Monday, 16 March 2020

Wonders of the night sky

I have risen early to view a celestial wonder: a line-up of objects low in the south sky. A waning moon, the red giant Antares, Ares itself (Mars), Jupiter and Saturn. This event is well worth an early start. Frustratingly though, the cloud clearing from an overcast night has not fully dissipated and clings to the southern horizon.

There is, however, as I turn my attention to the contents of my moth trap, another line-up of phenomena that has been rare of late. For the first time in weeks most conditions for good moth activity were met: an overcast sky with light winds and a reasonable temperature which held up after sunset. For days on end I have opened empty traps after stormy nights, making do with occasional wind-blown moths clinging to fences or grass-blades. The pressure amongst the local moth community must have been building behind a bottle-neck of Atlantic storms, waiting for their planets to line up until finally, last night, the cork was popped, the blue touchpaper lit and it was party time.

Those celestial fireworks forgotten, I delight instead in a meteoric rise in moth numbers. There is a tiny, delightful, if dourly-named Brown-spot Flat-body (Agonopterix alstromeriana) perched on the lip of the trap; a behemoth Oak Beauty (Biston strataria), its wings an embroidered quilt of lichen; several Early Grey (Xylocampa areola), which blend in almost perfectly with the paler egg trays I line my trap with; but the numbers are dominated by Orthosias – the genus of springtime moths which belong to the largest family of British species, the Noctuidae. The egg trays are peppered with Common Quaker (Orthosia cerasi) and Hebrew Character (Orthosia gothica) and interspersed with Clouded Drab (Orthosia incerta) and Small Quaker (Orthosia cruda).

In the season when woodpigeons boast again from morning rooftops, when the wren rediscovers its voice and when tits show renewed interest in our nestboxes, so too do we begin to encounter many birds' major nourishment, the moths. There are earthly pleasures to delight in. My catch of wonders from that space between Earth and the heavens, their names and numbers recorded, will spend the day in safety before flying off at dusk back into the night sky.

Thursday, 11 October 2018

Pell-mell and pain at The Rookery

I timed my evening walk perfectly tonight. The sunset was gift-wrapped in a ribbon of flame-orange cloud which glowed parallel with the western horizon. It wasn’t quite the flamingo hour that Virginia Woolf wrote of, but this wasn’t smog-filled London but the comparatively clean-aired Sussex coast. I took my usual route with the dogs: along past the paddocks of Foxhole Farm and onto the promontory of Rookery Hill, down to the levels below and back up through the wood towards lighted windows and home.

Perfectly I timed things. From the Foxhole paddocks I could see a surfeit of rooks and jackdaws causing a pell-mell in the sky above Rookery Hill. It’s a common meeting space where birds from more than one rookery seem to assemble before dispersing to their roosts. I walked straight into their party and they took tumbling to the sky again in a startling number – more than I’ve seen here for a long time. Their evening wasn’t yet done and they regrouped energetically on the meadow a little further along the hill. Their black silhouettes in the east sky contrasted and balanced with the flaming ribbon to the west.

Over and down Rookery Hill to the Bishopstone Road, past lonely lights which light the road for only the occasional rambler, through the gate and we plunged into the low meadow, wading into the gloom beneath the trees. A silk mist was draped across the grass; above, everything was black or a deepening blue. Further up the hill the party was in full swing: the distant cacophony of rooks and jackdaws as they flew in wide brush strokes across the sky. A large group of jackdaws, perhaps a hundred or more strong, played like starlings or homing pigeons across the sky while rooks rode a fresh easterly wind high, high up – hanging and hovering like raptors. This swinging party was all up the far end that I would pass beneath after five or ten more minutes walk. A small bat passed overhead, a pipistrelle of some sort; then a larger, unknown one, too big for a pipistrelle.

They are an endless source of fascination, these rooks. Away from the helter-skelter, at the bottom end of the wood and just above where I stood, a quite different gathering was playing out. The skeletons of the dead diseased elms are often empty, but occasionally their stark silhouettes hold a few birds perching on bare branches. Tonight the lifeless, stricken body of a dead rook was caught in the uppermost branch of one tree. It appeared to be skewered shrike-like onto the branch, like a snagged kite, but it was more likely that it had fallen with wings open and become snagged by the crook of its wing around a branch. Its lifeless body flapped pathetically in the breeze it had once commanded. A short but respectful distance away from the bird sat a group of sullen rooks, in their usual mourning black. Two magpies passed through close to the dead bird and one of the rooks darted at them, cawing angrily and demanding that they keep a respectful distance. It did the same to any other passing bird, then flew back to its perch ten metres distant. Other rooks joined it and sat quietly. It was in complete contrast to the festivities at the other end of the wood, which continued oblivious to this sad scene. I swear these birds were holding a vigil. The bereaved bird kept his or her place on the branch; others joined it, sat quietly for a while, some remained the full while, others passed on to be replaced by new birds, well-wishers, grief-sharers. The breeze slowed to nothing momentarily, as if the world had paused in that space between an in-breath and out-breath, or between an out-breath and in-breath. Slowly and respectfully, it resumed. All the time, those few rooks sat like silent black points marking a punctuated life. I didn’t know at that moment if I’ve ever seen such a sad sight: anguish before me balanced by jubilation at the other end of the wood. I stood and watched in silence with the dogs until the silhouettes melted into the night. Those few constant birds were still there when it became too dark to discern them.

Another bat passed just above my head, now only a hint in the darkness. A strong thirty mile breeze is forecast tonight. I wonder whether the dead bird will take its final flight in this breeze, spiralling down through the trees onto the leaf litter below, seen only by the fox, or whether that other bird, its companion or mate or parent, will keep its vigil until then.

From behind me the breeze carried the scent of pipe tobacco of the type I recognise from the old men’s pipes of my childhood. One of my dogs growled at something unseen upwind but I could see, hear or sense nobody. Perhaps it was one of the ghosts of the old harbour side; perhaps it was an aromatic log on a fire in the village, carried along by the strengthening breeze, easterly yet warm enough to feel no chill even after dark.

We passed silently through the calm of the low meadow and back up through the trees. In the canopy above the party was over, the birds safely tucked away in their roost with only the occasional caw from amongst the branches. The party was over for another night.

Friday, 5 October 2018

Two years of walking the line

The Rookery Hill 'Mill' Barrow - repurposed ancient monument

The straight line from Falaise Road

I am nearing the end of my second year of weekly wildlife surveys along a line of farmed land between Denton and Bishopstone. The idea arose from a route I traced home two years ago this month from The Crouch in Seaford, which I was able to follow along a more or less straight line of footpaths. This path is stair-rod straight between The Crouch and the parish church of St. Andrew in Bishopstone – St. Andrew being the patron saint of fishermen. A little digging revealed that The Crouch in Seaford was once the site of a medieval market. The name ‘Crouch’ is derived from the Latin crux or cross: the market cross. The Crouch is located close to the coast where the course of the river passed by and other adjacent areas of low-lying land hint at the possibility of a harbour through which passed market goods: coastal and continental imports and locally-caught fish, which might have been brought along the similarly named Crooked Lane. The market ceased in 1712, when the former Cinque Port was in decline and the course of the Ouse had shifted further west.

Only at one point along the route through Seaford did I need to deviate from the line: a private house in Stafford Road ironically named The Gatehouse now blocks the way, whereas once, as the name suggests, it didn’t – except perhaps for those who didn’t know the magic word. The Gatehouse is at the top of a steep bank. The notion of history hiding in plain sight utterly compels me. The emergence of this trackway between the medieval market in the old parish of Sutton, close to Steyne Road – the stony place - to the parish church of St. Andrew in Bishopstone, which itself is linked by a nearly straight line to the parish church of St. Leonard in Denton, was a source of great excitement. So I celebrated its rediscovery in the way I know best by dedicating a wildlife survey to its memory!

The true reason for creating the weekly transect survey along this stretch of land was to study the impacts of intensive farming activity upon the insects, and to evaluate the importance of headland flora using butterflies (and moths) as an indicator. How better to do this though than to use ancient trackways that our ancestors used to travel to and from places of worship and commerce? I am using them instead to commune with nature.

I began the inaugural walk during the first week of April 2017 not yet having chosen the exact route; I decided that I would allow the land to decide where I should walk. The original idea that I would record butterflies on a weekly basis between April and October along a straight-lined route quickly evolved into something approaching a narrow ellipse.  At the end of that first walk I had traced a route from the end of Falaise Road in a roughly south-south-easterly direction beyond Foxhole and Stud Farms, as far as the gate at the bottom end of Rookery Hill by the Bishopstone village road, then back uphill beyond four tumuli as far as the kissing gate which separates Rookery Hill from Norton Hill. Incidentally, this kissing gate is situated on the banks of the northern-most tumulus, which was adapted during medieval times to act as the base of a mill. The route takes me along headlands abutting intensively-farmed fields and skirts the edge of improved pastures at Norton Hill and Rookery Hill. The headlands are razed to the ground each summer just prior to the harvest. Norton Hill is a recovering ‘improved grassland’ pasture, which is still moderate in terms of biodiversity, but with no recent fiddling and grazed by a small cattle herd, a flock of sheep and occasional escaped Dartmoor ponies. A mixed sward is slowly establishing itself year on year. Rookery Hill is an ancient landscape, formerly a promontory bounded by the Ouse floodplain on three sides, lately though an un-grazed meadow improved with fine grasses such as fescues and is cut for hay each June, approximately (but not intentionally) in phase with the interregnum between the first and second broods of the Small Heath butterfly. Neither meadow is rich in flora or fauna, but the tumuli act as an archipelago of tiny stable grassland habitats for mixed flora and insects. I have found previously unseen Silver-spotted Skipper and Adonis Blue butterflies in small numbers, as well as a good colony of Small Heath in these pastures. The latter species has been the undisputed monarch of Rookery Hill during the first two years of the survey.

The tumuli are bowl barrows, believed to be 3500 to 4500 years old. This is what Historic England has to say about them:

Bowl barrows, the most numerous form of round barrow, are funerary monuments dating from the Late Neolithic period to the Late Bronze Age, with most examples belonging to the period 2400-1500 BC. They were constructed as earthen or rubble mounds, sometimes ditched, which covered single or multiple burials. There are over 10,000 surviving bowl barrows recorded nationally, and …the bowl barrow on Rookery Hill survives well and … is one of the best examples of this type of monument to be found on the East Sussex Downs. These prehistoric barrows are the earliest known structures on Rookery Hill, and … provide evidence for the continuity of burial, settlement and agriculture in this area of Downland over a period of at least 3000 years.1
Today I followed the route with Leo and Charlie; they are helpful in flushing up butterflies and especially so the small heaths. It was a warming day, sunny with a light northerly breeze. The sky was grazed by a hundred contrails, suggesting the air was freezing cold at aircraft level. Even after several hours of sunlight, the longer grasses were still soaked with dew and some parts of the route were still in shadow. The diminishing power of the sun is evident in these places. All morning a nauseating hydrocarbon stench – surely the exhaust from Newhaven’s industrial centre? – had been carried downwind by the breeze and it wasn’t until nearly halfway that we’d moved beyond the plume. As I looked back I realised I was wrong: a dark plume of smoke was rising from Denton Wood, somewhere near the stable yard on The Crescent track. The smell was quite disgusting and probably not at all healthy.

Only the hottest patches along the route seemed to have attracted butterflies. The very start was the only part which had any activity during the first half, with the usual flurry of Large and Small Whites blousing their way around the hedges and scrub. These today were joined by a pair of Clouded Yellows and an inaugural record for the transect of Mallow Moth, which I followed for some minutes before it allowed me an approach close enough to gain a positive ID. Plenty of its food-plant lines the headland path. It was quiet otherwise; even the ivy bees nectaring on ivy blossom seemed fewer in number. The lack of Red Admirals was again noticed by their absence. Where I have counted 40 on a particular ivy patch in the past, today I saw none. This is proving to be a poor year for them, possibly because of the hot, dry weather in July.

The path along the field headlands was an insect desert. Birds in the paddocks at Foxhole Farm included a fair flock of Meadow Pipit with a few Pied Wagtails and Linnets intermingled. A Sparrowhawk circled overtly, high above. Occasional buzzards soared lazily on thermals higher still. The final section of the transect route is usually the most active, and so it was today. As Rookery Hill descended towards the floodplain below and tipped the angle of the ground sunwards, beneath the airflow, the additional heat hosted the only Small Heaths seen along the route – a pair close together. It was a day of pairs: two Red Admirals skimmed past with purpose and, by the largest of the four tumuli, a pair of third-brood male Wall Brown were alternately basking on hot dried grass patches and sparring in tight circles before suddenly and violently breaking apart. I lingered for a little while and noted that the pair would spar two or three times each minute. This must be an exhausting activity.

The temperature was rising on the way home to nearly 20°C and this encouraged a few more insects into action: a pair of Silver Y moths and a few more white butterflies. Adult numbers though are settling down for the winter now and there must now only be a few more weeks left in the survey season.

The list:
Large White (Pieris brassicaeI) 13
Small White (Pieris rapae) 3
Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus) 2
Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus) 2
Wall (Lasiommata megera) 4
Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) 2
Mallow Moth (Larentia clavaria) 1
Silver Y (Autographa gamma) 3

Bowl barrow, the north westernmost barrow of a group of six bowl barrows, forming part of a linear round barrow cemetery on Rookery Hill (online) (accessed 05/10/18).

Rookery Hill barrow to Firle Beacon
Hotter microclimes
Mallow Moth (Larentia clavaria)
Ivy blossom
St. Andrews at Bishopstone - a straight line to The Crouch marketplace

Thursday, 4 October 2018

Rooks at dusk

I was running late in giving my dogs their evening walk and caught the twilight by mistake. It was a beautiful early October night, still and strangely quiet, sun already set, moonrise hours off, and the horizon a peach ribbon falling into the Channel. The sea seemed to have a glow about it which seemed, impossibly, brighter than the sky above it. It’s blank canvas was interrupted only by the thin black lines of the Breakwater and East Pier framed by three small boats with night-lights aglow.

Honks from the east heralded an approaching skein of greylag geese, which flew up over the Rookery Wood canopy. Something innate compelled me to count them. There were fifty three in a tatty v. The geese have become familiar again; first seen a week ago, I saw them pass over twice today: morning and night, but both times heading west, probably to the pond at Piddinghoe. One of the heralds of winter are these passing skeins. I can imagine the invisible veils of winter being dragged behind by each skein, one after one, layer upon layer of winter slowly building, suppressing the warmth of the season, imperceptibly. Sinking its chill into the ground to emerge after its autumnal aestivation is complete.

The geese diffuse into the darkness of the Ouse valley and are gone. As we plough on we disturb the rooks from the ground before us but, instead of flying to the Rookery’s trees as they usually do, they split into two streams, one of which steers away from the trees and to the north. I’ve witnessed this before and can think only that these are visiting rooks, family members expatriate of the Rookery. Whereas the greylags are a seasonal delight, the rooks are the exemplar of a renewed astonishment won by means of familiarity. I’m reminded of a poem by Herman de Conick entitled Just as this Island Belongs to the Gulls and I adapt it for the rooks in their Rookery Hill promontory, jutting out into the old harbour waters below:

Just as this island belongs to the rooks / and the rooks to their cry / and their cry to the wind / and the wind to no one,
So is this island the rooks’ / and the rooks are their cry / and their cry is the wind / and the wind no one’s.

Those rooks hold a lifetime of renewed astonishment in store for me. In these moments my heart and its veneration belongs to the rooks.

We plunged down Rookery Hill and into the floodplain, slipping into the old harbour via the narrow aperture between a gate and post and we were borne into another world. The white noise of distant traffic was absent, the dense quiet broken only by the chirrip chirrip of dark bush-crickets. The cacophony of rooks and jackdaws in the canopy above has quickly settled into silence tonight and too is absent. Crossing the meadow beneath the fringe of Duke’s Walk trees, the gloaming meadow studded with silhouettes, a glow emerged in the distance, low down, prostrate. This old harbour and its ghosts! Those damp hollows and redshank beds which hold beneath their surfaces the memory of the old creek were giving up their waters in the long wave of a rising tide, serenely and kindly haunting. I fancy that I have been allowed in to become part of the re-enactment, perhaps to acknowledge my curiosity in the route of the old creek. I played along and imagined walking knee-deep through its waters, wading to the harbourside, watched perhaps by a silent owl in the boughs above. If the breeze hadn’t been holding its breath still, I swear the salt scent of seaweed would have hovered with the mist as I passed through.

The kissing gate on the far shore opened silently and gave into the dark hollow within the trees as Dukes Walk ascends towards Norton Top. The kissing gate at the top of the wood gives out into open air and, as if we have passed through and back up the rabbit hole, we are back in the world again, beneath Ursa major, chasing the bear home like Orion with my two dogs, my feet as dry as when I first walked out.

A Sense of Southerham

A sinking sun earlier today revealed the many textures - the curves, cuts, shades and stipples - of the Southerham Downs and inspired me to photograph the same thing many times over! The breathtaking view from Cliffe Hill of Bible Bottom, Oxteddle Bottom, Caburn Bottom and up to the ramparts of the old hillfort at Caburn Top itself is one of the finest found in the eastern Downs.

Approaching Caburn

Tuesday, 2 October 2018

Heartland Walks #3: Ghosts of the Harbour

Familiarity leads not to contempt, but to renewed astonishment.
With familiarity, from the known is yielded the unknown, the seen the unseen, the heard the unheard.
A flood of the senses by the rising ghost tide.

The artist Simon Lewty wrote that "the same walk can mean something different each time it is made, so that familiarity may not lead to contempt, but to renewed astonishment, as the known yields up the unknown"1. I felt renewed astonishment with my discovery of the relics of the old tidal harbour at Bishopstone, the scars of the old creek that run in a loop which joins the dots of five ponds in what is now a damp pasture. Countless times have I walked around this meadow and many times have I looked and wondered at its curious ditches and embankments, but always only in isolation and never before seeing it as a whole system, a system which carries downstream, away from the village and on towards The Buckle, beyond the causewayed coast road and Seaford branch line, beyond into the scars of the old Ouse, towards the sea.

The shallow cleft has been present every one of the thousand and more times I walked through the meadow, hiding in plain sight, unnoticed. Two hundred and seventy years ago I would have been waist-deep in ooze. Today it is a mere suggestion, fragmented into a necklace of damp hollows and seasonal ponds, some not much more than big puddles distressed by cattle-hoof imprints which makes my own passage tiptoe teetering and treacherous. Events downstream repurposed this from a place of departure and return into a place where the twice-daily tidal heartbeat has slowed-slowed to a seasonal ebb and rise of wet and dry, winter and summer, watched over by the resident cattle and transient walkers and dog-walkers. The twice-daily tide has been reduced to a once-a-year event.

Today I choose to dwell a while, to trace the loop of the channel and chart a meandering course where boats once negotiated the shallows. Where once the flow would have scoured clean the channel, now there is a detritus of things stranded in space and time. The ruins of a concrete drain float on the surface, perhaps shattered by the seasonal heave of wet and dry ground. It could be a hundred year-old drainage improvement effort. There's a flotsam of wooden posts and planks that might have been fences or bridges that once spanned the channel. Glass bottles and flints from the decaying wall bob up and down in the shallows. After the hottest, driest summer in years, the ground here, where once redshanks called their melancholy ‘teu teu’, still remained damp enough to sustain a carpet of redshank - that dense matted flower of ditches and damp places. So the bird has become the flower.

I pause and listen to the birdsong: jackdaws and rooks and woodpigeons above, magpies, long-tailed tits, a chiff-chaff, greenfinches, a great spotted woodpecker. Creatures of the wood.  Where once rain would have fallen into the creek and flowed downstream, now a large beech – surely one of the Duke's beeches, planted after the water receded – rains its mast into the channel, slowly filling it. Two grey squirrels dart around its base where once grey mullet swam. A large owl nest box has been fixed to a sycamore trunk. I've never noticed it before, tucked away beneath the lowest boughs. Somewhere in the boughs above, the tawny owl calls as I discover this little secret of the wood’s edge. Perfect timing! To my right, low across the open meadow a sparrowhawk sweeps in attack. Then a grey heron glides in - that's more like it! And then a moment of eerie and wonderful splendour: the bubbling ripples of a curlew’s call, somewhere in the near distance, unseen but up there on shivering wings, the call ‘cour-lee’, truly a song of the heart.  The sound echoes through the trees with a moment's sustain, gaining in urgency: ‘troo-ee troo-ee trrroo-eee’. For a moment the air boils, then falls silent and they are gone. The ghosts of the old harbour are bubbling up through the ground like a wellspring and I have sunk knee-deep into its memory simply by pausing here for a few moments. This land is willing to yield its secrets to anyone who cares to ask.

The long wave of the last tide ebbed away from this place 250 or so years ago. The harbour may have gone extinct, but the wet never quite left - it has lingered as a half memory, a half-remembered purpose it once held here, a shade or an imprint. The water haunts the meadow, benign in summer and autumn, resolute in winter and spring; the almost imperceptible year-long tidal ebb and rise. Global sea levels have risen by about 20cm since 18802. They are predicted to rise this century by about a further 65cm3, many studies suggest as much as or more than one metre, as oceans continue to thermally expand and ice sheets melt. This rise might not revive the little harbour, but it would allow the water back in and restore it as a more dominant influence4. It might push people further from it and encourage the return of wading birds and wildfowl. The distant curlews' call may yet return here, but for now I have to walk on towards the Ouse floodplain to find them.

Sea level model following a sea-level rise of one metre

1.    Clifford, Sue and King, Angela (Eds.) (1996) From Place to Place: Maps and Parish Maps. London: Common Ground.
2.    US Global Change Research Program: Global Sea Level Rise (retrieved 02/10/18).
4.  (accessed 02/10/18).

The creek crosses the road at the dip
One of five ponds at Bishopstone
Damp hollow
Beech-mast raining into the old creek
Redshank (Persicaria maculosa)
The harbourside where boats moored?
Drainage hole in the wall...
...of the seasonal pool
The former harbourside