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Sunday, 29 December 2013

The Devil’s Jumps and Humps

One of the many features which make the South Downs National Park such a special place is its wealth of ancient monuments, particularly those which are so visible along the well-trodden paths across its chalk hilltops. These include the great Iron Age forts such as Cissbury Ring, and the more modest but widespread Bronze Age barrows, which themselves seem to mimic Kipling’s “blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs” in miniature.

These relics provide many people with a strong sense of connection with our ancestors, through a landscape which has probably changed surprisingly little, at least in those parts which we now protect and cherish. The Murray Downland Trust looks after one such area near Treyford, where the Devil’s Jumps sits in a commanding position, affording spectacular views over downland to the northwest and across the Weald to the north.

These five, large, Bronze Age bell barrows are exceptionally well-preserved, ranging from 26 metres to 34 metres in diameter, and up to 4.8 metres in height (Dyer, 2001). Two additional, smaller barrows have been documented (Arscott, 1993), although very little physical evidence of them remains. Early (C19th) excavations revealed human bones in two of the barrows, consistent with their widely accepted function as ancient burial mounds.
The Devil’s Jumps should not be confused with the Devil’s Humps, which lie approximately 6 Km to the south within the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve. The Devil was clearly very active in this part of Sussex, if the wealth of associated folklore is to be believed. Here, on Bow Hill, another impressive line of Bronze Age barrows can be found, together with other archaeological features and earthworks which are more difficult to interpret.

The Devil’s Jumps barrow cemetery at Treyford (Grid Reference SU824173) is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and lies within one of the five reserves managed by the Murray Downland Trust (MDT). In 2009 the MDT was granted permission to push back the line of mostly coniferous trees which had encroached upon this important site, reinstating the more open setting of its earlier history. Grazing with livestock now prevents the development of scrub and has meant that more delicate chalk grassland plants are returning, along with their associated fauna. The painting to the right, by Michael Codd (Photo Credit: West Sussex County Council), depicts a reconstruction of the site, giving some idea of how it may have looked during Bronze Age times.
The five main barrows are arranged in a linear manner, running approximately northwest to southeast, in alignment with the setting sun on the summer solstice. There can surely be no better time to visit the Devil’s Jumps, which is probably most conveniently approached from the hamlet of Hooksway to the southwest, involving a steady climb on foot of approximately 1.25 Km. You can enjoy a drink at the picturesque Royal Oak on the way up or down, but please consider the ‘Patrons Only’ parking arrangements behind the pub before setting off.

It is difficult to define the nature of the relationship that many have with these places; places which clearly meant so much to our ancestors. The enduring nature of the landscape in which they are set is clearly part of the story. It seems probable that our visual appreciation of the panoramic views usually associated with these locations is similar to that perceived through Bronze Age eyes. Indeed, the theories of evolutionary psychology suggest that early man developed an aesthetic appreciation of landscape in order to enhance survival and reproductive fitness (Dutton, 2003). What looks good to us probably looked good to the barrow builders.
For me, the wildlife which is so closely associated with these places provides a bridge back in time. Although there will have been changes amongst the flora and fauna, many of the species inhabiting these sites today will have been present during their construction. Since the end of the last major ice age 12,000 years ago, and certainly since 8,500 years ago, when Britain became isolated from the rest of Europe as the land connecting us was flooded, our butterfly fauna has probably remained fairly constant.

Two butterfly species which today seem particularly fond of Iron and Bronze Age monuments on chalk are the beautiful Adonis Blue and Marsh Fritillary, although the latter has sadly been lost from Sussex. Almost certainly, by the time the Devil’s Jumps were constructed 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, these quite sedentary species would have become established on the livestock-grazed downland turf.

We know from artefacts that Bronze Age people were undoubtedly appreciative of fine, decorative objects. It therefore seems quite plausible that the inhabitants of these areas may have looked at butterflies through affectionate eyes, as they flitted across the slopes and ramparts between cattle and sheep. Today we can still see other ‘habitat specialists’ including the Dark Green Fritillary, Chalkhill Blue (pictured) and Marbled White on many of the MDT reserves. Perhaps it is this constancy that provides a feeling of comfort when visiting these monuments, in a world where so much is changing so quickly.

One thing is sure, a unique and inextricably linked set of components including geology, landscape, flora and fauna, and the very visible signs of human history, combine to create a strong sense of place, which has an almost magical quality. It is good to know that, along with others, the MDT is doing such a good job in looking after these precious places.

Neil Hulme



Thursday, 12 December 2013

Mistletoe Season

The last two Wednesday work parties at Heyshott Escarpment have been well attended, with a total of twenty participants representing both the Murray Downland Trust and Butterfly Conservation Sussex Branch. The work has involved cutting back Hazel scrub and invasive Ash so that a new fence can be erected. This will allow for controlled grazing of selected areas of the reserve, providing the mosaic of habitat types necessary to keep a wide range of species happy. The clearance is equally important in allowing more light to penetrate areas of floristically rich grassland which are currently too shady for many invertebrates, including butterflies. The images show recent work close to the eastern entry point from the path known as ‘Old Chalky’, and around pits in the central part of the reserve.

Although my own journey to reach Heyshott each week is quite a long one, it takes me through some of the most scenic parts of West Sussex, over Bury Hill, past Lord’s Piece, and along the dam wall of the beautiful Burton Mill Pond. On my way to the most recent work party (11th December) the usual, panoramic view from the top of Bury Hill was obscured by a thick shroud of mist, which filled the Arun Valley floor. After stopping briefly to take a few photographs I soon descended below the mist-line and only climbed back through it as I approached the group of volunteers already busy at work on the slopes.

Once the day’s work was complete, I headed to the western flank of the reserve to collect some Mistletoe for the house. Mistletoe (Viscum album) is a hemi-parasitic plant which grows on a wide variety of host trees, most notably the cultivated Apple. The sticky seed attaches to and pierces the branch of a host using a structure called the haustorium, through which it steals mineral nutrients and water. It does do some work itself, manufacturing photosynthetic products (sugars) via its evergreen leaves. Mistletoe is only really common in the S and SW Midlands, and occurs quite sparingly across Sussex. However, it grows on several trees on and around Heyshott Escarpment, typically set in open locations. One tree in particular is smothered in the plant, undoubtedly to its detriment; too much Mistletoe will stunt and can even kill its host.

Mistletoe, or at least our native species, is distributed by the winter activities of birds, most famously by the Mistle Thrush. I flushed two of these birds as I approached. After feasting on the white berries the thrush will excrete sticky, semi-digested pulp and seeds, which might stick to a fork or cleft in a tree and then germinate.

The Mistletoe Matters Consultancy considers that the distribution of the plant may be increasing, possibly due to the increased activity of another bird. The Blackcap is apparently more efficient at placing seed in suitable locations, as it tends to wipe the seeds from its beak on branches, having only ingested the pulp. This member of the warbler family used to invariably migrate south to mainland Europe. However, with climate change, an increasing number now stay with us to over-winter in the UK.

Please note that the next Heyshott work party (Wednesday 18th December) will be the last before we reconvene on Wednesday 8th January 2014.

Neil Hulme