30 Days Wild – Day 26

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.

dark green fritillary pair

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.

egg-laying large skipper

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.

downland villa fly

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.

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.

Leptura quadrifasciata

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.

Variimorda villosa

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.

yellowhammer

30 Days Wild – Day 24 – Up on the Downs and Down by the Sea

We travelled up to Martin Down in the morning, specifically Kitts Grave the part of the reserve that belongs to the Wildlife Trust. This area of the reserve is a patchwork of chalk grassland and scrub, this type of diverse, herb rich habitat with lots of shelter is preferred by lots of insects, it offers lots of possibilities.

musk thistle with marbled white 2

musk thistle and marbled white

Plants like thistles and knapweeds are very good nectar sources used by lots of insects.

greater knapweed

greater knapweed

The scrub offers both shelter and an additional variety of flowers, bramble being very important and popular. I found the large hoverfly Volucella inflata feeding on a bramble flower.

Volucella inflata

Volucella inflata (female)

As I was photographing it a male flew in and mating took place.

Volucella inflata pair mating

Volucella inflata pair mating

A few years ago when at Old Winchester Hill I found a rare bee-fly, the downland villa Villa cingulata , at the time it was only the second Hampshire record in recent times. It appears it has been spreading as I found several, easily five or more, egg-laying females at Kitts Grave, I am not sure if they are recorded from there before.

Downland Villa

Downland Villa Villa cingulata

We saw a good range of butterflies including very recently emerged silver-washed fritillary and white admiral.

We retired home during the heat of the afternoon so I was briefly in the garden….

What’s in My Meadow Today?

One plant I was keen to establish was lady’s bedstraw, it has tiny yellow flowers unlike most of our bedstraws which have white flowers. It grows on dry chalk soils mainly but also turns up on dry sandy areas even in acid areas.

lady's bedstraw

lady’s bedstraw

I seem to have only got one plant to establish but it is spreading to form quiet a significant patch.

Once the day started to cool we ventured down to the coast to Lepe Country Park. Years ago I established another meadow area at this site, although in this case it was from a deep ploughed cereal field, it is now a SINC (Site of Importance for Nature Conservation) for its wildflower community. Creating grasslands of real wildlife value is relatively easy and gets quick results, helping to redress the massive loss of these habitats. Planting trees is much more popular, despite the fact that it will probably take hundreds of years for them to achieve significant value for wildlife. As anyone who manages open habitat will know trees will colonise and grow quite happily without encouragement. In fact colonising trees are one of the threats to herb-rich grasslands.

However we were on the beach, looking at beach species. Stabilised sand and shingle has its own specialist plants, one of which is sea spurge.

sea spurge

sea spurge

Rather more attractive is the yellow-horned poppy.

yellow-horned poppy

yellow-horned poppy

The long pods which give this poppy its name can be seen in this shot.

It was getting late and there were lots of small moths flying about, in the end I managed to get a picture of one, it was a Pyralid moth, quite a common one found in a variety of dry habitats, called Homoeosoma sinuella.

Homoeosoma sinuella

Homoeosoma sinuella

Off the beach an adult gannet was flying about, quite a regular sight in The Solent these days.