Monday, 30 May 2016

The Chalk

The Chalk

Small Blue (Cupido minimus). Male. (note the stripy stockings!).

Common Blue (Polyommatus icarus). Male.

Brown Argus (Aricia agestis). Female (the orange spots on the borders of the upper wing reach all the way to the top. In the male they stop half way).

Dingy Skipper (Erynnis tages).

Grizzled Skipper (Pyrgus malvae).

Small Heath (Coenonympha pamphilus)

Brown Argus female

Brown Argus male (orange border spots stop half way up the wing).

Burnet Companion moth
Adonis Blue (Polyommatus bellargus). Female.


Beech on the Old Drovers' Road

Quaking grass.

Common Spotted-orchid

Woodruff

Sanicle

Sanfoin

Chalk Milkwort

Red-Headed Cardinal beetle

Common Blue male (the females are chocolate-brown).

Sheep are used to help maintain the Down

Hounds Tongue

Common Rock Rose (food plant for the Brown Argus)

The Chalk
If people were to measure themselves in terms of Landscape, I would be a woman of Chalk and Forest. I can't do long without either and I feel most myself when I'm in either. In Winter, the Chalk is a hard, cold, inhospitable place offering only small pockets of warmth and shelter (if you know where to look for them). It is a raw landscape year round, and one which possesses the unique ability to transport you back thousands of years as soon as you step onto its short, spiky turf. It is, essentially, a prehistoric landscape, albeit one created and now maintained by man. It has never known the plough; it has never felt the alteration of fertiliser or insecticide. Its soils are too poor to make it valuable to agriculture, so it has escaped the intensive monoculture imposed on much of the rest of our land. It has grown up instead through cyclical regimes of grazing and dunging which have created a unique flora and fauna of specialists found no where else. Chalk Milkwort, Common Rock-rose, Sanfoin, Kidney Vetch, Horseshoe Vetch are Chalk plants that have specialists insects associated with them, in some instances so completely that they are utterly reliant on the presence of these plants to maintain their life cycles. The Chalk is a uniquely important ecosystem supporting some of our most precious wildlife. If you want to step back in time and feel a landscape more truly wild than most you could do worse than go to the Chalk.

Yesterday, with a good forecast, we drove to our local Downland, walked up the Old Chalk Road which once rang to Roman Feet and long before that to the gentler wandering of Stone and Bronze Age people, crossed through the beech wood at the top and emerged out onto the Chalk.

It was blowing, as it often is, but down in the sheltered sides of the Downs the sun was shining, the flowers were blooming, the turf was warm and the butterflies were out. 
Common Blues flitted from flower to flower, twirling up in the air in a tight spiral whenever they got too close to one another like leaves caught in an eddy; the rare and heavily protected Grizzled and Dingy Skippers were sunbathing on leaves and the fronds of Chalk grasses; Small Heaths, whose numbers are declining due to loss of habitat, flew low and fast across the turf to land on Hawkbit which they especially like to take nectar from; Brown Argus, the looky-likies for the female Common Blue although much smaller, were darting about, alighting on the canary-yellow whirls of Horseshoe Vetch and the pink-punk locks of Salad Burnet. 

Heading back up the hill out of the sheltered valley sides you pick up the old drover's road, which now is little more than a deep ditch running through the hillside. Brimstones fluttered here and more Dingies alighted at our feet, drawn by the micro-climate warmth offered by the bare patches of chalk that line the old trackway. The drovers road takes you beneath huge gnarled beech trees, their branches outstretched like arms cast open to protect the old way, up onto the Down, where the ground levels out onto a flattish plain. It is here that the Orchids bloom and a small population of Adonis Blue clings on. 

Searching for the unmistakable (once you've seen it) turquoise blue of the Adonis, I found instead a tiny, dark grey butterfly that is also very rare, limited in Hampshire to only a handful of sites: the Small Blue. I have a soft spot for these butterflies from long association, but not having had time to visit any of their sites this spring had not expected to see one, so to find both a male and a female here was a complete joy. The male has a glittering of blue scales on his upper wings that are visible in flight and when the sun catches them at rest (you can see them in the photo) while the female is a more uniform iron-grey. Both are the same powder-blue underneath as the Holly Blue and can be confused with that spring-time species when their wings are closed. Kidney vetch is the sole food plant of the Small Blue, which also requires the right kind of shelter to flourish. The particular nature of its requirements means it is now severely threatened as we've lost a lot of the habitat that supports the specialist food plant. Where it is still found, it exists in highly isolated communities and as it is not good at travelling large distances to either join with other colonies or create fresh ones the threat of extinction looms large.

There were no Adonis. It was perhaps a little too windy for them, but I continued searching and was rewarded with a single Common Spotted-orchid instead. A dark brown flutter then hove into view, settling on the Horseshoe Vetch (food plant for the Adonis). It was the only Blue I'd seen all morning that had its wings closed, and as I like the spots and dots of the underwings I took some pictures. I assumed she was a female Common Blue and thought nothing more of it until I downloaded the photos at home and realised from the markings that she was, in fact, a female Adonis! If I had realised at the time I would have paid more attention, which just goes to show that valuing one species over another will eventually bite you in the bum :o)

Walking back through the woods in a butterfly-induced haze, I noted the ground flora was rich in flowering sanicle and woodruff, both ancient woodland indicators. For some reason, the Stone Age men and women who cleared the forest here to create the Downland so many thousands of years ago left this part its trees. Through them, the heights of the Downs are connected to the agricultural lowlands below in a way that makes the landscape seem like one continuous stream, instead of the parcelled and fragmented bits and bobs so much of Hampshire is typified by.

It was a Good Morning.

Hope all are well?

CT

32 comments:

  1. What a lovely post, I can feel the beauty of the place through your words. The littlest boy is learning about Stone Age and Bronze Age people at the moment, I am making a mental note to find him somewhere like this to visit. So pleased you found Small Blues. Enjoy the rest of the long weekend. CJ xx

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    1. That's an exciting subject for a small lad to study. F, our middle child, is an expert at finding Stone Age tools. I've got three flint arrow heads he found and kindly gave me, all different styles which dates them to different periods. I treasure them and often think about the skilled hands that made them and what they've seen xx

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  2. I think I'm slate/limestone and coast! Equally at home in both environments and though I'd not guess chalk for you I would have definitely said forest! Those blue moths are just so beautiful but I wish they didn't have the name 'common'!

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    1. I know- it seems a ridiculous name for such a beautiful flutter. I think it's more to do with their frequency as you get them all over. Xx

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  3. Such a gorgeous post. I really need to dig out my butterfly book and learn some of the names; I'm hopeless at identifying them, although, I shall remember the small blue with the stripy stockings now! xx

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    1. It doesn't take long to become familiar with them - the fsc produces an excellent field guide for about £4 that's worth getting. It's a laminated fold out xx

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  4. It's a much better habitat than the Notts ones for cracking nature. Lovely photographs too.

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    1. It really is very rich, botanically and insect- wise. We're fortunate to have several Downs all within striking distance.

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  5. I always think of Tiffany Aching when you write of the Chalk!
    And I always come away wishing I knew more about the land in the area I live in... xx

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    1. He was a genius, Terry Pratchett, wasn't he? I think he intuitively understood the ancient mysticism of the Chalk and wrapped it up in perfect humour. Xx

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  6. perhaps the for some reason the trees were left, was a sacred site to them. And now to us, for the butterflies and orchids.

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    1. It could well be. Beech trees often seem to mark important prehistoric sites, I'm thinking the tops of hill forts. The wood there certainly has an energy all of it's own. Thank you for the comment, Diana. Much appreciated.

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  7. what a wonderful area to ind all these butterflies and all of the photographs are really good. I have enjoyed both the shots and your writings equallly. Thanks.

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    1. Thanks Margaret :-). Hope all's well with you x

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  8. I always get my Hampshire fix whenever I read your post. Chalk and butterflies go together like tea and scones.
    Noar Hill near Selbourne is a great place for a tramp..if you are ever that way.
    My 'cant do without' is the sea, sand and waves.
    Love to you CT...will write soon xxx

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    1. Ah, bless you Chick :-). Noar hill is where I saw my first ever dormouse. A fantastic place. And selborrne is lovely. I'm reading Gilbert White's natural history at the mo. Hope all's well in Aus? Love to all of you xx

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  9. What a lovely post! Now if I was to measure myself I would be a woman of the hedgerows. I could meander for miles and miles beside them particularly by the ones I grew up with. Partly the reason for planting my own edible hedge in the front garden. I love to see the changes over the seasons xx

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    1. Ooh, that's a good one, Jo. I love hedges too. Yours will be beautiful and a source of much pleasure, I'm sure xx

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  10. How delightful, thanks for a lovely wander and so much information. x

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  11. Sigh. You do have the knack of describing a place so beautifully and your photos are exceptional. I've definitely seen Common Blues here on the cliffs but I shall have to pay more attention to the small brown butterflies! I really could do with you as a walking companion :-)

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    1. That's so kind of you to say so, Sam. It means a lot :-). I suspect the small browns you've got there are Brown Argus and looking at the map you may have small blues near you too. Xx

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  12. Wow, what a lovely post. Yet again I was removed from my desk to a beautiful chalk landscape full of beautiful flutters and flowers. It makes me realise that I must go exploring with my camera more! If you don't mind me asking do you use an SLR or a point and shoot? I can only think it must be an SLR as your photos are stunning!) x

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    1. It's a digital slr but by no means a fancy one. It's a lumix. The second one I've had and both have been v good. So glad you enjoyed the post. It's a huge compliment and exactly what a writer likes to hear that their writing helps transport someone to a different place xx

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  13. A fascinating post. You really do live in a great area for butterflies and you have a lovely selection here. I love the wildflowers, too and the beautiful beech.

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    1. It is a glorious place. I try not to take it for granted! But then I think all your wildlife and ancient woodlands are very special too and always sigh when you photograph them for your blog. X

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  14. Wonderful butterflies - you are so fortunate where you live being so close to Chalk. Lovely wild flowers too :)

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  15. A fantastic walk through this ancient landscape. Your butterfly images are always incredible! Sarah x

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  16. I`m catching up with your wonderful blog. I loved this post. The chalk lands of Hampshire are very special to me and I don`t get up there enough these days.

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    1. They are special places that touch the soul.

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Thank you for leaving a comment. I always enjoy reading them and will try my best to reply to every one. CT x