Monday, 25 May 2015

A Floral Walk

An evening walk near the end of May is delight, especially if, as with my stroll tonight, the route takes one along hedgerows where the wayside margins are left a little wild. 
At this time of year wildflowers are really coming into their own.
I couldn't resist sharing a few photos with you. 
Why not try and see if you can recognise any of these flowers on your next walk, they are all species that are in flower now. 
Do let me know if you spot any!

 Red campion and white campion

 Greater stitchwort

Left: tufted vetch (foreground) & speedwell (background)  Right: birds-foot trefoil (with blue speedwell flowers) 

 Left: lesser stitchwort (will speedwell)  Right: hop trefoil

 Left: cow parsley  Right: bush vetch (centre) with speedwell

Left: white dead nettle  Right: ribwort plantain (foreground) with cross-wort (background)

Hawthorn blossom (also called may blossom)

 Rowan tree

 Elder tree flowers

Left: Holly tree  Right: ox-eye daisies

This was my second evening walk over the weekend; on Friday night I was a couple of hours later and dusk had fallen by the time I returned home. It was one of those heavy still days, and as I headed out the air was laced with a fine, almost sticky rain which appeared honey coloured in the low sun. Each droplet seemed suspended in an invisible web of scent; the last of the bluebells, the lime green and yellow masses of cross-wort smelling of honey, a dash of coconut from the broom. 
A roe buck browsed one of the hedgerows that runs perpendicular to the track. A fox slipped silently over the ridge of the hill. Bats flickered along the darkening tree-tunnel, eager to enter the night. 

Friday, 22 May 2015

Local Patch Reporter on Adventure; A Wildlife Outing with Cowdray Estate

If you have ever visited Midhurst in the north west corner of Sussex, you may well have noticed the distinctive egg-yolk yellow painted window frames on some of the brick and flint cottages and heard mention of ‘Cowdray’ in reference to these properties, and of course the famous ruins just a short stroll from the centre of the town. However, you may not be aware that these features are one facet of a much larger entity, the Cowdray Estate. 
Owned by the Pearson family since 1909 and covering 16500 acres, this large country estate is the principal landowner in the Midhurst area, stretching from the north face of the Downs, including farmland and heathland, and into the wooded weald, with Midhurst at it’s historical heart. 
The River Rother snakes through the estate, from Wealden greensand to Downland chalk, its banks lined by alder and willow trees. Fly-fishers seek the brown trout in its clean waters; waters which after heavy rains can be tinted by sand, and turbulent under stone bridges.  
Veteran trees grace hedgerows between farmland fields and polo lawns, their ancient limbs pointing to the route of historic walks and rides which once saw the passing of royal hunts. 
On the face of the Downs a seemingly forgotten chalk quarry and lime-works, like a bright white eye, gazes northwards whilst below the edge of the woodland hangers, pheasants are reared. Songbirds and farmland birds flock to these field margins in the cold depths of winter, to take advantage of any grain the game birds can spare.  
From the roads and lanes, you may catch a glimpse of carpets of bluebells in May, seas of tawny bracken in September, drifts of snowdrops in January.

5.30 pm on Wednesday 20th May 2015. A small group of four people are meeting beside a Landover in front of the Cowdray Golf Club, they have just finished a pot of tea and are eager to take their seats in the vehicle, full of anticipation for the evening ahead. One of the four is Barry Martin, the Cowdray Estate’s Wildlife Outings Guide. Another is me.
As we set off there is much chatter about what we would each like to see. Crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife, the secretive inhabitants of the estate, featured heavily on the list; badgers topped the billing, with wild deer and brown hares hoped for.  However, traveling along lanes bordered by wildflowers, over humpback bridges across the Rother, though pretty clusters of cottages and climbing up onto the Downs, the landscape of West Sussex charms us. By the time we are once again standing in a group beside the Landover, this time gazing out across a beautiful view highlighted by the low sun, we almost feel as though it wouldn’t matter if we saw no wildlife at all.

The field, in which we have stopped, is an oasis of unimproved grassland rich in a bewildering variety of wildflowers. The cowslips are just fading, but the buds of oxeye daisies nod in the breeze. Barry intrigues our imagination with mention of the orchids that will bloom here in the months to come.

A little way from the edge of this field, just where its neighbour meets the single-track lane, a solid stone barn holds the promise of a barn owl in its dark cavity. Sadly the owl is not present tonight. I look back at the view, and find that missing out on a sighting of this silent hunter doesn’t matter any more.
Away to our right, the pale stone of Petworth House glows in the soft evening light. In the far distance the horizon is broken by the whaleback hump of Blackdown, the highest point in Sussex. To our left the patchwork of farmland and woodland stretches into a blue shadowy unknown beneath a breeze-tousled cloud base. Even with my binoculars, I can’t quite pick out my house.

Barry has brought us to this location in search of hares. His knowledge of the estate, obvious through his quiet and patient explanations of the working of the home farms and the extent of the estate’s operations during the drive, is confirmed by the ease with which he leads us to the perfect place for us to lift our binoculars and enter the world of the mysterious Lepus europaeus, the brown hare. There was a scattering of hares across the opposite corner of the field, a group of three together and another further to the left where the green sward met the chalk-pale plough. As the day cooled they were rising from their forms (a shallow scrape in the ground where the hare hunkers down and relies on camouflage as it rests during the day) to graze the spring growth. They were developing their characteristic russet-red coat colour of summer. I drew Barry and our companion’s attention to another animal close to one of the hares. Closer inspection through our binoculars revealed that this too was indeed a hare, but one of such a pale colour that it appeared sandy and white, something Barry had never come across before. It just proves that with wildlife, you can never know what you will see.  Hares are of course most famous for their speed, and we had an armed forces Chinook, practising their low flying operations to thank for our opportunity to see the hares stretch into this characteristic long-legged stride.

A slightly blurry record shot of of the pale hare with a another hare of the usual brown colour to the left. 
The sun is sinking lower in the sky. Time to go in search of badgers. A buzzard hangs, silhouetted on broad wings catching the dying thermal off the hillside as we leave the field. Swifts cut through the air and swallows and martins swoop low over the hedge-lined track ahead of us. Traditional cottages, some the homes of Cowdray employees, stand unimposingly here and there, increasingly frequent as we reach the approaches of the village of Cocking, passing the ancient church and the war memorial which eternally gaze at the South Downs.

The roe doe stares unblinking at us, unsure but not quite disturbed. Barry has stopped the car part way along a rough track a short way after turning off the main road north of Midhurst, almost a footpath at a woodland edge, and was quietly explaining about the different deer species found on the estate and what the Roe deer might be up to at this time of year. The young bucks will be independent now, after almost a year of their mother’s nurture and company, as the does will be expecting to give birth to this year’s kids in the next month. (Roe deer females are called ‘does’, males are ‘bucks’ and the young are ‘kids’.)

We leave the doe to her peace and quiet, and continued some way further along the track until Barry pulled the car up beside an oak tree. He explains the need to talk in whispers from here and gently shuts the car doors with a soft click behind us. We follow him across a field of long grass, dandelion clocks and buttercups, heading towards a line of trees that grow from an old boundary ridge, where we can see a small wooden hide nestled between two oaks. I find I am holding my breath.
The badgers have clearly been out for a while, the temping treat of peanuts scattered by Barry earlier that afternoon before we all met at the golf club, had mostly all been snuffled up already. It is still daylight, and the hollow the hide overlooks glows softly with green birch and a tapestry of bluebells and bracken shoots. One of the badgers is foraging around a tree stump; another sits down for a scratch. 

They bumble off onto the trees, in the direction of their set hidden beyond the ridge, but soon return to check for any peanuts, worms, beetles or bluebell bulbs they may have missed. One trots off determinedly on a well worn track that disappears to our right, and Barry explains with a chuckle the fastidiously tidy nature of badgers, and how they prefer to use a set latrine location which was probably where that individual was headed.
A black and white striped head pops up in the bluebells to our left, following a path worn clear by countless journeys of broad, thick clawed, five-toed paws over the many generations of badgers at this set.

A Jay flies through the branches, having stolen a peanut or two. From a hidden perch somewhere above our left shoulders, a familiar two-note call reverberates. My first Cuckoo of the year. Other birds are singing too; blackbird and wren, and the air is filled with the heady scent of the bluebells. The peace is suddenly disturbed by a loud bark, and a roe buck bounces into view. He has picked up our scent, or perhaps caught sight of a movement, and springs across the dell barking his harsh alarm call. The badgers take this as their cue to head off on their nights adventures, and us in turn as our signal to leave. Even as we reach the car we can still hear the cuckoo’s strange repetitive song.

The sun is setting but none of us are quite ready to head back to the real world just yet. We spend the twilight marvelling at the size and age the locally famous Queen Elizabeth Oak, a hollow pollard sessile oak in the old deer park near Benbow Pond, and musing over the evening’s experience.

Whilst putting my camera away in the boot of my car after parting with the group back at the Golf Club, I noticed a green caterpillar climbing up the leg of my trousers and carefully transfered it to a nearby bush. As I opened the car door I instinctively paused and glanced upwards to take a last deep breath of the evening air and the flickering flight of a bat crossed the pale gap of sky between the trees. Blackbird song serenaded the thin crescent of the new moon that hung in the sky above Midhurst as I made the short drive through the town to home.

To find out more about Cowdray Estate and the wildlife tours visit:

Thursday, 7 May 2015

A Beautiful Emergence

I have just come in from the garden where I have been sitting beside our tiny pond for a while watching the wildlife. There's a wolf-spider waiting in ambush on the sun-warmed stone by the edge. Somewhere under the mass of weed a frog is hiding. 
A movement on the surface marks the buoyant arrival of a water boatman from the dark depths. At the edge of the pond, where the sun still catches it, a dainty creature clings to the bogbean leaf, buffeted by the breeze. A damselfly, freshly emerged preparing to take its first flight.  
If you have never seen this marvel, it's certainly one to watch out for. As the water warms up through spring and summer, the larval dragonflies and damselflies that have spent the past year or more under the surface, climb up on plant stems or rocks to break from their skins and unfold their wings, ready to start the aerial phase of their lives. 

Today is one of those beautiful warm sunny days with a cool breeze, welcome after a number of days and nights of strong gusts and rainfall. As I suggested in yesterday's blog, I headed out for a morning walk on the patch to see what changes the season and rough weather had brought. It seems most of the local trees have withstood the winds far better than the birch in my neighbour's garden which has lost many of its new leaves. The hedgerows had put on an amazing spurt of growth since my last walk, taking on an almost unbelievable shade of bright green and a fuller, thicker appearance. From the spreading leaves of the oak to the white lace of cow parsley, there were so many beautiful sights of late-spring. The hawthorn at the end of Pitsham Lane is just coming into bloom, filling the senses with the unexpected smell of sweet almonds or marzipan. 

I recorded the sights and sounds of my walk through photos; I captured the light through the new leaves, and the quiet exuberance of the flowers, but unfortunately many of the birds were too flighty or too busy with their lives to sit for their portrait... 

Birdsong filled the air; at New Pond a moorhen clucked from the tangle of willow branches on the far side of the water and a grey wagtail attempted to call through a beak-full of insect food for hungry nestlings. From the trees along the edge of the Bepton Road allotments, the voices of blackbird, song thrush, wren, robin, long tailed tits, and blackcap bombarded from hidden perches. Many of the same species could be heard along Jubilee Path, joined by chiffchaff and wood pigeon. Goldfinches seemed to be at every turn, on rooftops along Wool Lane sharing the space with the usual noisy colony of house sparrows, and feeding on weed seeds and dandelion seeds at the edge of pavements in Mead Way and along Jubilee Path.  

At South Pond the first brood of mallard ducklings of 2015 were paddling in the new reedbed, nine tiny beaks between them picking insects off the surface of the water. 
The restoration work at South Pond is progressing well; this week local school children have been helping with planting native wildflowers and water plants in the new borders at the edges of the pond, into silt pumped from the newly deepened main channel of the pond. As I was watching the ducklings, I sat for a while on a bench and admired the shades of copper in the beech tree. High above, in a gap between passing clouds, a thin dark shape was unmistakable, a swift, my first of the year. It was good to see this one, although I expect it was not one of our local ones but continuing on its journey further north with those that nest in Midhurst's roof-spaces following not far behind. 

I think I will head back out to the garden to see if the frog has emerged again, I am hoping it's recent appearance in our little pond is a good sign for my plants in terms of slug-control... 

Wednesday, 6 May 2015


I have always been interested in how we experience nature. Some of us need to escape for a week or more to the wilderness of moorland or mountains, others need a true adventure in a foreign land. For some the closest they get to nature are the garden birds they tame to come to the hand for tasty treats, or the ducks they fed as a child on the town pond. Perhaps you recognise yourself in these comments somewhere? 
For me this week, nature was in the moments. The moment in the morning as you assess the day whilst you walk to the car to go to work. The moment of bird song whilst sat in traffic. The moment whilst dinner is cooking and you can relax and let the stresses of the day slip away. The moment you pause at the window and watch the sunset as you pull the curtains for the night.

Here are a few of my moments:  

The first streetlights flicker on. The light is diffused and the air rain-fresh and sweet. A blackbird sings.

Nighttime. A car drives round the corner, it's headlights sending a familiar triangle of light in it's regular path across the wall of my room. A familiar scramble and thud marks the arrival home of my neighbours cat as it jumps down from its perch on the garden fence. A dog barks, from along the street, whilst overhead drones the rising hum of a passing plane. 
The owls are absent tonight. 
There is a whisper in the trees of approaching rain.

Possible garden warbler singing at home, house martins nest prospecting at the end house. Sparrowhawk over North Mill Weir just after 8am.

The trees are greening a-pace, the rookery is already hidden from view, the birds’ harsh disembodied calls betray their presence.

Its raining. Get off the sofa and open the back door, the kitchen window, let the fresh damp wildness flow in and merge with the closer, stale inner rooms. Breathe in a deep lung-full of cool rain-clean air, green oak, forget-me-not flowers, and blackbird notes that drip from a hidden perch.

I feel sorry for the Birch, the wind has stripped her new green skirt ragged. She bends & billows now, & from the sweet fresh rain gathers strength to start a second spring.

At last the sky seems calmer, the breaks in its mottled grey highlighted from time to time by the teasing sun. The wind has not yet played out its strength, but seems more reluctant now, and as it catches it's breath between gusts, wood pigeons coo, a robin twitters. And bravely from the battered treetop, a song thrush sings.

Tomorrow is a day off. I hope to walk if the wind has dropped, to see how the season and the weather has brought changes on the patch. Perhaps my first whitethroat of the year will be singing in the hedgerows along Bepton Road, or the hawthorn blossom will be coming into bloom now we have reached its namesake month. 

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Hello! Thank you for viewing my blogs and profile. I am passionate about the countryside and british wildlife and I hope that this comes through in my blog. I am a nature writer and have been pursuing photography since early teenage years, whilst building a career in conservation. Helping people to reconnect with the natural world is very important to me, whether through direct hands on interaction, education or literature. Please also visit my website, for more information, my current CV, and further examples of writing and photography. You can contact me or keep up to date with new blog posts via Twitter @SophiEcoWild and/or Feedback, comments and audience participation are always welcome! Sophie May Lewis