Author Archives: Steve Alton

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.




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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.

Pic 1

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.

Pic 2

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.


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.

Pic 4

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.

Pic 6

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.

EmperorMothJean-pierre Hamon

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:

Pic 9



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!

Pic 10

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.”


Tom Simon

Countryside Worker

“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.


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.


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!

Coming up for air

I’m guilty of not having posted on here for quite a while, but in my defence, I’ve been pretty busy. The funding which underpins our conservation work here on the Forest runs out next year, and it falls to me to apply for the money to replace it.

Higher Level Stewardship, a grant scheme from Defra, has supported heathland conservation on Ashdown Forest for the last 10 years, but the scheme is now coming to an end. It will be replaced by Countryside Stewardship, again a Defra scheme, administered by the Rural Payments Agency and overseen by the government’s conservation advisors, Natural England.


So I am busy putting together a bid for funding under the new scheme, which will now cover woodland management as well. As the biggest wildlife site in the south-east and a site enjoying the highest level of protection for the habitats and species it supports, we’re quietly confident that funding will be forthcoming, but there is still an awful lot of paperwork to complete.

The aim is to bring the Forest into what Natural England call ‘favourable conservation status’, which means getting just the right balance of habitats and features required to support the species that make the Forest special. We’re very close already – in fact, areas of the Forest are already ‘favourable’ – but there are a few issues we still need to tackle:




Gorse is incredibly important on the Forest. It supports more insect species than heather, and at the right age and size it provides habitat for the rare Dartford warbler. However, there is currently too much of it on the Forest, and the past regime of mowing has created dense stands of even-aged gorse to the exclusion of everything else.


At some time in the distant past, bracken must have been a well-behaved component of the British landscape. These days, however, it seems to take over, possibly as a result of too much burning in the past. We have been mowing it for many years, which weakens it but also creates ‘lawns’ of grass in its place.


Secondary woodland – a bit dull

Woodland structure

Most of the woodland on the Forest is relatively recent, having colonised open areas in the last 40 years or so. As a result, most of it is of the same age and has little diversity of structure and, in particular, a lack of dead wood. Deer pressure has added to this, suppressing any seedlings that manage to germinate. We need to address the deer issue but also to increase diversity by selective thinning.

Invasive species

We seem to have more than our fair share of non-native plants trying to invade the Forest. Shrubs like Rhododendron and Gaultheria are creeping out into the woods and heaths, the damp stream-sides have Japanese knotweed and Himalayan balsam, and we even have the dreaded New Zealand swamp stonecrop, which covers ponds in a choking blanket of green. We have a duty to control these, though we will never eradicate them entirely.

Gaultheria shallon, invasive pest

Much of what we want to achieve can be brought about by grazing; livestock eat the scrub, trample the bracken and break up the ground to allow regeneration to take place. Many people living within or around the Forest have Commoners’ rights to graze livestock, though very few currently exercise those rights; we are looking to work more closely with Commoners to reinstate this traditional form of management.

We do, though, have a conflicting responsibility to maintain free public access to the Forest on foot and horseback, and have no wish to restrict public movement and enjoyment through too much fencing. To get around this, we are currently experimenting with ‘invisible’ fencing, which uses a buried loop of wire to confine cattle to a specified area. The cattle wear a collar which responds to the wire by producing a ‘beep’ or, if they get too close, a mild electric shock; humans, dogs and horses are not affected, nor is there any visible sign of the ‘fence’ above ground.

Our cattle, with their special collars

Our cattle, with their special collars

We are currently trialling this system between the old airstrip and Isle of Thorns, and it seems to be working well.

But now I had better return to my form-filling. Think of me, dear reader, as you enjoy the fresh air of the Forest, and keep checking back for more news on our funding bid.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Crenulated flapwort and its ilk

Ashdown Forest is particularly rich in bryophytes (mosses and liverworts). These are in many ways the Cinderellas of the plant kingdom; overlooked and under-appreciated, but a rich and important part of the Forest flora. In total, 250 species are currently known from the area, which is about half of those in the whole of Sussex.

Sphagnum moss

Sphagnum moss

Most of these lower plants are associated with damp habitats – ghylls and valley mires – but one habitat that is often ignored is the edges of paths and sandy rides. This is the home for several scarce liverworts, including Nardia scalaris (Ladder Flapwort), Jungermannia gracillima (Crenulated Flapwort) and Gymnocolea inflata (Inflated Notchwort). You have to love those common names!

Sandy ride-edge habitat

Sandy ride-edge habitat

At one time these were known to be frequent on the Forest but they are sensitive to any sort of pollution, and various factors – including increased vehicle numbers on the roads but also many more dogs in recent years – have led to them now being restricted to just a few places. Unlike most of the waste deposited on the Forest by deer and domestic livestock, dog faeces is high in nitrogen as a result of their protein diet. Dogs are also generally fed off the Forest, so their waste represents an importation of nutrients rather than a recycling of nutrients that were already present here.

Liverworts, in full stunning flower

Liverworts, in full stunning flower

Most people, particularly gardeners, would assume increased nutrients were a good thing. But many rare plant species are poor competitors and are easily crowded out by more aggressive species; increased nutrients can give those aggressive species an unfair advantage. A recent survey suggested that, out of all the bryophyte groups on the Forest, ride-side liverworts had suffered some of the most serious declines.

Just one reason why it is important to always pick up after your dog, and picking up doesn’t just mean bagging up – it means taking away too!

It would have biodegraded, but now it's safely bagged it will last for ages!

It would have biodegraded, but now it’s safely bagged it will last for ages!

The issue of dog waste is covered in our new Dog Owners’ Code of Conduct, available from the Ashdown Forest Centre.

IMG_9215_tonemappedSteve Alton

Conservation Officer

Dragons and Damsels 3

Ashdown Forest is undeniably special (it represents 3% of the remaining heathland in the UK) but it is also quite unusual. For a start, in terms of ‘lowland’ heathland, it’s actually quite high up. There is an arbitrary cut-off point in ecology between lowland heath and moorland, the huge expanses of upland heather managed for grouse shooting. The cut-off is 200m above sea level; the highest point on the Forest is 229m. This means that, compared to the ‘classic’ lowland heaths of places like Purbeck and the Lizard, Ashdown Forest is quite cool and experiences relatively high rainfall.

Some of that 'relatively high rainfall'

Some of that ‘relatively high rainfall’

The other unusual feature is the soils. Heaths are characterised by generally free-draining, acidic, sandy soils. The Forest soils are indeed acidic and sandy, but the particle size of the Ashdown sands is very small, closer to silt. This means that drainage is often poor and, combined with the heavy rainfall, much of the Forest is very wet.

Which is a good thing, as long as you have wellies. Wet flushes, ghyll woodland, valley mires and boggy pools all provide additional habitats for a host species that wouldn’t otherwise be so abundant on the Forest. One group that does particularly well is the Odonata, or dragonflies. I have blogged before about our Small red damselfly, but there are plenty more species to look out for on the Forest.

Perhaps the most impressive – if relatively widespread – species is the Emperor dragonfly, the largest (though not the longest) species found in the UK.

Emperor dragonfly

Emperor dragonfly

Prize for the longest species goes to the female Golden-ringed dragonfly, a scarce species found across the High Weald but reaching its greatest abundance on the Forest.

Golden-ringed dragonfly

Golden-ringed dragonfly

A real Forest speciality is the Keeled skimmer, found nowhere else in the county. The male is an attractive chalky blue, similar to the much commoner Broad-bodied chaser.

Keeled skimmer

Keeled skimmer

Similar again is the Four-spotted chaser, though both the male and female are brown. The distinguishing feature is the presence of dark spots on all four wings.

Four-spotted chaser

Four-spotted chaser

The damselflies, smaller cousins of the dragons, are well represented on the Forest too. I have already blogged about the Large red and rarer Small red; the blues are abundant everywhere, but perhaps my favourite of all is the exquisite Emerald damselfly. If Faberge had made an insect, it would look like this.

Emerald damselfly

Emerald damselfly

Steve Alton

An Audience with the Emperor

As Tom mentioned in his previous post, we recently had a very regal visitor to the Visitor Centre. I had been told by one of our Rangers that a Purple Emperor butterfly had been seen around the Centre, and that this wasn’t uncommon. As I had always wanted to see this species, I was thrown into a state of high alert and made it my mission to track one down. Tom and I even placed ‘decoy Emperors’, cut out of paper, around the place in the hope of luring one in. With no success.

Then, one tea break, I wandered into the mess room and was told by our Caretaker, John, that there was a ‘big black butterfly’ in the Education Barn. Pausing only to mop up my spilled coffee and grab a camera, I rushed over and there, as reported, was a big, black butterfly sitting on the glass of the Barn entrance. I clicked off a few photos, but really I wanted a shot of it somewhere a little more natural. Aided by Office Administrator Tracy and an old plum stone, his majesty was coaxed off the window and on to Tracy’s hand, where he posed for several more photos. He was then carried reverently outside and placed on an oak leaf.

Tracy lends a hand

Tracy lends a hand

Unperturbed by all this irreverent treatment, he continued to pose for several minutes, whilst members of staff and visitors filed past to pay their respects.


So why all the fuss? I’m not alone in being captivated by this particular butterfly; whole books and websites have been devoted to the Purple Emperor. It is neither the biggest nor the rarest native butterfly but it has a kind of mystique about it. Some of this is due to its elusive habits; the adults frequent the highest branches of, usually, oak trees, only coming down to the ground to drink or suck minerals from, of all things, animal droppings. There have been stories of particular ‘master’ trees where the males congregate in large numbers, though this seems to be a myth. And then there is the colour.

Both sexes appear similar from a distance; a dark brown upper surface to the wings relieved by white flashes. But when the light catches the male at the right angle, the reason for the common name becomes apparent; a glorious iridescent sheen unlike the colouring of any other native species.


I was lucky enough to see Emperors twice more over the summer, but nothing can compare with that special, first close encounter.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Our hay day

On Friday we made hay, while the sun shone. It was our first time making our own hay, having rented a series of fields not far from the visitor centre, and a couple of agricultural buildings for storage. It’s a rather stressful business, being – like so many agricultural activities – highly dependent on the weather. The hay was cut on the previous Monday, and needed at least four days without rain in order to dry sufficiently. Against all the odds (this is England in July, after all, and Wimbledon season) the rain held off, and on the fifth day we did bale.


The trick then is to get all the bales into storage before it rains, and we were looking at potentially 3000 bales. Thanks to some marvellous organisation by Caroline, our Grazing Officer, we had a brilliant turn-out of staff and volunteers, who set about the task of manhandling the bales into the two storage sheds as they arrived from the fields.

Caroline in the director's chair, attended by stalwart volunteer Philip

Caroline in the director’s chair, attended by stalwart volunteer Philip




















It was desperately unpleasant work, on what turned out to be the hottest day of the year so far. It made me think of a scene from one of my favourite books, T H White’s ‘The Once and Future King‘ (if you haven’t read it, give it a go, and don’t be put off by Disney’s interpretation of the first part, The Sword in the Stone). White describes medieval hay making on a similarly hot July day, and this passage in particular sprang to mind:

“For the hay was an element to them, like sea or air, in which they bathed and plunged themselves and which they even breathed in. The seeds and small scraps stuck in their hair, their mouths, their nostrils, and worked, tickling, inside their clothes.”


Out in the fields, our contractors carried out the baling, and the bales were loaded onto trailers to be transported back to the yard. Here, they were off-loaded (thrown, actually – fortunately bales are pretty tough) and carried by hand into the buildings, where someone would stack them, climbing around on the pile as it grew towards the rafters. I had a few sessions as stacker, and again was reminded of T H White:

“Sir Ector scrambled about on top, getting in the way of his assistants, who did the real work, and stamping and perspiring and scratching about with his fork and trying to make the rick grow straight and shouting that it would all fall down as soon as the west winds came.”


Another trailer-load arrives. Elegantly done, Mike…

Obviously the wind wouldn’t be an issue, but there was certainly plenty of perspiring. The temperature inside the buildings soared as the day went on, and the air was thick with hay dust. Those outside didn’t have a much better time as the sun continued to beat down. Volunteers came and went throughout the day, but we always had sufficient hands to keep up the pace, aided by on-site catering (thanks to Pat and Ros).

Scary tales had circulated earlier in the day of baling carrying on until midnight, but luckily we made good progress and the final ‘half-crown’ bale was added to the big stack in the cow barn at around half-past eight. And then, right on cue, it started to rain.


Moving so quickly they are a blur, our staff and volunteers finish the final stack

All in all, a very successful exercise, and our sincere thanks go out to all the staff, contractors and volunteers who made it possible, including the Conservation Volunteers who had the unpleasant task of clearing out the sheds in the first place.

This is a major step forward for our grazing programme, and will hopefully be the first of many fruitful hay days.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer