A walk from Steyning, along the field edge with those lumpy Downs caught in a smoke-like haze. The sun beat over the hilltops, the trees naked, grey and brown without leaves. Hazel catkins were the only decorations.
We walked through an old farm replete with buildings that seemed to be crumbling. The ground underneath was churned up with that grey gloop where the downland chalk meets the Wealden mud, a Sussex special.
The woods were cold and quiet except when labourers felled a tree somewhere in the shade of the Downs. It crashed down and broke into pieces. No doubt an ash tree, dead or dying like so many of them across this once ashy landscape.
On the banks there were the first signs of woodland spring, with dogs mercury leafing and some flowering.
Rising up towards Chanctonbury Ring, the views north were dulled by a dense grey fog that looked like London’s winter pollution belt.
A stand of dead ash trees led to the top of the Downs, where a pair of marsh tit passed between the brittle branches, calling as they moved from tree to tree.
A new vista opened out with the views south, hills folding away into the haze. Black trees breaking the lines.
Further along the South Downs Way a great roaring emerged from the south and an Apache helicopter flew low overhead. It felt too low. A flock of what I thought were starlings were spooked and seemed to fly right at the helicopter.
A second helicopter appeared, banking north and turning 90 degrees as it slid over the edge of the Downs and dropped out of view into the Weald beyond.
A man came past on a bike and stopped to speak to us, registering our surprise: ‘Have you never been here when they do that? I just hope they’re training Ukrainian soldiers and that they’ll be sending them out there.’
We heard stories of accidents that had happened when the appearance of sudden, low-flying military aircraft had disrupted the flow of civil life in the wider landscape.
Up ahead beyond the enclosed South Downs Way, cattle grazed the green hill, unperturbed by the helicopters. In the valley to the south one of the few hedgerows to be seen jangled with the key-song of corn buntings.
The light was low over the Arun valley. To the south the Sussex coast was a band of grey concrete, the horizon between sky and sea broken only by the pale sticks of the offshore wind farms. The Isle of Wight rested out at sea to the west like a great sleeping sloth.
The Arun’s floodplain had traces of silver, the remains of January floods. The rain had gone quiet in recent weeks, and so the wetlands were receding back to the river.
The birds were quiet, too. Every now and then a small flock broke and reformed in leafless branches, possibly linnets, goldfinches, chaffinches, it was hard to tell. A red kite followed the crests of the Downs for much of the seven I walked along the South Downs Way that day.
When I first turned off the main road onto the trail, I saw a couple planting out the fresh green leaves of cherry laurel, no doubt to screen their farmland. I gasped but said nothing. They worked at speed, focused intently on their planting.
Cherry laurel is one of the most invasive and ecologically destructive shop-bought species in the UK. I’ve spent much of my recent working life removing it from oak woods. I firmly believe it should be banned from sale. Holly and yew do just as good a job as screening hedges and are nowhere near as destructive. England’s most ecologically rich and diverse woodlands are usually oak, a tree that loses out every single time to cherry laurel. It can also become established in downlands, of which the South Downs are famous.
A couple of weeks ago I was working with a group of volunteers pulling cherry laurel saplings from an ancient oak woodland that holds a diversity of broad-leaved tree species, namely: oak, ash, wych elm, hazel, holly, yew, field maple, hawthorn, guelder rose, and more. Where cherry laurel has become established in this woodland, all of these species would disappear without intervention. So the task was very clear – remove the self-seeded laurel saplings before they become established and reduce the woodland to a monoculture of one species.
That is the fundamental issue with monocultures of invasive species: the diversity of plants, fungi and animals dies out. That is bad for everyone and everything, even laurel eventually.
This is a tree that originates in the Balkans and is available in most garden centres as a quick-growing, glossy evergreen to create a screen in a garden. It’s also toxic.
Of course there are many species which have toxic chemicals in them, and humans are experts at introducing them to the environment, but I’ve personally felt the impact of laurel’s toxicity.
Some years ago I somehow got a very small laurel splinter into the vein in my wrist. The following day my wrist swelled-up and a line appeared down the middle-underside of my forearm from the site of the splinter. I went to the accident and emergency and was forwarded through to a care unit where they injected my hand with antibiotics and took several tests, including an ECG. They puzzled over the issue and sent me home with a prescription of more antibiotics. Laurel wasn’t even on their register of toxic plants on that December day in 2017. The infection dropped away after the NHS’s treatment and a few weeks later a miniscule, redundant piece of laurel splinter appeared from my wrist.
Cherry laurel contains cyanide in its leaves and is used by entomologists, or so I’ve heard, to create kill jars for trapping invertebrates. That said, yew is of course also toxic, and the cherry family (which laurel resides in) holds cyanide as a defence mechanism in many of its relatives. The laurel is just doing what’s in its nature, its our role in spreading it to places where it causes harm that is an issue.
Along the South Downs Way, there was much better news. For miles I observed a trench dug into a farmer’s field and saplings of hawthorn and other native hedgerow species planted. This new hedgerow spread for several miles, an incredible contribution from the farmer, or perhaps volunteers who had been involved. Britain has lost 50% of its native mixed hedgerows since the Second World War and, in a landscape home to declining farmland birds like corn bunting and yellowhammer, this new habitat will make a huge difference.
In this case, the difference will be a positive one.
In early December I was passing through the village of Amberley in West Sussex. It’s a very quaint village at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex. This rather well updated cottage is located at the roadside, at the end of the village’s main throughway. It was surrounded by rather sinister, leaden skies, as rain threatened to pass through. Thankfully it didn’t.
It’s very difficult to get photos of these buildings without cars nearby, but I feel that it gives a sense of the cottage’s place in time. The model and type of vehicle will likely be very different in 50 years time, when the cottage should still be there, such is the level of investment and care that goes into these buildings in this area.
On the left hand side you can see part of an old barn, with its sloping thatched roof and its clapboard-style entranceway, where wagons would once have been drawn in to unload.
Another week of some sun, some showers, and some temperatures that got close to freezing. That sentence may turn out to be a spring epistrophe, but more of that later. In Scotland it reached as low as -5C. April 2023 has been a mishmash of seasons. Here’s what I encountered in my garden on 22nd…
On a recent visit to the National Trust’s Nymans Gardens I spotted some big, cream-coloured things in the lawns near the car park. No, these were not scones or cream cakes, or even pasties discarded by visitors.
This week’s single photograph is an old ash tree in Amberley, West Sussex, taken on 2nd December 2022. This tree may once have been part of a laid hedgerow, hence its wider base. Ash trees are disappearing from the British landscape thanks to the invasive fungus known as ash dieback. I do try and record the older ash trees when I see them. This tree’s left-hand branch is pointing to one of the highest hills locally, Amberley Mount, up on the South Downs. The bracket fungus seen higher up the tree is probably shaggy bracket.
On a warm and clear day in October I walked between two of Sussex’s most famous and well-loved hillforts: Chanctonbury Ring and Cissbury Ring. This is a walk that you can access by public transport, with buses to Washington and then from Findon off the A24.
I didn’t know much about Iron Age hillforts until I worked in the South Downs National Park and had the chance to learn from people working at the National Trust and other heritage experts. Still, my knowledge is not strong on this subject.
It is amazing to think that these hilltops might once have held the equivalent of small villages, using the hilltops to monitor the movement of people across land in the north, and at sea in the south.
The walk winds its way up through woodland to Washington chalk pits, an old chalk quarry that’s now habitat for butterflies and orchids. Here you get good views north to the Greensand Hills where Leith Hill, the highest point in SE England can be spotted (out of shot on the right hand side in the north).
It wouldn’t be a walk for me without the sighting of something fungal. The cow pats in a field approaching Cissbury Ring contained some inkcaps which may be the uncommon snowy inkcap. In the distance the ridge of the Downs bowls away west towards Amberley and the Arun Valley.
Immediately upon ascending the Downs, you can get good views south to Cissbury Ring, a hillfort much, much bigger than Chanctonbury Ring. In the distance are views of the south coast and, in this image, the Rampion windfarm. It’s named after ‘the pride of Sussex’, round-headed rampion, a flower more common in the South Downs.
You approach Chanctonbury Ring on the South Downs Way. I like this subtle stretch of the trail, with the beech trees that cover the ring giving a parkland feel.
In the distance beyond Chanctonbury Ring are the aerial towers of Truleigh Hill, home to the Youth Hostel and secret bunkers (apparently).
I first heard of Chanctonbury Ring when reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways. There are stories of the ring being ‘haunted’, not just by nature writers. It’s a welcome place to sit and rest, taking in the views under the fair shade of the beech trees. You can understand why this smaller hillfort would be such a good location to observe the comings and goings in the surrounding landscape.
Continuing east on the South Downs Way, views of Devil’s Dyke begin to open out. During the walk the site was visible through the glinting of the sun hitting car windows in the National Trust car park!
Devil’s Dyke (what is one of the most dramatic and awe-inspiring parts of the Downs) can be seen in the mid-left/centre of the image where the dark lump of woodland sits atop the ridge. Truleigh Hill is again visible with the masts.
Turning back to look over your shoulder gives a nice view of Chanctonbury Ring. I think the lump of hills in the right hand side of the image is Black Down, the highest point in the South Downs National Park, near Haslemere in Surrey.
Leaving the site of Chanctonbury Ring gives the impression of walking straight into the sea.
There’s a southern turning to take towards Cissbury Ring and off the South Downs Way. The track leads alongside arable fields and shooting cover. In this view the distant shape of the Isle of Wight is visible in the top right.
The resplendent South Downs set against a ribbon of blue sea and cloud-scattered sky.
Approaching views of Cissbury Ring.
Cissbury Ring is owned by the National Trust, thank god.
On Cissbury Ring there are better views of Brighton and the Seven Sisters cliffs reaching round to Eastbourne. This was a good way to observe the landing of invading armies but probably also to monitor trade.
Out at sea you can get closer views of the white turbines of the windfarm. The development required cables to be dug into the landscape, with a long strip having to be cut through the Downs to reach the electricity terminal. One person I know who lives in Hove said they were comforted by the red flashing lights on the horizon at night.
This sycamore tree got quite a lot of Instagram interest during lockdown, when a local person posted stunning phone pics of the sunsets up here. This is looking towards the Findon Valley.
Looking back where we’d travelled from, Chantoncbury Ring’s mini-hillfort can be seen as a beech clump on the hill, but much smaller now.
To the west, if you have binoculars, you can see the City of Portsmouth outlined on the horizon.
A last look across the Findon Valley, west into the Downs. The ramparts of the hillfort are in the image’s foreground.
I went for an evening walk down the old trackway to the foot of the mountain. The track was flooded, meaning that without wellies I had to find tussocks and rocks to move further. Where the track turned, I noticed a ram of some kind grazing up ahead. After a time, I realised it was…
A couple of weeks ago I spent some time in the Arun valley, my local access point to the South Downs. At last some rain came and we watched it shift across the Downs, all the way over to the Greensand Hills in Surrey.
I remember looking at this view in April 2021 after a year of lockdowns and computer screens. I honestly did not believe it was real. Perhaps it was the veil of mist, or perhaps I had developed some mental or neurological disorder from so much time stuck at home.
The Arun valley around Amberley is a crossing point (or perhaps washing point) of the Weald and Downs – where the river that rises in the High Weald’s most westerly point cuts a course through the chalk hills. It has wetlands of international significance in Amberley Wildbrooks and nearby Pulborough Brooks.
Like the nearby Adur, probably better known to people because it passes through the very fashionable Knepp Estate, it used to be a much wilder and freer river.
Along the Arun is the village of Bury, likely to originally have been a defensive point preventing easy Viking access from the coast, up the Arun and towards London, a key trading point (obviously). I recently read a book about Anglo-Saxon England that included some information about King Alfred’s development of ‘boroughs’. These were defensive outposts alongside rivers designed to protect from Viking invasion, which happened so regularly and to great effect in Alfred’s time.
The boroughs were an effective means of defence, for a time at least. I can think of so many placenames that include a borough of somekind: Pulborough, Bury (Lancashire, too), Borough (on the banks of the Thames) and Middlesbrough being the first that come to mind.
The Arun valley at Amberley is a place I first visited through working in the South Downs National Park. My relationship to it is about to change as my time with the National Park comes to an end, but that mixture of professional connection and personal fondness has always been an uneasy one.
It’s the place you can get a train to, which is rare in the South Downs, and enjoy some of the most accessible downland walking. There are views to the North Downs and then south to the coast. The Amberley Downs have glow worms, junipers, barn owls, ravens and rare butterflies like the duke of bergundy. It’s also home to vast monocultures of ‘improved’ grassland that were once rich in communities of now rare plants.
The South Downs was first floated as a National Park contender in 1929 but the devastation to its chalk grasslands from the need to plough it up for crops in the Second World War left it a poor relation to the seemingly untouchable Lake District, Yorkshire Dales and Peak District. It only got full ratification as one of the final acts of the outgoing Labour Government in 2010. The Conservatives who followed have begun to cut National Park budgets through flat cash settlements, despite the effect this might have on such a strongly conservative social make-up (‘the shires’ or ‘blue wall’).
The pre-war Downs were sold as one reason to fight for Britain’s sovereignty from Nazi Invasion in the Second World War. How ironic that they ended up being denuded by the very same need to survive. Once the Downs would have been roamed by shepherds grazing large expanses of chalk downland. Today the South Downs feels in some places like an outdoor factory of intensive agriculture, with miles and miles of fences. It is not a wild place in the way that people imagine American National Parks, which in themselves were not necessarily ‘wildernesses’ either due to prior Native American presence. But it is still an incredible place to witness England’s wildlife and geology,
In Rebirding, a sort of bird conservation polemic, Benedict Macdonald questions the designation of the South Downs as a National Park because of its rolling hills and chalk grasslands, having read this on the website. Ironically the South Downs is one of the most wooded in its tracts of the ancient Low Weald, and home to internationally significant wetlands like those along the Arun at Pulborough. Chalk grassland is also one of the rarest habitats in Europe. It is an astonishing range of habitats, with the dry lowland heath now very rare after the Victorian and 20th-century devastation of the ‘wastes’.
The whole 100 miles of the South Downs, from Eastbourne in East Sussex, to Winchester in Hampshire, has been in my thoughts most days for the past 4 years. The Arun valley now becomes for me that gateway that exists for so many people who don’t have to consider a National Park in its entirety, a psychological doorway into somewhere freer, better and more ‘wild’.
In June I was down on the Sussex coast at the mouth of the river Cuckmere. During a bioblitz event I was supporting I discovered something I never expected to see. At the foot of either the first or seventh of the Seven Sisters cliffs, the fenceline and surrounding grasslands were alive with invertebrates. One large thistle plant was covered in all kinds of insects. I felt especially drawn to a beautiful orange and black ichneumon wasp clambering over the spiny leaves. But there was something else that caught my eye.
I noticed a dead fly in a quite unnatural position, a bit like an upside down koala. It was clamped onto one of the spines in a way that reminded me of the famous victims of the parasitic ‘zombie fungus’ cordyceps. Luckily I had my macro lens with me and could get a close-up of the fly.
The body looked an unusual shade for this species and, looking closer, you could see it was kind of mouldy. I showed everyone I could, taking away the images and several questions I needed to answer for myself!
That afternoon I put the photos on Twitter and had a quick reply from Lukas Large, a known fungi expert in the UK. He said it was a species of entomophthora, a group of fungi that kill flies, just as this one had done. It does much more than that beforehand, however.
Somehow, the fungus enters a final stage of mummification where it ‘gains control’ of the fly’s brain and therefore control over its functions. The fungus is then able to make the fly move to a high position in order to disperse its spores from the dead fly. That is mind blowing in more ways than one.
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Hello! I wanted to do a blog update post as I have fallen behind with writing and photography, but am still in existence. Believe me it pains me not having the time or mental space to write anything, possibly more than it pains you to read this blog. I’ve just finished working on a short-term…
I was out and about in the Cuckmere Valley in May and had the chance to learn a little bit about some of the species found there. Here’s a small selection of images, a blend of phone pics and some from my camera.
Once again I was treated to the sight of early spider orchids, a plant I blogged about only recently. This was a big surprise, having spent a lot of time looking for them elsewhere. This is a nationally rare plant and I won’t be giving away its location. I did get the chance to learn that the flower mimics the scent of the buffish mining bee. The male bee is lured in and attempts to mate with the flower, thereby pollinating it. In the photo above you can see the pollen grains that have been helpfully, accidentally, applied by the visiting bee.
The mining bees live in the nearest exposed areas of chalk where they drill their burrows. It’s a short commute to their deceptive orchid neighbours.
The blackthorn hedges were holding populations of moth caterpillars that cover the branches in webs of silk. This is the kind of thing that pops up in local newspapers as some kind of wild clickbait. The moth is known as the lackey in English. What the significance of that name (or any of the number of weird moth names) is unclear to me.
We found this proto-Mesolithic (Stone Age) scene, with a discarded King Alfred’s cakes fungus. The fungus had probably been used to maintain the fire of one or more disposable barbecues. The stones were littered across the scorched earth like the throwaways of some prehistoric stone mason.
On the banks of the Cuckmere’s static meanders are ranks of hoary cress. At first I thought they looked like a type of sedum but in fact they’re in the cabbage family. This is an introduced species.
A view back up the Cuckmere meanders, at very low levels for the time of year. Two little egrets can be seen here.
Thanks for reading.
More macro (my tags/categories seem to be broken at the moment – will try and fix them!)
Chalk grassland is an incredible habitat. It’s extremely rich in plants and animals, with high cultural value from the historical assosciations with human activity over at least 8000 years. In the UK it defines the downlands of Sussex, Hampshire, Dorset and Wessex. Sounds like an episode of The Last Kingdom. Thankfully I was spared the sword (this time).
In early May I was fortunate enough to visit a chalk grassland site near Brighton with two people who knew the landscape extremely well. I had been invited to visit this area to help find early spider orchids 3 years ago but the pandemic got in the way of travelling there.
I visited on a sunny day in what was a very dry spring indeed (I hate how dry winter 2021/spring 2022 have been). We had heard of hundreds of orchids in recent weeks at the site but only found 3. It was baffling. Perhaps we were just too late and the dry conditions had brought an end to their season earlier than expected.
These orchids get their names from the fact their flower looks like a spider. You may be familiar with the names of bee, fly, man, lady, lizard and monkey orchids also.
They are truly beautiful.
During the survey a woman came over to talk about orchids. Her knowledge was incredible, with known locations across Kent and Sussex. She travelled by train from her home in north London.
She showed us a gentian, a type she said was only found at this location in the UK.
Perhaps the most abundant plant was milkwort, appearing in white, pink and blue.
This is some kind of daisy (probably hawkbit) with petals that look like hands shielding something.
There were a fair number of small beetles in the grasslands, including this click beetle (I think).
A nice surprise was finding a small blue, one of the rarest butterflies in the UK. This is a very small blue, though most of them in Britain are small anyway. They’re pretty much tied to chalk grasslands from what I know.
A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.
The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.
Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.