The Beech Tree on Kidds Hill

After a torrential downpour last month, one of our veteran trees finally gave up the ghost. The tree stood next to the road half way up Kidds Hill and was estimated to be around 200 years old which made it one of the oldest on the forest.

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Many large trees were felled for the war effort during WW1 but this behemoth survived the cull somehow. The old tree had a lot of character, having been pollarded several times during its long life. During my first weeks at Ashdown Forest, one of my colleagues showed me the curious secret hidden in one of trees’ deep crevices: a “mummified” squirrel.

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It seems that the unfortunate creature died and became lodged in the hollow. Gradually over time the tree grew around the expired squirrel, slowly preserving its skeleton in a macabre tableau. A member of the public reported the tree falling in the early hours of the morning. The road had to be closed while tree surgeons worked to make the tree safe. I had to admire their skill and dexterity as they worked on the uppermost boughs.

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We used chainsaws to process the felled tree and our tractor driver moved the larger sections off the road. The limbs of the tree contained many large burrs which we collected for the wood turners. At least the gnarly old tree will live on in the beautiful artefacts they create.

The countryside team have been busy in the warm weather, improving rides across the Forest using sandstone quarried locally, installing culverts, making repairs to bridges, putting in vehicle barriers and signage – Look out for the handsome new interpretation boards installed at the visitor centre, Hollies and Friends car parks.

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There has been a wonderful display of orchids around the verges and on the roadsides this summer including Fragrant Orchids which grow in one protected location. The ling and bell heather is just coming into flower so over the next few weeks the forest will be transformed into a riot of gorgeous colour.

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Fragrant orchid

I highly recommend you take advantage of these long warm summer evenings to seek out an exotic visitor to the Forest – the mysterious nightjar. These ground nesting birds migrate here from North Africa to breed. Their status as an Annexe 1 species is one of the reasons Ashdown Forest is designated a Special Protection Area.

To find one, walk out on to the heath just before sunset – choose an area where there are lone pine trees scattered among the heather, purple moor grass and scrubby gorse. When you’ve found a likely spot, just stop and listen. As sun sets you may hear the eerie “churring” of the nightjar coming from a nearby pine tree. If you are patient you may catch a glimpse of the kestrel-sized bird hawking for moths and insects or hear the soft “too – whip” as they call to each other in the gathering gloom.

Good Luck – and don’t forget to take a torch so you can find your way home!

 

Duncan Thatcher

A new recruit

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My name is Duncan Thatcher and I work for the Conservators of Ashdown Forest as part of the Countryside Team. I joined in September 2017 and since then I have started to get to know the Forest, its scenery, its wildlife and its people.

It has been six months of wonder. After five years of trying, I am finally in my dream job. Working in a landscape of grandeur – sometimes having to pinch myself that I’m actually still in the South East of England. The landscape in winter is so wild, so gloriously bleak at times it reminded me of the moors of North Yorkshire or the foothills of the Cumbrian Mountains. We are lucky to work in this landscape, to live here or even just spend a few hours in a truly wild open space.

Although it’s been hard work coming up to speed and learning “the way we do things here”, I have enjoyed some inspiring life affirming moments although there were times when I felt winter would never end!

We are a small team but we put our backs into whatever task we were assigned. Ride clearance was the first major task of the Autumn. It was wet muddy back breaking work, but it provided me with a tantalising glimpse of the Forest.  I saw the last Red Admiral of 2017 in the weak November sunshine as we sat on a felled beech to eat our lunch. Shortly after that the frosts came and our boots crunched through iced over puddles in the ruts. I saw the last sunset of autumn come creeping through the pines with a defiant glare before December fell on the Forest like a blanket of dusk.

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After that we moved on to clearing scrub from the heath. I found myself waist deep in heather removing birch and pine as the light faded under thick December cloud, saw the colours change in the deepening gloom. We lit bonfires to dispose of the cut scrub, hot with birch crackles, or stubbornly smoking with thick pine sap that never really got going despite our best efforts.

I saw the sun set on the Winter Solstice from Bunkers Hill. Looking south west the sky turned to rosy fire over Kings Standing while Dartford Warblers called their weird metallic buzz across the gorse.

Finally the snow came at the start of spring, which was late, a long frigid close to the wet windy winter. Wych Cross was the coldest spot in the South East at one point. I went out with the grazing team during the worst of the weather to give hay to the plucky hebridean sheep who would lamb within days of the cold snap. I broke the ice on a pond so the Exmoor Ponies could drink. They seemed grateful and pleased to see us.

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But now finally the spring has come and we see with relief the greening of the forest and the arrival of the migratory birds. We finally heard the chiff chaff one day in late March and then the floodgates opened. Before long we noted the welcome return of the blackcap, willow warbler, cuckoo and swallow. Their distinctive calls and songs ring around the forest as we work on repairing the fence around the grazing enclosure. The trees show us their green flowers—the hop like elm flowers stand out on the roadside. The hazel catkins stood for ages as a sign that one day the rain and wind will give way to sunshine a warmth…Now the oaks are out we really are in the halcyon days of spring and when the sun shines we can feel its power it sends us to the shade for lunch.

In the months to come I’ll drop by now and then to share with you some of my experiences working in such a special landscape. Bye for now.

 

Duncan

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Silver-studded Blues, Green Hunstmen, a Helleborine and goodbye from me

Right, so this is going to be my last blog for Ashdown Forest! I’m leaving to go on an adventure that even I’m not sure is actually happening until it starts, so I’d better make sure I go out on a good one!

First of all though, I must return to a recurring theme about dogs on the Forest. Yet again there has been a brutal attack on a sheep over the weekend which killed the sheep.

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The animals on Ashdown Forest are there to graze the heathland to create the best conditions for the rare wildlife that survives on lowland heathland sites.

Please, for the sake of the livestock and the wildlife on the Forest, keep your dogs under close control and really think if they are to be trusted around livestock. Dogs that are found attacking animals can and have been shot on the Forest.

Now , on to the wildlife that calls this place home! This could be quite an easy blog to write because there is so much good stuff to see out there right now. One of my first finds of note at Ashdown Forest was a Green Huntsman, Micrommata virescens, which was on the bottom of a bin bag while I was litter picking near Shadows Car Park.

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True to form, almost 2 years to the day, exactly the same thing happened in exactly the same place.

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Seemingly the best way to survey for these is to drag a big bag through long grass!

So here now comes a bit of a story of genetics and variations in plants. Here is a Bluebell with white flowers.

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This is not an albino Bluebell because only the flowers of the plant are white so this is term for this is albiflora.

To be albino, the whole plant needs to be white. So, I’m going to steal one of Steve’s finds for my blog (hey we’re all on the same team!).

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This is a Violet Helleborine, a type of orchid that has a habit of its pigment ranging from one extreme to the other. This one has virtually no pigment and because it has little or no chlorophyll it can’t photosynthesise and is purely surviving on the orchid’s relationship with the fungi in the soil.

By complete coincidence, in the same week as Steve found his Helleborine, I was having a mid-morning cup of tea and looked down to see this.

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I see this and I’m thinking that surely it can’t be another albino plant? I get down to its level and I see that not only are its leaves  extremely pale, but the stem is pretty much white the whole way down too. Then I realise that the leaves are oak-leaf shaped. Having asked some people who know about these things more than me, this is an ‘albino’ Oak sapling that has a condition called ‘chlorosis’. It is a genetic variation that has caused this oak to produce little or no chlorophyll, so like the Violet Helleborine this is ultimately doomed too. The sapling has got as far as it has because it is surviving on the energy reserves from its acorn. Nature is so cool!

So with my time at Ashdown Forest coming to an end, there was one of the Forest’s most special residents that I hadn’t seen yet. Silver-studded Blue butterflies are nationally rare and only found on heathland as heathers are their main food plant.

It also has a life cycle that’s pretty impressive. Like some other blue butterflies, Silver-studded Blues have a close affinity with certain species of black ants. The female will lay eggs close to the ants’ nest and when the small caterpillar hatches, the ants will carry the caterpillar into the nest. The caterpillar will continue to exude secretions from a gland the ants feed on until it pupates, often in the ants nest. Being in the ants nest gives the Silver-studded Blues an element of protection and ‘in return’ the ants get the secretions. Eventually the adult butterfly will crawl out of the ants’ nest.

They are a pretty remarkable thing and I hadn’t seen one after over 3 and half years here so I just happened to have lunch near one of their hot spots on the Forest and ended up seeing 7; here’s one of them.

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I usually judge when to stop a blog by its word count and I’m up to 625 already and I’ve not even mentioned half the stuff that’s out there. In a nutshell, there’s occasional Pyramidal Orchids that keep popping up all over the Forest even though they are thought to only grow on alkaline, chalky soils and we have acidic sandstone soils. This one is on the verge of the A22 near Trees car park – bonkers!

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Dragonflies! There are nationally rare dragonflies and even the ones that are more widespread are pretty impressive. This is a Four-spotted Chaser; short, stubby and very spotted wings.

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There are some great butterflies besides the Silver-studded Blues, like this Painted Lady which almost needs a whole blog to itself to describe how many life cycles it takes for it to get up here from north Africa.

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So, let’s wrap this up.

I have seen some wonderful things at Ashdown Forest and I hope that I’ve been able to show some of them and give a bit of an insight into how special Ashdown Forest is.

I’m leaving because I have a window of opportunity to go travelling and have a mad adventure. First stop is Nova Scotia in Canada where I’ll be volunteering for a NGO who have built their own schooner and are raising awareness about the amount of pollution in the world’s oceans. Not only Ashdown Forest is fragile and needs looking after.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these blogs as much as I’ve enjoyed writing them; please look after the Forest.

Tom.

Well prepared, I head off into the sunset

Well prepared, I head off into the sunset

 

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We’d like to thank Tom for his contributions to this blog over the years, and we wish him the very best in his forthcoming adventures!

The Ashdown Forest Team

 

Bird’s nests and pyramids

I went out yesterday to answer a question that had been on my mind for a while; do we still have Early-purple orchids on Ashdown Forest? As part of my job I monitor a number of the rarer plant species on the Forest, of which several are orchids, but the Early-purple had not been, until now, on my list.

There are records from 20 years ago, with a grid reference, so armed with a GPS I blundered about in the woods for a while, concerned that the habitat didn’t look at all suitable. And then, as almost always happens, just as I was about to give up I spotted three tall, purple spikes in the dappled shade of an otherwise bare woodland floor. Having taken their photograph, I stood up, looked around and realised that I was on the edge of a big population; in the end I counted over 200 flower spikes, and there were many more young seedlings yet to reach flowering size.

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Moments like that have always been special for me. I’ll put my hand up here and admit to being a bit of a plant ‘twitcher’, and certainly an orchid enthusiast. So having to monitor orchids as part of my job is a bit of a dream come true.

But just how many orchid species are there on Ashdown Forest? Lowland heathland isn’t generally known for its orchids; chalk grassland, at the other end of the pH spectrum, is the classic orchid habitat.

Chalk and limestone species are sometimes found on the Forest, usually on roadsides and almost certainly as the result of the dumping of limestone by highways contractors. Pyramidal orchid, for instance, turned up last year right at the edge of the verge on a major route across the Forest.

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Most of our orchid species, however, are naturally occurring and appropriate to the soils and geology of the Forest. They fall into two broad groups, reflecting the two main habitats of the Forest – woodland and heathland.

The Early-purple orchid, discussed earlier, is very much a woodland species, at least in this part of the world. Another woodland specialist is the Bird’s-nest orchid. All orchids have a symbiotic relationship with fungi in the soil, with the fungus supplying nutrients to the orchid that it wouldn’t otherwise be able to access. The Bird’s-nest orchid takes this relationship to the limit; it has lost all its leaves, all its chlorophyll in fact, and gets 100% of its nutrients from its fungal partner. This means that it is only visible above ground when in flower, and even then the flower spike is pretty inconspicuous.

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The heathland orchids are rather showier. The commonest by far is the Heath spotted-orchid, found in open, damp areas across most of the Forest. It comes in a range of colour forms, from dark pink through to pure white.

Last year, much to the excitement of orchid enthusiasts, it produced a hybrid with our rarest orchid, the Heath fragrant orchid. There are thought to be only twelve populations of the Heath fragrant orchid in the UK, with the next nearest being on the South Downs, so opportunities for it to hybridize with other orchid species are limited.

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As is often the case, the hybrid shares characteristics of both its parents.

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The last species I want to cover (there are others, some so rare it is unclear if they still occur on the Forest) is a true acid heathland specialist, found out in the remote, wet Sphagnum bogs – Early marsh orchid. It was long known from a single patch which had been protected from grazing with a low fence. I went in search of it last year, and was disturbed to find that it had vanished from its fenced enclosure. I was relieved to find a few scattered plants just outside the fence, then delighted to discover, after some wandering, that the bulk of the population seem to have upped sticks and moved a few hundred metres away to a new bog, where the plants seemed to be thriving.

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As with many of the species that make Ashdown Forest special, our orchids all have very specific habitat requirements, and the majority of them rely on management, in particular grazing, to prevent their open habitats reverting to scrub. I will continue to monitor their progress; it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!

 

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Winter Heathland Clearance 2016/17 Roundup

OK, so where to start? Well here’s something that we keep seeing all over Ashdown Forest.

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So, yes – not that pleasant but it’s something we find an awful lot. Apart from dog poo not being nice to look at the knock on effects can run a lot deeper.

In previous blogs and posts on Facebook, the problem of dogs attacking livestock on the Forest has been pointed out. In this blog I want to highlight the sensitive wildlife the dogs can disturb by not being under close control.

Lowland heathland, which is the majority of Ashdown Forest, is a nutrient poor habitat and many of the plants have evolved to cope with low nutrients, such as the carnivorous sundews which take protein from the insects they digest to make up for the lack of nutrients in the sandy soil.

Dog poo is full of nutrients and the cumulative effect of this can be detrimental to heathland.

It also carries two diseases of note. The first is Toxocariasis which is carried by roundworm parasites and can cause serious eye damage and seizures, although this is very rare.

The other is Neosporosis which is caused by dog poo mixing with cow dung and leads to cattle becoming sterile and even aborting which obviously would be major problem for us and our conservation grazing. There have been cases of Neosporosis close to Ashdown Forest in recent years.

A question that comes up sometimes is why are there no dog poo bins on the Forest? Well, the simple answer is that it is not our responsibility to deal with dog poo, it is the dog owner’s responsibility. Even if there were bins (which are expensive to buy and install), it would be a huge draw on our time and resources we don’t have to empty the bins and deal with the waste. If you have a dog, take your dog’s poo home with you to dispose of.

Please don’t indulge in the lazy practice of bagging the poo and then flinging it into a hedge; it’s just plain silly and I found this where we’ve been carrying out our winter heathland clearance at Marden’s Hill/Bunkers Hill.

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It’s been there for a while judging the leaf litter and it was very much still there!

Staying with dogs, it is always worth promoting the need for close control. At this time of year, though, it is needed to prevent disturbance to one of our notable breeding heathland birds, the Woodlark.

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Photo: Ján Svetlík

Woodlark are ground nesting and have been setting up territories since January as they tend to breed a lot earlier in the year than most birds. Just to emphasise, they are ground nesting and dogs off the lead, running around, not under close control will disturb these birds and could put them off breeding in some areas.

The good news is that Woodlark have recovered from historic population crashes and for that to continue we need to do all we can to conserve them and their habitat. They benefit from areas of a mosaic of heathland habitats and are very quick to colonise newly cleared areas, which is why we have left an area at Marden’s Hill because a pair has recently established a territory on part of the area we were clearing, which is good!

Listen for their deep, flutey song and calls, which are often sung in flight, like the Skylark, and sometimes from a perch.

I would like to point out that the disturbance from dogs is not just limited to birds. Many rare insects live in the vegetation on Ashdown Forest and dogs running through the vegetation can damage and disturb these insects.

I’ll use this Golden-ringed Dragonfly as an example.

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Golden-ringed dragonflies are only found on heathland where the females (this is a male) lay eggs in acidic pools. Once they have developed in to larvae, it can take between 2 to 5 years for the larvae to emerge metamorphosed into an adult from the pools.

When they do emerge, they will leave behind their outer casing or exuvia on the plants they have used to crawl out on. That being said, the larvae may crawl further than just the pond edge and would be vulnerable to any loose dog running through the vegetation.

Another example is this cocoon of an Emperor Moth which is found in heathland and moorland, though it is not confined to these habitats.

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The caterpillar’s food plants include heathers, Alder Buckthorn and some birches. At this time of year, they are in cocoon form and this could be knocked off or destroyed by a dog running through long vegetation.

This is a picture of an adult Emperor Moth.

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Photo: Jean-Pierre Hamon

Next, we have a Wasp Spider egg sack. Wasp Spiders are relatively new arrivals to Britain and do well in heathland areas.

Photo: Rich Allum

Photo: Rich Allum

Despite the colouring and size, they are harmless, although they are a spider species where the female will eat the male after mating.

Pic 8The egg sack (below) is very fragile and the ones I found were suspended between the prongs of the top of a heather bush. This is just another thing to be aware of with dogs running around.

 

 

 

I was wondering why would they make such a vulnerable egg sack in the first place but one rather unofficial theory is that it looks a bit like seed head and just for comparison, here is a Love-in-the-mist seed head:

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We must concede however that some of our activities do disturb wildlife. However, we are managing the heathland for the benefit of the rare and endangered wildlife that relies on the Forest’s habitats.

If we did not manage the heathland, it would revert back to woodland.

This blog has hopefully focused on highlighting the sensitive wildlife that lives on Ashdown Forest and there’s so much I haven’t had time to talk about, like the flock of Waxwings that flew over us at Marden’s Hill a few weeks ago!

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This wasn’t one of them but it was such a surprise I think these uncommon Scandinavian winter visitors are still worth a mention.

So to finish with, here’s an extract and link to our 4 C’s, our Code of Conduct for Dogs visiting Ashdown Forest which goes into more detail about dogs.

“Let’s be clear: well-behaved dogs ARE welcome on the Forest. The Forest however, is a very special place, internationally important for the wildlife it supports and loved by a great many people. In order for our visitors to co-exist with each other and with the plants and animals that make the Forest special, we ask that certain guidelines be followed.”

https://www.ashdownforest.org/home/docs/DogWalk.pdf

 

Tom Simon

Countryside Worker

Winter on the Forest with fungi, tractors and spiders thrown in!

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This isn’t really much to do with what we’ve been up to recently but this is a sweet little arch hidden away at the bottom of Marden’s Hill near St. Johns, Crowborough.

That arch is near where we’ve been working though and this photo is a bit more descriptive of what we’ve been doing recently.

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This is a view of the valley that is the target of our winter heathland clearance this year. What that means essentially is that we are clearing the small trees growing up through the heather, predominantly Silver Birch, Common Oak and Scots Pine, so that the heathland does not get overgrown with trees and become woodland.

Heathland is a habitat that requires constant management and clearance so that it does not revert back to woodland. Equally there is a need to control the amount of Gorse, Bracken and Purple Moor Grass as well, which is where the conservation grazing projects come in, with our cattle, ponies and sheep (even though they don’t eat the bracken, they do a good job of trampling it down).

This warm and slightly damp autumn/winter has meant it’s been a good year for fungi so here’s a few I’ve come across.

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These are little Mycena mushrooms. They are pretty common but I found these under the Gorse on Marden’s Hill and they really are that sweet and delicate.

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This is always a favourite of mine, again pretty common, but Candle-snuff is one of the easiest to remember.

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This one, again, is named for what it looks like. It’s Orange-peel fungus and the thing is that this fooled me even though I’d found it the day before and knew it was there!

Unfortunately, another thing I’ve found out on the heath is these things.

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These helium balloons do come down somewhere and can be very harmful to wildlife, particularly if they make their way out to sea, where they look very much like something edible and seabirds will try to eat them and choke.

Just before we began our heathland clearance, we were cutting back branches overhanging rides that might have caused problems for horse riders. The side benefit of this is that it meant that we got to move around all over the Forest and got to see some lovely sights, such as this cloudscape that I think frames the tractor quite well (I might have tweaked it a little).

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We’ve also had our annual visit into Ellison’s Pond to carry on our work to remove all of the Parrot’s Feather that’s in there. It is always a good opportunity to see the Raft Spiders that live in there. I tried to do a low to the water reflection shot of this one and it sort of worked.

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Right, that’s about it for now!

To welcome in the New Year I’m going to leave you with this photo from November. It’s a hole in a tree stump outside the Visitor Centre which I’m pretty sure a visiting school group had filled with acorns, and well done to whoever it was because otherwise this spectacle wouldn’t have happened!

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Tom Simon

Jacobaea of all trades (revisited)

Because I think it deserves it, here again is a photo of the poor sheep that was attacked by a dog and again another reminder to keep your dog on a lead or under close control whilst you are in the grazing enclosure.

Pic 1 SheepFollowing on from that, we’re in time of year again where many yellow flowering plants are in flower, so here is a rerun of a blog I did two years ago about said plants.

Most of the Ragwort we are pulling up is Common Ragwort, which can grow to about a metre and has yellow flowers. Common Ragwort (Jacobaea vulgaris) has the potential to spread over disturbed or poached soil and can become dominant. It is not a plant that has been introduced the British Isles and Ragwort and Groundsels are members of the Daisy family.

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Common Ragwort contains toxins (pyrrolizidine alkaloids) which can damage and, in some cases, fatally damage an animal’s liver.

Ragworts are an important food source for insects and for some species, most famously the Cinnabar Moth (Tyria jacobaeae), it is their main food plant. Cinnabar Moth caterpillars are black and yellow striped with little hairs and touching them can cause a rash. The caterpillars store the toxins ingested from the Ragwort in their bodies.

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Because of the Ragwort’s close association with insects such as this we are leaving some Ragwort for them.

It is worth knowing what is not Ragwort, as there are plants that we have left that do look similar.

The first one, which looks most similar in my opinion, is Perforate St. Johns Wort (Hypericum perforatum). This is a fairly common plant on the Forest and can look very similar to Ragwort but the stamens on the flower protrude a lot further and the flowers only have 5 petals, whereas Ragworts have many more!

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Also similar is Common Fleabane (Pulicaria dysenterica), which just to be terribly unscientific, looks like little sunflowers on stalks. Common Fleabane also has a lighter green stem and leaves than Ragworts.

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Common Groundsel, which is also in the Daisy family, has deeply serrated and hairy leaves. This is possibly the most Ragwort-like looking plant of the lot and can also be a food plant of the Cinnabar Moth.

Another plant that grows on the Forest, and is yellow flowering, is Agrimony (Agrimonia eupatoria). A tall, wispy plant, its flowers remain quite small.

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A plant that looks similar to this is Goldenrod, however this is a garden escape. This grows about the same height as Ragwort but has pointed leaves and narrow, drooping flower heads.

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Worth a mention is Birds Foot Trefoil, which although it doesn’t grow to the same height as Ragworts, does come under the heading yellow flowers that grow on the Forest.

Pic 8 Finally, we have something that can look surprisingly like ragwort from a distance: dead Bracken!

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That’s where the old blog finished and I realised that I hadn’t made a mention of the Forest’s most notable acidic bog loving yellow flowering plant – Bog Asphodel! Maybe because I didn’t know how to spell it, but anyway here’s a photo of it!

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Finally, we are now in the time of year to look out of Purple Emperor butterflies around the Forest Centre, Silver-washed and Dark Green Fritillaries and Silver-studded Blues. Small Red Damselflies, one of the stand out heathland dragonfly species on the Forest, are also on the wing, as are these!

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This blurry picture is a Black Darter and, like the Small Red Damselfly, is reliant on heathland and the acidic pools that occur on the Forest. It is the only UK dragonfly species that is all black, and even though its eyes look bright green in the photo it’s not an Emerald dragonfly, just to be strictly accurate. This is about as tenuous a record shot as you get but that is what it is!

Also worth pointing out that commoner species also use these ponds such as this female Ruddy Darter.

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And this very pretty Emerald Damselfly.

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That’s about it for now,

Tom.

Summer, I think…

Hello all. Not really sure what season we’re in right now, but I thought I’d start with something that is becoming more and more of a problem on the Forest.

Pic 1 Sheep

This is one of the sheep from the large grazing enclosure on the Forest and it has been attacked by a dog. This came limping up to us one day and obviously has many injuries, particularly to her front right leg, the back of her head and throat.

This is why we ask dogs to be kept under close control or on a lead while on Ashdown Forest. Dogs found bothering livestock or attacking sheep can be shot. For people who are worried about their dog being around livestock, there are ‘Sheep Proof Your Dog’ courses available through us.

If it wasn’t for the sheep and cattle grazing the Forest, we wouldn’t be able to carry out anywhere near as much habitat management as we do and they create a fantastically diverse habitat for the rare and endangered wildlife that relies on Ashdown Forest.

So, let’s focus on some of the wildlife that the grazing sheep help to create a home for. Here’s one and they have kind of disappeared from their acidic bogs now but in the spring wherever we looked there was Bog Beacon fungi. There isn’t really a way around saying this – it’s a cute, bright orange, adorable little thing and I love it!

Pic 2 Bog Beacon

This year especially seems to have been a real bumper year for these things and we’re not too sure why, perhaps a higher water table than normal? Whatever the reason, it’s a real sweety!

While we’re on the subject of small, cute things – here’s a possible Speckled Bush Cricket nymph on a buttercup. This was while I was repairing one of the benches outside Fairwarp Village Hall.

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On the subject of spotting things while we work, we are currently working around all the car park entrances mowing the ‘sight lines’. While I was strimming at Kings Standing, I then noticed something deep pink in a cone on a long stalk which was something kind of out the ordinary.

Pic 4 Pyramidal Orchid

This is a Pyramidal Orchid which for those who don’t know is found on the chalk grassland of the South and North Downs. Ashdown Forest, being the core of the large dome of rock that once covered what we now know as the Weald, is sandstone and on the opposite end of the pH scale, acidic, to the alkaline soils of the chalk grassland where these things normally occur. So, what’s going on? Well somehow the conditions have become ideal for the orchids to grow; either the soil is well draining there or the pH has risen due to alkaline soils accidentally ending up there and cars have transported the orchids there and you get this. It’s a bit of freak occurrence and in the grand scheme of things they’re not really supposed to be there, but we’re not worried about them spreading out of control in any way.

One orchid that we’re not so surprised to see here, apart from the Heath Spotted and Heath Fragrant Orchids not far from the Visitor Centre, is the Common Spotted Orchid which is popping up on almost every verge and in other patches all over the Forest.

They are common, but I really do like the pattern on their petals if you get in close.

Pic 5 Common Spotted OrchidPic 6 Common Spotted Orchid 2

The main bird breeding season is well under way and it wasn’t that long ago we were driving around and three Woodlark, a parent and two young I think, were on the track in front of us. At the Forest Centre, we have a few bird boxes up and at least one of them has been used by a Blue Tit and there have been rumours of a Wren nesting in the Stone Age hut. In one of the boxes though, there was a Nuthatch nesting. Nuthatches generally use old holes, including old woodpecker nests, to nest in but they will use mud to make the hole smaller as added security. The Nuthatches using this box seem not to have used mud to make the hole smaller, but instead there must have been a gap between the roof and the box so they’ve plugged that up with mud instead!

Pic 7 Nuthatch nest box

I think it’s pretty ingenious.

So, I’m going to end with a goodbye to possibly the longest serving member of our team called Victor, and here he is!

Pic 8 Victor

Victor was the vacuum cleaner we used to clean the truck every Friday and at best guess was at least 35 years old. It’s hard to say whether Victor had a heart of gold or not, but whatever it was made of it all melted together which brought about the end.

So that’s what we’ve been up to recently, in a nutshell.

 

Tom.

“Has your mower broken?”

We’ve had a few such comments ever since we stopped cutting the area of grass immediately in front of the Information Barn. The truth is that, no – we haven’t suffered a catastrophic failure of our trusty mower; we’ve sown a native meadow.

Wildflower-rich grasslands found across the Weald are an important habitat and an attractive feature of the landscape. The decline in the area covered by these special grasslands has become a serious threat to biodiversity. With this in mind, the Weald Meadows Initiative and others have been active in encouraging both farmers and non-farming landowners to manage existing grasslands and to enhance and create new wildflower grasslands. We decided to do our bit by stripping the turf from an area of rather dull amenity grassland and sowing a mix supplied to us by the Weald Meadows Initiative.

Meadow4

Meadow vegetation has adapted, over centuries of management, to coexist with human farming practices. Perennial flowers that would have lived in woodland glades before we arrived on these islands found a perfect home in the new fields cleared of woodland by our ancestors. Freed from the shade and competition of trees, they set about forming diverse communities, depending on soil chemistry and moisture levels. Farmers, faced with the need to feed livestock through the winter, would cut a hay crop, traditionally on Lammas Day (1st August). Any plant that had failed to set seed by this date had missed the reproductive boat for that year, so over time meadow species gradually synchronised their flowering times so that ripe seed was ready to be shed with the swing of the scythe. Turning the cut hay to dry it further aided the shedding of seeds, and the regular annual cut prevented the encroachment of scrub. Happy times all round, for both farmers and flowers.

Meadow6

Today, however, the drive for increased productivity has seen 97% of our meadows ploughed, re-seeded with rygrass or simply turned over to other land uses. So it is more important than ever to preserve this rich and beautiful habitat. Our own meadow will be allowed to flower and seed up until late summer, before being cut and the hay removed. A path is mown through the middle to a small picnic area; please feel free to use it. Meadows are best experienced up close and personal.

PS – just for fun, some meadow creation!

One year ends and another begins

So it’s been warm, freezing cold and, after a little warm period,  the cold has come back. That being said, we have been as prepared for it as we can be by having quite large bonfires; here you will see one of our volunteers, Dan, demonstrating his method for drying out his gloves over the fire.
Pic 1Most of our recent work has been over at Payne’s Hill near Fairwarp where we have been clearing any encroaching scrub regrowth from an area of heathland. We’re not removing every tree in the area and this Sweet Chestnut I am quite fond of just because of its profile.
Pic 2Wandering round there, though, I did find one of these. It’s a former helium balloon and I do come across these quite often, so with all of our sensitive wildlife around here it is worth remembering that these things have to come down somewhere.
Pic 3

With the unusually warm weather of recent weeks odd things have been happening, like daffodils coming into flower, so here something that’s not so unusual. It’s a November Moth and I did find it on the 12th November!Pic 4The end of 2015 saw us spend a few days tidying up our yard and barns and getting rid of things like this old watering can, which doesn’t look that thrilled with life – and I didn’t just say that so I could put in this photo.
Pic 52016, though, started in a rather illuminating way and in a manner that I’ll admit is quite good fun!
Pic6This was a controlled burn we carried out just south of Stonehill Car Park and I’m pleased to say that it was a ‘good burn’, as in it burnt slowly and was very controlled. The general idea for that area is to burn the gorse away and remove nutrients that mowing the site would just put back in; we will mow the burnt gorse at a later date and then graze to control the gorse for the benefit of the heather.
Here you can see the skeletal remains of the burnt gorse.
Pic7_tonemapped

In less incendiary habitat management news, (although bonfires are included in this a bit), we are carrying on with the removal of deciduous scrub encroachment (phew!) by cutting trees and spraying them with a herbicide which is harmless to humans and other animals.

If you wonder why a stump you find is blue, it’s from the dye we put in our herbicide.
Some trees we are leaving, mainly the Alder Buckthorn which is one of the main food plants for the Brimstone butterfly.

At this time of year, identifying an Alder Buckthorn is slightly difficult with no leaves to help but the wood is a bright lemon yellow, as seen here in this twig.
Pic9

That’s about it for now! I’ll leave you with a smoky Silver Birch from one of our controlled burn days.
Pic10
Thanks for reading!
Tom.