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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!


Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Devil's Jumps MDT Reserve Features In South Downs National Park Photographic Competition

I was delighted to find one of my images of the Devil's Jumps MDT Reserve amongst the runners-up in the South Downs National Park 2014 Photographic Competition. The theme was 'Hidden Gems', and this stunning collection of large, Bronze Age bell barrows certainly fits the bill. Even more so, if like I was, you are ever fortunate enough to be there when the midsummer sun sets in alignment with their linear arrangement.

I had waited for many years to see this, unhindered by cloud, but the wait was more than worthwhile. It provided a truly magical moment, spent in a truly magical place. Read more about this site in the earlier article 'The Devil's Jumps and Humps'.