Springtime wildlife at Saddlescombe Farm

Early Purple Orchid surrounded by cowslips on the south downs

Spring is a great time to spot early wildflowers and butterflies like the bright yellow brimstone. Who knows what else you could discover on a nature walk around Newtimber Hill at this time of year, but below are some of the prime candidates for a great day out on the downs.

Out go the cold sparse landscapes of winter, in comes new life and the awakening of the countryside.  Spring is here. Life on the farm is literally springing out of every field and valley with birds singing from the hedgerows, early wildflowers stretching into the fresh spring light, and the emergence of all sorts of beautiful insects, from butterflies to beetles.  

The main joyous sign of spring here on the farm is the noisy arrival in March of flocks of swallows and house martins that nest in our farm buildings and cottages.  Many generations of these wonderful birds have been raised here and return time after time. They can be seen across the downs and the surrounding fields showing off their graceful agility and flying prowess, certainly a sight to look out for. 

A rare sight of the elusive cuckoo in the UK
Cuckoo sitting in a tree

These and many other birds can be heard singing to each other to woo a mate - or intimidate a rival – with the chorus of songs representing nature's instinctive need to reproduce. This results in hundreds, if not thousands, of nests being built in a range of sizes and styles from tiny wrens nests to giant barn owl boxes. 

Also, listen out for the distinctive calls of the elusive cuckoo, signalling their arrival from Africa, as catching a sight of these infamous birds on the South Downs is a rare treat.

Alongside these travellers returning from distant shores, other species are rising from their winter slumbers, fresh for the new year, from all over the estate. The warmer weather encourages local bats to emerge from their winter roosts and move to more convenient hunting roosts, closer to their tasty quarry.  A good way to spot these nocturnal predators is along hedgerows as they use these to travel around the countryside safely, staying away from the talons of any hungry tawny owls hunting nearby. 

However, these species would not have shown up here at this time of year if it wasn’t for the appearance of millions of insects who appear here as temperatures start to rise. Most don’t migrate in, they have merely been overwintering as eggs, larvae, pupa, or even as hibernating adults - living underground, wedged under rocks, burrowed in trees or hiding in outbuildings.  

Brimstone visiting a spring flower
Brimstone butterfly visiting spring flower

Now with the warmer weather they come to life in time for spring’s bounties. The first butterflies you are likely to see are the lesser tortoiseshell and peacock, both of which hibernate in our barns and the distinctive bright yellow brimstone which are seen from mid-march. Many types of queen bees can be seen across the downs as well at this time, scouting for a suitable site to build their nests.

Many flowers can be seen bringing a splash of colour to the swaths of green across the fields and woodlands of the South Downs. The dull brown hedgerows show the starry white blackthorn flowers like drifts of snow. 

A spectacular display of blossom from a blackthorn tree
A blackthorn tree in full blossom in Hatfield Forest

Carpets of bluebells transform our ancient woodlands into a magical, even surreal, place of wonder which is well worth a visit. Other spring woodland plants to look out for are the delicate wood anemone, the cheery yellow lesser celandine, and clumps of pungent white wild garlic flowers. In the grasslands look out for cowslips, early purple orchid, and hairy violets.

And not to forget, the first fresh faced lambs can now be seen gambolling in the fields.  These free spirited animals seem to have unending energy and can be seen leaping and bounding in the grasslands, exploring their new world with a level of enthusiasm and joy only seen in the young. hy not come along to one of our lambing days run by Camilla and roly, the fabulous farm tenants here at Saddlescombe?

Spring lambs exploring their new world
Spring lambs standing with their mothers in a pen

So what better time is there to get out and explore the wildlife around Newtimber Hill and Saddlescombe Farm?  You could even join us at our Spring Open Day and Farmers Market event on Sunday 23 April where all our staff and volunteers are on hand to help you explore the farm and surrounding countryside - see our article below.