Wildlife Guardians go to the Seaside

Author Melanie Edge
Wildlife Guardian

rock pools at Seven Sisters Country Park

rock pools at Seven Sisters Country Park

Sounds a bit like Enid Blyton? Read on!

Recently, the Wildlife Guardians got their boots off for a change and spent a glorious day at the beach at Seven Sisters in East Sussex.

Brilliant hot sun and a picnic (with scones and cream) on the beach brought back childhood memories. As did the reason we were there – to see what we could find in the broad swathe of rock pools at the foot of the towering white chalk cliffs.

Rock pools have always fascinated me, poised between land and sea, a miniature landscape of mountains and valleys, underwater forests and caves. But rock-pooling was never so much fun as this in my childhood. Back then I would poke a finger at various squirmy things in the water and wonder idly what they were. Maybe I should have bought a book. Most likely it would have been ‘I-Spy at the Seaside.’ But I’d only have dropped it in the water.

No such worries on this occasion. All I had to do was shout, ‘hey, what’s this?’ and the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s experts, Olle Åkesson (Living Seas Officer) and Mike Murphy (Education Development Manager), would come splashing over full of enthusiasm to identify my new find. Spotty round blob? It’s a strawberry sea anemone. Funny little black fish? It’s a four-bearded rockling. Oh, look! That shell making its erratic way across the bottom of the pool has a hermit crab in it!

There were no Enid Blyton villains to contend with in our human world, but plenty of dramas playing out in the pools, where unseen predators lurked under rocks and shrimps entered an underwater cave, never to be seen again…just a disturbance in the water and a puff of sand to hint at their fate.

We rock-pooled, we picnicked on sandwiches, scones , raspberries and cream. We drank cups of tea. We rock pooled again. We looked at tiny samples of seawater in a magnifier and discovered a whole microscopic world in there.

We fell in the sea (some of us) and dried fast in the sun. We had another cup of tea and yet another scone.

The discoveries of the day included –

  • montagu’s sea snail
  • edible crab (we didn’t eat it)
  • strawberry sea anemone
  • beadlet anemone
  • porcelain crab
  • shrimps
  • sand mason worm
  • barnacles
  • barnacle moults (juvenile Barnacles)
  • limpets
  • hermit crabs
  • neonate fish
  • four-bearded rockling

As pleasurable as the beach was the walk from the car park and back, past some of the beautiful Cuckmere meanders, where a heron perched on the bank –maybe hoping to make a meal of the grey mullet flashing in the water.

Oh, and did I mention the scones?

Join us next time. Have fun and help the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s work at the same time. What could be better?

Wildlife Guardians are a dedicated group of people who care passionately about the Sussex countryside, and enjoy a closer involvement with the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

To find out more please visit the Wildlife Guardians webpage or contact Alison Ross on 01273 497525.

shrimp

shrimp

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On the Move

Author Mike Russell
Senior Wildlife Advisor

migrant hawker / John East

migrant hawker / John East

Funny time of year this really, shortening days, changing colours and unpredictable weather. Wildlife is on the move so it is an exciting time to be out and about and try to find great wildlife in Sussex.

In the last week we’ve been to two contrasting landscapes in the County, the low wetlands of Pevensey Levels and the downland at Cissbury Ring, both wonderful habitats in their own way, but even with the difference, there was a link in relation to the wildlife we saw; things were on the move. Pevensey was sunny but a coolish breeze kept birds fairly low, but there was still some migrant birds moving through the bushes, mainly chiffchaffs, willow warblers and blackcaps. As happens when watching wildlife with groups, some people see things that disappear before others get onto it and this was the case when a few lucky people glimpsed a kingfisher flying off down one of the ditches while one extremely lucky individual briefly saw a stoat.

In a more sheltered spot where the sun was out, numerous dragonflies patrolled up and down a hedgerow, a few common darters and brown hawker, but the most numerous being migrant hawkers one of which was this wonderful shot taken by John East.

One of the sights of late summer and early autumn is that of swallows gathering on telegraph wires or swooping just above the ground, feeding up on insects ready for crossing the channel. At both Pevensey and Cissbury we were treated to dozens swallows flying around us.

Cissbury too was a bit affected by the weather as the cool, cloudy breeze kept birds low and in the densest parts of the bushes and it was a bit frustrating at times, but in the end most people got good views of most birds. There were a number of common redstarts that occasionally allowed us full views, and at one point we enjoyed the sight of five wheatears in a row sitting on fence posts. A lesser whitethroat obliged us all by sitting right out in the open for quite a long time which everyone enjoyed. But the stars of the morning were the very plentiful willow warblers, this time of year the majority of them are a lovely lemony colour and they drop on the Downs to feed up on the plentiful supply of berries.

In a warm, sheltered pocket, the temperature was warm enough to encourage a few butterflies out and we got the last of the chalkhill and common blues and a brown argus. A migrant clouded yellow flew past us as well.

All in all a pretty good couple of mornings. Just one more summer safari to go, there are still a couple of places left on the Seaford Head safari one on 2nd September, but keep a look at out on the website as I hope to continue with these during the winter.

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My wild summer

Wild Woodies / Katie Parker

Wild Woodies / Katie Parker

Author Katie Parker
Woods Mill Schools Officer

We have had a wonderful summer with our Wild Woodies holiday clubs at Woods Mill, Henfield and Stanmer Park, Brighton.

Outside there is a slight chill in the air and I can see a yellow leaf or two fluttering down to the ground in the breeze, so it is hard to believe that the summer is coming to an end, but we have enjoyed glorious sunshine for each of our clubs over the past four weeks.

We had a different environmental theme for each session and planned activities designed to encourage the children to explore the world around them, from discovering tadpoles in the pond yet to develop their jumping legs to observing the cute and furry small mammals living in our wildlife garden.

Although we write lesson plans and provide all the equipment for the activities, we never worry if the session doesn’t go quite to plan. We always pace the activities so that the children have the time and freedom to explore, and make new and interesting discoveries. One example of this is on our walk up to our wildlife garden at Stanmer Park. On our journey we pass through a small stand of huge cedar of Lebanon trees, and in one patch of rough grass the children spotted a cricket, two spiders in their webs and a caterpillar. After this they spent much time rummaging around on their hands and knees hoping to spot more creatures. Growing alongside these trees is a magnificent old beech tree, with several branches bowing down to the ground and rising up again. The children were delighted to find them, and spent half an hour scrambling up and working their way down again.

Everyone’s favourite activity always seems to be learning how to survive in the woodland by lighting a fire using special fire strikers, and I don’t think it’s just the thought of toasting a marshmallow at the end that spurs them on!

The highlight of the summer for me was observing the children becoming more relaxed and confident as the weeks went on, and how they are taken over with fascination when they discover some new creepy crawly. This confirms my belief that children are ‘designed’ to be in the outdoors, and seem to be the most serene and happy when they are surrounded by the wonders of nature.

Thank you to all the Wild Woodies who came along and to all the lovely volunteers who gave up their time to help. I can’t wait for our next wild adventure!

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Strangely Brown

Author Ryan Greaves
Summer Warden

I’ve had my fair share of special encounters with wildlife in my five years as Summer Warden at Woods Mill. The majority have happen by pure fluke: I was standing by the lake when an osprey dropped in two years ago, I’ve had a barn owl glide over my head and land on a fencepost next to me one rainy morning, I’ve turned over a log to find a great crested newt hiding underneath and I’ve uncovered a tiddly little harvest mouse collecting blackberries while I was retrieving litter from the reedbed!

But I like to think I know this site so well that I now have a sixth sense and internal calendar for what will appear and when. So last week I was out patrolling the reserve, on what was a fairly dull and overcast day. But as I walked from the large field back towards the lake the clouds parted and shed warm sunlight on the adjacent meadow. The cogs started turning…it’s mid-August, the sun is shining on the meadow, the sloe berries are ripening…brown hairstreak butterflies?

So I put on a gentle sprint over to the beautiful blackthorn hedge separating the two meadows and began scanning. Speckled wood, nice but not nice enough, small copper, one of my favourites but still not enough, then a flash of bright orange. There she is! A beautiful fresh female brown hairstreak looking for the perfect sunny spot to lay her eggs. Snap.

brown hairstreak / Ryan Greaves

brown hairstreak / Ryan Greaves

Brown hairstreaks are the UK’s largest hairstreak butterfly species. They are notoriously elusive since they spend much of their time resting and basking high up in tall shrubs and trees. The males are the more-elusive of the two sexes, congregating high on ash “master trees” positioned around the breeding area. But the females come to areas of young sun-lit blackthorn growth to lay their eggs. On the underside both sexes are not brown, but a stunning orange colour (hence the obscure Blackadder-referencing title), with the telltale white line streaking across them. But the females are particularly beautiful, once thought to be separate “golden hairstreak” species, with forewings that are brown but contain large orange patches.

This place will keep me coming back for many more years to come. Thank you to all the visitors who come to share it with me.

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Scrumping!

hedgerow harvest / Alan Price

hedgerow harvest / Alan Price

Author Fran Southgate
Wetlands Officer

I confess, I’ve just been caught red handed, carrier bag open with a trail of ripe damsons spilling behind me. ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know what possessed me ‘guvner’ is about to tumble apologetically out of my lips and then I realise that… actually I’m not 12 any more, I’m 40, and I’m not sorry at all. In fact, it’s that guilty pleasure of knowing that I’m foraging nature’s free spoils which gives me such a great sense of illicit pleasure! Just the mere mention of the word ‘scrumping’ tends to bring a big smile to my face.

At this time of year, the hedgerows are dripping with fruit, nuts and seeds as the autumn days start to draw in. There are blackberries, plums, damsons, sloes, cherries, elderberries, cobnuts, greengages, bullaces, apples, pears and much more, just tumbling off the trees. It’s a time of year when nature truly shows its abundance, as it helps all the various bugs and beasts to prepare for a long winter – ourselves included.

It saddens me slightly to see so much free food going to waste (and it has to be said, I do like my food!!), so there are times when I just can’t stop myself scrumping, and then when I’ve had my fill of fruit cakes and coulis’, distributing these forbidden fruits to friends and family. Many people often don’t know that they are allowed to take the fruit from the trees and hedges in public places, or they don’t know which fruits are edible, and so you often see splattered masses of squashed and wasted fruit lying on the ground as if in some kind of autumn fruits murder scene.

I know the fact that there is so much free food in the hedgerows is heralding the start of autumn – which for me is always slightly tinged with sadness at the replacement of long, warm, summers evenings, with short days and frost on my windows. However, one of the best things about scrumping is knowing that the rich damson jam that I’m now pouring into jars, and the bramble whisky that’s mellowing in my larder, will be there to bring back delicious memories of sunnier times when I open them on a cold rainy day in winter.

In the mean time I’ll make sure that I save some of my scrumpings for the birds, and then I’ll take pleasure in kicking off my shoes and devouring my apple and plum crumble as I watch them enjoying scrumping too.

I checked with WildCall, the Sussex Wildlife Trust information service, for their advice on collecting fruit and they said ‘Under Common Law everyone has a right to collect the fruit of plants, providing that you are not trespassing on private property and that the plant is not specifically protected for example if it is on a SSSI. Also this law assumes that you are collecting the berries for personal use rather than for sale or commercial use.

Picking wild food can be a fun and tasty outdoor activity that we can all take part in. But please remember to forage responsibly and leave plenty fruit for others to enjoy, including wildlife! Many birds and mammals will already be trying to fatten themselves up on berries and nuts ready for winter, we wouldn’t want to deprive them.

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Our wildlife wild ride

Author Sue Curnock
Nature Tots Officer

peacock / Nigel Symington

peacock / Nigel Symington

It’s working! We’ve been turning our garden wildlife-friendly, riding the success/failure roller coaster for three summers with white knuckles and dirty fingernails.

Early efforts involved ludicrously expensive purchases from the garden centre, sketchy knowledge and a cavalier lack of preparation. Unsurprisingly, our first attempt at a wild flower meadow (fondly imagined picnics among the bobbing poppy and cornflower heads) was a dismal failure. A bucket full of attractively packaged seed strewn on hastily mown sward yielded only reinvigorated grass, docks and a solitary but much-admired white campion. Hmm, could we be doing something wrong?

Bent but not broken, we started asking questions and taking advice, and it turns out the Sussex Wildlife Trust’s Wildlife gardening web pages are pretty useful too. This time we (well, mostly Mike to be fair) lifted the grass, dug a wide trench and raked it to a fine tilth before scattering the wild flower seeds. We’ve watered them regularly and hey presto they are growing! So is the grass, but it’s a more equal battle now.

We’ve had a go at all sorts of wildlife friendly schemes and it’s a huge thrill to discover a creature has moved in. Last year we invested in bee houses and dutifully placed them in shady spots with artfully arranged bowls of sugar-water and moss – not a sausage. We read a tip about putting an old mouse nest inside (‘luckily’ we found one when clearing out the wood store) so this year’s des res was suitably smelly and some very busy bumblebees moved in before the ‘for sale’ sign was down.

Now we’ve got slow worms in the compost heap, a hedgehog has taken up residence in the stick jumble and there’s an abandoned mound of logs rotting down at the bottom of the garden; perhaps they will tempt some interesting beetles in a year or so. We’ve left the nettles and brambles alone in the far corner and were very excited to see a silken tent full of caterpillars chomping away on the tender nettle tips in May. I like to think the peacock butterfly I saw later on came from there, but may be kidding myself.

There’s a rainwater butt on the patio and a food digester in the flower bed leaking its fetid fertile gloop among the never-looked-so-good roses. It’s a mystery how something so eye-wateringly unpleasant can produce blooms so fragrant they make you want to weep with joy.

We’re so pleased to have blue tits in our nest box again – I love watching them fly back and forth with beaks stuffed full of juicy treats while we dine ‘al fresco’ at a respectful distance. I’d really recommend taking a look at our wildlife advice pages if you would like to have a go at making your own garden a little more wildlife-friendly.

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Woods Mill Comes Up Trumps

black arches / Michael Blencowe

black arches / Michael Blencowe

Author Mike Russell
Senior Wildlife Advisor

I know I’m biased having worked at Woods Mill for nearly 30 years, but this is a cracking little nature reserve at the moment, as witnessed by a small but very select group who came on the recent Summer Special Safari.

Proceedings started with Michael Blenchowe showing us the contents of a moth trap set the previous night and, although it wasn’t a brilliant night for moths to be active, 23 species represented a reasonable catch of which black arches, peach blossom and iron prominent were probably the pick of the bunch.

turtle dove at Woods Mill / James Langiewicz‎

turtle dove at Woods Mill / James Langiewicz‎

Out on the trail, we were soon getting superb views of definitely the star of the reserve at the moment, a turtle dove. Woods Mill is a hot spot for this lovely, but fast declining bird, and every time I go out on the reserve at the moment there is a huge camera lens trained on a turtle dove, but they don’t seem to mind too much. Young birds seem abundant, with a number of young green woodpeckers around, a juvenile kestrel learning its hunting skills in the big meadow and the three young little grebes, from their from second brood, all thriving on the lake.

Without the fish, the lake is now a really flourishing habitat for all sorts of wildlife. Emperor and brown hawker dragonflies were patrolling the lake, while newly emerged common and ruddy darters launched themselves off their favourite perches if anything flew remotely near them.

On an evening visit last week I have never seen so many bats flying over the lake, at least two dozen, all picking up insects emerging from the lake, something that never happened when all the fish were here.

It was great to see both banded and beautiful demoiselles still active on the reserve and a butterfly treat was a clouded yellow flying low over the meadow.

All in all a pretty good safari again and Woods Mill really is a great place to visit at the moment.

Spaces still available on the following safaris
August 21st Pevensey Levels
September 2nd Seaford Head

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Shellfish Season

Author Olle Åkesson
Marine Officer

native oyster / Donna Tomlison

native oyster / Donna Tomlison

You wouldn’t notice it by looking at the fish counter in a supermarket and not much is said about it, but just like vegetables and fruit different seafood is seasonal and should be eaten or avoided depending on the time of year.

Months without a ‘r’ is an old adage which often comes up when eating shellfish. The theory is that warmer waters means a greater chance of toxic algal blooms in the sea and being filter feeders, shellfish accumulate these toxins. In UK seas the blooms are less common and areas harvested for shellfish are carefully monitored for water quality, so if you’re buying them from a shop you don’t need to worry. In reality many shellfish species put their energy into breeding during the summer so the meat inside the shells shrink. As a result you should avoid them during the summer to get the best quality and ensure that the existing shellfish are able to breed and safeguard the stocks.

Native oysters, now considered a delicacy, used to be poor man’s food in the UK and in the beginning of the 19th century they were a common dish. Since then their stocks have declined due to overfishing, pollution, parasites and invasive species. Many UK stocks are now in severe decline or completely gone. In an odd turn of events their fate may actually come down to higher demand for them, not less. At present most oysters sold are actually pacific oysters. These are hardier, grow quicker and are easier to produce in aquaculture than the native oysters. To preserve the native oyster, some people say, we need to eat more, increase the demand and make it economically viable to grow them and boost their stocks.

Mussels is one of only two species (the other is arctic char) on the MCS’ Good Fish Guide that has the lowest and most sustainable rating. Farmed mussels are mostly grown on ropes using naturally settled mussels and as they are filter feeders do not require any feed input. In fact they actually purify the water as they feed.

To find out more about which seafood to avoid and when, you can have a look at the Good Fish Guide and their guide to Seasonal Fish.

Mussels / Making Waves Project

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Road building – it’s yesterday once more!

Ashdown Forest / Chris Mole

Ashdown Forest / Chris Mole

Author Tony Whitbread
Chief Executive

Nostalgia is not, as they say, as good as it used to be. The current push for new roads seems to harp back to an imagined golden age when, it was thought, all you had to do was invest in infrastructure and everything would then be fine.

Indeed, if I remember correctly, around the mid 1990s there was a proud boast of the biggest road building programme since the Romans left. So, as there seems to be some attempt to live in the past again, perhaps it is worth reminding ourselves of the level of environmental damage that would have resulted from this previous rush for roads.

Going from east to west the list of devastation seems almost unimaginable today:

First at Rye there were proposals for a major road changing the character of the old town and extending across Rye Harbour. This would probably have impacted on a Special Area for Conservation – an internationally important wildlife site appreciated by hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Then a road was proposed to run the length of the beautifully tranquil Brede valley, devastating the wetlands there before sweeping through the ancient woods north of Hastings and carving across the Combe Haven Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Then there was a proposal for a dual carriageway running across Pevensey Levels and through our own nature reserve. Again Pevensey is an internationally recognised wildlife site and one of the most important wetlands in the whole of Britain, to say nothing of its historical interest and landscape quality.

Further west there were proposals to run a length of dual carriageway from Eastbourne to Lewes through what is now the National Park.

Then we got to Worthing and proposals for a dual carriageway cutting through the Downs and passing under Cissbury Ring – a fantastic Iron Age Hill fort and also a nationally important wildlife site. The quiet setting here would have been destroyed in a futile effort to push traffic away from Worthing itself.

A little further west and of course there was a cluster of proposals to run a dual carriageway through the largest ancient woodland on the coastal plain in order to build an Arundel bypass.

It didn’t stop with the south coast trunk road either. A recognition that this would drive congestion elsewhere meant that proposals for new roads throughout Sussex came thick and fast.

“Improvements” to the A24, A23, A22 and A21 going north–south, some of which have now happened some have not. But a dual carriageway was going to be run through Ashdown Forest, the biggest heathland in the south east, appreciate by thousands and again internationally important for wildlife.

An A272 upgrade was proposed, that would have impacted at several places, including our own nature reserve at The Mens near Wisborough Green and driving up traffic through several villages.

There were even suggestions for an ‘outer’ M25 running roughly through the middle of the Weald of Sussex to relieve the pressure on the current M25.

I suspect that half the people reading this today might say that it couldn’t be that bad these days. The other half might feel that a road building programme like this is a good thing. We need roads, so wildlife, once again, will have to be compromised. But look again at the ever expanding list and, even ignoring the destruction of rural Sussex, you don’t see a solution, you see a treadmill. What starts as just a little bypass here and there ends up as a treadmill with travel increasing and congestion getting worse. Road building is not a solution – it is a politically expedient waste of public money.

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Magical Morning at Malling Down

Author Mike Russell
Senior Wildlife Advisor

silver-spotted skipper / Dave Sadler

silver-spotted skipper / Dave Sadler

A flurry of butterflies, a kaleidoscope of butterflies, a shimmering of butterflies, all appropriate phrases for describing what those attending one of our summer safari special to Malling Down experienced this morning.

At the right time of year and in the right weather conditions, there can be no better place to look for butterflies than this Sussex Wildlife Trust nature reserve outside Lewes Town Centre, and we certainly hit the jackpot this morning. Top of the bill were the blues, the specialist butterflies for chalk downland. On the way to ‘the spot’, we came across freshly emerged common blues, dazzling in their own right, but even these were eclipsed when we got to the south facing slope and the sun emerging from behind a dark cloud encouraged dozens of Adonis blues and chalkhill blues out to feed and look for a mate.

Newly emerged Adonis blues are just an astonishing azure blue colour, the brightest of all our butterflies and for the people who had never seen them before, well I could audibly hear breath being taken away. The much lighter chalkhill blues can’t quite match the Adonis for sheer beauty, but is a pretty special insect in it’s own right, and it was great to see so many of these downland specialists on the wing at the same time. A fourth blue butterfly, which isn’t really blue at all, the brown argus was also seen.

Another downland specialist and Malling Down is now probably the top spot in the country to see this species is the silver-spotted skipper and again we were treated to some wonderful close encounters with them.

Altogether we recorded a total of 21 different types of butterfly, more than one-third of the entire butterfly species in the UK. Not bad for a three-hour safari!

I’m running a number of these safaris during the summer, click for details:

 

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