VOLUNTEER community ‘shepherds’ are watching over a rare breed of sheep introduced to Stockbridge Down as part of a plan to boost biodiversity.

The Wiltshire horn sheep have returned to this important National Trust chalk grassland area after a two-year absence to help tackle encroaching scrub, and encourage wildlife and plant variety.

The downland, which is a Site of Special Scientific interest, is also grazed by cattle belonging to a local Commoner.

Assisting National Trust outdoor ranger Catherine Hadler with the management of the stock is a group of volunteer ‘shepherds’ who check flock numbers and animal health daily, as well as gates and water troughs.

“We wanted to get the local community involved in this project as much as possible, as it’s going to benefit everyone in the long term,” said Catherine.

“Stockbridge Down is Common land, and it’s fantastic that we’re able to keep old traditions alive by having Commoners’ cattle here, but no one had sheep to graze so we made the decision to buy our own, and that’s where the community ‘shepherds’ came in!

“I advertised for volunteer shepherds locally and through our existing volunteer base. I was amazed at the response from people within days of the adverts going out and we now have a volunteer for each day of the week plus additional volunteers.”

Sue Stileman is a Saturday ‘shepherd’.

She said: “Checking the sheep is one of my favourite weekly activities.

“It is a genuine pleasure to be involved in safeguarding this beautiful stretch of ancient chalk downland.”

Stockbridge Down needs careful management to preserve and enhance the wildlife biodiversity.

The chalk grassland site has large areas of mixed scrub habitat of equal importance to migrating birds and other wildlife as the grassland itself.

The grasses benefit from sheep grazing by taking out the dominant grass species which often take over, and allowing a wider variety of grass and wild flower species to grow.