Hatfield Forest’s fritillaries

The little, flint church at Bush End was built in the 1850s; a medieval pastiche that has aged well under magnificent trees full of noisy jackdaws. The church was constructed at the edge of the perfectly preserved Royal Hunting Forest established nearly a thousand years ago. Hatfield Forest is part ancient wood pasture and part woodland enclosures accessed by long rides. The small lake, an 18th century embellishment by Capability Brown, is now the focal point for the many visitors.

The landscape is flat, providing uninterrupted perspectives of unimproved grasslands peppered with great oaks and hornbeams and grazed by a herd of red poll cattle. Beyond, there is the continuous, dark backdrop of tall woodland. The verdant landscape is a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous, golden fields of wheat and barley that carpet much of North Essex. The only intrusions on the Medieval scene are the passenger jets taking off every few minutes from nearby Stansted Airport; these rise above the trees in a blast of noise, circle slowly round the Forest before heading south towards their holiday destinations.

Hatfield Forest’s wide rides and damp ditches are rich in flowers; banks of bramble and thistle spill from the woodland edge, with hemp agrimony, willowherbs and meadowseet in the ditches. The unimproved grasslands appear calcareous and flecked with dwarf thistle, lady’s bedstraw, agrimony and lesser stitchwort. The woodlands are managed as coppice, some fenced and some open and heavily grazed by deer.

At dawn, the birds are vocal and various. Green woodpeckers laugh and jackdaws joke. The latter are often in pairs and sit together in the trees like contented couples.

The butterflies are various but the undoubted star is the sliver-washed fritillary which is today a common sight on the bramble banks. These declined in the Twentieth century to a core area in the south of England but have steadily spread in recent decades and recolonised Hatfield Forest in 2006. The reasons for these fluctuations are not well understood. The male is a bright orange; a female is duller but not, I think, grey enough to be the valezina variation.

Corn buntings and the barley harvest

On the downs between Wilmington and Hextable, a small population of perhaps five or more pairs of corn buntings nest in the barley fields and feed in the boundaries and weedy fallow fields; strips of which are periodically turned into immaculately tilled and planted rows of spring onions and garlic.

Males sit on the barley ears and sing their insistent ‘jangling of keys’. Working out territories and pairs is difficult and confounded by the fact that polygyny is quite common; the reasons for this mating system are not entirely clear. The nest is a deep cup of weaved grasses suspended at the bottom of the crop. Linnets pass by in pairs giving their lilting calls and skylarks rise in loose flocks from the fallows where they hide in plain sight. On a sunny evening with a warm breeze, the pastoral scene is peaceful but also tinged with foreboding; the barley ears dropped a week or so ago and the harvest is therefore imminent.

The combining starts the next day; two huge harvesters supported by tractors and trailers cut hundreds of acres in a few hours. The nests of the buntings are shredded and the last brood nests of the skylarks exposed; the opportunist crows, gulls and buzzards work the fields and the easy pickings. The adults sit on the last of the crop with a noisy band of house sparrows and then adjourn to the tops of adjacent hedges. The dust cloud blows from the north west and coats everything in a sad confetti.

The declines in many farmland bird populations since arable agriculture intensified from the 1960s onward is well documented; the loss of broods of species that nest in the fields during the July harvest is one obvious cause. Linnets and yellowhammers are luckier as they nest within or beneath the hedges and so miss the cut; even so their numbers have also declined so the changes in food supply and probably the loss of winter stubbles are also a likely factor. Conservation solutions have been found in Scotland, where delays in the cutting of grasslands has permitted the survival of corn bunting broods and halted declines. Such measures won’t help the remnant populations in autumn-sown cereal crops such as this one on the edge of Kent.

In 1986, a Montagu’s harrier nest in a similarly large field on the downs above Blewbury in Oxfordshire was spared from similar destruction by pegging out and retaining a small square of the cereal crop. Corn buntings are not nearly as rare as harriers although heading that way. Soon, perhaps, they will be considered worthy of the same effort. Corn buntings nest through to August, so it will be interesting to see if breeding gets underway again, presumably with nests in the strips of tall grasslands within the field boundaries as this is the only breeding habitat remaining now.

The carnival of the insects

The weather has been grey-clouded with storms threatening but not fulfilling their promise, providing a steel backdrop to the downland.

Fackenden Down is bone dry after a long dry summer and the flowers are going over fast; the butterflies are are no longer thick on the ground, just a single marbled white and a handful of common blues, browns and skippers. Greater knapweed is past its best; it appears to thrive around the grey ash of a winter bonfire. White bryony is now in full flow and trails over the tops of hedges.

A great variety of moths are kicked up from the sward; most just dodge away like purse snatchers and quickly vanish back into the sward. The longhorn moths are green-eyed and dressed in burnished gold; they have a delicate bouncing flight as though attached to strings and only visible as the sun catches the wings and outrageously long antennae. Plume moths also appear to have stepped off the carnival stage with their pencil thin wings and abdomen, poised on short spiny legs. Bumblebees flecked with pollen bumble about and provide the comedy turn. Butterflies, the pretty little things, do nothing but pose and are of course always the winners.

Somewhere on the Downs above Postling

The downs are driven by a fierce westerly. The dry valleys built of soft Cretaceous chalk are a kaleidoscope of greens and yellows as the sun catches the grasslands and trees. Water is whipped from the eyes; ears deafened by the roar.

From the crest of the escarpment there is a dim view of Dungeness sunk by the immutable mark of the power station. Somewhere among the clouds above a Spitfire flies into the sunshine. All our yesterdays and todays blowing in the blinding summer wind.

Knepp Estate’s Emperors and Empresses

A bridleway from the village of Shipley runs past a white wooden windmill that in the grey light of a grey dawn appears forbidding. The well worn path runs down over a slow-moving stream that is the River Adur, on between great old oak and ash trees to emerge on Countryman Lane; a quick dog leg and on to a green lane that runs on south for a mile or so to Hooklands Lane. This we had been advised was a good place for purple emperors; the waymarked trail marked with purple ribbons suggested we were in the right place.

Under clearing skies and a brisk westerly, we work the sunny and sheltered side of the many oaks for purple hairstreaks in the hope that in the process we might also bump into an emperor. Our first attempts in the early morning met with limited success as the hairstreaks stayed high in the trees with just occasional brief and rapid flights. The emperors are according to the experts much diminished in numbers this year following periods of high winds, which have literally knocked them from their perches high in the oaks.

The green lane is soon busy with walkers and cyclists so we worked the east side of some tall oaks within a field of rampant bramble and patches of acid grassland. Here, we find what we think is female purple emperor spiralling round the trunk of a dying oak in a beautiful gliding flight until she settles on the underside of a limb and proceeds to siphon the sap. A hornet arrives and chases her off after a minute of belligerent altercation.

The empress returns to the trunk from a perch on the end of the oak and settles on the main trunk, and then again but lower down. After a time, she leaves and settles nearby on a sallow; joined briefly by a resting purple hairstreak.

The empress then flies high into the great oaks and while searching for it we come across a tree buzzing with hairstreaks with many on the lowest branches. None ever fully open their wings, perhaps because they are jostled and bounced by the wind.

We walk back along paths adjacent to the green lane, where we meet another equally impressive ‘Empress’ sheltering in the shade of an oak; in the field there is another fine Tamworth sow grazing quietly with her well grown piglets.

The scrub is full of other common butterflies including an occasional holly blue and the first gatekeepers. Linnets are breeding in the bramble as well as bullfinches and yellowhammers. The wood pasture looks to be the perfect habitat for honey buzzards but there is only a common buzzard in the air. The sound of jays and green woodpeckers from the woodland are briefly accompanied by a ‘purring’ turtle dove.

Blooming Dungeness

On the bare shingle ridge, fishing boats are hauled up well above the highest tides. The stark shapes puncture the smooth lines of the foreland.

Inland and the first vegetation is sea kale, yellow horned-poppy and prostrate broom. Further inland and the vegetation is more established in increasingly large patches and swathes; there is a colourful display of viper’s bugloss, white stonecrop and bird’s foot trefoil with carpets of grey-green lichens amongst the wood sage. Escaped red valerian and sweet peas add deep reds to the palette. In late June, under a strong sun and warm, blustery west wind this is an extraordinarily beautiful place.

Behind the bare coast, there is an unruly, rusting sprawl of all the gear required to get the fishing boats in and out of the sea including boxes and containers, winches, and bulldozers. Crudely planked haulways slowly sink into the stones; it all fits seamlessly into the spare landscape beneath the uncompromising shadow of the nuclear power station.

Next to the narrow road, picture perfect Prospect Cottage with its original, shingle garden is just the same as it was five years ago and after the recent and successful fundraising effort to save it, more popular than ever.

The recent additions of architect-designed cottages are like digitally remastered versions of the originals and, like everything else, here slot happily into the great, shingle motherboard.

On the landward side of the road, the vegetation thickens with increasing amounts of gorse and dwarf blackthorn. Here, parasitic dodder appears to suffocate the vegetation in small, iron red mats; the tendrils attaching to the the broom, gorse, wood sage and campion.

Admirals and damsels

Dene Park to the north of Tonbridge is a good place to find woodland butterflies; in late June the purple emperors and hairstreaks should be flying but always seem difficult to find. On a cloudless evening and then again on a sunny morning, there is just a glimpse of a hairstreak in an oak with none coming down on the bracken, and not a sign of an emperor. But the white admirals are both common and obliging; gliding through the rides, nectaring on the bramble, egg laying on honeysuckle leaves and landing on the ground to take salts. The pattern was the same two years ago.

There are, as well, the same supporting cast; red admirals, commas and bounding silver-washed fritillaries. A white-legged damselfly was new; it was unobtrusive yet spectacular. Maybe early July will be better than late June…

Ashdown Forest in late June

First light exposes the tall pines on the ridge; dawn is warm with no mist in the valleys that run down off the high heathland plateau or dew drenching the purple moor grass, heather and bracken. Midsummer arrives to the sound of churring nightjars and fluting song thrushes. A cock pheasant is caught in the open so crouches, half-hidden, convinced of his security. An old fox emerges from a meadow and is harried by a pair of anxious crows. Fallow deer browse silently and stonechats chat noisily. The pastel colours of the cloudless dawn are beautiful in their brief ascendance before the sun steals the day.

Dartford warblers churr from the deep heather and are busy with broods; there is no song or display, just the to and fro of foraging and feeding. These plucky little birds are resident on the forest. In our warming world, the species is expanding north and west from its former stronghold on the southern heaths; this is a marked reversal of fortune after the hard winter of 1962/3 nearly wiped them from the map of England. The expectation this century is that the small world population will continue its decline across Spain and increase in Great Britain. One day soon, birds will be churring on the Scottish moors.

Other birds are following a similar rhythm including a diversity of finches: siskins, redpolls, goldfinches and linnets. A woodlark sings briefly, a yellowhammer calls incessantly and a male redstart keeps up a warning hweet.

Silver-studded blues are in good numbers on the wide track beneath Smugglers car park, mainly males flying erratically, low over the heath seeking out a female, only stopping to nectar briefly. The females are fewer in number, perhaps only because their behaviour is less obvious, sitting quietly and egg-laying on the bell heather. One mating pair proves the constant effort by the dashing males is worth the while.

At Old Lodge nature reserve, the mires have a small number of bright yellow, bog asphodels amongst the abundant cotton-grass. Dragonflies and damselflies are on the wing and rest on the vegetation hanging over the ponds.

Hit and miss hairstreaks

The footpath into Hadleigh Country Park at the end of St Mary’s Road descends steeply into scrubby woodland. The path meets a wide grass ride that runs east through an avenue of elms. On a hot day in the late afternoon, the white-letter hairstreaks descend to nectar on the abundant bramble that remains in the sun. At this particular time, these local and easily overlooked butterflies are as common as the skippers and meadow browns; normally they are absent but aloft feeding on honeydew, only visible as small dashing silhouettes high in the canopy of the elms.

A few days later, we search for black hairstreaks along the various sections of blackthorn scrub at Ditchling Common knowing that their three week flight period is almost certainly over given that the season has been so advanced. Meadow browns are plentiful again; the butterfly equivalent of woodpigeons always catch the eye but lead nowhere. There are tantalising glimpses of distant purple hairstreaks and white admirals on some of the many fine English oaks. A pair of bullfinches briefly brightens the day, buzzards circle high overhead and silver-washed fritillaries dash through the rides. The unremitting sun turns a warm morning into an uncomfortably hot day. Next year will be different.

The large meadow on the western side of the common has abundant sweet vernal grass Anthoxanthum odoratum and spattered by the bright yellow of dyer’s greenweed Genista tinctoria; an indicator of an unimproved meadow and traditionally used as a fast, lemon yellow dye. Betony Stachys officinalis is also present amongst the swathe of bracken in the meadow above the pond. The common is a common probably because of the poor quality of the acid soils.