Millenium Seedbank   23rd February 2010

John Withall gave us an entertaining talk, telling us there had been a seed bank in the Mansion at Wakehurst Place for some years, but in 1996 the MSBP appeal was launched for funds to construct a purpose built building to store seeds from around the world. This was completed in 2000 with major sponsorship from Orange and the Wellcome Trust.

He explained that the storing of seeds is vital because human life depends on plants; around the world ecology is being destroyed by man's influence. The aim of the Project is to store 25% of the world's seeds by 2020 (by 2009 10% had been reached). About 98% of all UK flora has already been collected. From experiments it was found that the best temperature to store seeds was found to be -20°C. An important feature of the MSB is passing on the expertise to other countries to help them set up their own seed banks.

Susan Painter

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Future of the Working Horse   9th March 2010

Jo Ambrose is a co-founder of the Working Horse Trust at Eridge Park, a combination of organisations and private individuals concerned with the future of working horses. Due to the fact that they are not needed much for agriculture, military or draught use as in the past the numbers of these horses was in decline. With the help of slides she illustrated the differences between the Suffolk Punch, Shire Percheron, Clydesdale and Ardennes and the importance of keeping each breed pure and encouraging young stock. These can be used for conservation work causing less damage and soil impact, ceremonial parades and some cart work. With the slow increase of foals being born the future looks more assured.

Pam Tysoe

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Wildlife Photography   23rd March 2010

We were grateful that long term member, Len Tucknott, stepped in at short notice after Jason Ede was unable to give his planned illustrated talk on wildlife crime. Len delighted us with some beautiful and interesting slideshows. Frosty Day depicted the landscape of Seaford Head under a severe hoar frost.

Kestrels at Newhaven showed what a good camera, a sturdy tripod and much patience could achieve: we were thrilled by the dramatic photographs of kestrels and their young venturing to and from the chalk cliff. Of particular interest was the transfer of white mice from the male to the female.

Deer at Knole illustrated the fallow deer rut interspersed with shots of various bracket fungi.

After a break, Chris Brewer introduced us to the relaunched web site. Now it is a dedicated site, it can be directly controlled, and regularly and rapidly updated. It is a valuable source of information with helpful links and details of locations. This professional site will appeal to both members and enquirers. Check it out at ‘’, especially for programme updates between newsletters, and let Chris have information for it.

Both our speakers were warmly thanked.

Jenny Wistreich

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Natural History of Cuckmere Valley   12th October 2010

At the first indoor meeting of the season Patrick Coulcher showed us with the help of slides how habitats and species have changed over the years in the Cuckmere valley with differing fortunes.

Looking at plants, some, like the long purple orchid introduced 500 years ago have adapted to open downs. Unfortunately more and more plants are becoming rare such as the tree mallow, lady orchid and early spider orchid. Other plants like the milk thistle and moon carrot are also rare as indeed is the star thistle, which has been around since Roman times. Milk thistle can, however, be found near Chyngton Farm and star thistle can also be found in the area. Water crowfoot is numerous. The white bee orchid is still growing at Belle Tout. Beachy Head is one of only a few places in the UK where small hare’s-ear is found. Elecampane is found near the Beanstalk (a former inn) near Firle. Introduced by the Romans, this plant was used to help horses which had become lame after a hard ride. Germander speedwell is in flower from May and was grown for years as a lucky charm.

Turning to birds, Patrick explained that skylarks have mostly disappeared because of over grazing but that the raven has returned. He also said that the turtle dove is now very rare as it is shot on its migration over the continent and only 2 or 3 pairs are now left in Upper Dicker; and that in the 19th century wheatears were killed in their thousands because they were regarded as a delicacy. The ringed plover has returned after 40 years to nest on the beach and the shelduck has been spotted at Seaford Head. The egret too is nesting near Eastbourne although the heron is declining as perhaps it is not as good at fishing as the egret. Nesting boxes have been set up at Birling Gap to hopefully increase the number of barn owls. The fulmer petrel has been coming to the Seven Sisters and nesting since the 1960s. During the war peregrine falcons were shot because they were taking out the homing pigeons carrying information between England and France and more recently a falcon cross which was bigger and more aggressive was killed after 20 years to protect the species.

Patrick also mentioned that adders are increasing in number and otters are returning further up the river. He talked about the controversial scheme to flood the Cuckmere Haven and introduce reed beds to attract more wildlife. If the flood plains are maintained, broad bodied chaser dragonflies, southern hawker dragonflies and damsel flies will come which will in turn encourage the birds that feed on them. At the new reed beds at the Newhaven reserve increasing numbers of the hobby are feeding on dragonflies. All this will need to be properly managed and will cost money.

Historically, the beach under the Seven Sisters has been the scene of various shipwrecks such as a captured German submarine in 1917. Also there are the remains of the Coonato, a clipper, which foundered in 1876. Its figurehead was at East Dean until 1970 when it was sold to an American. Patrick also mentioned that after the Cuba incident cables were laid in Hope Gape so that heads of state could communicate securely in the days before satellite.

Also of interest was a photo of the well in the cliff made by the Beaker people 6000 years ago near Belle Tout. No-one knows its exact purpose. Shortly after the photo was taken, the well disappeared in a cliff fall.

An enjoyable and informative afternoon.

Susan Painter

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Hazardous Trees   2nd November 2010

Mary Parker is an arboriculturist with East Sussex County Council. She told us what she looks out for when looking at a tree to assess any risks it might pose so that hazards can be dealt with quickly. A “tight fork” is where two branches grow too close together – eventually one will fail and fall to the ground. Leaning trees can fall over in time, sometimes preceded by root lift. Measurements can be taken to see if the leaning is getting worse. Trees can be too close to a fence or building. In the latter case there is a risk to the foundations as well as damage to the building itself. Trees can be too close to power lines presenting a risk of electrocution especially if the tree is wet.

She looks out for rotten trees. This rot may be obvious as in the case of honey fungus which has “boot laces” spreading up the tree (these also spread through the soil). Sometimes the rot is internal and difficult to see - a bulging branch may be an indication that all is not well inside.

She also talked about preventing trees getting damaged. Early tree care can prevent problems occurring later. Trees need to be planted in the right place - not close to a fence or building. Check tree ties regularly so that they don’t damage the tree. Ensure small branches grow outwards by correct pruning - ingrowing branches can collide with each other causing branch failure later in the tree’s life. Look out for damage caused by squirrels chewing the bark off and remove ivy before it gets so big and damages the tree.

She said we must decide what value we put on trees - it may be better to keep the public away from a good but hazardous tree rather than to fell it. The action taken will depend on the location of the tree. The National Tree Safety Group aims to bring common sense to tree management and provide guidance on trees and public safety for those responsible for trees.

Questions were asked about Dutch elm disease. Mary said that a lack of funding was probably the reason for DED having got much worse in the last year. 37 elms have had to be cut down recently in Seaford, mainly on road verges. It is unlikely they will be replaced as the highway authority worry about the damage to pavements by tree roots. Tree planting in other areas can help to compensate for the loss. Holm oak does well in salty conditions, as does whitebeam.

A very informative talk illustrated with excellent computer images.

Richard Mongar

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Mystery of the Honey Bee   16th November 2010

In the illustrated talk (by Jeanne and Derek Sorrell), Jeanne was quick to point out that she and Derek are hobbyists - “We’ve got the stings as qualifications”! Amateurs they might be, but we were impressed by their wide knowledge and range of skills.

They keep hives in different locations but all must be out of the wind and dry. Bees require water, nectar, pollen and propolis, a sticky, resinous mixture that bees collect from tree buds to use as a sealant for small gaps in the hive and other uses.

The queen bee is an “egg laying machine” producing 2000 eggs a day, whilst attendant bees feed and clean her. She produces workers, drones and queens, each type having a different diet and cell size.

The clever, sterile, female worker bees (up to 60,000 in one colony) do everything except lay eggs and mate. They build the comb, (for breeding and honey storage) and clean, defend and repair the hive, feed the larvae, gather water, nectar, pollen, and propolis (these three collected on their back legs). They maintain a steady temperature of 34.4° C by venting, cooling and heating the hive (by vibrating their flying muscles). They do all this in about five weeks.

The drones mate with the queen bee when she goes on her mating flight and need large eyes to detect a virgin queen in the sky.

We had plenty of questions for Jeanne and Derek particularly about natural beekeeping and the Varroa parasite. Keeping the hives healthy is the key and during the season, April till September, the hives must be checked every eight days. Jeanne and Derek are now on the lookout for the Small Hive Beetle, which, it is feared, will soon arrive on these shores.

Their main incentive is the bees not the honey: Jeanne and Derek only take some of the honey as the bees need about 200lb for themselves. Bees’ primary gift is pollination.

In her part of their double act, Jeanne said that, “You never get bored with bees”. I don’t think they have time to. In addition to rearing the bees, maintaining the hives and co-producing the honey and beeswax, Jeanne and Derek are also very involved with training the many new enthusiasts and are active in the British Beekeepers Association. As Jean was buzzing around in the break, answering questions and selling honey and beeswax produce, I overheard her say, “Life begins at 70!”

After an engaging afternoon in which we learnt much and were inspired by their energy and enthusiasm for this precious vocation, we, like bees at the end of the day, went home.

Jenny Wistreich

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Lichens of Sussex  7th December 2010

Simon Davey, the Sussex county lichen recorder, gave us an informative talk about the lichens of Sussex.

A lichen is a symbiotic partnership between two different organisms, an alga and a fungus, which look like a single organism. Lichens are given separate names even though both the fungus and the alga components have names of their own. The fungus cannot survive without its partner alga. It is less clear what benefit the alga derives from the fungus, although one possibility is protection from the elements.

Lichens (which, in response to a question, Simon informed us is pronounced Lie Kens) grow either on the ground or on stonework, walls etc and trees. He showed us a picture of Lichenologists in typical pose – kneeling with faces almost touching the ground. It is a posture also well known to botanists!

There are three types of lichens. Crustose –which form crusts on a surface. Foliose have leafy lobes which spread out horizontally over a surface. Fruticose are like miniature shrubs or trees.

His enthusiasm for his subject was clear as he showed us pictures of lichens, many rare in Sussex. Few lichens seem to have common names and Simon named them using their scientific (binomial) names. He pointed out the fruiting bodies which he told us can be readily seen because the look like jam tarts – a description apparently not welcomed by all Lichenologists.

Good places for studying lichens are churchyards because of the variety of habitats suitable for them. Stopham Church (near Pulborough) holds the Sussex record with 165 different species. Ditchling, nearer to us, has some 120 species. Another fruitful habitat for lichens is Ancient Woodlands; lichens are Ancient Woodland indicator species. The primary locations in Sussex for these are Eridge Park, East Dean Park (near Goodwood) and Parham Park (near Pulborough). Simon showed us a number of rare or uncommon lichens found on trees in these parks.

Closer to home Simon mentioned a lichen (Ramalina fraxinea) which is found on the bushes on the South side of the A259 between Exceat Bridge and the Country Park.

Lichens are indicators of pollution, generally growing only where there is little or no air pollution. He also said that the environment is changing from one with acidic air conditions which favour some lichens to alkaline (because of intensive farming and catalytic converters which produce nitrogenous waste which ends up as ammonia). This is having an impact on lichens, some previously common ones being lost and others not previously common becoming dominant.

Simon also told us a salutary tale of how focus on the particular habitat requirements of certain organisms can have unintended consequences. Lichens rely upon photosynthesis so need open woodland to survive. Part of Ebernoe Common had become overgrown and trees covered with ivy. This made it unsuitable for the lichens that previously were found there in abundance. Removing the dense undergrowth and ivy did not result in the lichens returning but did have a negative effect on the bat population which relied upon the ivy to protect their nurseries.

This was a fascinating glimpse into a world in which few of us would normally venture.

Chris Brewer

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page updated 30th June 2012