Looking ahead the next few days look poor with rain for at least part of every day, so a sunny morning presented an opportunity to get out and the call of the Downs won over again, this time it was Martin Down. Martin Down is the largest intact downland area in Hampshire and home to significant populations of corn bunting, yellowhammer, grey partridge and turtle dove. It is also now a the heart of the Martin Down Farm Cluster, this is a group of farms that have come together to improve their farms for all of the above species and many more downland specialists. Big though Martin Down is it cannot support viable populations of many species in the long term, so sympathetic management of neighbouring land is essential.
I spent most of my time in the Kitts Grave area, not the classic open grassland downland, but a mosaic of grassland and scrub. Martin Down is a National Nature Reserve and managed by Natural England, Kitts Grave is part of the reserve but is owned by the Wildlife Trust, so I occasionally get to go there in a work capacity as well. The whole reserve is famous for its butterflies and although the day was not completely sunny they were out in some force.
There were quiet good numbers of marbled white and meadow brown, but most of the blues were looking quite battered by recent weather. The rain does make for lost of growth though, ideal for growing caterpillars, so long as it is not too heavy.
I did not restrict myself to butterflies as there are so many more insects to look at. Over the last few years the downland villa, Villa cingulata has turned up at lots of new sites, probably benefiting from climate change. I narrowly missed out of finding the first for Hampshire, when I found one at Old Winchester a few years ago as there had been one seen a short while before near Winchester, so mine was the second. I have since seen them at Martin Down and Noar Hill, so they are widespread across the county now.
This is one of the bee-flies and they scatter their eggs around the nesting areas of solitary bees, the larvae then live as parasites in the nests, so they have probably spread along with an increase their bee hosts.
As well as butterflies there are lots of day-flying moths too, the most striking of which are the burnets moths. There are several species, I am pretty sure this is the narrow-bordered five-spot burnet.
As well as butterflies, moths and flies there were also lots of bees and beetles. This large longhorn beetle was one that stayed still for a picture.
Rather smaller was a tumbling flower beetle, I am not certain of the species yet, but I am pretty sure it is Variimorda villosa as species of ancient broadleaved woodland, so perhaps a surprise to see it on a downland site. However this is one of the delights of Kitts Grave, where the downland merges into a block of ancient woodland.
Species rich habitats are not single entities downland needs to merge into other habitats to be great downland, woodland needs glades and transitions to grassland and scrub, this is what landscape scale conservation is about. Conservation of little islands of “pure” habitat has not long-term future, yet this is what we have largely been left with as nature reserves. Martin Down is huge for a nature reserve at about 350ha, but it is surrounded by 1000s of hectares of mainly arable farmland, unless some of the wildlife can find a way to live alongside modern agriculture it will eventually be lost. This is where the Farm Clusters come in, sympathetic management of field margins can give space for wide ranging species like turtle doves and corridors for smaller species to expand out into the wider countryside, perhaps to recolonise smaller isolated habitat islands. With luck species like yellowhammer, which were almost ubiquitous in farm hedges across the country will find a way back and a “little-bit-of-bread-and-no-cheese” will mean something again.