Summer at Devil's Dyke

A male dark green fritillary butterfly suns itself on a child’s hand

Summer is a time to relax and enjoy Devil’s Dyke. The sound of skylarks fills the air and the welcome breeze is pleasantly cooling. On the hill and in the valley itself the chalk downland springs into life, and is full of flowers, butterflies, moths, crickets and grasshoppers, and many other insects. The Dyke car park and the area around the pub may be busy with kite flying and ice-cream eating, but take a wander beyond into the valley itself and peace returns.

This area is home to an internationally rare habitat that can be home to up to forty different plant species per square metre, all taking turns to flower and seed, providing an ever changing carpet of colour and scent.  The plants provide food, especially their flowers which provide nectar, fulling the many insects.  We have over twenty species of butterfly on the wing here over the summer months.

Fabulous flowers

Round headed rampion

Round headed rampion, a Sussex speciality that is abundant here in July
The purple blue of a spiky round headed rampion flower on a chalk grassland hillside, a Sussex speciality that is abundant in July
Round headed rampion, a Sussex speciality that is abundant here in July

The other name for this strange looking plant is the “pride of Sussex” as it is the much-loved county flower of Sussex.   It is quite rare and is only found in a few places in southern England, and Devil’s Dyke is lucky to be one of them.  Catch them flowering between June and August.

Lady's bedstraw

This attractive plant can be found growing all summer inside the hill fort.  In the past, the dried plant were used to stuff mattresses as it is lovely and springy.  The  scent of the plants also acts as flea repellant.  According to one medieval legend, the Virgin Mary gave birth whilst lying on a bed of lady's bedstraw and bracken.  The bracken refused to acknowledge the baby Jesus and in doing so lost its flower. Lady's bedstraw, however, bloomed.   Because it did so its flowers changed from white to gold.  The flowers were also used to curdle milk for cheese making, and colour Double Gloucester.

On the wing

Chalkhill blue

Chalkhill blue (male)
Chalkhill blue (male)
Chalkhill blue (male)

Numbers of this small dusty blue butterfly have been declining over the past decade.  It needs horseshoe vetch plants on which it lays its eggs as this is the feed plant of the caterpillars.  Yellow meadow ants are also a crucial part of the life cycle of this delicate butterfly.  The caterpillars and larvae secrete a sugary substance that is very tasty to the ants.  The worker ants bury the larvae to feast on this sugary delight and in so doing unintentionally protect them from being eaten by birds and other predators.   Both horseshoe vetch and yellow meadow ants need short grass and undisturbed, unimproved grassland.  This is sadly a habitat that is in decline due to the changes in farming methods and land usage that started after the First World War.  The best time to see them is mid-July through to early August.

Dark green fritillary

A dark green fritillary butterfly warms its wings on a thistle
A dark green fritillary butterfly warms its wings on a thistle
A dark green fritillary butterfly warms its wings on a thistle

This strong butterfly can be seen flying across the hill in all weathers, including firm winds and rainy days.    It is a large and attractive orange and brown butterfly with a greenish hue with white dots to its underwings.  It can be seen feeding on purple knapweed and thistles, and is at its peak numbers from late June through to mid-August.

Marbled white

In the summer the area is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white
A black and white checkered marbled white butterfly rests on a flowerhead
In the summer the area is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white

The black and white markings of this ‘flying chequer board’ make this butterfly an easy spot amongst the many browns, oranges and blues of the other butterflies.  Despite its name it is actually a ‘brown’ butterfly, and belongs to the same family as the meadow brown and gatekeeper species.  It is another lover of chalk grassland and needs the various grasses of the downs to feed its caterpillars.  The adults feed on the nectar of purple flowers such as scabious, knapweed and thistle.  It is another species that is best seen flying from mid-June through to mid-August.

Whitethroat

A common whitethroat
A common whitethroat
A common whitethroat

This small visitor is a summer visitor from Africa, where it spends its winters south of the Sahara.  Easy to miss, the male of this ‘little brown job’ has a grey head, white throat, brown back and is honey coloured underneath, and the female is similar colours but more subdued.  Look out for its long flicky tail and listen for its bouncy warbling song.  They are best spotted around the scrubby bushes at the top of the hill fort, feeding on the many insects.