Spring wildlife at Saddlescombe Farm and Newtimber Hill

Ranger examining wild flowers in a chalk grassland landscape

Spring has arrived. Days are longer, swallows and house martins have returned to the farm and everything bursts into life. After the dormancy of winter, this transformation comes as a welcome assault on our senses. Here are some of the season’s best to look for.

Skylark rests for a while between bouts of displaying
Skylark on meadow
Skylark rests for a while between bouts of displaying

Skylarks

The sound of skylarks is the soundtrack to early summer on the South Downs, with the first skylarks of Spring signalling warmer days to come.  Climb the hill and look out for a tiny speck in the sky, soaring and falling, its movement mirroring its liquid song. 

Luckily for us this sight is common, but elsewhere in the country it is rare.  The change in farming practices since the Second World War has caused the skylark population to crash, and it is now a red list species.

Spring is in the air with this magnificent display of blackthorn blossom
A magnificent display of blackthorn blossom March 2017
Spring is in the air with this magnificent display of blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn

Among the first flowering plants of the season, blackthorn is an important early source of nectar and pollen for our emerging bees.  Later on its leaves are used by the caterpillars of many moths, including the lackey, magpie, common emerald and small eggar.  Brown and black hairstreak butterflies lay their eggs on its branches.  Many birds nest in its thickets, protected by its thorns, eating the many caterpillars and the sloes it produces in the autumn.

Look out for a thorny bush covered in white flowers without leaves (ones with leaves will be hawthorn) anywhere there is a bit of scrub or hedgerow.  Good places at the bottom of Newtimber Hill behind Saddlescombe.

Cowslip flowers on a Spring day
Cowslip flowers
Cowslip flowers on a Spring day

Cowslips

Flowering between April and May, this relative of the primrose has egg yellow tube like flowers on top of long green stems.  Like many other spring flowers, the cowslip has many links to ancient folk law and tradition, including being used in garlands on May Day and laid on church paths during weddings.  It has had many names, including ‘keys of heaven’.  Its current name means cow-slop, (i.e. cow pat), not so poetic, but refers to the animals that grazes the meadowland it prefers.

Like the skylark, fields of cowslips used to be a common sight but due to modern farming practices this is now rare.   Luckily, due to our special rare unimproved chalk grassland, we have plenty.  Look out for them on the flanks of Newtimber Hill.

A male adder among leaves
Male adder
A male adder among leaves

Adders

March sees the end of the adder’s hibernation.  A warm Spring day is the best time of the year to catch them sunning themselves on a log or under a warm rock.  Spring is also the time the male adders duel to prove they are worthy to mate.  The females then incubate their eggs inside their bodies ‘giving birth’ to up to twenty young snakes.  The average life span of these elusive creatures is 15 years.

If you are quiet, the best place to spot these shy creatures are in any warm sheltered dry spot.  Try the top of Newtimber Hill among the gorse bushes.