Author Archives: Steve Alton

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

 

Plants that bite back

Lots of plant species are coming back to life on the Forest; one that I’m particularly excited to see is the Round-leaved sundew. This is a carnivorous plant – it catches and digests insects using the sticky glandular hairs on its leaves. This is an adaptation to the poor soils of places like Ashdown Forest; the sundew obtains nitrogen and other nutrients from the bodies of its prey.

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

If you look closely, the leaf at the top of the photo has caught a fly

The Round-leaved sundew is uncommon but widespread in the UK; it is very much associated with Sphagnum moss and peat bogs, an increasingly scarce habitat. It does have a particular Ashdown Forest link, though. One of the earliest books on plants that catch and digest insects was written by Charles Darwin. Prior to his research, there was a lot of debate about whether or not the capture of insects was deliberate, and if the plant actually derived any nutritional benefit from the process. In The Insectivorous Plants, published in 1875, Darwin showed conclusively that the carnivorous habit was a deliberate mechanism to supplement the plant’s diet. And the sundews he used in his studies, in his greenhouse at Down House in Kent, were collected from Ashdown Forest.

I hope he had permission!

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

The kind of nutrient-poor peaty pool favoured by sundews

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer

Pooh Country

This is one of my favourite trees on the Forest; there’s a fantastic view from here, and I can picture A A Milne and young Christopher Robin sitting at the foot of it, discussing bears.

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Steve Alton

Trees on the Forest

Many people are surprised to learn that we spend a lot of our time trying to stop trees growing on the Forest. That is because, for most people, the word ‘forest’ is synonymous with trees. Historically, though, ‘Forest’ was a legal term, denoting an area where it was illegal to hunt deer, which were the property of the Crown. Although most Forests would have had areas of woodland, they would have also have included extensive areas of open ground. They are more densely wooded these days solely because they generally grow good conifers, and as such have been planted up by the Forestry Commission.

Ashdown Forest is lucky in that it has largely escaped the attentions of commercial forestry, but the wide open spaces are continually threatened by the natural growth of trees, particularly birch. Left unmanaged, the Forest would revert to a relatively species-poor secondary woodland, of a type far from rare in the south-east, rather than the internationally-important heathland that it is today.

Open views and scattered trees characterise the Forest

Open views and scattered trees characterise the Forest

We do retain some woodland, however – the Forest is roughly 40% trees, 60% heathland – particularly because the woodland edge, where it meets the heathland, is an important habitat in itself. Most of the woodland is made up of natives, chiefly oak, birch and beech, and we do ourbest to remove non-natives, particularly rhododendron.

One species we do tolerate out on the heath is Scots pine. This is tricky one; it is native to the UK, but only in Scotland. Everywhere else it has been planted. But it is such an iconic feature of the Forest – the ‘clumps’, in particular, are Scots pine – that we let it stay. But it does spread; every tree we retain sends down a constant rain of seeds, and new seedlings spring up every year.

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Scots pine dot the Forest landscape

One species that we will be getting rid of, however, is Turkey oak. This native of south-east Europe and Asia Minor as introduced to Britain as an ornamental, and is now spreading onto heaths and chalk grassland sites. It is the host species of the Knopper Gall Wasp, an insect which damages the acorns of the native oak, so affecting its ability to reproduce.

Steve Alton

Black Bog revisited

We’ll be putting up temporary electric fencing behind the HQ of Cats Protection soon. This is so we can get some livestock onto the area – affectionately known, to staff at least, as Black Bog – over the summer.

Black Bog is, as the name suggests, a gloriously soggy corner of the Forest, full of tussocks of Purple Moor-grass interspersed with Sphagnum moss. Scattered small ponds support damselflies and other delights. So why graze it?

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Sphagnum moss

 

Unfortunately, in the absence of management, scrub has started to invade. Birch, Scots pine and the dreaded rhododendron are creeping in, and they will draw moisture out of the soil, drying the site out. We have already dealt with the rhododendron (see Tom’s post), so now it is time to tackle some of the other problems.

The grazing animal of choice for this area is the Galloway cow. The big, lumbering beasts will break up the overgrown tussocks of Moor-grass and prevent the regrowth of scrub, providing gaps for the native mire species to colonise.

Birch and Scots pine soon take over

Birch and Scots pine soon take over

Inevitably, whenever we fence an area of the Forest we upset someone. We’re bound to get in the way of somebody’s favourite walk or view, but we ask you to bear with us. It’s only temporary, so spare a thought for the damselflies. They’re going to love what we’ve done to the place.

Steve Alton

In at the deep end

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There’s an awful lot of water on the Forest!

Ever since I took up the post of Conservation Officer, back in December 2013, it seems to have been raining. Or blowing a gale. Or quite often both. So my introduction to the work of managing Ashdown Forest hasn’t been the easiest. Instead of carrying out the day-to-day winter management of the heathland, there have been fallen trees to clear from the roads and dangerous trees to make safe. Even when the tree work was finally under control, it was often too wet to take heavy machinery out on the heathland.

Perhaps you are thinking, ‘Oh well, if you can’t do the work it will just have to wait. What’s the rush?’ But we have some pretty tight time constraints; a lot of the heathland work – mowing and scrub cutting, for instance – needs to be carried out before ground-nesting birds take up residence. In a mild winter like this, that can be pretty early – wood larks were already starting to pair up in February. Male adders, too, will be coming out of hibernation on sunny days in March, to bask in the warmth.

Adder close up (2)

‘But why bother with all this management anyway?’ you might ask. ‘Why not just leave the Forest to do its thing?’  And we could do that; there’s a lot of talk these days about ‘rewilding’ – letting nature take its course, as is happening at Knepp Castle. Unfortunately, though, if Ashdown Forest was left to its own devices, it would quickly revert to a rather uninteresting secondary woodland of oak and birch, with scattered pine and rhododendron. Poor-quality woodland is something we have plenty of in the south-east, but lowland heathland is vanishingly rare. And it relies entirely on our intervention.

So I will keep telling myself that it can’t rain forever, and that spring is on its way. And hopefully, before it does arrive, we can get out and do at least some of the management work the Forest needs.

Steve Alton

Conservation Officer