Sunday, 5 February 2017

Migrant butterflies and moths at Newhaven: the last five years of recording

Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui)
I have taken a look at all the migratory butterflies and moths that I recorded in Newhaven between 2012 and 2016. The results are in the table below, which gives an overall total for each species for the five year period, a per annum average for the period and the annual total of each species from 2012 to 2016. The species in the table are organised in order of abundance over the five years.

Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta)
Why do we see immigrating butterflies and moths and how do they get here? The thing with migratory insects is that the numbers seen on our shores are unpredictable from one year to the next. Some of the factors which influence the numbers of adults seen on UK shores are the success of each species in the previous year, the environmental conditions and survival success of the early life stages in their native land, the number of adults which migrate and the weather conditions during migration. For this reason, numbers seen in the UK tend to vary wildly from year to year, and this can be seen in the table below. Additionally, geography and location should be a consideration. I feel that Newhaven is at an advantage because of the Ouse Valley, which some species might use as a navigation aid. Other species such as Painted Lady congregate on hill-tops and the crest of the Bishopstone escarpment, which rises just north of the Buckle in Seaford and runs northwards along dry valleys toward the downs above Beddingham, is a good location for this species along with Diamond-back Moths and Rush Veneer.

Vagrant Twitcher (Tebenna micalis)
Another important caveat is recorder effort. If more effort is made one year and less another, this will affect the total numbers seen, so consistency is important. Recording methods can affect the results in a similar way. For example, a transect walk survey has been performed each week between April and September throughout the five year period. The walks are regulated by a code of practise which helps to achieve a consistent approach, so the data collected during the walks are of a high quality. Of less reliable quality are the numbers I have recorded at home in my moth trap. I have been more or less consistent in my approach during the five year period, but there are two considerations when analysing the data. Firstly, I changed the light source in July 2013 from a 2x30W actinic light (a type of UV light) to a 125W MV (mercury vapour) light. This is a significant change because many species are more strongly attracted to mercury vapour light than actinic, and this has been reflected in the results since the change in July 2013. Second, the number of nights that I have operated my trap each year has varied, as follows: 155 nights in 2012, 176 in 2013, 211 in 2014, 205 in 2015 and 209 in 2016, meaning there is a slight upward trend. This, too, will have influenced the data.

Rusty-dot Pearl (Udea ferrugalis)
One final consideration is that data collected at one geographic location (Newhaven in this case) cannot be representative of other locations and should therefore not be used as an indication of general abundance. It is a little like looking into a rock pool and assuming the same stuff will be found in every one. It isn't. However, large immigration events do tend to have a regional impact that produces similar results for some species at different recording stations. 

Looking at the table, the species in first place is the Diamond-back Moth (Plutella xylostella). Immediately we see the point proved about wild fluctuations from one year to the next. Last year (2016) was an exceptional year which saw a colossal immigration of probably billions of these moths. It feeds as a larva on crucifers (cabbages), so the immigration was not welcomed by farmers or gardeners. Bearing in mind that the moth is tiny (about 7mm long), it amazes me that it is able to fly any distance at all, but it is carried in large air masses long distances from its continental homeland.

There are a number of species which are regular migrants each year, including the Clouded Yellow (Colias croceus), Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) and Painted Lady (Vanessa cardui) butterflies and the moths Rusty-dot Pearl (Udea ferrugalis), Rush Veneer (Nomophila noctuella), Silver Y (Autographa gamma), White-point (Mythimna albipuncta), L-album Wainscot (Mythimna l-album), and Dark Sword-grass (Agrotis ipsilon). Of these, most had an average year in 2016, but Rusty-dot Pearl, Rush Veneer and Silver Y had a significantly above average year. The Silver Y famously made the news when one landed on the footballer Ronaldo’s face during the European Cup Final in July. It became an internet sensation (#mothonface). It should be noted that some of these species are also considered to be transitory residents (i.e. they gain a temporary foothold in the UK and breed successfully for a year or more before colonies succumb to environmental shocks). For these species (White-point, L-album Wainscot and Dark Sword-grass) the southern UK is at the very north of their range and they might form resident coastal populations in the future as a result of climate change. The L-album Wainscot has been breeding along the coast in Newhaven for some years.

Silver Y (Autographa gamma)
Species seen regularly in small numbers include the plainly beautiful Olive-tree Pearl (Palpita vitrealis), Hummingbird Hawk-moth (Macroglossum stellatarum), Gem (Nycterosea obstipata), Four-spotted Footman (Lithosia quadra), Scarce Bordered Straw (Helicoverpa armigera), Feathered Brindle (Aporophyla australis), Delicate (Mythimna vitellina), and Pearly Underwing (Peridroma saucia). Last year was a pretty average year for all of these.

The species which cause excitement in varying degrees when they appear include the Oleander Hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii), Blair’s Mocha (Cyclophora puppiliaria), Vestal (Rhodometra sacraria), Ni Moth (Trichoplusia ni), Bordered Straw (Heliothis peltigera), Small Mottled Willow (Spodoptera exigua), Clancy’s Rustic (Platyperigea kadenii), Oak Rustic (Dryobota labecula) – which is actually colonising eastwards along the south coast, Flame Brocade (Trigonophora flammea), and White-speck (Mythimna unipuncta). Most of these have appeared as singleton
sightings on very few occasions. The Vestal (Southern Europe and North Africa) and Small Mottled Willow (Europe) have behaved similarly by not being seen at all in three of the five years, but with a spike in numbers in 2015.

Convolvulus Hawk-moth (Agrius convolvuli)
Oleander Hawk-moth (Daphnis nerii)
The star of the show is the Oleander Hawk-moth which made its first appearance in Sussex for about 25 years when it appeared at Newhaven Fort in 2014. At least three were seen in Sussex in 2016 (including one mentioned below), but this is a moth of North Africa and Mediterranean islands, so do not expect it to become resident in the UK any time soon! It is a truly stunning moth and one of the best examples of how the beauty of moths can surpass that of butterflies.

Clancy's Rustic (Platyperigea kadenii)
Oak Rustic (Dryobota labecula)
I must confess that the Oleander Hawk-moth record is not my own; I am only the Determiner (I identified the moth for the person who first reported the sighting). It is included in the list because I curated the record on behalf of the staff at Newhaven Fort and passed the specimen, which was found dead after several days at rest on a wall, to the Booth Museum of Natural History in Brighton. Not included in the list is a second Oleander, which was seen in Seaford in October 2016. Again, I determined the record but this time I put the recorder in touch with the County Recorder.

Two other hawk-moth species were seen during the period, the Convolvulus (Agrius convolvuli) and Hummingbird Hawk-moth. The latter, an impressive day-flyer and favourite of many people, has been seen in disappointingly small numbers each year, but one of the brace seen in 2015 was fascinatingly an overwintering adult which I saw in a vacant house away from the coast in Lewes. The Convolvulus Hawk had never been recorded at home before 2015, but it has been seen during the past two years.

Numbers will continue to surprise and delight each year and this is one of the pleasures and privileges of recording moths by the coast.

Vestal (Rhodometra sacraria)

Friday, 3 February 2017

Butterflies and moths seen in Newhaven during 2016

Each year I run a moth trap at home in the garden (on 209 nights in 2016) and make fortnightly surveys of butterflies and moths at Newhaven's Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve (CHLNR) as part of a shared weekly transect walk. In addition to this I make two surveys of overwintering insects in the Newhaven Fort tunnels, which are adjacent to CHLNR and do a bit of other fieldwork around the town and further afield in Sussex. With all my 2016 data given the green light by the County Recorder, I can now share what I saw.

I've added a list below of the species seen in 2016 in order of abundance. The overall total of c.27,500 butterflies and moths (540-odd species) seen is more or less the same as in 2015, but well below the c.38,500 seen in 2014. The total last year was what it was only due to a massive immigration of Diamond-back Moths (Plutella xylostella) at the end of May and into June, during which I recorded nearly 6200 and saw many, many more. For twelve consecutive nights from 31st May until 10th June the total number of xylostella visiting my trap was in three figures on all but one night (8th), when I had 95. They reached a peak on 4th June, when I counted 1740 in my trap - that's 1740 tiny little moths not more than 6-7mm in body length. It was a good year for other migrant species; the Silver Y (Autographa gamma) made headlines when one landed on Ronaldo's face (#mothonface) and, along with Rusty-dot Pearl (Udea ferrugalis) and Rush Veneer (Nomophila noctuella), all had significantly better years than any of the previous decade or more.

The rest of the data - well, much of it - makes less impressive reading. There were a few high points, however, including records of nineteen nationally scarce species including a beautiful Rosy Wave, a Plumed Fan-foot in the garden, a Portland Ribbon Wave elsewhere in Newhaven, and good numbers of a few species which are gaining a foothold in the area - species like Jersey Tiger and Evergestis limbata, the Dark Bordered Pearl. Several inaugural species records boosted my life list to 856 species and, after six years of recording, my garden list to 663.

A record from 2015 of Cnephasia communana (Coast Shade) also came to light as being the first East Sussex record made for 110 years.

Further afield, excellent numbers of Duke of Burgundy were seen at Heyshott Down near Midhurst and another tiny moth, Ectoedemia heringella, which makes contorted mines on the leaves of evergreen oak (Quercus ilex), and with virtually no previous records in Sussex, was found virtually everywhere that evergreen oaks were found in more than fifty 1km OS grid squares.

The depressing news was that, although numbers of many other species were OK, many more were below average, probably having succumbed to unseasonably warm weather last winter. It is hoped that the frosts of this winter so far will help many species overwintering as larvae or pupae to survive and prosper in 2017.


Waking the apple tree

A wassail at Newhaven's Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve

Wassail! Norse (Wæs þu hæl) meaning "be thou hale", "be in good health".


On Saturday 7th January we held a wassail around an apple tree on the nature reserve. The Earthquake Drummers led a procession of forty people, their drums lit with colourful lights that made the ground glow as they scared away any dark spirits hanging around in the gathering dark. We formed a circle around the apple tree, which we found amidst a thicket of scrub a few years ago, thrashed the tree with hazel whips to wake it up, blessed it on the command of the Wassail Queen with toast dunked in apple punch, and chanted a wassail verse before withdrawing to the fire for some spiced apple punch and wassail cakes. It was chaotic, mysterious, noisy, smoky and wonderful fun.

When I began to research wassailing I thought we were going to resurrect a forgotten ancient seasonal rite. But wassailing is alive and well and becoming popular again. It's practised on many occasions throughout the year. Like Rough Music, the Wassail has origins that have become dimmed in the depths of time. Pagan, Roman, maybe older, wassailing evolved over the centuries from what was likely to have been a serious sacrificial ritual, a ritual which helped to cultivate confidence in a good harvest at the end of the growing year, into an excuse for a cider-steeped social from one orchard or farm or garth to the next.

Twelfth Night is the traditional wassailing time of year, but there are plenty of examples elsewhere on the calendar; there are echoes of the wassail on Halloween, Bonfire Night (Penny for the Guy) and carolling (God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen goes to the same tune as many wassailing songs). It is fascinating how time and belief blurs the edges of things, borrows from one and transforms into another. How comforting it is to us humans to join together and make noise and light at the darkest times of year. I think we'll do it again.

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout our town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could make.

Our wassail is made of the elderberry bough,
And so my good neighbours, we'll drink unto thou,
Besides all on earth, you'll have apples in store,
Pray let us come in for it's cold by the door.

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout our town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our wassail is made of the good ale and cake,
Some nutmeg and ginger, the best we could make.

We hope that your apple trees prosper and bear
So that we may have cider when we call next year
And where you have one barrel we hope you'll have ten
So that we may have cider when we call again.

A-wassail, a-wassail throughout our town,
Our bread it is white and our ale it is brown.
Our bowl it is made from the elderberry tree
With our wassailing bowl we'll drink unto thee. 

All photographs courtesy of Peter Varnham.

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Butterflies and moths overwintering in the Newhaven Fort tunnels

Our third year of surveying overwintering insects and bats in the tunnels at Newhaven Fort started on 14th December. The Fort management team kindly allows us access to the tunnels which are closed to the public at a time when the Fort itself is closed for winter maintenance. 

Peacock in diapause (Vanessa io)
Of the few butterflies which spend the winter in diapause, species like the Red Admiral (Vanessa atalanta) tend to prefer the cover of thick vegetation rather than a subterranean hibernaculum. They are the last species on the wing in most years and often one of the earliest seen the following year. We have never found Red Admirals in the tunnels. Peacocks (Vanessa io) and Small Tortoiseshells (Aglais urticae) are often seen on a warm morning in February or March basking on the bare ground around rabbit warrens, having emerged from within the holes. The Newhaven Fort tunnels offer a similar refuge and we find both species in small numbers here.

Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis)
Of all the insect species found overwintering within the tunnels, we are most interested in the Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis), a moth which is in the process of colonising coastal Britain from the south. It feeds as a larva on Pellitory-of-the-Wall, a nettle which grows in walls and crevices, hanging on along the edges of things - a bit like the Bloxworth Snout itself. The Newhaven Fort tunnels are emerging as one of the best spots in the UK known for this moth.

Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis)
Another notable moth we find is a well-known overwinterer, The Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix). This species feeds on poplar and willow and there are a few of these trees in the northern edge of the Fort and Castle Hill Local Nature Reserve. This species has been seen in single figures in previous surveys. It is a common but beautiful moth which looks like an autumn leaf.

Eristalis tenax hoverflies clustered beneath a paint blister
In addition to these core species, we usually also see good numbers of the Twenty-plumed Moth (Alucita hexadactyla) which feeds as a larva on the abundant honeysuckle growing at Castle Hill LNR, a few Common Flat-body (Agonopterix heracliana) and a few individuals of the Fleabane Smudge (Digitivalva pulicariae), which are curiously found deep within the tunnels far from an obvious point of entry. All the other moths and butterflies we see are found fairly close to the open air, in the company of bristletails (Petrobius maritimus), various woodlouse species, slugs and snails, several species of midge and lots of spiders. Their prerequisites appear to be a stable temperature and some ventilation with protection from the weather, predators and pathogens. Some light intrusion to indicate changes in day length is probably also an important guide to the right time to re-emerge the following Spring.

So to 14th December 2016. Five of us ventured underground on what was a sunny winter day with a moderate southerly breeze blowing warm air across the English Channel from the continent. This weather pattern had been in place for several days prior to our visit and followed a period of colder weather with a number of overnight frosts. It's a shame the frosty weather hadn't lasted until our visit as this would have allowed an interesting comparison with previous years' surveys, which have always taken place during mild weather, but the mild weather did allow a direct comparison this year with the previous two. The thermometer read 13°C, which is pretty warm for a clear December day. Temperatures in the tunnels ranged between 12°C and 13.5°C. Here's what we saw:

Peacock (Vanessa io) (17)
Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae) (9)
Twenty-plume Moth (Alucita hexadactyla) (67)
Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix) (31)
Bloxworth Snout (Hypena obsitalis) (10).

Five species is the fewest we have seen since we started surveying the tunnels, yet we saw more individuals overall and beat our previous record of 112 by quite a margin: this time we saw 135. The reason for this was a significantly greater number of Twenty-plume Moths (December average is 40) and Herald (December average 7.5). It is misleading to place too much relevance on only a few years' data, but this December we saw a 67% increase of Twenty-plume Moths and a more than 400% increase of Herald.

The value of regular surveys grows with the accumulation of comparable data from year to year and we are beginning to see some interesting patterns emerge now that we are into our third year of monitoring. Observing overwintering insects also reveals a surprising insight into different species' behaviour. Predictably perhaps, warmth-loving butterflies tend to be in a much deeper state of diapause than moths, which are more tolerant of cooler temperatures. The Bloxworth Snout is particularly tolerant of low temperatures, often entering a shallow state of torpor rather than proper diapause. This ability to remain active at times when predators or competitors may be less active might offer a selective advantage as it radiates northwards into new territories, but it might consequently also be more at risk of severe cold snaps. If more people were able to inspect overwintering sites each year it would almost certainly help improve the understanding of how weather and climate influences the population dynamics not only of moths or butterflies but also all those species associated by a complex web of interaction.

The reasons for the increases in some species this December might be that the weather was good when the adults we saw were progressing through their earlier life-stages; it might be that predators and pathogens were fewer; it might be that previous years were influenced by adverse conditions at the time and we are now witnessing a regression to the mean. Whatever the reasons, the other species we saw this time were at much the same levels as in previous surveys. Questions arising from the collected data are exactly what is hoped for. Some of these questions might be answered if we can continue to collect data in future years.

A cluster of Herald (Scoliopteryx libatrix)

Monday, 26 December 2016

Bishopstone Boxing Day-break

Daybreak on Boxing Day. Cool, calm air; a sky mostly clear of cloud. That restful feeling of the morning after the night before. The wind and rain delivered by Storm Barbara on Christmas Day had skimmed past and the world was sleeping in. As the sky lightened from the east above The Rookery, long streaks of cloud lit up like glowing embers on logs rekindled by the approaching sun.

Something was passing with the Rooks. They were up and abroad early. As the dogs and I made our first pass of the trees, they returned above us making enough noise to scare away the spirits of the dwindling dark and with them the fears of the long winter night. The world was theirs again. The tawny owls were silent; the jackdaws nowhere to be seen.

The rooks were still at it when we passed by on our way home. I paused and watched them in the throes of what could have been the corvine equivalent of our Boxing Day hunts - all excitement and chatter as they rode the canopy, breaking the surrounding silence. I put aside the automatic enquiry of what was happening and why and just watched, enjoying the pell-mell.

Leaving the rooks to it, I followed the path homeward and their sound subsided. We reached the crossing of a holloway and its parallel hawthorn-dotted modern track which connects the hamlet of Norton with Foxhole. Here, by the line of hawthorns, a meditative moment. It is chilly - maybe 5° Celsius - and yet a cloud of winter gnats hung in the air, silent, rising and falling in waves, peaking and troughing as though the countryside was gently sleeping, breathing out, in, out, in.

These midges are  males, dancing to attract females. They hang around the protection of the hedge or in a state of torpor, emerging in low light when it is mild and quiet. It is mesmerising to watch them, trying to pick out an individual from the cloud and follow it as it rises and falls in a starling-like murmuration. Rise and fall, like breathing. It's still early. I'm the only person around. I have the world to myself. It's a good time to take a breather. To just be instead of be going somewhere. The cloud shares its gift: a lesson in pausing and noticing the rythmic rise and fall of the breath, the ability to let everything else fall away and focus only on the self. Nothing matters beyond the hypnotic, rhythmic dancing cloud. Just breathe and be at one with the world.

Saturday, 10 December 2016

Rough Music at Bishopstone

Walking the eastern downs is a relatively treeless and bird-light pastime, especially in winter. Gulls and game are often seen along with my indifferent friends the rooks, but there are sometimes few other species to keep them company, save for an occasional jolly of wagtails. It is always with great pleasure therefore that a walk takes me through the trees at Bishopstone with its abundance of ash, elm and sycamore alive from canopy to ground with avian chatter.

I set out a few weekends ago beneath a dark, clear, moonless sky to enjoy the late-November dawn. A gentle climb from South Heighton up to and along the crest of the Firle plain to Bo-peep, along the gentle sweep of the Cradle Hill escarpment, where the first pale light seeped out of the eastern horizon and, before heading home, a final plunge back down into Bishopstone and its wet meadows and trees. By this time the day had beaten the darkness away, the stillness in the air stirred by the dawn breeze from the east, and the robins and blackbirds had had their say, leaving the soundscape to later risers. Rooks and jackdaws could be heard from a distance in the treetops, their indiscretions a banner to all within earshot that this land belongs to them, the trees of Bishopstone Wood their palisade wall.

I skirted up and around the rookery so that I could climb and look down on the leafless canopy, swept clean the week before by the first winter storm of the season. Leaving the wet meadows behind me, I climbed alongside a scrub fringe towards what sounded like a disagreement involving jays and magpies. Jays established themselves here only in recent years, but have become a regular and welcome sight. A few weeks earlier I saw between Stanmer and Ditchling Beacon what I thought was a terrible disagreement between a mischief of magpies and jays. I suspected a raptor of some sort - a buzzard is often the subject of their scorn - but the pell-mell was hidden in the privacy of autumn leaves and I walked on without learning whether they were collaborating against a common foe or facing-off against each other. Seldom do birds muster such a cacophony as jays and magpies.

Today I was able to creep unseen up to the melee. As I rounded a bush the scrub opened up and I saw two jays, which straight away saw me and sat silently upright like children caught in the act of something naughty. The magpies, though, were oblivious in the pell-mell: ten of them screeching around the scrub. I stood still as a sleeping horse, hoping not to send every bird scooting into cover. Next, a surprise in dozens of mixed tits: great, blue and long-tailed, all busy uttering alarmed calls amidst the jays and magpies. The scene was chaotic, the noise confusing and wonderful to behold, like rough music! Not, then, a fight between jays and magpies; more likely cooperation on some level involving more species than I might see along all of the previous nine miles.

My question of where the raptor was hiding was quickly answered: it wasn't a raptor, but it was a predator and another recent arrival in the Rookery. A tawny owl broke cover low down, flew directly towards me and shot into the deep scrub just a few metres before where I stood, blowing my cover to all present. The corvids retreated to a safer distance and the tits melted back into the scrub edges. The owl, a creature which feeds on small rodents and insects rather than other birds, was now perceived as less of a threat than I. But there was no rough music for me, only a hush.

Rough music is one of folklore's popular rituals for dealing with bad behaviour, keeping a community safe, and something that might have been borrowed by people after watching birds like those before me. The origins of this might be found in the wassail - a similar ritual in which a cacophony was made to scare off evil spirits from apple trees before they were blessed at the end of Christmastide. A rough music ritual may have been popular with those dishing out the punishment, but it was less so for the person at the receiving end; a wife- husband- or child-beater. A noisy procession would be led after dark through the village to the wrongdoer's house, clashing metal tins or sheets and chanting along the way. The procession would stop outside the culprit's house and a chant was made warning them to mend their ways. Sometimes an effigy would be carried and burnt outside the house. The ritual would be repeated over several nights if required until the person relented. Sometimes they packed up and moved away, unable to cope with the naming-and-shaming and rejection by a close-knit community. With little else to entertain a village at night, rough music was an attractive pastime to those who might already have taken a few liveners at the local inn and this no doubt helped instil their determination to mete out a traditional form of justice, even in later times when told to desist by the local policeman. It was the peoples' form of justice and their right to give it.

Rough music lives on today in the tradition of Bonfire. Everything is there: a culprit, the effigy, processions, chanting, loud noise, fire, the burning. Every Bonfire in Lewes gives rough music to politicians and the Pope, just at that time of year when the days darken and the world plunges into the long, uncertain, winter. A time when dark spirits walk the land.

Back at the rookery the owls have the trees only by night, their hoots answered only by the occasional complaining jackdaw or rook. There is no place for them during daylight hours, nor any place for people. The rooks and jackdaws, the magpies and jays and the little birds all give us rough music and move us on. Following the hollow way out of the trees, I headed out over open ground again. Amongst the rooks and gulls I counted a jolly of thirty wagtails bobbing along the drills.

Saturday, 10 September 2016

The Way-side at dusk

Rooks and Jackdaws at dusk

The track - stair-rod straight
The track that links Mount Pleasant with Bishopstone stretches stair-rod straight for about two miles along undulating downland foothills. I suppose it is old and I wonder if it is ancient: along its highest crest it passes a series of earth barrows; in the other direction it passes beneath the metalled surfaces of Falaise and Seaview Road before reverting to rough footpath and plunging steeply downhill to St Leonard's Church at Denton.

It is a footpath, bridleway, rough track, road, a link between settlements, cemeteries and people. It is a wildlife corridor, field headland, a ribbon, a river of life flowing through and beyond barren, harvested fields. This path is not a gash cutting through the landscape, not a wound inflicted by modern farming; it is an artery which carries things through the landscape: feet, hooves, cartwheels, tractor wheels, paws, bicycle wheels, and, during heavy rain, even the eroded chalk powder of the earth itself.

The path downhill from Mount Pleasant reaches a nadir before rising steeply again above Foxhole Farm; here at its nadir it forms a natural sump where traffic-ground dust is spattered into a heavy paste by late-summer rain, lubricated into a downward flow into the sump, where it collects as a chalky slub. At the turn of each year we call this slub January Butter. Today it is mixed with dried grasses and the manure of passing horses in a sticky, grey daub.

Sussex has a rich dialect when it comes to mud. Sussex roads gained a notoriety for their heavy-going state when Daniel Defoe lamented about them in his Grand Tour, during his struggle through the Wealden clay. My chalky track, high above and to the south of the heavy clay, has been a dry bed for months but, tonight, as I walk along its course, the intermittent rain has softened the harvest dust. Today has felt more in common with October than August and the sticky paste reminds me to be thankful for the dryness of the season and clean dogs at the end of each walk. These dog-days are numbered, but one day of sun and wind tomorrow will bake hard the chalk-rich earth again.

Knotgrass flower
The abundance of plant and insect life in a field headland can be astonishing. The track is still a green life-rich corridor flowing between harvested desert fields, despite September grass sideburns which look long overdue a shave. The bottom of the sump is adorned with a carpet of knot-grass, its deep pile extending down into the restful sediment transported into the sump by forgotten rains. The dominant species, though, is greater plantain, which have poked out thousands of tongues upwards in defiance of the harvest blades, like anenomies greeting a rising tide.

In recent weeks we have been entertained by an abundance of butterflies: meadow browns, gatekeepers, marbled whites and common blues, with the odd wall brown. Tonight though the track has given its greatest gift of the year in a hawking barn owl; not a ghostly white figure but an unmistakable silent silhouette which drifts across the straw stubble away from the pell-mell of my dogs. The same airspace during our morning walk was taken by a hovering kestrel. Further along the track we pause and listen to a tawny owl somewhere below us in The Rookery. A second one answers somewhere lower down in the wood. We haven't seen or heard them here before and we happily add them to our mental list alongside barn, short-eared and little owls which we remember from the thirty or so years past that we have walked here.

Gulls #1
Walking along the track early this morning revealed that the barren fields have been colonised by pioneers: paroled arable weeds free of regimented crops, flocks of rooks, jackdaws, gulls, pigeons and a dozen greylag geese. These are gleaners and grazers. I wonder if these are some of the large skein of about 120 geese I saw making their way along the Ouse Valley a few days before? On that occasion I saw a single mallard punching well above its weight at the front of the V, skein-surfing their bow wave.

Gulls #2
The track has faded to a low glow as we near home. The rooks and jackdaws are making their way back home while, above, gulls are coast-bound in dribs and drabs. A fox chatters and chuckles somewhere within the maize field, but there is no sign of the barn owl. The maize whispers in a low breeze as we pass it and it conjures the illusion of unwanted company. A hushed chorus of dark bush-crickets guides us along. The path is straight and, when we walk through this country, we walk as the crow flies.

Coast-bound gulls

Walking home, as the crow flies