Wednesday, 27 May 2015

A weekend of various hills

I do love a hill - I'm afraid I just could not live in the flatlands of the east!

Last Friday I ventured north of Devizes to the very scenic Roundway Hill, an Iron Age hillfort and site of a famous battle in the Civil War, where the Royalists crushed the Parliamentarians. It's other name is therefore Oliver's Castle. In any case, it's now a beautiful Site of Special Scientific Interest, protected for its chalk downland. When we visited, the cowslip display was just over, but the chalk milkwort (bright blue patches) and early purple orchids were providing a beautiful patchwork of colour. The abundance of the rare corn bunting, together with other farmland birds such as yellowhammer, made for a very atmospheric walk. The views are amazing right across the plain, and only a very short drive from Devizes.

Then, on Monday, and having seen the article in the National Trust magazine promoting the site, we headed off for Hambledon Hill in Dorset (west of Blandford). Luckily, we found a parking spot (very popular due to the article!) and embarked on the short but strenuous uphill climb to the top. Another hillfort, it was recently bought by the Trust, with help from Natural England. previously it had been under private ownership, but managed by NE. It's a National Nature Reserve and rightly so - as the second largest hillfort in western Europe (second only to Maiden Castle, also in Dorset), not only does it form an intrinsic part of this historic landscape, but the chalk downland it supports is also nationally declining. Again, chalk milkwort was in evidence, together with horseshoe vetch and hoary plantain.

Having headed back down for lunch, we embarked on another walk, this time to Hod Hill. This is another hillfort, but this time it was requisitioned by the Romans for one of their forts. We chose a wooded path to take us up to the top, which was a mistake, as it quickly peetered out. This necessitated a scramble on near-vertical woodland slopes, with very thin and friable chalky soil, clutching at hazel roots and hugging many trees, only to find a barbed wire fence at the top to negotiate.

We all successfully managed this, stopped to admire the stunning views and wildflowers (including my nemesis the rock rose - cause of much hay fever!), then headed back to the carpark exhausted.

Next week I'm in Turkey so won't be posting for a little while.

Wednesday, 20 May 2015

The flying saucepan

Bit of a delayed post this week, as I got so carried away with the woodland flora in the last post, I completely forgot about the birds!

Up at Clarendon park, I was walking back from the woodland when I heard the unmistakable sound of lapwing calling. This explains the title of this post - anyone that has seen a lapwing in flight will understand its nickname of 'the flying saucepan' - the distinct rounded tips of the wings looking a bit like saucepans (if imagination is used!).

Lapwing would have traditionally bred on open lowland wet pastures, with predator perches (i.e. trees) far enough away from the area for the adults to spot incoming crows etc. Now, they are very much marginalised and a declining species. At Clarendon, however, the farming practices of big, open fields of spring cereals/over wintered stubbles left over from previous crops, provide ideal conditions to attempt to breed - that's if the badgers and foxes don't sniff their nests out (a serious problem in the lowlands).

I was able to watch the adults' swooping display flight over the stubble fields, with their odd 'peewit' calls (another nickname) - and, of course, they were not alone, with skylarks also singing from the areas of chalk grassland/spring cereal crops on the estate, and the hedgerows alive with other species such as chiffchaffs, chaffinches, dunnock, wren, blackbird and song thrush.

Last weekend I was over in Devon visiting friends, so not exactly my local patch - but it was amazing to see the contrast of bluebells occupying a whole hillside, as opposed to being in the familiar woodland setting.

I'm off to more local sites this Friday around Devizes, before heading off to Turkey the following weekend - definitely not my local patch! - so I won't be able to post for a little while.

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Bluebell etc season

Everyone always gets very excited at this time of year about 'bluebell season' - quite rightly so, as we have a significant proportion of the world's bluebells here in the UK. I'm very lucky to live close to several gems, and just love the perfumed waft of a bluebell wood. However, although it's great that people want to get out and immerse themselves in bluebells, some of the 'honeypot' sites can get a little busy! Here's my guide to bluebell woods surrounding Salisbury.

First up, I visited Garston Wood RSPB reserve - I've mentioned it before, and it really is THE most amazing place for bluebells, but actually, more so for wild garlic. Although I chose the Bank Holiday weekend to go, which was perhaps not a great idea - the car park is tiny, and the RSPB run guided walks during bluebell season, so the car park and narrow approach roads were rammed. However, on retracing my steps I found a bit of verge to park on (nothing interestingly botanically on it you'll be pleased to hear!) and actually entered the reserve in my favourite part. It is the bottom corner furthest away from the car park, and hence far fewer people venture here. This is also the best area for the wild garlic, and this year they were amazing - their scent contrasts wonderfully with those of the bluebells. On my meander I also encountered the aforementioned bluebells, wood anemone, and early purple orchids, including one enormous flower spike about 20cm long!

The next day I had a quick walk up Clarendon Park, including the ruined 12th century royal palace with the accompanying llamas, but culminating in a slightly longer walk through the beautiful ancient woodland along the Clarendon Way. Although not carpets of bluebells, the hazel coppice and huge ancient oaks and beeches are so atmospheric - you feel that time has stood still for centuries here. As well as bluebells I saw primroses and the amazing toothwort. This weird looking plant is a parasite on hazel in particular, and therefore has no need to photosynthesise, with the result that it is an eerie white colour.

Other bluebells woods - that I haven't yet visited this year and don't think I'll manage unfortunately - are those at Grovely near Wilton; Langley Wood NNR (well worth a visit - gorgeous bluebells and ancient trees); Blackmoor Copse and Bentley Wood (although very sparse) and Vernditch Chase next to Martin Down NNR. And Great Ridge Wood near Chicklade off the A303 has been highly recommended by friends too, although I haven't visited it myself.

So I'm certainly very spoilt for choice in the Salisbury area. next highlight is the burnt tip orchid count on Martin Down, which I have a feeling I may miss this year as the season seems a bit late - keep your eyes peeled if visiting the older part of the reserve from Sillens Lane car park.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

Down on the Down

Yes, yet another post from Martin Down, as one of my friends had never been, so it was time for a bit of a tour!

First up was a second attempt to see the elusive single specimen of the pasque flower - only this time, I remembered where it was and it was successfully located. However, it flowers early, and although there were several blooms, most had gone over. It is a very striking plant - standing so much taller than all of the surrounding vegetation at this time of year, and with the long silvery hairs on the stems and leaves casting an almost ghostly halo. But it's really the flowers that need closer examination - the wonderful contrast between the bright yellow stamens and the deep purple petals. Gorgeous.

We then continued on up towards the Bokerley Dyke, noting the relative absence of cowslips - they are very stunted this year, probably due to the dry winter and spring we've had. Continuing up to the highest point on Hanham Hill, we noted our first cuckoo call - heartening given their population decline in recent years, likely due to issues in their wintering grounds in Africa, and of course trying to stay alive on migration without being shot over Malta etc...

Reaching the ridge on the furthest boundary of the reserve, where you can peel off to walk into the adjoining Tidpit Down (part of the same Site of Special Scientific Interest, but in private ownership and managed with cattle grazing), we marveled at the carpets of hairy violets.

We then returned via the Mediaeval field system (cue discussion over tor grass control, which the reserve has battled for many years - it takes over chalk grassland, out-competing some of the wildflowers), with good numbers of more cowslips.

Another beautiful afternoon on the Down, and my friend was full of praise for this amazing place.