We are so pleased to see a Brown Hairstreak. In 2013 a single egg of this endangered butterfly species was found on a Blackthorn bush in Pheasant Field. Part of the vulnerability of these butterflies lies in the interactions of habitat that they require. Blackthorn is the sole food plant of Brown Hairstreak caterpillars and adult females only lay their eggs on younger specimens. Adult males and females congregate to mate on Ash trees and may be seen lower down nectaring on Fleabane, Hemp-Leaved Agrimony and Bramble. With our abundant Blackthorn and Ash, large stocks of Fleabane and Bramble (and a patch of Hemp Agrimony) we felt we could provide a good habitat for the Brown Hairstreak. In January 2015, with the help of the South Downs National Park volunteers, we started managing Blackthorn to provide space for the younger bushes preferred by the female butterflies whilst not allowing it to encroach too much on the main part of the meadow. Last Monday we were sitting in the meadow discussing progress with a ranger from the South Downs NP. We had seen no sign of Brown Hairstreaks. Less than an hour later a female Brown Hairstreak appeared a few feet from where we were. Was she making a point? Perhaps it was that your opinions on habitat depend on who you are. We see a complex interaction of woodland, marginal shrubs, meadow flowers and grasses. The Brown Hairstreak sees all these things as one habitat. We would tend to agree with them.
It is very sad to report the arrival of Chalara Ash Dieback in Lag Wood. The first symptoms are clearly visible, blackening leaves and shoots, often remaining attached to the stem and formerly healthy green stems turning brown and producing little or no leaf. The picture of a recently coppiced Ash stool (taken in early September) shows the classic early signs of the disease. Over time dark lesions will appear where leaves and shoots join larger stems. The disease is an airborne fungus Hymenoscyphus fraxineus (formerly known as Chalara fraxinea) and its tiny mushrooms might be seen on fallen ash twigs and leaves this autumn. Chalara Ash Dieback is known to claim around 90% of Ash trees exposed to it. Many of our recently coppiced Ash stools are already affected, and it is a melancholy sight to see the abundant regrowth we saw in June now blackening with disease in September. Some of our younger un-coppiced Ash trees are also showing signs of the disease.
There is no doubt that Chalara will have a significant impact on the character of Lag Wood. By volume around 35% of this wood is Ash, and Ash makes up nearly half of the canopy. But while it is hardly happy news, there are some glimmers of hope. Many older Ash trees may take several decades to succumb and, unlike Elm, the natural genetic variation in Ash will ensure that a few survive unscathed to create a new generation of resistant trees. The impact on wildlife will be comparatively slow and many of our other trees, Hornbeam, Field Maple, Alder and hopefully Oak, will take full advantage of the opportunities it brings. There is very little that can be done to halt the progress of the disease but we will be looking out for potentially resistant trees and adjusting our coppicing plans accordingly.
Finally, after many false starts, the mud dried out at the end of August and we were able to get a vehicle into our coppice coups and extract some wood. The picture shows the first of many small truck-loads of wood from the trees that we coppiced in March. We think that this is the first time since the 1950s that wood in any quantity has been harvested here.
Most of our wood is not of timber quality and will go for firewood. But we have discussed the development of short-rotation hazel for traditional fences and hurdles, and there might be opportunities to explore with other skilled crafts-people such as musical instrument makers who have expressed an interest, particularly in Alder and Field Maple. Our reasons for coppicing remain the same, to maintain and improve the biodiversity of Lag Wood. But our long term aim is to break-even on the costs of doing it. This goes at least some small way towards establishing that it is feasible to do so. A good day all round.
Public footpath improvements at the north-west entrance to Pheasant Field from the Cinder Path. Installed by West Sussex County Council. Our thanks go to Sue Philipson, Access Ranger, Public Rights of Way.
A huge thank-you to Phillippa Morrison-Price (right) and her band of South Downs National Park volunteers for braving the heat of the meadow to attack creeping thistle on Thursday. You’ve really made a difference. @Ranger_sdnpa
We’ve also been cutting out a very large amount of hogweed from the meadow this week. Hogweed has had a very good year this year, possibly due to the wet spring. While it is not as poisonous as its giant cousin, hogweed can still cause quite serious skin problems if handled without gloves. We advise members of the public not to touch it.
The HKD Bioblitz at Pheasant Field was a great way of involving people and introducing children to wildlife and conservation. And great fun for the nearly 70 people who attended. The final product of a bioblitz can sound a bit dull by comparison. It is a simple list of species found in a particular place and time. But it is a very valuable resource for wildlife recorders, ecologists and for anyone involved in conservation. Lists like these help us to understand what we are trying to conserve, enable us to track changes and tell us whether what we are doing is making a difference. The list from the HKD bioblitz in Pheasant Field was sent to us this week and can be downloaded here: HKD bioblitz 2016
By any standards it is a good outcome. Its two hundred species includes many that we have not identified before including birds such as Yellowhammer, not recorded here since 1992, as well as Red-Legged Partridge, Linnet and Dunnock, all new to us. We knew that there would be a good tally of moths after we sat for a while at the moth trap as Laurie and Jake assessed them, heroically at nearly midnight, enduring a cloud of flying ants. Finding thirty-two species of moth in a single evening is an excellent result and reminds us all that so much of the life of Pheasant Field is unseen. Some have never been recorded here before such as the Swallow-Tail and the enigmatic sounding Ghost Moth.
Other species formerly unrecorded here include grasses such as Velvet Bent and insects such as the Great Green Bush Cricket. But most importantly for us, we have formal identification of bats. All bats are protected, but some of them, like the Noctule, are woodland-roosting species whose habitat we would like to understand more about so that we can better preserve it.
Good too to record the presence of invertebrates and especially fish (see photo) in the Lag Stream, this is an excellent sign for the health of the stream and very encouraging. All in all an inspiring effort from all involved.
In his “Vision of Britain” Daniel Defoe reported that the passage of a single timber tree from Sussex to the port of Chatham could take years, “for if once the rains come in, it stirs no more that year, and sometimes a whole summer is not dry enough to make the roads passable”. What was true of Sussex roads in the early eighteenth century is true of our woodland “rides” today. The spring was so wet, and the mud so persistent, that the wood we coppiced in February has been impossible to extract. So we are pleased to say that we have taken advantage of a welcome drier spell to do some ride maintenance. Sixty tons of locally-sourced chalk rubble were trucked in today and levelled off with a digger. We’ve also resurfaced a small section of the public footpath by the stream at Woodbine Cottage. Chalk is a local material and contains none of the potential for contaminants that can be found in some other forms surfacing. We are keen to understand how it behaves in this environment. Weather permitting (fingers crossed) we should be able to get a vehicle into our February coppices and start extracting the cut wood early next week.