Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Butterflies and moths overwintering in the Newhaven Fort tunnels

Our third year of surveying overwintering insects and bats in the tunnels at Newhaven Fort started on 14th December. The Fort management team kindly allows us access to the tunnels which are closed to the public at a time when the Fort itself is closed for winter maintenance. 

Peacock in diapause (Vanessa io)
Of the few butterflies which spend the winter in diapause, species like the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) tend to prefer the cover of thick vegetation rather than a subterranean hibernaculum. They are the last species on the wing in most years and often one of the earliest seen the following year. We have never found Red Admirals in the tunnels. Peacocks (Vanessa io) and Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) are often seen on a warm morning in February or March basking on the bare ground around rabbit warrens, having emerged from within the holes. The Newhaven Fort tunnels offer a similar refuge and we find both species in small numbers here.

Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis)
Of all the insect species found overwintering within the tunnels, we are most interested in the Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis), a moth which is in the process of colonising coastal Britain from the south. It feeds as a larva on Pellitory-of-the-Wall, a nettle which grows in walls and crevices, hanging on along the edges of things - a bit like the Bloxworth Snout itself. The Newhaven Fort tunnels are emerging as one of the best spots in the UK known for this moth.

Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis)
Another notable moth we find is a well-known overwinterer, The Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix). This species feeds on poplar and willow and there are a few of these trees in the northern edge of the Fort and Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve. This species has been seen in single figures in previous surveys. It is a common but beautiful moth which looks like an autumn leaf.

Eristalis tenax hoverflies clustered beneath a paint blister
In addition to these core species, we usually also see good numbers of the Twenty-plumed Moth (Alucita hexadactyla) which feeds as a larva on the abundant honeysuckle growing at Castle Hill LNR, a few Common Flat-body (Agonopterix heracliana) and a few individuals of the Fleabane Smudge (Digitivalva pulicariae), which are curiously found deep within the tunnels far from an obvious point of entry. All the other moths and butterflies we see are found fairly close to the open air, in the company of bristletails (Petrobius maritimus), various woodlouse species, slugs and snails, several species of midge and lots of spiders. Their prerequisites appear to be a stable temperature and some ventilation with protection from the weather, predators and pathogens. Some light intrusion to indicate changes in day length is probably also an important guide to the right time to re-emerge the following Spring.

So to 14th December 2016. Five of us ventured underground on what was a sunny winter day with a moderate southerly breeze blowing warm air across the English Channel from the continent. This weather pattern had been in place for several days prior to our visit and followed a period of colder weather with a number of overnight frosts. It's a shame the frosty weather hadn't lasted until our visit as this would have allowed an interesting comparison with previous years' surveys, which have always taken place during mild weather, but the mild weather did allow a direct comparison this year with the previous two. The thermometer read 13°C, which is pretty warm for a clear December day. Temperatures in the tunnels ranged between 12°C and 13.5°C. Here's what we saw:

Peacock (Vanessa io) (17)
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) (9)
Twenty-plume Moth (Alucita hexadactyla) (67)
Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix) (31)
Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis) (10).

Five species is the fewest we have seen since we started surveying the tunnels, yet we saw more individuals overall and beat our previous record of 112 by quite a margin: this time we saw 135. The reason for this was a significantly greater number of Twenty-plume Moths (December average is 40) and Herald (December average 7.5). It is misleading to place too much relevance on only a few years' data, but this December we saw a 67% increase of Twenty-plume Moths and a more than 400% increase of Herald.

The value of regular surveys grows with the accumulation of comparable data from year to year and we are beginning to see some interesting patterns emerge now that we are into our third year of monitoring. Observing overwintering insects also reveals a surprising insight into different species' behaviour. Predictably perhaps, warmth-loving butterflies tend to be in a much deeper state of diapause than moths, which are more tolerant of cooler temperatures. The Bloxworth Snout is particularly tolerant of low temperatures, often entering a shallow state of torpor rather than proper diapause. This ability to remain active at times when predators or competitors may be less active might offer a selective advantage as it radiates northwards into new territories, but it might consequently also be more at risk of severe cold snaps. If more people were able to inspect overwintering sites each year it would almost certainly help improve the understanding of how weather and climate influences the population dynamics not only of moths or butterflies but also all those species associated by a complex web of interaction.

The reasons for the increases in some species this December might be that the weather was good when the adults we saw were progressing through their earlier life-stages; it might be that predators and pathogens were fewer; it might be that previous years were influenced by adverse conditions at the time and we are now witnessing a regression to the mean. Whatever the reasons, the other species we saw this time were at much the same levels as in previous surveys. Questions arising from the collected data are exactly what is hoped for. Some of these questions might be answered if we can continue to collect data in future years.

A cluster of Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix)

Monday, 26 December 2016

Bishopstone Boxing Day-break


Daybreak on Boxing Day. Cool, calm air; a sky mostly clear of cloud. That restful feeling of the morning after the night before. The wind and rain delivered by Storm Barbara on Christmas Day had skimmed past and the world was sleeping in. As the sky lightened from the east above The Rookery, long streaks of cloud lit up like glowing embers on logs rekindled by the approaching sun.

Something was passing with the Rooks. They were up and abroad early. As the dogs and I made our first pass of the trees, they returned above us making enough noise to scare away the spirits of the dwindling dark and with them the fears of the long winter night. The world was theirs again. The tawny owls were silent; the jackdaws nowhere to be seen.

The rooks were still at it when we passed by on our way home. I paused and watched them in the throes of what could have been the corvine equivalent of our Boxing Day hunts - all excitement and chatter as they rode the canopy, breaking the surrounding silence. I put aside the automatic enquiry of what was happening and why and just watched, enjoying the pell-mell.

Leaving the rooks to it, I followed the path homeward and their sound subsided. We reached the crossing of a holloway and its parallel hawthorn-dotted modern track which connects the hamlet of Norton with Foxhole. Here, by the line of hawthorns, a meditative moment. It is chilly - maybe 5° Celsius - and yet a cloud of winter gnats hung in the air, silent, rising and falling in waves, peaking and troughing as though the countryside was gently sleeping, breathing out, in, out, in.

These midges are  males, dancing to attract females. They hang around the protection of the hedge or in a state of torpor, emerging in low light when it is mild and quiet. It is mesmerising to watch them, trying to pick out an individual from the cloud and follow it as it rises and falls in a starling-like murmuration. Rise and fall, like breathing. It's still early. I'm the only person around. I have the world to myself. It's a good time to take a breather. To just be instead of be going somewhere. The cloud shares its gift: a lesson in pausing and noticing the rythmic rise and fall of the breath, the ability to let everything else fall away and focus only on the self. Nothing matters beyond the hypnotic, rhythmic dancing cloud. Just breathe and be at one with the world.



Saturday, 10 December 2016

Rough Music at Bishopstone


Walking the eastern downs is a relatively treeless and bird-light pastime, especially in winter. Gulls and game are often seen along with my indifferent friends the rooks, but there are sometimes few other species to keep them company, save for an occasional jolly of wagtails. It is always with great pleasure therefore that a walk takes me through the trees at Bishopstone with its abundance of ash, elm and sycamore alive from canopy to ground with avian chatter.

I set out a few weekends ago beneath a dark, clear, moonless sky to enjoy the late-November dawn. A gentle climb from South Heighton up to and along the crest of the Firle plain to Bo-peep, along the gentle sweep of the Cradle Hill escarpment, where the first pale light seeped out of the eastern horizon and, before heading home, a final plunge back down into Bishopstone and its wet meadows and trees. By this time the day had beaten the darkness away, the stillness in the air stirred by the dawn breeze from the east, and the robins and blackbirds had had their say, leaving the soundscape to later risers. Rooks and jackdaws could be heard from a distance in the treetops, their indiscretions a banner to all within earshot that this land belongs to them, the trees of Bishopstone Wood their palisade wall.

I skirted up and around the rookery so that I could climb and look down on the leafless canopy, swept clean the week before by the first winter storm of the season. Leaving the wet meadows behind me, I climbed alongside a scrub fringe towards what sounded like a disagreement involving jays and magpies. Jays established themselves here only in recent years, but have become a regular and welcome sight. A few weeks earlier I saw between Stanmer and Ditchling Beacon what I thought was a terrible disagreement between a mischief of magpies and jays. I suspected a raptor of some sort - a buzzard is often the subject of their scorn - but the pell-mell was hidden in the privacy of autumn leaves and I walked on without learning whether they were collaborating against a common foe or facing-off against each other. Seldom do birds muster such a cacophony as jays and magpies.

Today I was able to creep unseen up to the melee. As I rounded a bush the scrub opened up and I saw two jays, which straight away saw me and sat silently upright like children caught in the act of something naughty. The magpies, though, were oblivious in the pell-mell: ten of them screeching around the scrub. I stood still as a sleeping horse, hoping not to send every bird scooting into cover. Next, a surprise in dozens of mixed tits: great, blue and long-tailed, all busy uttering alarmed calls amidst the jays and magpies. The scene was chaotic, the noise confusing and wonderful to behold, like rough music! Not, then, a fight between jays and magpies; more likely cooperation on some level involving more species than I might see along all of the previous nine miles.

My question of where the raptor was hiding was quickly answered: it wasn't a raptor, but it was a predator and another recent arrival in the Rookery. A tawny owl broke cover low down, flew directly towards me and shot into the deep scrub just a few metres before where I stood, blowing my cover to all present. The corvids retreated to a safer distance and the tits melted back into the scrub edges. The owl, a creature which feeds on small rodents and insects rather than other birds, was now perceived as less of a threat than I. But there was no rough music for me, only a hush.

Rough music is one of folklore's popular rituals for dealing with bad behaviour, keeping a community safe, and something that might have been borrowed by people after watching birds like those before me. The origins of this might be found in the wassail - a similar ritual in which a cacophony was made to scare off evil spirits from apple trees before they were blessed at the end of Christmastide. A rough music ritual may have been popular with those dishing out the punishment, but it was less so for the person at the receiving end; a wife- husband- or child-beater. A noisy procession would be led after dark through the village to the wrongdoer's house, clashing metal tins or sheets and chanting along the way. The procession would stop outside the culprit's house and a chant was made warning them to mend their ways. Sometimes an effigy would be carried and burnt outside the house. The ritual would be repeated over several nights if required until the person relented. Sometimes they packed up and moved away, unable to cope with the naming-and-shaming and rejection by a close-knit community. With little else to entertain a village at night, rough music was an attractive pastime to those who might already have taken a few liveners at the local inn and this no doubt helped instil their determination to mete out a traditional form of justice, even in later times when told to desist by the local policeman. It was the peoples' form of justice and their right to give it.

Rough music lives on today in the tradition of Bonfire. Everything is there: a culprit, the effigy, processions, chanting, loud noise, fire, the burning. Every Bonfire in Lewes gives rough music to politicians and the Pope, just at that time of year when the days darken and the world plunges into the long, uncertain, winter. A time when dark spirits walk the land.

Back at the rookery the owls have the trees only by night, their hoots answered only by the occasional complaining jackdaw or rook. There is no place for them during daylight hours, nor any place for people. The rooks and jackdaws, the magpies and jays and the little birds all give us rough music and move us on. Following the hollow way out of the trees, I headed out over open ground again. Amongst the rooks and gulls I counted a jolly of thirty wagtails bobbing along the drills.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Way-side at dusk

Rooks and Jackdaws at dusk

The track - stair-rod straight
The track that links Mount Pleasant with Bishopstone stretches stair-rod straight for about two miles along undulating downland foothills. I suppose it is old and I wonder if it is ancient: along its highest crest it passes a series of earth barrows; in the other direction it passes beneath the metalled surfaces of Falaise and Seaview Road before reverting to rough footpath and plunging steeply downhill to St Leonard's Church at Denton.

It is a footpath, bridleway, rough track, road, a link between settlements, cemeteries and people. It is a wildlife corridor, field headland, a ribbon, a river of life flowing through and beyond barren, harvested fields. This path is not a gash cutting through the landscape, not a wound inflicted by modern farming; it is an artery which carries things through the landscape: feet, hooves, cartwheels, tractor wheels, paws, bicycle wheels, and, during heavy rain, even the eroded chalk powder of the earth itself.

Knotgrass
The path downhill from Mount Pleasant reaches a nadir before rising steeply again above Foxhole Farm; here at its nadir it forms a natural sump where traffic-ground dust is spattered into a heavy paste by late-summer rain, lubricated into a downward flow into the sump, where it collects as a chalky slub. At the turn of each year we call this slub January Butter. Today it is mixed with dried grasses and the manure of passing horses in a sticky, grey daub.

Sussex has a rich dialect when it comes to mud. Sussex roads gained a notoriety for their heavy-going state when Daniel Defoe lamented about them in his Grand Tour, during his struggle through the Wealden clay. My chalky track, high above and to the south of the heavy clay, has been a dry bed for months but, tonight, as I walk along its course, the intermittent rain has softened the harvest dust. Today has felt more in common with October than August and the sticky paste reminds me to be thankful for the dryness of the season and clean dogs at the end of each walk. These dog-days are numbered, but one day of sun and wind tomorrow will bake hard the chalk-rich earth again.

Knotgrass flower
The abundance of plant and insect life in a field headland can be astonishing. The track is still a green life-rich corridor flowing between harvested desert fields, despite September grass sideburns which look long overdue a shave. The bottom of the sump is adorned with a carpet of knot-grass, its deep pile extending down into the restful sediment transported into the sump by forgotten rains. The dominant species, though, is greater plantain, which have poked out thousands of tongues upwards in defiance of the harvest blades, like anenomies greeting a rising tide.

In recent weeks we have been entertained by an abundance of butterflies: meadow browns, gatekeepers, marbled whites and common blues, with the odd wall brown. Tonight though the track has given its greatest gift of the year in a hawking barn owl; not a ghostly white figure but an unmistakable silent silhouette which drifts across the straw stubble away from the pell-mell of my dogs. The same airspace during our morning walk was taken by a hovering kestrel. Further along the track we pause and listen to a tawny owl somewhere below us in The Rookery. A second one answers somewhere lower down in the wood. We haven't seen or heard them here before and we happily add them to our mental list alongside barn, short-eared and little owls which we remember from the thirty or so years past that we have walked here.

Gulls #1
Walking along the track early this morning revealed that the barren fields have been colonised by pioneers: paroled arable weeds free of regimented crops, flocks of rooks, jackdaws, gulls, pigeons and a dozen greylag geese. These are gleaners and grazers. I wonder if these are some of the large skein of about 120 geese I saw making their way along the Ouse Valley a few days before? On that occasion I saw a single mallard punching well above its weight at the front of the V, skein-surfing their bow wave.

Gulls #2
The track has faded to a low glow as we near home. The rooks and jackdaws are making their way back home while, above, gulls are coast-bound in dribs and drabs. A fox chatters and chuckles somewhere within the maize field, but there is no sign of the barn owl. The maize whispers in a low breeze as we pass it and it conjures the illusion of unwanted company. A hushed chorus of dark bush-crickets guides us along. The path is straight and, when we walk through this country, we walk as the crow flies.

Coast-bound gulls

Walking home, as the crow flies

Monday, 15 August 2016

Chafers beneath a full moon


 Everything lost on Earth is to be found on the Moon*, not least the light of day.

The moon is waxing gibbous tonight and, on Thursday at 8.15pm, it will rise full as it does every twenty nine or so days. This event won't be a so-called 'Supermoon' (we will have to wait until November for the next one of those) but the wave of awe in witnessing one of nature's spectacles will sweep across the Earth, like the tidal bulge, and be no less felt in the event of the ordinary full moon moonrise than it is during those occasional superevents. Some feel the draw of the moon more than others, but it is a rare person who is not at all struck by the event whenever the full moon breaks over the horizon and arcs across the night sky.

The night of a full moon is something that we like to celebrate in special places, where a tangible connection between the earth and the heavens might be more strongly felt. Last September, when the full moon achieved supermoon status, hours before it slid into the totality  of a lunar eclipse, we trekked up to The Bridestones which rise high up above the Dalby Forest in the North Yorkshire National Park. We watched the drama unfold as we caught our breath, only to lose it all over again at supermoonrise. Hours later our alarm woke us so that we could take in the eclipse from the cottage garden in Cropton.

Last month's full moon moonrise was one of those occasions when our planets aligned and we had the chance to mark the occasion together. We were at home - this time in the South Downs National Park - and we chose one of the more pagan patches of Down close to home: Combe Hill, which overlooks Willingdon. We chose a favourite circular route from Jevington which follows the gentle progress of the southern downland slope up to the crest of the Eastbourne Downland. This rewards the walker with magnificent coastal views to the south and east before the northbound path carries you onto Combe Hill - itself a constellation of enclosure and satellite barrows or tumuli, which once would have shone their chalk-white light across the land like novae of spent lives remembered, their fading light slowly melting into the downland turf along with the old religion as the parish church replaced the older ways and became the new centre of the human universe.


The moon rose as we passed Butt's Brow. We watched it breach the horizon and climb above the Channel and brighten in magnitude as the dusk stretched its fingers out of the west. There is a near-tactile energy in moonlight which reveals the character of the land - something which is blinded by daylight. History seems to congeal and reanimate, rise up out of the soil and array itself before us in the gloaming. Daytime winds fall away with the light; the synergy of sticky silence, the moonlight and the long line of history crystallise in the imagination in this crucible. The moon is the key ingredient: the light of its fullness casts a reverent spell; reverence of nature, of the land, of the history of the place. The people who have farmed this land, our ancestors, we have all borne witness to this same moon, rising cycle after cycle, lunation after lunation. The moon is part of the glue which binds us. That moment beneath the full moon bears witness to all of history so that it exists as if all of time is captured in the moment. We are the end link in a chain of 200 or more human generations which stretches back unbroken into the depths of time. The connection is strongly felt. How appropriate it is that moonlight inspires within us such a moment of reflection.

The moon is lighting our way in growing influence now as we walk from Combe Hill back towards Jevington. The land is ancient and anything greater than a single ploughshare drawn by a pair of oxen seems out of place. The daylight splendour of the flower meadow is dimmed as the last of the light falls away into the west. As the trees reach up and embrace Neolithic lynchets, swarms of summer chafers envelope us and we marvel at their lunatic dance around the tops of bushes. Thousands emerge from the ground around us as if summoned by the full moon, like terrestrial coral polyps. These are creatures of mid-summer, but often mistaken as Cockchafers ("the Maybugs are late this year", I am told most midsummers). The summer chafer's scientific name is Amphimallon solstitale, the latter meaning 'of midsummer', of the solstice. Known also as the June Bug, it is a beetle which swarms at dusk, sometimes in impressive numbers. Much smaller than the cockchafer, it has a habit of flying aimlessly and harmlessly around you, and bouncing into you, with a fierce-sounding buzz, before attaching itself to clothing and bare skin. The worst it can do is cling on and make a nuisance of itself with its remarkably strong grip, but even then it is painless to remove. As we walk along, more than a dozen alight on my arms, legs and head, some in copulating pairs, like a scene by Bosch, sent mad by the moon above.

The chalk path leading back out of the dreamy landscape was painted silver. We approached Jevington through the pasture at Cloth Farm feeling vaguely aware of our insignificance. The life-giving moon, sister of the Earth, without which there would be no tides, no seasons, has waxed full and waned again month after month, gazed upon by countless species on the land and, for longer still, within the seas, and back further still into deep time. Our link and the two hundred stretched out behind us are an insignificant eye-blink, and yet we do live in significant times. We humans are at our most destructive when money is not plentiful. In these uncertain times important decisions are made which sometimes carry catastrophic changes. The stunning Eastbourne Downland is up for sale. The local Council can raise a few million pounds from the sale. This might usher in a greater change to the landscape than has been seen since the land was first farmed. The new owner of the land here might recognise their importance as stewards of this ancinet landscape. They might recognise in the real light of day the importance of a commitment to manage the land in its time-honoured way: sensitive grazing after the summer carpet sets seed. If Eastbourne Borough Council cannot make this commitment on behalf of the people, the land is better off in safer hands, but the moonlight can be deceptive and instil fears which may prove unfounded. 

Ushered back to the village by the hooting of tawny owls and buzzed by tutting pipistrelles, we agree that for all its beauty, the dark light of the moon can cast many spells, some of which leave us feeling less certain. 



*"Everything lost on Earth is to be found on the Moon" is taken from Ludovico Ariosto's epic poem of 1532, The Frenzy of Orlando (Orlando Furioso).

Thursday, 4 August 2016

Summer in the Bronze Age

The rough road from Jevington along the old Eastbourne Road up onto the top of Willingdon Hill begins in shade. I have all three dogs with me today, already half-worn out by a circular walk around Crowlink, and they seem grateful for the relief offered by the shade of the overhanging trees from the sun and gentle breeze. The landscape is peppered with ancient landmarks and, as the track emerges from the trees the landscape unfurls to reveal not only medieval and Roman workings, but Neolithic barrows and earthworks more than five thousand years old. Man and the soil have here been intertwined for 200 or more human generations.

The track is sunken as we make the gentle and steady uphill climb, excavated by centuries of grinding hooves, feet, cartwheels and rainwater, its run-off ferrying the powdered chalk, mud and stone sediment downhill in a greasy glut towards the village. Imagine the tons of spoil carried in its flow when the track is scoured clean during a deluge. The banksides are alive with flowers: bedstraws, vetches, knapweeds, hedge-parsley, wild carrot and hogweed. The air, despite the faint breeze, is filled with the scent of hogweed and, despite there being something reminiscent of the public convenience about it, the scent conjures deep-rooted memories of feral summer holidays. Hogweed is, to my nose, matched in its power to kindle memories only by the scent of wild privet. The wheat field to the left is bending its harvest head towards the farmer, the airy roar of his machinery now only a field or two distant, although the smell of straw as I pass has not yet lost its greenness. The top of the wheat field has been desecrated by a starry cluster of flowering sow-thistles, which have climbed their way above the crop and are now nodding ten thousand mocking suns upon the ears. The pattern of infiltration suggests the neighbouring hay field was cut late the previous year in a light easterly which sent the seed-heads gently foaming across the field boundary.

At the top of Willingdon Hill a circular mound marks the former location of a windmill; from here the view stretches south beyond Warren Hill towards Beachy Head. This crest of downland forms the eastern extent of the South Downs and its Way. The landscape is typical of the South Downs: a gently progressive rise from the sea until a crest is reached and then a dramatic escarpment to the north in which all progress from the sea is lost as it falls into the low Weald in no more than a few tens of metres, like a breaking wave frozen in time. The north-side escarpment here is wooded mainly with Ash. To the south the crest of the trees show the characteristic bare-bones of the Chalara Ash dieback, a chronic fungal disease caused by the fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus, which has become more conspicuous this year. The bare, cresting canopies remind me of the withers of an old horse.

My route is to the north, where I shall follow the South Downs Way for a short distance before swinging back down towards Jevington. From the windmill mound Butts Brow is visible ahead of me and the Neolothic enclosure on Combe Hill just beyond and above it. This causewayed enclosure, which stands at the top of the escarpment, has tumuli to each side. These barrows once would have been tended to keep them clear of grass. The bare chalk would have glowed for miles across the Downs from clearings amongst the trees like stars in the night sky, each one a nova, a memory of a Neolithic woman or man whose star has waned, to be gazed upon by the string of descending generations. One of these barrows, when excavated, revealed a stone slab which, when lifted, revealed beneath it the remains of four broken bronze axe-heads. There is much debate about the function of hilltop enclosures. Archaeological remains of wooden post holes in some locations suggest a palisade fence which might just as likely have been intended to keep things within rather than out: summer-grazing livestock folded overnight within the sanctuary. This is, after all, an ancient-farmed landscape.

The land between Willingdon and Combe Hills is dry and harsh, flinty. A small murmuration of mainly juvenile starlings has been fidgeting from fence to field as we progress, troubled perhaps by our small party. A dance in several movements is enacted before we pass beyond them and onto softer terrain to the west. The land here is part of the Eastbourne Downland - land held in trust by the local authority. Tenant farmers work the land with sensitive grazing made only after the summer flowering period. Continuity of this practice over many decades has produced one of the finest wild flower meadows I have seen: countless species suddenly surround us - squinancywort, self-heal, eyebright, rock-rose, rest harrow, marjoram, wild thyme, hawkbits and hawks-beards, scabious, medick, clovers, arching spikes of agrimony, heathery bartsia, low-growing grasses, most of which are an enigma to me, but I think I can recognise quaking grass, some oat-grasses, cat's-tail (timothy), meadow-grass. How sad I was to learn the other day that this land has been put up for sale by the local council. It feels good to walk bare-foot across this good turf, the downs becoming ingrained into the contours of my feet - the connection with the land feels more complete; I feel earthed.

A few swifts are scything their way through the air above me, silent and making ready for their journey south. This year's fledglings will remain on the wing continuously for two years, when they are sexually mature. Two years of feeding and sleeping and everything on the wing! When they are ready, they will collect nest material, build it and even mate on the wing. The parson-naturalist Gilbert White, in his classic Natural History of Selbourne, speculated that swifts spend their winters beneath the sea. If these mysterious birds were seen to head out into the big blue and disappear into the horizon, perhaps this speculation was not as laughable as it may appear to the modern reader. I speculate myself whether White imagined a flying fish-like chimera, half bird, half fish, skimming the sea before delving beneath the waves, beneath the horizon, to spring forth into the air again ahead of the following year's bowsprit.

Close to Jevington village several lynchets form a Neolithic or Romano-British field system. These are the dominant landscape feature when viewed from the Eastbourne Road earlier in the walk. They show how the slope of the field was made less steep to enable less arduous cultivation. Scrub is now encroaching across the strips of land between the mounds. How long since they were last worked? The short foot-worn grass of the path above the lynchets is littered with ears of wheat, evidence that crows have been collecting their share of the harvest ahead of the farmer. One could be forgiven for thinking that children had plucked the tops and arranged them along the path. Only a tiny share of the wheat is taken and it saddens me that farmers feel the need to persecute these intelligent birds, even though they help the farmer at other times of the growing year by predating on crop and soil pests, as well as plundering other birds' nests for eggs and chicks. A farm between Rodmell and Southease shoots and strings-up dead corvids on stakes in a field by the roadside - a shocking sight, but a practise that has some effect because the crows do seem to take notice and feed elsewhere. Records of crow persecution are held in many parish churchwardens' accounts dating back to the first of the so-called Tudor Vermin Acts in 1532, although the killing undoubtedly stretches back way before grain was first protected by Royal decree, when not sharing the harvest while in the grip of the Little Ice Age could have reduced the likelihood of starvation, malnutrition and death.

Efforts to cull corvids never succeeded (intensive use of insecticides after 1945 was much more effective) and, to prove it, the local rookery now takes to the air before me in a wonderful cacophony: rooks and jacks wheeling up and around the church and back into the trees, with only a few breaking off in a sortie to pursue and harry the passing buzzard.

The noise settles to leave only the soft hush of ash leaves and the chatter of a charm of goldfinches, who usher me and three tired boys back through a hay-cut field, bearing on its fallen stems the empty pupal cases of fledged burnet moths, back from the Neolithic, through Romano-British and medieval, pagan and Christian, sacred and profane daydreams to Jevington - the jewel of these ancient downs.

Saturday, 30 July 2016

Hemingway's Green Hills

 
 
I have just read Hemingway's Green Hills of Africa. I avoided it before, and I was wrong to do it, thinking that the subject matter would be at odds with my own views about trophy hunting and pointless, unsustainable, unnecessary slaughter; wrong because, although his and my views are indeed at odds, there are others in his memoir whose concerns he records that do chime with my own strong opinions about the killing. He is also pragmatic and honest about his own shortcomings as a hunter and a man.

It is a masterpiece of boiled-down no-nonsense prose, written in his distinctive, economic style which I admire and love. The thing that has moved me to write this, though, is that towards the end there's a stunning environmental message which describes very well the impacts of unsustainable agriculture and globalisation. I wasn't expecting it; it struck me hard and I had to read it three or four times over to enjoy his simple eloquence. It could be a metaphor for any unsustainable activity. The passage places him in the avant garde of those early American environmental writers. This was written in 1935:
"A continent ages quickly once we come. The natives live in harmony with it. But the foreigner destroys, cuts down the trees, drains the water, so that the water supply is altered, and in a short time the soil, once the sod is turned under, is cropped out, and the next it starts to blow away as it has blown away in every old country and as I had seen it start to blow in Canada. The earth gets tired of being exploited. A country wears out quickly unless man puts back in it all his residue and that of all his beasts. When he quits using beasts and uses machines the earth defeats him quickly. The machine can't reproduce, nor does it fertilize the soil, and it eats what he cannot raise. A country was made to be as we found it."
This message is as relevant now as it was back then. Hemingway wrote this fourteen years before Aldo Leopold published his classic work of ethical environmentalism A Sand County Almanac, but he must have been influenced by somebody - maybe John Muir or Franklin D. Roosevelt - before he went hunting! 
 
Hemingway's warning went unheeded and his main quarry in the book, the Kudu, has suffered population decline as a result of over-hunting and habitat loss to farming. It is now on the low-risk register of the IUCN's Red List of endangered species. But the number of farms is doing well, however tired or cropped-out the earth is.

Thursday, 21 July 2016

Butterflies and moths seen at Newhaven's Castle Hill LNR in mid-July


Week 16 of the 2016 transect-walking season



Rosebay Willowherb
It was my turn again this week to survey Castle Hill LNR for butterflies and moths - and the weather, for the first time this year, was perfect. Good weather allows for a more accurate picture of which species are present at the site and also their relative numbers. I saw a total of 34 species and over a thousand individuals (1013 in total). These included four species which had not previously been recorded at the reserve (one of these - the Dun-bar - flew into my car as I arrived!).
Despite the cliff-bottom slumps being used as a camp site, outdoor latrine, waste disposal area and bonfire and barbeque site, I was pleased to see that our small colony of Crescent Plume moths has survived another year.
If the weather remains good, the next few weeks should produce similar numbers, with Common blue numbers increasing through August. With such an abundance of insects and flowers in bloom, this is the best time of the year to visit the nature reserve. Enjoy it while it lasts!
Here's the list in full:

Moths (18 species)
Six-spot Burnet (Zygaena filipendulae)  72
Ginger Button (Acleris aspersana)  1
Pale Lettuce Bell (Eucosma conterminana)  1
Orange-spot Piercer (Pammene aurana)  1 - first site record
Satin Grass-veneer (Crambus perlella)  1 - first site record
Straw Grass-veneer (Agriphila straminella)  3
Little Grass-veneer (Platytes cerussella)  3
Straw-barred Pearl (Pyrausta despicata) 1
Twin-barred Knot-horn (Homoeosoma sinuella)  1
Crescent Plume (Marasmarcha lunaedactyla)  4
Oak Eggar (Lasiocampa quercus)  1
Shaded Broad-bar (Scotopteryx chenopodiata)  1
Green Pug (Pasiphila rectangulata)  1
Cinnabar (Tyria jacobaeae)  2
Large Yellow Underwing (Noctua pronuba)  1
Dun-bar (Cosmia trapezina)  1 - first site record
Cloaked Minor (Mesoligia furuncula)  1 - first site record
Silver Y (Autographa gamma)  15
Butterflies (16 species)
Essex Skipper (Thymelicus lineola)  55
Small Skipper (Thymelicus sylvestris)  16
Large Skipper (Ochlodes sylvanus)  1
Large White (Pieris brassicae)  17
Small White (Pieris rapae)  69
Green-veined White (Pieris napi)  77
Speckled Wood (Pararge aegeria)  6
Meadow Brown (Maniola jurtina)  129
Gatekeeper (Pyronia tithonus)  200
Marbled White (Melanargia galathea)  292
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)  22
Peacock (Aglais io)  1
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae)  7
Comma (Polygonia c-album)  5
Small Copper (Lycaena phlaeas)  1
Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus)  4
Wild Carrot (Daucus carota) growing on the cliff-bottom slumps
 
Rough mixed grasses and flowers by Barrow Head
Agrimony reaching up by Barrow Head


Hemp Agrimony on the north slope - an excellent nectar source for butterflies
Buddleia above Bickerstaff's Bend - a good nectar source for moths at twilight

Alfriston Clergy House: a sanctuary of stability


After two hours spent at the beach this morning, I was ready by midday to beat a retreat. The temperature was passing 30°C - the hottest day of the year so far. The advice was to drink lots of water and stay in the shade and to close blinds to help keep your home cooler. Alternatively, sometimes it is cooler still to leave the house and sit beneath a tree. That was all the encouragement I needed.

I have been nursing a bruised rib - the result of an accident involving a metal five-barred gate and a reluctant dog. The pain is blossoming with each day, so my plans for some 'epic' walking this week have been painfully deferred. Just as well, perhaps, given the heatwave that most of us are enjoying. A gentler pastime was required and my preferred choice of venue today was The Clergy House at Alfriston, where I intended to lose myself in a book in the shade for a couple of hours. "Have you visited us before?", asked the helpful guide. "Yes." "Ah, well you know what you're doing then!" I did; I had a couple of books under my arm and no intention to enter the cool of the 14th-century hall and instead headed for the cool of the garden.

I chose a shaded spot between a hawthorn and grey willow and by a stream edge which forms the back border of the property. A blue-green screen of Phragmites reeds and blue sky was all I could see when seated on the ground. There were no distractions and I intended to absorb myself within one or both of my books. The water was a hive of activity: whirligig beetles and fish fry meandered on and just below the still surface while a banded demoiselle - a beautiful emerald female - and blue-tailed damselflies danced just above it, resting for a moment on the reed stems. As I settled a large fly alighted on my leg (my body heat no doubt a glowing beacon). The fly looked like a picture-wing fly on steroids and I recognised it as one of the deerflies - members of the horsefly family. The part of me that likes to know everything there is to know nearly persuaded me to allow the deerfly to rest long enough to photograph it for identification later, but common sense won over before the fly gorged upon my blood. Although their fearsome reputation is well-earned, they are nonetheless beautiful, striking flies, and particularly so their eyes. It got the message and disappeared, presumably to some unfortunate livestock nearby.

A moorhen broke the silence with an explosive shriek, made me start, revealing its presence amongst the reeds just a few feet before me. A female mallard, the subject of the moorhen's scorn, hurriedly exited the reeds. A Cetti's warbler echoed the alarm a few moments later with its overloud aquatic gurgle, while a gentler reed warbler sang amongst the reeds somewhere unseen. This was the peaceful oasis I had hoped for. Two or three red admirals patrolled energetically above me while a skipper, meadow browns and various whites skimmed and floated back and forth. A mixed group of long-tailed, blue and great tits moved its way through the grey willow, one long-tailed tit venturing to within an arm's length of me, fearless, while inspecting one of the lower branches. I could hear some greenfinches in the canopy above and, above all I heard the cries of swifts as they scythed through the unbroken big blue, and then swallows too at a lower altitude. The air was almost still and carried the scents of subtly stagnant water and straw and intermittent sounds from the middle distance: occasional drones of light aircraft passing overhead, a farm vehicle being manoeuvred (a harvester?) and the bellicose boasts of distant woodpigeons. These sounds swelled and fell away, rose again and receded to leave just the hush of the reeds in the slightest air. All was well and I imagined how the protective embrace of the National Trust ensured this soundscape from day to day, year to year, and was thankful for this tiny pinprick of biodiversity. I laid back on the grass, in the shade of the hawthorn, and dozed.

I recalled a couple of news stories I had heard  in recent days on the radio which reported that the world's biodiversity had been found to have entered an unsafe level of decline and that June 2016 was the fourteenth month in succession that global temperatures have risen to a new record high. The usual warnings were given about climate change, global warming, rising sea levels, the loss of pollinating insects and the threat that ecosystems are becoming unable to support human populations. There is a serious concern that many people hear, watch or read these headlines without much thought about what this means in practise. It could mean not only hunger but starvation and thirst, not only illness but death, not only the collapse of economies but the collapse of societies, conflict for resources, riots, warfare, displacement, famine, disease, and ultimately silence. People cannot be blamed if the reality beyond the headlines cannot be grasped: we are consumers who have been failed by successive governments and exploited by big business, hell bent on reaping the fruit of their neoliberal endeavours without considering the costs to the environment and to successive generations. The public feel misrepresented, abused and lied to. We have become cynical and have lost faith that our leaders will work in the long-term interests of the environment and all who rely on healthy and functioning ecosystems. We feel powerless, disenfranchised and resentful. We have been spoon-fed summer movie blockbusters in which natural disasters have destroyed swathes of the Earth. Has this contributed to a numbness felt to the threat of Armageddon? In an age of instant gratification, global climate change occurs at too slow a pace or on too distant a shore for us to notice it. Do we literally have to wait until our feet get wet or until our stomachs cramp with hunger or until our doctors tell us there is no longer a cure before we demand of our politicians that action is taken or make personal changes to our consumption? I fear that this will be the threshold for change, but it will by then already be too late. Some island states will already have been claimed by rising sea levels, their populations made environmental refugees and immigrants shifted elsewhere (but not here!).

Some things need rescuing: the Clergy House in 1893, prior to its acquisition
The National Trust's full name is the National Trust for Places of Historic Interest of Natural Beauty. It was established in 1895 and the Alfriston Clergy House was its first acquisition, in 1896. It is a tiny property and this is a tiny dot amongst the 985 square miles of land holdings within its property. Other significant land owners in the United Kingdom include the Forestry Commission, the Ministry of Defence, various pension funds, utility companies, the Crown Estate, the RSPB, the various Wildlife Trusts and, in Scotland, the Scottish National Trust, the Duke of Buccleuch and Quensberry Estates and the Duke of Atholl's Trusts. Most but not all of these land owners engage in large-scale conservation and protection of their properties. This amounted to 9533 square miles in 2010, which is about ten percent of the UK's total land area of 94060 square miles. Only 6 percent of the entire UK falls within the greater protection of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSIs). Most of these and other 'benevolent' land ownerships are tiny pockets - islands of biodiversity - and, however rich they may be in biodiversity (and not all SSSIs are), they are too small and too fragmented and management strategies are not always successful or properly funded. Land uses between these ‘islands’ prevent the formation of green corridors which might link the dots together and allow the safe migration and genetic mixing of species. Fragmented populations and genetic bottle-necks are much less resilient to shocks and stressors - stressors which include unseasonably warm winters and extreme rainfall, early plant flowering seasons and droughts, changes in land use and even neglect of habitats and scrub growth.

Newhaven is a microcosm of this effect: for all its industry and commerce, the town has a relative wealth of 'open spaces' and wildlife reserves, including the 'three peaks' of Castle Hill, Meeching Down and Bollen's Bush, where rare examples of chalk heath exist, and others such as the Valley Ponds, Riverside Park, Drove Park, and the manicured Hugget's Green, a field at Bay Vue Road, Avis Field the cemetery and churchyards, and the recreation grounds at Fort Road, Lewes Road and South Heighton. These are not linked by green corridors. Areas of open land which might be used to create green corridors, such as that between Court Farm Road and the Newhaven Academy (Tideway School), are earmarked for development. Even the metalled surface of a road is an insurmountable obstacle to many species such as plants, amphibians, reptiles and small mammals. The result is a series of fragmented 'island' communities which are less resilient to those environmental stressors listed above. 

In 1920, following restoration - little has changed in 100 years
When properties such as the beautiful, serene, little oasis at Alfriston are visited, often at times of stunning weather, one can be fooled into believing that the climate change deniers are right and that our wildlife is not in peril. But how many cuckoos were heard from the garden of the Clergy House this year when compared with that of one hundred years ago? Back then, did the trill of the turtle dove add another layer to the soundscape? How long since it was last heard here? Or the plop of the water vole? Things disappear very quietly and often without notice. It seems such a good idea to build over that piece of rough ground to relieve the need for more roads or parking or houses; but with the loss of those plants was also a field full of crickets, moths, flies and other insects which fed the spiders and voles and bats and birds. Those and other species were displaced and plunged into conflict with other populations for ever dwindling resources. We do not see or hear this happening; we don't see their decline; some of us don't understand; many do not care. As a society we will not realise the peril of this situation until we are engaged in the same conflict amongst ourselves - and by then we will also starve, fight and die. I feel there is no guarantee that even then we will see the error of our unsustainable ways and put things right. It's just not in our nature, collectively, to do so. Vested interest may yet see our demise. 

Back by the bank of the stream, the alarm call of the moorhen brings me back awake with a start. National Trust properties are special places of stability and good management. They hold in trust many historic and natural places. It is hard to imagine that the scene at the Clergy House has encountered much in the way of change during the past century, other than the decline in the soundscape of horses and carts and the rise of mechanisation. Most of the creatures are still present, but some have declined and some have disappeared, mostly unnoticed. The reed warbler twitches through to the front of the reeds and reveals itself. Above me a parent great tit is calling insistently to her fledglings and, after a minute or two of concern, they assemble and fly off together, safer in their family group. The hush of the reeds is the one constant. It is as though they are trying to bring something important to our attention.

References:  

Biodiversity falls below 'safe levels' globally, Imperial College London, 14th July 2016.

Hottest ever June marks 14th month of record-breaking temperatures, The Guardian, 20th July 2016