Cattle have returned after 30 years to 120 acres of downland on the southern fringe of London to encourage the growth of rare plants.

The Corporation of London has bought a herd of 17 Sussex cows and heifers to graze on Farthing Downs, a Site of Special Scientific Interest at Coulsdon, near Croydon.

Farthing Downs and the surrounding countryside has the best national presence of greater yellow rattle, which used to be widespread on southern chalkland. The area is also classified as an ancient monument as it contains significant archaeological sites, including the remains of Celtic and Anglo-Saxon settlements dating back 2,000 years.

Since the 1940s its character has altered through the lack of an overall management policy and introduction of mechanised grass cutting. Scrubland encroached onto open areas, the diversity of plant species diminished, and heavy machinery damaged historic features.

In 1991 negotiations began between the Corporation, Countryside Commission, English Nature, English Heritage and Croydon council on how to conserve Farthing Downs while improving public access. A stewardship scheme was agreed, central to which was reintroducing cattle.

Sussex cows and heifers were chosen because of their docility and the herd is free to roam across the downs. Cattle grids and fences have been installed to prevent them straying, with archaeological surveys conducted around each fence post to ensure all historical data was recorded.

Sheep have been moved onto selected fenced areas where more intensive grazing is required, while bridleways, nature trails and car parking have also been improved.

Heather Ray, of the Countryside Commission, said the uneven and gradual grazing of the grassland would allow the greater yellow rattle and rare downland plants, including orchids, to thrive, while creating a better habitat for butterflies and other insects. 'Alot of this area used to be open space with no real management. The archaeological fixtures and wildlife were being lost for want of any overview of what was needed.

'We undertook a lot of consultation with local people about what we were doing. This area is very popular and some local residents became concerned when they heard fences were going to be installed. Once we explained why it had to be done, and that it would lead to better public access, they were very supportive.

Farthing Downs was common land until 1883 when it was bought by the Corporation of London following local concern that the Lord of the Manor of Coulsdon, Edmund Byron, was removing turf and gravel and infringing commoners' rights.

The Corporation is required by law to hold the land as managed open space 'for ever for public recreation, 'preserve its natural aspect and protect the vegetation. Large-scale grazing took place until 50 years ago but one farmer kept his cattle on the downland until the 1960s. Although still a locally popular area of open space, Farthing Downs attracted visitors from central London when most families lacked a car because of its closeness to Coulsdon South railway station.

(Photograph omitted)