Saturday, 30 November 2013

Four Seasons on Heyshott Escarpment

There can be few places in Sussex where the four seasons are as well defined as they are on Heyshott Escarpment, due largely to its almost unique physical characteristics. The particularly steep, north-facing slope, created by ancient uplift and subsequent erosion, has been further chiselled out by men in pursuit of chalk, although this activity ceased in the 1930s and most signs of quarrying have now healed over. As man’s influence on this landscape decreased, so the woodland began to take hold, with much of the uppermost slope now curtained with mature trees.

This combination of features means that the low winter sun fails to touch the turf for many months and the slopes become dark, damp and almost silent. Even birdsong is reduced to occasional, single notes, suggesting that the system is just ticking over in shutdown mode, rather than completely dead. Occasionally the peace is broken as a flock of chattering Fieldfares passes overhead, or the throttled call of a cock pheasant echoes off the steep coombe walls. It’s hard to believe that spring will ever come here, particularly when the temperature plummets and the escarpment is blanketed in an iron-hard frost. The presence of Wednesday morning volunteers is only given away by the plume of wood smoke which is visible from the village below, as it hangs low and thick in the moist air.
When spring does arrive it comes with a rush. Birdsong is now rich and full, often accompanied by the drumming of woodpeckers. Spring butterflies appear in rapid succession and specialities of Heyshott, such as the Duke of Burgundy and Dingy Skipper, fly in unusually high numbers here. As the work of the Murray Downland Trust (MDT) and its partners continues to improve the habitat for wildlife, exciting changes are evident. In 2013 the endangered Pearl-bordered Fritillary butterfly made a surprising and most welcome return, after being absent since the 1990s. It is the renewed human activity on the slopes which is revitalising this rare and fragile ecosystem.
Cowslips and Early Purple orchids add the first, bold splashes of colour as the slopes come alive, soon to be followed by more discreet orchids such as the Fly, White Helleborine and Greater Butterfly, which tuck themselves away in shady nooks along the woodland margins. Spring is the time when most naturalists visit the escarpment, and every year the MDT and Butterfly Conservation run a well attended guided walk to see the rich flora and fauna which make this area so special.

Insect interest extends well beyond the butterflies. My favourite bee lives here. Osmia bicolor is a solitary mason bee which lays its eggs in empty snail shells. It then craftily conceals the shell with dried grasses, carefully dropping each stem to form a straw wigwam.

The passage from spring to summer is marked by an abrupt change in the butterfly population. ‘Dukes’, Dingy and Grizzled Skippers and the iridescent Green Hairstreak are all but gone by mid June, when the ubiquitous Meadow Brown appears; this species will dominate the slopes for the remainder of the season. Marbled Whites emerge a little later in their bold black and white livery, along with the aptly named Chalkhill Blue. Although secretive and seldom seen, the magnificent Purple Emperor now glides through the canopy above the deep, central coombe, with females seeking out shady sallows on which to lay their eggs. Wheeling buzzards are particularly vocal at this time of year, as they call to their newly fledged young.
Heyshott Escarpment is spectacularly beautiful at all times of year, but perhaps never more so than in the autumn. When the Beech, Maple, Hazel and Hawthorn leaves begin to lose their chlorophyll, increasingly vivid bronze, yellow and red pigments are unmasked. I can never decide whether the Beech colours are particularly rich at Heyshott, or whether my appreciation of them is simply enhanced by their surroundings. The work party season is now underway again and one of the joys of participation is being there to see how the colours change with the ebb and flow of the seasons. Heyshott Escarpment will soon fall once more into a deep slumber.

As I cross the lowermost pit, passing the old spoil heaps now known as the ‘Camel’s Humps’, and the old lime kilns concealed beneath trees, I always stop for a moment and turn to take in one of my favourite Sussex views. It doesn’t matter whether it is winter, spring, summer or autumn; it is always a pleasure to be here.

Neil Hulme

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