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.

The barley field

The back garden runs round a small section of a large field of barley. The crop this year looks in perfect condition after the wet spring and hot dry summer. The cow parsley has come and gone and now hemlock, poppies and common mallow with tussocks of false oat-grass provide a backdrop to the vegetable beds edged with clumps of pink-flowering hemp nettle and stinging nettle.

On a stormy evening, the sunlight catches the colours; the poppies flower for just a few days then the petals drop and the highlights disappear.

Bees, wasps, ladybirds and butterflies work the plants. Two small tortoiseshells rest on the worn paths and railway sleepers and are always sparring.

House sparrows fly over the yellowing crop to perch then drop in and feed on the endless supply of fat seeds. A swallow is often low over the field; pairs of dunnock, whitethroat and lesser whitethroat sing from the hedgerow and a corn bunting jangles just up the hill. A sparrowhawk hunts the starling flock over the road, coming in low out of the sun. The local pair of magpies have neither found the goldfinch nest in the corkscrew willow nor the robins deep in the ivy on the bird cherry.

Old friends…

On a warm day with strong sunshine and few periods of persistent cloud, we took the sunken footpath up from Shoreham station. The ancient byway was flanked by veteran beech trees with smooth, silver grey trunks above exposed roots that twisted out of the ground. On White Hill, the fragrant, man, pryamidal and common spotted orchids were in full flow amongst the ox-eye daisies, quaking grass and fading yellow rattle. The three worts: yellow-wort, milkwort and squinancywort were out or coming out. The last the most understated; mean bunches of tiny, white crosses. But it was the butterflies that drew most attention; within a few moments, a dark green fritillary, probably a male, hurtled by with characteristic, careering flight, then returned as rapidly as it had departed, settled to sunbathe and then away again. The whitebeam and guelder rose was spent but the privet was in flower with a heady scent and attracted, three, or was it four, small tortoiseshells and a comma. The abstract patterns of the undersides of marbled whites were glued to the handful of greater knapweed flowers.

On the down at Fackenden, small numbers of female small blues were found at the bottom of the slope. We tried to turn a large skipper into an Essex skipper until our blind attention to the dark-ended antennae was undone by a passer-by pointing out the neatly patterned wing; after that we reckoned we could only find small skippers but never felt totally convinced. There were ringlets, meadow browns and speckled woods, a couple of vivid common blues, small heath of course and a flash of a small copper, but no green hairstreak on the edge of the scrub. A hairstreak of sorts, we surmised, was bounding around back at White Hill but high in the trees and did not stop.

Perhaps best of all, one of us identified a burnet companion moth as a burnet companion moth. The lepidopterans were, throughout, close to the top of their game.

One evening a couple of days later, the clouds are a stormy grey and the light bright. The dark green fritillaries are on the privet including one with incompletely expanded wings; it still flies pretty well. The downland explodes with grasshoppers and day flying moths as well as the butterflies. The thin sliver of downland lit by oxe-eye daisies has a Mediterranean feel as the summer drought has left the ground parched and the grass sward diminished.

Conserving Crookhorn Wood

To the west of the Medway gap in Kent, an untidy patchwork of woodlands between Cuxton and Trottiscliffe covers the steep, downland slopes and plateaus; much is designated as one large Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and select parts as one half of the North Downs Woodlands Special Area of Conservation (SAC). The latter recognises that the habitats are important enough to be part of a network of protected sites across Europe; the SAC therefore includes the best sections of ancient woodland and orchid-rich chalk grassland either side of the Medway Valley.

Crookhorn Wood, located between Halling and Holly Hill, is part of both the SSSI and the SAC and has long been recognised for its ancient beech and yew woodlands and associated flora, being listed in the Nature Conservation Review (1977), as a Grade 1 site. This stated that “The safeguarding of all grade 1 sites is considered essential if there is to be an adequate basis for nature conservation in Britain“. The huge old beeches and ashes, peppered with dark green yews on the north face of a dry valley in the North Downs remain a fine site from the narrow lane leading to Holly Hill.

North facing woodlands, such as Crookhorn Wood, are cold as the sun struggles to warm the ground for much of the year but their unfavourable aspect preserved them from the worst of the great storm that roared up from the south in 1987 and devastated woodlands and hedgerow trees across Kent. Crookhorn Wood has some magnificent beech trees under which there is a carpet of dog’s mercury and bramble but also patches of leaf litter where the light levels are lowest. Here, there is a scattering of elegant, white helleborines that are easily overlooked on the forest floor.

Small patches of chalk grassland are present with common spotted orchids, twayblade as well as fairy flax. These are heavily invaded with bramble in places. Access here is strictly limited to the footpaths with many signs stating that the rest of the woodland is private.

The bottom edge of the woodland is managed as part of a large pheasant shoot with a release pen and neatly mown grassland along each side of the main gravel track. The effects of releasing large numbers of these non-native omnivorous birds on the flora and fauna of Crookhorn Wood has probably never been assessed but should be; how many rare beetles are eaten or plants pulled up by the birds, or mown down or cleared under inappropriate management? Fortunately, nature conservation legislation provides strict protection for all Special Areas of Conservation; so, for example, if an effect of an annual project such as game-rearing is considered likely to be significant in an adverse way and that after an ‘appropriate assessment’ that this proved to be so, then mitigation is required. If there are no effective measures to be found, then the law would demand that alternative locations should be used for the shoot; the outcome of the so-called Habitats Regulations Assessment (HRA) process seems both reasonable and easily achievable by shifting operations to unprotected woodlands. After broader arguments, but along the same lines, were presented by Wild Justice, the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced last year that a review of game-rearing on protected site is to be conducted. The North Downs Woodlands SAC and especially Crookhorn Wood would be a good place to start.