Winter wildlife at Slindon
Winter is a fine time to experience the wealth of wildlife on offer at Slindon Estate. Crisp, clear days reward those venturing to the high points at the Folly and Bignor Hill with commanding views across the Estate and surrounding landscape. The coastal plain, Chichester Cathedral, the Isle of Wight and Halnaker Windmill are visible to the South and West; to the North and East, take in the drama of the scarp slope of the South Downs and try to identify other landmark South Downs sites: Black Down, Cissbury Ring and Highdown Hill, all also under the stewardship of the National Trust.
Woodland views boast the rich hues of Autumn before leaf fall, when bare stems open new perspectives on Estate features and landmarks. Majestic beeches are prominent in Slindon Park, the few remaining veterans of 1987 still head and shoulders above their successors. Autumn mowing will also have revealed many of the Estate’s archaeological features – tumuli and the Moot Mound at the top of the downs, and the Park Pale surrounding Slindon’s medieval deer park is at its most atmospheric on frosty mornings.
Winter migrant birds can also be seen – flocks of fieldfare and redwing browse open farmland and great clouds of assorted finches erupt from scrub and hedgerows. On clear days, the plaintive calls of soaring buzzards and red kites may be heard. You may also hear the distinctive “too-wit, too-woo” of the tawny owl during a daylight visit: do not be alarmed. In a characteristic thought to be unique to British tawny owls, it is quite common for pairs to call to each other throughout the day, Despite being nocturnal hunters. The two phases you hear are actually two birds communicating: the female makes the “too-wit” sound and the male answers with “too-woo”.
In December of 2017, the shy and secretive hawfinch was seen in record numbers in the UK: Slindon was one of a handful of southern sites to record their visit. There are thought to be as few as 1,000 native breeding pairs in the UK, augmented by winter migrants. Fine weather in spring 2017 prompted an explosion of the hawfinches’ diet of berries, seeds and nuts in the UK – if this trend continues, perhaps we can look forward to more sightings of this enigmatic bird in the future.
The absence of dense foliage and early onset of dusk in winter may also offer glimpses of roe and fallow deer between the trees and in the fields of the Estate. Fallow, the larger of the two species are naturalised descendants of those introduced in medieval times to populate royal hunting forests. They complete their rut in October and November, when you may hear the bucks barking in the woods. Their coats will also change at this time of year, the familiar tan or tawny colour with white spots being replaced with a heavier, grey winter coat. Their palmate antlers and distinct black horseshoe markings on their white rump also help to differentiate them from the native roe deer.
Bright red holly berries are another tell-tale sign of winter. Keep an eye out for the very similar looking butcher’s broom, so called because butchers used this prickly plant to scour their chopping blocks. Unlike in holly, the spiny points of butchers broom are not true leaves, but leaf-like modified stems, from which the flowers and berries emerge in the centre. The plant is an ancient woodland indicator: its presence here shows that the soil of the woodland floor has not been disturbed for more than 400 years. Ancient woodland only accounts for 2.3% of the UK’s land area, so it is an extremely important habitat and ecological resource. We are fortunate here in Sussex to have a proportionally high coverage of ancient woodland when compared to the rest of the country.