100 join campaign against Fire Beacon fence bid

MORE than 100 people have joined a campaign against controversial plans to erect a ‘fence in’ a Sidmouth beauty spot to allow cattle to graze there.

MORE than 100 people have joined a campaign against controversial plans to ‘fence in’ a Sidmouth beauty spot so cattle can graze there.

Farmer Stewart Williams is leading a fight to “save” Fire Beacon Hill Nature Reserve from what he claims will be “irrevocable damage.”

A Facebook group set up to oppose plans had attracted 110 members this week.

The RSPB, which manages the site on behalf of Sidmouth Town Council, last year introduced Galloway Heifers in a bid to halt encroaching birch and bracken.

Experts want to erect a 2,200 metre post-and-wire, gated perimeter fence to stop the animals straying.

Town councillors last month backed the move, saying it will protect the popular spot as a valued nature reserve.

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The Planning Inspectorate will decide the fate of the mooted fence.

“Fire Beacon’s prominence as a local landmark and haven for wildlife could be lost forever,” said Mr Williams, 62, who has lived and farmed on land under the reserve for 35 years.

He said: “Introducing grazing in order to control vegetation could be a step too far, which could not only jeopardize the habitat of the rare species of fauna and flora found on the nature reserve , but also see the degradation of the heath land summit to a bland open grassland.”

Mr Williams said the RSPB and council’s aim was “most laudable” but he is uncertain of the method.

He said studies of similar heathland sites in East Devon, where livestock graze, show plants such as heather “depleted”- giving rise to landscapes “dominated” by wild grasses.

“The very habitat that was intended to be protected is lost…” added Mr Williams.

“Urgent action is required now to prevent the inadvertent loss of this valuable wild asset.”

Mr Williams has also pointed to Fire Beacon byelaws introduced in 1993, which prohibit grazing cattle and the erection of fences.

He has submitted a report to town and district councils and the Planning Inspectorate detailing his findings.

Mr Williams has appealed to residents to have a say on the ‘Stop the fencing in of Fire Beacon Common Sidmouth’ Facebook group.

He has also urged people to register their views with Sidmouth Town Council.

RSPB warden Toby Taylor, who manages the reserve and has worked there for nearly 20 years, has long said cattle are key to chomping invasive vegetation that threatens to overwhelm the site.

A public consultation last year saw 31 respondents, 49 per cent, support fence proposals while 24 people, 38 per cent, objected to them.