Sunday, 1 October 2017

Walking with the Devil

What with holidays, visiting friends, and various craft fairs, I've not had too much time to explore the local patch, but I corrected that on Monday.

I'd been working in Blandford all day, which meant that the drive home took me passed Martin Down NNR, which I feel I've been neglecting this year. It's Devil's Bit Scabious season - just when you think the summer is over, and the glorious flowery colour is fading to dried husks of a myriad of many-shaped seedheads, up pops this spectacle.

It's purply-blue cluster of flowers is usually found on unimproved grassland, sometimes in the wetter patches in fens, other time on drier, chalk banks. Many species depend on it - for a late-season nectar source, as well as a food plant for the caterpillars of the marsh fritillary butterfly (another rarity). Oh, and it's so named because of the very short rootstock, allegedly bitten off in a devilish plot - who comes up with these things?!

The peak of the flowering season for this species is in September, so get out there while you can and see this last reminder of summer before autumn really takes hold.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

The Hovis and the Ivy

Do bear with me...

I had another week off work (such luxury!) and made the most of the patchy sunshine through a few nice walks locally.

The first started at the lovely Queens Head pub in Broadchalke in Cranborne Chase- Terry Pratchett's favourite - and headed in a loop down along the lane to Middleton Down Wiltshire Wildlife Trust reserve and up to the Ox Drove. Although not the best time of year to see the amazing wildflowers of chalk downland, it is the season for late butterflies and devil's bit scabious. On this very peaceful walk, the scabious in particular was beautiful - we spotted the best display on the footpath down from the Ox Drove on our return journey, descending Knighton Hill (182m high) steeply via some ancient Mediaeval strip lynchetts (terracing for farming). Although the swifts have departed back to Africa, we still had swallows and house martins to accompany us through the insect-rich fields.

The next day we headed west to Shaftesbury for a nice potter around (including the site where the 1970s Hovis ad was filmed!!)before calling in at Old Wardour Castle on our return. This ruined site is run by English Heritage, but you can get pretty good views from the brilliant network of footpaths in the area. We followed a roughly two hour loop via New Wardour Castle (1800s mansion now owned by Jasper Conran!), featuring more swallows and house martins, babbling springs and ancient woodland. We passed an extremely ancient, gnarly old sweet chestnut, hollowed out but still clinging on to life, with a magnificent view across the countryside.

Finally, we squeezed the good yomp to Old Sarum on Sunday morning - again, more swallows (when will they leave?) but also, most notably, an incredible swarm of ivy bees. They were emerging from the bare earth on the steep footpath on the hill back to the flat - they weren't there on the way down but clearly it had sufficiently warmed up to trigger them to emerge. Having done a bit of research, it's clear that Salisbury is a bit of a hotspot for this solitary bee, which was only described as a new species in 1993 and only found in the UK in 2001. There is no 'queen' here - the males emerge from their burrows - where they have spent the year as pupae - about a month before the females. This means they then pounce on them when they do emerge in late August/September, and is what we were seeing - quite incredible! Each female lay a few eggs in their burrows and feed the grubs on ivy pollen and nectar. As ivy is a late flowering species, that's why they emerge now. That's evolution for you!

Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Climbing by feet or by car

I'm just back from a fabulous holiday to Sicily, but before that I managed some lovely long walks in Cranborne Chase.

The first was along the old Ox Drove from Salisbury Racecourse, taking a detour to make it a loop that took in an area of chalk downland. It was early evening so the low light cast long shadows on the undulating ancient ground - this area had been cultivated during Mediaeval times I believe. There were still many flowers out, and I spotted an autumn gentian in bud - not quite autumn yet! Quite a rare plant and an indicator of unimproved grassland, not touched by fertilisers. The dead stems of orchids hinted at an amazing display earlier in the season.

The next morning we headed off to the Fovant Badges. These are regimental badges cut into the steep chalk escarpment running along the A30 off to Shaftesbury. We parked at the layby with the info board and walked up (very steep!) and over the ridge for spectacular views. The top includes Chiselbury Hill Fort, with its Iron Age ramparts clearly visible and bedecked with more beautiful chalk downland flowers.

We continued our walk along the same drove from yesterday (it runs all the way to Shaftesbury) before turning off onto some Open Access chalk grassland - amazing steep valley systems, with the sides once again chalk downland - devil's bit scabious just peeping out, dwarf thistle, bird's foot trefoil, ox eye daisy, knapweed, eyebright etc etc. We followed the valley almost down to Broadchalke, before heading back a different way albeit uphill, for beautiful views back across to the valleys we'd just traversed.

It was at this point we heard distant sounds of car engines - not your usual road cars, but what sounded like racing cars. I suddenly realised it was the day of the Gurston Down Hill Climb - a notable event on the racing calendar and ending at a point where it intersected our footpath! This meant we had to wait until all the cars had gone back down again, but certainly gave us something different to look at!

The final part of the walk was on of the ridge, looking back across the flatland below, and walking along an ancient path crossing the escarpment. Amazing to have this landscape on my doorstep!

Thursday, 17 August 2017

The old and the new

Last week was a bit of a mix of visiting new places and revisiting old haunts.

I managed a quick walk after work along part of the Clarendon Way at the Winchester end - the views are spectacular, even with a storm front coming in. Much of the land is in Environmental Stewardship, with wildflowers, birds and insects abounding.

We then headed off to Langford Lakes Nature Reserve - this is owned by Wiltshire Wildlife Trust, and is a small group of flooded gravel pits, now home to a variety of interesting birdlife, insects and plants. I had my best view of a kingfisher - normally I'm too busy walking and talking to notice, and they're usually a blue blur! This one perched obligingly in front of the hide before flitting off along the lake margin. It's a great place for this protected and declining species to live - they need banks to burrow in for their nests, and a good abundance of small fish. Often, our banksides are modified so they don't have access. We also saw tufted duck, gadwall, the obligatory cormorants, swans and mallards, and great crested grebe. It's a work in progress too - they took on some more land in 2011, and they're attempting to return it to its former glory of a flooded watermeadow, grazed with cattle. A very interesting corner of Wiltshire (just off the A36 heading out of Salisbury) and we didn't encounter anyone at all on our walk!

Finally, last weekend we had a good long walk in the South Downs National Park. We started at Beacon Hill NNR - owned and managed by Natural England, it's an area of steep chalk grassland, scrub and ancient woodland, great for butterflies and wildflowers. Our route skirted the reserve, before heading out along the South Downs Way down into the Meon valley, before crossing the old dismantled railway line and heading towards Old Winchester Hill NNR. We then headed north along the Monarch's Way, stopping for refreshment at the pub in Warnford - the perfect spot, as their beer garden has the Meon flowing along one side. This is one of our very rare chalk streams, but notable in that it isn't legally protected as it's a much shorter river and doesn't have some of the species found on the Test and Itchen. It's therefore often not in a great way - over abstracted, receiving agricultural runoff and modified in parts. However, recently, as part of a partnership project with the South Downs National Park Authority, water voles were reintroduced to the river after years of absence. Fingers crossed this marks a new beginning for this beautiful little river.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

In our ancestors' footsteps

I've been lucky enough to explore some ancient landscapes in the last week, together with a project all about returning to a wilder landscape hundreds if not thousands of years ago.

Last Sunday we headed off to Avebury World Heritage Site for a walk among the ancient earthworks, burial mounds and standing stones. Our route took us passed the mysterious Silbury Hill (man-made but for no apparent reason), up to the West Kennet longbarrow, and along part of the Wessex Ridgeway before turning back to the village. Although it's now a relatively-intensive agricultural landscape, it's scattered with numerous signs of a much more culturally-important use for the land, with fragments of remnant chalk grassland clining on to slopes, such as on the Avebury stone circle.
The Hill dominates the landscape, and the longbarrow sits high on a hilltop, visible for a great distance. Notably, you can actually go inside part of the longbarrow, and it was made even more special by the presence of a swallow nest, full of chicks. The parents weren't put off by people walking by, as they swept in to feed them.

During the week, as part of a work trip, I was lucky enough to go glamping on the Knepp Estate in West Sussex. here, they've given up intensive agriculture and left 3500 acres to return to wilderness, grazed by enormous herds of free-roaming (no fences!) long-horn cattle, red and fallow deer, Tamworth pigs and Exmoor ponies. It's on its way to becoming a landscape more typical of the Bronze Age. What's interesting is not the botanical interest (relatively poor in parts) but the scale of the mosaic of habitat - ideal for a great wealth of invertebrates and birds, including purple emperor butterflies and rare arable plants found in the rotavated earth left by the pigs. Can we take some of this practice back to other areas in the country? Food for thought.

Finally, yesterday we headed off to Stonehenge, for the free walk I've talked about before. The old dismantled railway was looking beautiful in a kaleidoscope of chalk-loving plants such as wild parsnip, knapweed, field scabious, wild carrot, self-heal and red clover. Although there weren't any skylarks to accompany us (I'm pretty sure they've now finished breeding), it's usually a cacophony when you come earlier. We walked the whole length of the Cursus in the end - 1.7 miles of earthwork, possibly built for a ceremonial purpose. as with everything this old (4500 years in some cases), it's hard to tell exactly what some of the features were for, but I feel this mystery makes it even more amazing to walk in their presence.

Saturday, 29 July 2017

In the tropics?

Last weekend was one of torrential deluges and steamy humidity. And to go with these tropical/monsoon-like conditions, I ventured into Grovely Wood with a friend.

Hardly a tropical rainforest I know, as it's a mixture of commercially-harvested conifer plantation and pockets of ancient woodland. However, in one of the many woodland rides, prior to the deluge that was to follow and soak us through, we encountered some silver-washed fritillaries.

These beautiful butterflies specialise in woodland clearings, basking in the sun and feeding on the flowers blooming. Their enormous, bright orange forms, swiftly flitting through the sunlight, is reminiscent of a butterfly house.

sadly, the experience wasn't to last - we left the ride and the rain started and never stopped. Not even the tall, stately beeches lining the main drive could hold back the torrent.

Oh well - such is the British summer!

Saturday, 22 July 2017

In raptures over rampions

Hurrah for summer, when our beautiful chalk downlands are at their kaleidoscopic-best.

Last Sunday I was very grateful to Marin Cilic for a bit of a damp squib of a Wimbledon Men's Final, resulting in a longer walk on Old Winchester Hill NNR. It was humid and overcast, but somehow this only made for a more atmospheric yomp.

Situated on a chalk escarpment in the South Downs National Park, it's notable for it's myriad of wildflowers and insects, and ably grazed by a herd of hardy Herdwick sheep from the lake District.

They need to be hardy - on a bleak winter's day, there is little cover, apart from the large blocks of woodland near the bottom of the slope, including an ancient yew woodland. And some of the paths are on some formidable slopes!

We walked across to the Iron Age Hillfort, where the ramparts are wonderfully defined and smothered in all manner of beautiful plants - betony, small scabious, ox eye daisy, ladies bedstraw, hawkbits, knapweed and marjoram. But to top it all off, now is the time to view the spectacle of the bright blue flowers of round-headed rampion.

Every time I've been on the reserve - and I've done a fair bit of surveying up here - it's been earlier, missing out on seeing this beauty. So, my reaction was rather predictable! Apparently, they are most common in the South Downs than anywhere else in the country.

Looking further than the flowers, the views from up there are spectacular, across much of the downs inland, and out across to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Our route back to the carpark meandered along the slope, down through dark, ancient woodland, then up an incredibly steep slope - much pausing to admire the view along the way!

So, with National Parks Week about to start, use this opportunity to get out there and explore this wonderful park and especially the NNR.