downland is conserved following the decline of chalk grassland during the middle of the 20th century due to increased food production and the use of pesticides and other chemicals in arable farming. A decline in grazing animals - sheep due to a decline in sheep farming, and rabbits due to myxomatosis - meant that much of the chalk grassland was taken over by coarse grasses, scrub and pioneer woodland. After the Second World War large areas of chalk grassland were ploughed up for arable farming and in all 25% of the chalk grassland of the South Downs was lost between 1966 and 1980.

Eastbourne Borough Council today employs shepherds to tend the Council's flock of sheep which graze the Open Downland in the traditional manner in order to preserve and enhance it. Much of the tenant farmland is also now under grass, with the farmers supported by grant aid from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food (the ESA Scheme).

Coastal Erosion

One of the most stunning aspects of the Eastbourne Downland is the Heritage Coastline of pure white chalk cliffs. The erosion of these cliffs by the sea is often thought of as a destructive process but it is this erosion which creates and maintains the cliffs' magnificent whiteness through constantly eroding the old cliff face and revealing the clean white chalk underneath.

The white cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters have been eroding for at least 10,000 years, ever since the end of the last Ice Age. The base of the cliff is attacked with tremendous force at high tide as the waves break against the chalk. Shingle is also thrown at the cliff and pockets of air are trapped in the crevices and alternately compressed and decompressed.

These forces combine to erode a notch in the base of the cliff which eventually cannot support the upper parts of the cliff. The cliff is also weakened from the top during the winter as rain water in the soil freezes and expands, pushing the rock apart, and then thaws and runs through the crevices. A section of cliff then tumbles to the beach, creating a temporary defence against the waves until it is broken up and washed away.

One of the key conditions of the management of the Heritage Coast is that it is left undeveloped in order to preserve the landscape value. This means that no sea defences will be built to slow the natural process of erosion, not even to save existing buildings. Belle tout Lighthouse was moved back from the cliff edge on March 24 1999 in order to save it from an imminent collapse into the sea.

The Heritage Coast recede an estimated average of about -1 metre a year. Occasionally there will be a larger than average cliff fall, such as that on January 10 1999 when up to 6 metres of cliff edge tumbled away, to a depth of 17 metres over a 70 metre long stretch. As global warming continues and sea levels rise the rate of erosion is expected to increase and falls of this size will become increasingly common.

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