Author Archives: Steve Alton

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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Gorse

Gorse

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.

Bracken

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

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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

Dragons and Damsels 2

Regular readers may recall that in an earlier post I was keen to find the heathland-specialist Small red damselfly, but had to make do with its larger cousin. Well, thanks to the extremely knowledgeable Graeme Lyons from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, I have now added the Small red to my list. Here it is – not the best photo in the world, but good enough for a positive ID.

IMG_4655_tonemappedNow that I’ve seen one, the differences between it and the Large red damselfly are very clear; reddish legs, no markings on the abdomen, and overall a much smaller, more delicate creature.

Just as a reminder, here’s the Large red again:

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Black legs, red eyes and black markings on the abdomen. And larger, as the name suggests. The only slight disappointment for me was that I didn’t see the Small red on ‘our’ Forest, but on the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s excellent Old Lodge nature reserve next door. But it’s only a line on a map, after all.

 

 

 

 

Parasites and carnivores

A scary title, but fear not – I’m talking about plants, and the strange ways some of them get their nutrients. I’ve posted about Sundews before, and their habit of eating insects. I recently saw the other species of Sundew found on the Forest (there are three native to the UK, but one doesn’t grow here). Conveniently, the two species are growing side by side, for ease of comparison:

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Round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) top right, with Oblong-leaved sundew (Drosera intermedia)

Another unusual way for plants to obtain nutrients is by parasitism. What you can see in the photo below is not those red liquorice bootlaces you used to be able to buy, but a plant that has given up on leaves and photosynthesis altogether. Common dodder sprawls all over other plants, often Gorse, and where it touches its host it essentially taps into its pipework and draws out nutrient-rich sap. It’s a bit like connecting your house’s electrics to next door’s mains. Since the Gorse is doing all the hard work of photosynthesis, the Dodder doesn’t need to, and stopped bothering to produce leaves. It does still flower though – I’ll post a photo if I’m in the right place at the right time.

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Common dodder (Cuscuta epithymum)

Interestingly, a plant I have blogged about before – Lousewort – is what is known as a hemi-parasite; it does a similar thing to Dodder, tapping into the roots of other plants, but hasn’t gone so far as to lose its leaves. A ‘belt and braces’ approach, I guess.

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica)

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

 

Dragons and Damsels

Ashdown Forest is a particularly good area for Odonata – that’s dragonflies and damselflies to you and I. A glance at the maps in the excellent ‘The Dragonflies of Sussex‘ shows a concentration of records in this area. In fact, Pippingford Park (not strictly part of the Forest but within the original Forest boundary) is one of the best sites for dragons and damsels in Sussex.

A particular speciality of the Forest is the Small red damselfly, a scarce species associated with acid pools on heathland. I’ve already started scouting around for this species in likely habitats, but I think I’m still too early; June is usually quoted as the start of their flying season.

The much commoner Large red damselfly is very much out and about now, and breeding in the same boggy pools.

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After pairing up and mating, the male lowers the female – clasped behind the head by the tip of his abdomen – down to the water’s surface so she can lay her eggs. As you can see, suitable pools get quite hectic. Let’s hope there is still room for the Small red damselfly in a few weeks time.

IMG_2650_tonemappedIMG_2719_tonemappedSteve Alton

Conservation Officer

After the fire

I recently took a walk down from Millbrook East car park to look at the area we burnt this spring. As it was my first burn on the Forest, I was keen to see how the vegetation was responding, and I was pleasantly surprised. The first sign that all was well was the presence of plenty of Lousewort (Pedicularis sylvatica) in flower. This is a partial parasite on the roots of grasses, and the fact that it was flourishing bodes well for some of the other perennial herbs, particularly the Marsh gentian.

Lousewort

Lousewort

Whilst grubbing around on my hands and knees for the photo above, I had a quick look at some woody stems, to confirm that they were, as I suspected, Creeping willow (Salix repens). I was surprised to find a couple of clusters of eggs on the underside of the leaves.

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The owner of the eggs was close by – a Red poplar leaf beetle (Chrysomela populi). Despite its name, it seems quite common on willows, with plenty of records from Creeping willow.

Red poplar leaf beetle

Red poplar leaf beetle

All this activity suggests that the burn has certainly done no harm, and will hopefully have benefited a range of heathland species. I’ll be keeping a close eye on the site as the season unfolds.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer