Wednesday, 25 May 2016

The Legacy Of Betty Murray

After delivering a butterfly identification and recording workshop for the South Downs Volunteer Ranger Service (VRS), held at the National Park Authority's offices in Midhurst (20.5.16), a large group of us headed to Heyshott Escarpment, to put theory into practice. I was assisted by Jayne Chapman (BC Hants Reserves Officer) and BC/VRS stalwart Arthur Greenwood. 

As always, Heyshott risked giving an entirely false impression of the plight facing some of our rarer and more localised species. If one were to live entirely within the confines of the Murray Downland Trust's flagship reserve, it would be easy to think that all was well with the natural world. At one point I became genuinely concerned that people might tread on some of the Duke of Burgundies scattered liberally over the ground. It came as a relief to occasionally find a more common species on which the group could hone its identification skills, but for much of the time it was “Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Burgundy, Duke of Burgundy”.

Having recently made an accurate count of 135 Dukes here (almost exclusively males - 129), and knowing the numbers usually encountered within each pit, it soon became obvious to me that I was looking at a larger population than I've ever experienced before. After our group had departed I returned to make a more accurate assessment, but time only allowed a rapid one-hour count over about one-third of the productive area. 
Females were out in abundance today and I saw a total of five pairings without having to search very thoroughly. I also came across only my second ever example of the pale aberrant form leucodes (it looks rather like a very faded specimen but isn't!). It's been a very good season for aberrant Sussex Dukes, as I've had the pleasure of sharing two specimens of the rare ab. albomaculata (one including traits of the less remarkable ab. gracilens) with a few friends on another site.

Over some parts of the reserve which seldom support more than one or two Dukes, today there were many. At times the air was full of butterflies, with males chasing males, males chasing females, and males chasing Dingy Skippers and Green Hairstreaks. In several places I counted the number of individuals sitting within an imaginary one metre square, which reached eight in the most favoured hollow (5m, 3f), during a cool, dull spell. The last species I saw in comparable densities was the African Grass Blue in Furteventura. Even at 4.30 pm, males were descending on recently unfurled wings from the steep back-wall at the top of the reserve. 

So how many Dukes were flying over Heyshott Escarpment today? I generally prefer not to estimate or extrapolate, but it is important to record, even imprecisely, the unprecedented recovery of the Duke of Burgundy, on a site where it had come so perilously close to extinction. Today there were at least 200 Dukes on these remarkable slopes. 

Everyone who has played a part in the conservation work at this Murray Downland Trust reserve should feel very proud of what has been achieved here. I would like to think that the late Betty Murray ( is looking down on proceedings with an approving eye.

by Neil Hulme » Sun May 22, 2016 1:34 am (
article copied with author's permission. photos © Neil Hulme

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Dukes a plenty ...

Heyshott Escarpment, 14 May 2016

Duke of Burgundy (Hamearis lucina)

Despite the early forecast of variable and cloudy conditions we need not have worried as the coats were soon off as I led a party of 20 members of the Haslemere Natural History Society around the fabulous Heyshott Escarpment reserve earlier today, Saturday, 14th May. Located due east of the village of Cocking and just south of the village of Heyshott in West Sussex, this wonderful downland reserve is the jewel in the crown of the Murray Downland Trust; its riches being revealed in some plentitude today.

In descending order of abundance we recorded 9 species of butterfly including Duke of Burgundy, Green Hairstreak, Dingy Skipper, Grizzled Skipper, Red Admiral, Green-veined White and singletons of Peacock, Small Heath and Orange-tip. In addition and further to Neil Hulme’s walk on Sunday, 8th May when, referring to the Duke of Burgundy at Heyshott, he reported, “following several false starts, it appears that this species might now be colonising the western flank”, we too found a single female prospecting this area of the reserve. This is excellent news and long may this advance continue …

More at:

Thursday, 11 February 2016

Work parties forging ahead

Cuckoo Flower, Cardamine pratensis
Our Wednesday morning work parties have been spent clearing more wood from the slopes. We anticipate another good year for the Duke of Burgundy butterfly as a reward for the hundreds of volunteer hours spent cutting, clearing and burning of the scrub and wood. We often have wonderful views over the Downs and yesterday was no exception, although not as good as those enjoyed by the three buzzards that wheeled overhead. Cuckoo Flowers (Lady's Smock) have emerged on the bank by the main path and Primroses have been in flower for a few weeks.
February 10:

taken by John Murray (Naomi had left earlier)
Four Butterfly Conservation volunteers joined five MDT volunteers
February 3:

taken by Colin Knight
January 20:

January 13:

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Under Beacon, a reserve in transition

by Nick Sherwin.

The last area of woodland was cleared from the Under Beacon reserve in 2013 allowing the planned cattle grazing to be implemented across the reserve. But in early 2015 the plan was interrupted owing to the discovery of TB in cattle within Sussex leading to a lockdown. We were therefore unable to bring cattle into the reserve in the Spring.

When the trustees visited the site in June growth was accordingly higher than had been planned. The flora was however more varied as a result. Calcareous grassland indicators such as horseshoe vetch were interspersed with more typical woodland species such as white bryony, bittersweet and wood sage and indicators of ground disturbance, probably resulting from the woodland clearance itself, such as field forget-me-not and corn mint.

As the grazing regime becomes established the grassland species will become more dominant in accordance with the trust's objectives.

The following floral species were identified in the reserve:
Cat's Ear
Common Nettle
Common Sorrel
Common Spotted-orchid
Common Toadflax
Common Valerian
Common Vetch
Corn Mint
Creeping Buttercup
Deadly Nightshade
Dwarf Gorse
Fairy Flax
Field Forget-me-not
Field Mouse-ear
Greater Knapweed
Hedge Bedstraw
Hemp Agrimony
Hoary Ragwort
Horseshoe Vetch
Lady's Bedstraw
Marsh Thistle
Meadow Buttercup
Ploughman's Spikenard
Red Clover
Ribwort Plantain
Rough Hawkbit
Smooth Tare
Spotted Medick
Traveller's Joy
White Bryony
White Campion
White Clover
White Mullein
Wild Angelica
Wild Parsnip
Wood Sage

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Winter work parties, December 2015

'Chalky' 25 November
The winter work parties began in October and are now a regular Wednesday morning feature again for volunteers at Heyshott escarpment. Scrub is being cleared along paths and in bowls so that cowslips, primroses and violets can spring up and provide an enticing place for Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterflies to lay their eggs next year.
the crew 25 November
Paul, Andy, Mike, Mike, Naomi with Colin behind the camera
work party 2nd December:
Nick raking
Firemeister Andy burning greenery
Paul working while Mike & John chat
Mike back at work

Thursday, 26 March 2015

Looking Back On The Winter Of 2014/2015

Although there will be one more Wednesday meet, to tidy up, the work party season of winter 2014/2015 is all-but-over. The cutting, strimming, heaving, raking and burning has been done. On behalf of both the Murray Downland Trust and Butterfly Conservation, I would like to say "thank you" to everyone who has given so generously of their time, and for their relentless enthusiasm.

 L - R: John Murray, Nick Sherwin, Katrina Watson, Garry Philpott, Nigel Symington, Colin Knight

A huge amount has been achieved and the Heyshott Escarpment reserve has not looked better since long back in the 20th Century. A varied mosaic of different habitat types, at different stages of vegetative succession, now awaits the appearance (and appreciation) of Heyshott's butterflies, and a wide range of other fauna and flora.

We have it all; open chalk grassland, scrubbier areas of different age groups, scalloped woodland edges, and small blocks of Beech, Ash and Yew. I am more excited than ever by the prospects for another season here.

Following an autumn phase of wider scrub control, most effort has been directed at clearing a 0.5 hectare area of dense coppice and secondary woodland in Compartment 10. The steep, hummocky topography revealed for the first time in many decades, leading down to a newly fashioned, 'soft' woodland edge, has created a future hotspot, in both senses.

Sheltered from the elements on four sides, the temperature rises here quickly, as soon as the sun shines. The butterflies and many other invertebrates are going to love it! I foresee trouble. Both the Duke of Burgundy and Pearl-bordered Fritillary will want to command this space. Given the highly pugnacious nature of the male 'Duke', violence is inevitable.

Primrose and Cowslip are not the only plants now bursting forth in abundance. The Common Dog-violet, food-plant of the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, is common in some areas. Despite the broadly north-facing aspect of the escarpment, the topography of humps and deep hollows also provides warmer, south-facing slopes. Where the violets grow amongst sparse vegetation and dried plant debris, ideal areas exist for the fritillary's caterpillar to develop.

The wait will soon be over.

Wednesday, 18 March 2015

In Praise Of Primula

As I descended through the Heyshott Escarpment MDT reserve this afternoon, following another successful work party, I couldn't help but notice the abundance of Primula plants now pushing through the turf. Both of our most common species, Cowslip (P. veris), and Primrose (P. vulgaris), are food-plants of the Duke of Burgundy butterfly's caterpillar.

Cowslip is the dominant species across the open slopes, where the Duke is already thriving, but Primrose has always been typical of the more heavily wooded parts of the reserve. Both species thrive in the lowermost pit, near the 'Camel's Humps'.

The extensive strip of derelict coppice and secondary woodland in the coombe, which was cleared by MDT and Butterfly Conservation volunteers a few years back, has been developing an increasingly diverse and favourable ground-flora over the last couple of seasons. Back-breaking management work with hand-tools is now being supplemented with grazing, and the recent visit by Belted Galloway cattle has certainly brought things along very nicely.

Although there has always been a reasonably good flush of Primrose along the lower side of the coombe track, until this spring the cleared slope was relatively poor in this species. How things have changed!

This afternoon, John Murray and I spent some time spotting the new Primrose plants which are becoming widely established above the track, particularly at the southern end of the coombe. Last spring there were few; now there are many. If the Duke of Burgundy can be tempted to use this slope as a breeding area, we will have the species in two distinct habitat types, and using both of its food-plants. That would bring extra security to the population - and lead to even greater numbers. Fingers crossed!