14th January 2014 - Exploring the Natural History of South Africa

Bob Self’s talk focused on five key habitats to be found in the western and central regions of Greater Southern Africa - a region encompassing South Africa, Namibia, and stretching across to Botswana and Zimbabwe. The most well-known of these areas, perhaps, is the Fynbos zone running across the southern tip of South Africa from around Port Elizabeth to Cape Town. This is the smallest of the world’s six floral kingdoms but it possesses one of the richest and most diverse floras. Indeed in an area of only 90,000 km², there are almost 9000 species of flowering plant – of which two thirds are found nowhere else on earth; on average 94 unique species per thousand square kilometres.

As such it has been designated one of the 30 critical biological hotspots on earth. The Fynbos is an area of high winter rainfall which supports typically shrubby low woody vegetation which thrives in nutrient poor soil. Of the major plant families in this area, erica is represented by 670 species of the 4500 found worldwide; protea has 330 species in this area of the 1350 worldwide and restios have 320 of the world total of 400 species. Unfortunately it also has a low level of bird diversity although there is a relatively high level of endemism. Among the bird species discussed were Victorin’s warbler, Levaillant’s cisticola, Cape grassbird , Cape rockjumper and Cape rockthrush. A number of sunbird species were also shown, including the spectacularly long-tailed Cape sugarbird – photographed feeding on the pin-cushion protea (or sugarbush) from which the bird’s name is derived.

The second very distinctive vegetation zone discussed was the Succulent Karoo. This is an area of low winter rainfall in the west of the Karoo region and in many ways of more interest botanically than the Fynbos itself. Although just 6.5 percent of the land area of southern Africa, it boasts the highest number of plant species per hectare anywhere in the world. In particular it is characterised by unique collection of small low growing succulent plants and annuals. Within this biome, the most impressive region is undoubtedly that known as Namaqualand. This is a narrow arid strip 200 kilometres from north to south by 80 km wide, but in 50,000 km² there are over 3000 species of wild flower – over half of them endemic to this area and a third of the total plant population are succulents (10 percent of the world total). It is also a bulb rich flora with over 500 different species.

East of the Succulent Karoo is the much larger Nama Karoo region. This large belt of dry grassland with low woody shrubs and rocky outcrops covers 23 percent of southern Africa. Although rather different in terms of its botanical composition and appearance, there is a high level of overlap between the birds of the Succulent and Nama Karoo regions. Among the representatives of the avifauna discussed in the talk were various vultures (white-backed, hooded, lappet-faced) as well as the remarkable secretarybird, martial eagle, southern pale chanting goshawk , tawny eagle, brown snake eagle, black-shouldered kite, greater kestrel and the tiny pygmy falcon which tends to live in the vast communal nests of the sociable weaver. Among the other resident species of this dry grassland, the speaker focused on larks, sandgrouse, francolins and the many species of bustard and korhaan to be found here along with brief mentions of the elegant blue crane (the national bird of South Africa) and the truly bizarre southern ground hornbill.

No talk about the western part of greater Southern Africa would be complete without some reference to the Namib desert biome and the ‘skeleton coast’. The most extreme of Southern Africa’s habitats, this is a direct product of the cold water Benguela current running up the coast of Namibia. These ocean conditions ensure the area gets little rainfall (13-17 mm per annum). In these extremely arid conditions, the habitat is characterised by unvegetated stony open plains with a low plant diversity – and all of which are heavily dependent on dense sea mist. While this produces a rather dull and unattractive coastal plain reminiscent of the equally arid Peruvian coast, in stark contrast, the region is also famous for the spectacular red sand dunes of the Sossusvlei National Park. Equally impressive is the Etosha National Park in the north-eastern corner of the Namib zone.

The Park takes its name (meaning ‘great white place’) from the vast alkaline salt pan (130 km x 72 km) which makes up 23 percent of the entire national park. This is one of the great national parks of Southern Africa having recorded 114 species of mammal, 110 reptiles and over 340 bird species. The final habitat discussed related to the various wetlands of Southern Africa Those discussed included the various key river systems such as the Zambesi, Limpopo, Okavango, Oliphants and Orange River. Also important for birds are the seasonal vleis and swamps as well as man-made habitats such as sewage farms – and no birding trip is complete without a visit to at least one of these magnets for birds. Among the families discussed were the storks (African openbill, and yellow-billed stork), the many herons of the Okavango during the ‘Barbel run’ season (the well-named goliath through to the diminutive striated), the many birds of prey (from the giant African fish eagle to the rare pel’s fishing owl) and the equally impressive range of shorebirds and kingfishers. The talk concluded with a brief review of some of the more colourful families to be found in Southern Africa such as the glossy-starlings, rollers, bee-eaters, sunbirds, weavers and babblers.

Bob Self

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28th January 2014 - Castle Hill National Nature Reserve

Malcolm Emery is a locally based Senior Reserve Manager with Natural England. He started work here in 1991. Unfortunately I have been unable to do justice to his wide ranging presentation.

Malcolm tries to be a medieval farmer managing ancient semi-natural systems with sheep and tractors and chain saws. He has to mix academic knowledge of ecology and animal behaviour and environmental systems with the pragmatic day to day challenge of getting the job done on the ground. He described it as a weird and wonderful job, and that if he had his time again he would do exactly the same.

The National Nature Reserve (NNR) was set up in 1975. It was part of a wider area which had been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSI) in 1965. The reserve is 40 plus hectares of chalk downland slopes tucked in to the South Downs between Woodingdean, on the outskirts of Brighton, and Kingston near Lewes.

When it was set up the arrangement was that the reserve would be responsible for all of the fencing surrounding it, which must have pleased the local farmers. There are areas of scrub left on the slopes adjacent to arable land above in an attempt to intercept the run-off of nutrients, and as good habitats for birds and invertebrates. A new dew pond was installed at the bottom of the slopes in the early 1990s to replace one at the top of the slopes which was full of burnt out vehicles. The reserve benefits from about 350 work days a year from volunteer groups. Malcolm commented that his job is managing. It is the volunteers who see the wildlife!

The reserve is a reservoir for wild flowers and invertebrates to move out into the wider countryside. The reserve speciality is the early spider orchid. A professor from Sussex University spent 32 years until his recent retirement studying them but still could not explain the population explosion which occurred in the mid 1990s. Clay pipes and tiles have been dug in to encourage wheatears, but have not yet been successful.

The reserve suffers the pressures of being so close to the outskirts of Brighton – raves, dumping, burnt out vehicles, fence cutting, fires. This proximity also attracts people on Walking For Health events. Visitors are very important, so there are guided walks in the summer. If you don't get public support for nature conservation you don't get political support and then you don't get the resources.

Peter Hammond

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11th February 2014 – Seaford Head Nature Reserve Survey

Senior Ecologist with Sussex Wildlife Trust, Graeme Lyons conducted a survey of Seaford Head to be used to formulate a management plan for the area, and he came to share the results with members, and to explain more about biological recording.

To survey Seaford Head, he used a standardised system called the National Vegetation Classification (NVC). This classifies natural habitat types according to the vegetation they contain. Also ecological parameters such as hydrology/soil chemistry/ altitude /geographic location/aspect and more are included within the habitat types to give further classification.

He showed us maps with the results of the surveyed site. Map 1 was the basic map using the NVC colour scale to classify the habitat types, and Map 2 was an overview map with many more colours included to also show the ecological parameters within the habitat types. The survey showed the area has several habitat types such as mesotrophic grasslands (MG), calcicolous grasslands (CG), and maritime cliff communities (MC).

More maps showed areas in close up and Graeme explained what the types of vegetation were, and what could be found in the different areas. Graphs showed the breakdown of habitat types with half given over to 8 types of grassland. Graeme concluded the survey showed that only 7% of the whole site needed urgent attention, and advised the key to managing the site would be to clear sections at a time, and how grazing areas with either cattle or rabbits can help habitats.

Graeme mentioned that members of the SNHS organised and undertook a survey in August 2013 to count and plot the distribution of the rare moon carrot found on Seaford Head. They were joined on the day by Sarah Quantrill, the SWT ranger. In 2 hours about 900 plants were recorded and we looked at the results on a map. Most were in one area, but one was found under a bramble bush, and Graeme was intrigued to know why? He also pondered on how the results of the survey could be built on in the future.

Graeme believes casual records are extremely important, and encouraged members to record their sightings. He suggested members could use the Grab a Grid Reference website to pinpoint a sighting if no GPS is available. On his own database of records he has 135 casual records for Seaford Head so far, and he showed us the results on a map. “You never know what you might find” he said, and enthusiastically shared some of his ‘finds’ for Seaford Head in pictures:-

 Mousepee Pinkgill – a tiny mushroom, which when squeezed smells of mouse pee!

Balea heydeni – a small cone shape snail he found under elder bark – a first in Sussex.

 Ectoedemia agrimonae – a tiny moth, the cocoon of which he found inside a leaf – a first in Sussex for over 100 years.

Other ‘finds’ included, a cassida nobilis ( beetle); the forester (moth); green-winged orchids; henbane; adonis ladybird; cladonia cariosa (lichen); hairy-footed flower-bee; loess (wind blown sand deposit which sits on top of chalk) and helicella itala (heath snail).

Graeme moved on to explain about fixed point photography, which is taking photos from the same place (fixed point) to show the changes over a period of time. We looked at photos from fixed points in different areas which monitored the changes from year to year. A valuable tool for managing an area, but Graeme advised care was needed when choosing the fixed points to ensure the same sequence of photos could be taken each time. To conclude his interesting talk Graeme showed members a photograph he had taken standing inside an abandoned building looking out of a door, and asked if anyone knew what the building was. A map showed it to be sited near to the golf course on Seaford Head, and after several ideas were discussed it became clear some members would take up the challenge to find the answer.

Marilyn Binning

It was later found out that the building on Seaford Head that Graeme was referring to appears to have been the control room for Second World War anti aircraft battery’s radar. The radar itself was situated at about the same place as the navigation beacon.

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25th February 2014 – AGM

Keith Blackburn welcomed the 40 members (approximately) who were present. Six apologies for absence were received. He opened the meeting by telling members the sad news that Joe Morley had died; he had been a long standing member who had contributed greatly to the Society over the years.

Turning to the agenda Keith said that 2013 had been another good year. Meetings and walks had been well attended with good speakers and leaders. The financial position was very strong. The minutes of the last AGM were agreed and signed.

Richard Mongar then presented his statement of accounts for 2013 and thanked Mike Staples for examining them. He reported that subscriptions were slightly up from 2012 and that the costs of the magazine were reduced thanks to the number of members opting to receive it electronically. As the operating surplus for the year was £700, and net assets were over £2800, the committee had decided not to charge for refreshments in future.

Keith said that, although funds were in a healthy state, the projected surplus for next year was small and the committee therefore felt it would not be sensible to suggest reducing subscriptions. This was because in the future some costs would inevitably increase in order to ensure good quality speakers and possibly the necessity for more walk leaders from outside the Society. There might also be a need to buy new equipment (e.g. laptop). Keith asked members for views on whether it should hold on to its surplus or make a donation to charities such as the Sussex Wildlife Trust, perhaps for a specific project. Differing opinions were expressed – it was pointed out that only recently the Society had been in a very weak financial position, while other members thought that it would be right to donate some of the surplus to the SWT. After discussion, a show of hands indicated that members were divided with 16 members against and 12 in favour of making a donation.

Keith thanked Richard for his excellent work as treasurer including introducing innovations such as standing orders for subscriptions, and also for taking on the printing of the magazine.

Andrew Painter thanked all those who had contributed to the magazine over the past year and thanked Richard for his work in printing it. The next issue would be ready for collection at the next meeting and for those who had opted for the e- version he pointed out that the outdoor programme cards would also be ready for collection then.

Keith thanked both Andrew and Susan for their work.

Turning to outdoor meetings, Marilyn Binning thanked all those who had led walks, of which only one had had to be cancelled (because of bad weather). 14 were planned for this year. She had sent round a questionnaire asking for members’ views on walks and 23 people had replied; Tuesday would remain the usual day with walks about every two weeks. She also said that the Society was always looking for leaders of walks.

Keith thanked Marilyn for arranging both the survey and the 2014 walks programme.

In respect of the indoor meetings Colin Whiteman thanked speakers and hoped that all members had enjoyed the programme, but if not to let him know. He also said that any suggestions for topics were always welcome.

Keith thanked Colin for his contribution and also for his own particularly good talk on global warming in November.

Under elections, Keith explained that Dot Moore and Janice Reynolds had decided to stand down. He thanked Janice for leading walks and both of them for arranging refreshments at meetings. Anne Fletcher was standing down as secretary but continuing as vice chair. Deirdre Daines had kindly volunteered to take on the post of secretary.

Keith thanked Anne for her time as secretary. He was indebted to her for her thoughtful, well organised, pro-active contribution which made his role easier. He presented both Janice and Anne with book tokens as the usual token of appreciation from the Society. As Dot was not present a token would be sent to her.

Keith went on say that the Society was always looking for volunteers for the committee. Deidre was then elected as secretary, while Penny Lower and the rest of the committee were elected en bloc with Coralie Tiffin co-opted as committee member.

Finally, under AOB Mike Staples was re-elected as auditor, and Peter Hammond proposed a vote of thanks for all the Committee’s hard work.

During the tea break members were able to look at each other’s photos and videos of wildlife taken in their own gardens.

Afterwards, Chris Brewer gave a talk on the enormous amount of wildlife that can be found in the average suburban garden. He explained that gardens were biologically diverse and they were a great place to start recording. They make up the largest area of green space in the UK, totalling more than that of the national nature reserves.

He talked about a 30 year study undertaken by Jennifer Owen in Leicester; over this period she found a total of 2673 species of wildlife, including insects and plants, in her own garden.

On an even smaller scale, Patrick Roper, an ecologist in Sedlescombe, planted a window box and after only a year 60 species were found, increasing to over 700 species by September 2003 in a square metre.

This was followed by a presentation given by Colin Pritchard of the great variety of wildlife he had found in his own garden. To mention some of them - lichens in many colours, butterflies and a rose chafer in his conservatory (a great place to trap wildlife), a wasp’s nest (actually a European hornet), bumblebees, dragonflies, and caterpillars of saw fly in a pear tree. Among the birds shown were greenfinches, fieldfare, starlings, great tits, sparrowhawk, great spotted woodpecker, and a blackbird breaking a snail shell. Colin ended by showing photos of, amongst others, sunflowers, primroses, arum lily, bluebells and stinking iris.

All this shows that we don’t have to go very far in order to experience the biodiversity that is to be found in the average garden. We only have to look.

Susan Painter

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11th March2014 - Ice Age Sussex

We had intended to finish off our programme of indoor talks with a session on the Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve management plan by Andy Phillips, the plan’s author. Unfortunately, Andy was ill and could not make the meeting but we hope that he will be able to do one of our 2014/15 meetings instead. With two days notice, Colin Whiteman, stepped into the breach and gave us a fascinating talk on the Ice Age in Sussex.

Colin addressed four questions • What do we mean by an ice age? • Has Sussex ever been covered in glaciers? • What was Sussex like in the last ice age? • When is the next one due?

By way of introduction, he noted that not much was happening to our landscape now – even in eventful years like this one, the amount of cliff falls, shingle movement, soil erosion and landslips is negligible compared with the dramatic change which takes place in cold periods.

An ice age is a substantial period when there is a lot of ice cover with warmer interglacial periods in between – and these are geological timescales – we are talking about tens of thousands to millions of years. There have been five periods of intense cold in the lifetime of the earth, some of which have lasted for several million years. During the last million years of the latest Ice Age the usual pattern is a gradual fall over 90,000 to 100,000 years to a glacial period followed by a sharp rise in temperature to an Interglacial lasting some 10,000 years.

When the landscape becomes colder, there is more rock fracturing because of freezing then thawing. Permafrost is created. The active layer above the permafrost is destabilized causing land slips. Glaciers advance. Ice sheets form. Sea levels fall as the water is turned into ice. And, not surprisingly, flora and fauna, including humans, migrate. There is no evidence of humans in the landmass which is now Britain during the second last ice age.

Was Sussex covered by glaciers? Most authorities think not – the valleys are not U-shaped although some have tried to claim that Devil’s Dyke might be, and they have not been over deepened. Ice sheets are not thought to have come south of the Thames in this area, so this part of Britain was periglacial rather than glacial.

What was it like? Even without glaciers and ice sheets, the effects of the cold were significant and included thermal contraction which cracks rocks, cambering and valley bulging causing blocks of rocks to slide into the centre of valleys (Colin mentioned an example at Chiddingly), loess or windblown dust created by the grinding action of glaciers, solifluction, in which the waterlogged soils slipped and flowed over the frozen permafrost (example at Hubbard’s Hill in Kent). Black Rock sounded like a place to visit – you can see where the chalk and flint stops at a buried fossil cliff which extends right across West Sussex. A fossil raised beach with molluscs from the penultimate warm interglacial period can be seen seven to eight metres above the present sea level. Overlying the beach is cliff fall material and sandy and chalky sediments washed down from the valleys inland. These sediments contain fewer molluscs and they are happy today living in northern Scandinavia indicating that the sediments were deposited during the succeeding cold period.

Animals in Sussex in the ice ages – Woolly mammoths, woolly rhinos, bison, and the small horse would all have roamed Sussex – a very different and much less wooded landscape than now. Ice age diets were different too. According to recent research, flowering plants, like lupin, dwarf willow, saxifrage, enhanced their diet which was not just grasses and sedges and previously assumed. These tundra plants were often dark coloured to absorb the heat, had shallow roots in the active layer above the permafrost, small leaves to retain water and were perennial because of the short growing season. Some like lichen grew on bare rock.

As the temperature warms up, permafrost decays and involutions are created. As the ice-rich chalk melts the denser overlying sediment sinks into the chalk making wave patterns. You can see involutions towards the top of the cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Seaford Head.

When is the next ice age due? Who can say? If the historic pattern described earlier continues, we are at the top of the curve. It’s not clear how long the current warm period may last but we could be at the beginning of a slow decline over the next 90 to 100,000 years of cooling. But then the impact of climate change might mean that we move into uncharted territory where the earth continues to warm. It’s impossible to say!

Colin’s talk generated many questions – and some speculation – and was much appreciated. As Coralie Tiffin said in her vote of thanks, far from being disappointed by the change of topic we all enjoyed it very much.

Anne Fletcher/Colin Whiteman

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7th October 2014 – Nature Reserves – what’s the point?

Our speaker this afternoon was James Power, the head of land management for the Sussex Wildlife Trust (SWT). He began with a few facts about the SWT. It was formed in 1961 and in 1963 acquired Amberley Wild Brooks as its first reserve. After taking into account the latest addition of Seaford Head in 2013 the SWT now manages 32 nature reserves with a total area of 5,000 acres and a membership of 33,000. 23,000 schoolchildren visit the reserves each year and there are more than 600 volunteers.

He went on to give an overview of some of the nature reserves starting with West Dean Woods, Chichester, known for its number of wild daffodils, which is almost entirely managed by volunteers. Others mentioned were Levin Down near Singleton, Marline Valley Woods in Hastings, Iping Common, Midhurst (one of the best sites in Southern England for heathland ), The Mens near Petworth with 500 acres of woodland, Burton Mill Pond near Pulborough with its woodland and heathland, Malling Down near Lewes, which is one of the strongest footholds for the silver spotted skipper, and Rye Harbour Nature Reserve which has 1,200 acres.

James then explored two themes. Firstly, evidence led management. Graeme Lyons is the driving force behind this. At Ebernoe Common 6 British white cattle have been introduced, although there was some concern that the cattle might have an adverse impact on a colony of bats roosting there. Therefore all the cattle were fitted with collars into which GPS and sim cards had been inserted and the information received was texted back to the SWT on a 15 minute cycle in order to show exactly where the cattle were roaming. After careful monitoring over 6 weeks of grazing, the texts showed that the cattle were not roaming into the areas where the bats were.

Secondly, long term management planning. We saw a map projecting what the SWT hope Levin Down will look like in 2020 with 60% chalk grassland. This plan was prepared in 2007 and will require a huge sustained effort. Already significant progress has been made towards that goal.

One particular challenge is that, despite efforts, habit and species loss is continuing. Examples: numbers of the brown-banded carder bee have contracted since 1980, chalk grassland on the South Downs has declined by 97%, and hay meadows have declined by a similar amount which is related to why bumble bees have declined.

Why does this matter?

Nature reserves are able to slow down losses and can sometimes reverse damage. The heath tiger beetle became extinct in Sussex, and was reintroduced in 2006 on Iping Common. The SWT is delighted that last year 67 adults were recorded there, demonstrating that the beetle has made a comeback and is doing well. Since 1800 80% of heathland has been destroyed for a variety of reasons, the number of pine trees planted and use of chemicals contributing to this loss. Thanks to the generosity of a couple of people the SWT bought Graffham Common in 2009, the first reserve since 2001, to help redress the problem. They are now trying to restore the area to heath land: good quality heather is already regenerating and nightjars are displaying. Of course all this comes at a significant cost and a lot of funding is needed.

Is there another reason why nature reserves matter? Everyone can help reverse the decline but this is not the only solution. These days it is rare for children to play outdoors. James quoted a shocking statistic – in Sheffield as an 8 year old a child walked alone 6 miles to go fishing. 80 years later his grandson is allowed no further than 300 yards from the front door – and that is always under supervision. This is a real concern, showing that people (in particular children) are becoming increasingly disengaged from the countryside. Nature reserves inspire people and can slow down the rate of loss. Everyone has a responsibility. The SWT is concentrating a lot of effort into getting children involved with nature (7,000 schoolchildren visited the Seven Sisters Country Park over the year), although James admitted that a lot more needs to be done. He finished by issuing a challenge to all of us to work together to help inspire the next generation of naturalists.

This talk generated a great deal of interest and sparked off a lively questions and answers session.

Susan Painter

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21st October 2014 - Rathfinny Estate

42 members met to hear Richard James, formerly a South Downs National Park ecologist but now the Rathfinny Estate Landscape and Environment Officer, describe and explain, first, the development of the vineyard, and then its associated wildlife. When the vineyard is fully planted across 140 hectares (the estate is 260 ha overall), and in full production in 2020, it will be the largest single-ownership vineyard in the country, with 210,000 vines producing 1 million bottles per year, about 20% of the UK total. It is owned by Mark Driver, a former hedge fund manager and wine and viticulture graduate (Plumpton College in association with Brighton University).

Choice of location for the vineyard was not arbitrary: Richard illustrated the link between the chalk-based South Downs and the area around Épernay, east of Paris, in France, where chalky soils also dominate and Chardonnay, Pinot Meunier and Pinot Noir are favoured grapes. With this in mind, these three classic grape varieties have also been planted at Rathfinny, along with Pinot Gris, Riesling and Auxerrois, amongst others. While the climate is not presently as warm in Sussex as it is around Épernay, the owner of Rathfinny cannily anticipates that, with global warming pushing temperatures ever higher, the huge south-facing slope opposite Cradle Hill will soon be on a thermal par with present-day Épernay, while that region may ultimately become too warm and dry to grow these grape varieties effectively. (Climate change will undoubtedly produce winners and losers, though one wonders whether the winners will be few if the temperature really takes off!) 98% of present production will be white sparkling wine but a still red could be produced if the temperature continues to rise.

The southern edge of the vineyard, in the valley bottom, is an arable margin some 2 km long. Beyond that the scarp slope is vegetated with some chalk grassland and a lot of scrub. It is planned to introduce grazers to help control the latter. Temporary wind-breaks, with a 6 m margin of Downland grass on either side, have been erected to assist 6,500 trees to establish shelter belts for the vines. Some stunning statistics followed. A special German machine travelling at 5-6mph for 12 hours non-stop planted 18,000 vines per day in 300 m long, straight rows with a lateral tolerance of 14 mm at the end of the row! The posts and wires take a little longer to erect by hand. New red (=red) and yellow (=white) sheep ear tags are used to label the wines and the various clones of the grapes are shown indicating the number of grapes per bunch. More grapes, more profit, but the closer they are the greater the likelihood of mildew.

The winery, designed locally in Eastbourne, has oak walls, a chestnut balcony and a wavy ‘green’ roof to meld with its surroundings. It also houses a tasting room. Water is recycled for self-sufficiency and is gravity-fed to 32 (eventually 72) wine tanks supplying 14,000 bottles each. Wind power was considered, but not implemented because of difficult planning issues. Elsewhere on the Estate, an old barn, initially with two and a half walls and no roof, and a ruined bungalow have both been restored to provide accommodation and a classroom for the use of schools, universities and the National Trust. 200-300 seasonal staff will be employed for hand-pruning, a very skilled job, and picking.

So much for the Estate; what about the wildlife? Earlier surveys recorded nine corn buntings (Miliaria calandra) and three skylarks (Alauda arvensis) in the area covered by the Estate. Currently two common buzzards (Buteo buteo) hold territories and a red kite (Milvus milvus) has been seen overhead. The brown (European) hare (Lepus europaeus) is also resident. It is important to have a break crop (in this case mustard (genera Brassica and Sinapis), which currently covers 100 acres) between the former arable use and the current vines in order to reduce nutrients and excess nitrogen, as vines do not thrive if the soil is too rich. A secondary advantage of this crop is its attraction to insects, and the lines of red poppies (Papaver rhoeas) and forget-me-nots (Myosotis arvensis) between the vine rows are also attractive to wildlife such as bumble bees and hoverflies, wall butterfly (Lasiommata megera), early mining beetle (Alpalus bimaculatus), cinnabar moth (Tyria jacobaeae) and others. Subsequent to the meeting, Richard forwarded the following note on bees. "The bee that I couldn’t remember during the talk was Halictus eurygnathus – found by Steve Falk during his Downland survey for bees. Not seen since 1948 and considered extinct, feed[s] mainly on knapweed and has been seen on charlock in our arable field margins. The other rare bee is Anthophora retusa which is found on Seaford Head, and then I found a new population near the White Horse on High’n’Over (so it has about 4 locations in the UK).” Richard hoped that it would eventually be attracted to Estate land. Orchids include the bee (Ophrys apifera) and common spotted (Dactylorhiza fuchsii). There are twelve pheromone traps for moths.

The importance of wildlife to the Rathfinny Estate can be judged by the fact that it runs an insecticide-free system studied in conjunction with Lincoln and Sussex Universities. The rows of the naturally regenerating poppy, a wild flower mix and grass attract insects. It is planned to deal with unwanted insects by introducing competitors and the Estate is trying to attract parasitic wasps for this purpose.

After the customary tea break, Richard fielded a wide range of questions involving the ‘green roof’, access, roses, local employment, and predation of vines. One cut would be taken off the green roof annually. The only open access is some chalk grassland on the south-western slope. There isn’t a trail throughout the Estate but part of the area will be included in guided walks. Tests suggest that only the easternmost extremity of the estate, beyond the current vineyard, is affected by salt on the wind and the Estate is probably protected by Cradle Hill, but a strong northerly wind can put back the harvest by a week or two. The extent of local employment is difficult to judge because pruning is a specialist skill and groups are usually employed for picking. Non-insect predators of vines include birds such as starlings (Sturnus vulgaris) and various Corvus (crow) species. Two gas guns at the bottom of the slope may discourage roosting and nesting but not necessarily eating. The sides of rows may have to be netted. The situation is being monitored. We probably could have gone on with questions but with time running out Keith brought the proceedings to a close.

Colin Whiteman gave the vote of thanks, the level of applause reflecting the audience’s enjoyment and interest in this new and evolving topic. Many would have entered a note in their diaries, if not yet the precise date, of next summer’s walk around Rathfinny Estate.

Colin Whiteman

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11th November 2014 - Through the Seasons in a Sussex Woodland

Reg Lanaway has spent many years at Plumpton College, managing the dairy herd and participating in diverse natural history projects. His talk and illustrative slide show provided a very interesting insight into nature within the ancient woodlands adjacent to the college.

Reg explained that the college periodically surveys the natural environment in order to benchmark the flora and fauna. These days the ancient woodland, which dates back over 500 years, is much more actively managed than it used to be with the aim of stimulating the regeneration of trees, plants and wildlife. For example, bluebells, primroses, sedges and marsh marigolds thrive in clearings where light can penetrate; and trees are regularly coppiced in order to generate new growth. One practical output from coppicing is that the students at the college are taught to lay ‘living’ hedges by splitting newly coppiced hazel stems. If these are laid in January/February the stems will produce leaves by May, with berries appearing by the autumn.

Reg showed us a slide of a ‘V’ shaped grouping of trees planted in celebration of Queen Victoria and noted that the cost of 400 beach trees for this commemoration was the princely sum of 17s 4d!

One of the first flowering plants to regenerate after clearance is Cardamine pratensis (commonly called cuckoo flower or lady’s smock). This is an important source of food for the orange tip butterfly – one of the first butterflies to emerge each year. Other butterflies, such as the peacock and speckled wood also thrive in the wooded glades, together with the common blue; white admiral – a sure sign of ancient woodland; purple hairstreak – whose caterpillar is a key source of food for blue tits; and the comma, which breeds amongst woodland nettles.

Birds too are keen to nest in coppiced areas in spring and Reg illustrated this by showing us pictures of robin, blue tit, song thrush and chiffchaff nests. The birdlife in the ancient woodland around the college is constantly monitored. Nets are used to catch small samples of visiting birds, after which they are ringed for future identification. Records are kept of the bird’s wing length, weight, age and sex. One goldcrest, originally ringed in Sweden, was recorded at Plumpton after only twenty days.

Amongst other birds regularly surveyed in the ancient woodland are the great spotted woodpecker, bullfinch, tree creeper, nuthatch, nightingale and jay. The latter, as well as being a rogue amongst bird species, also helps to ensure the growth of new oak trees as they routinely bury acorns at just the right depth to stimulate regeneration. Little and tawny owls and kestrels are amongst the larger birds to visit the area.

To conclude his presentation Reg showed us some wonderful scenic views of the woodlands around Plumpton throughout the four seasons. He also highlighted some of the winter bird visitors to the woods, including brambling, redwing, fieldfare and woodcock and closed by revealing that a recently felled tree had been found to be 207 years old – further evidence of the woodland’s truly ancient origins.

Brian Binning

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2nd December 2014 - Albert Russel Wallace (1823 – 1913) The man who lived in lived in Darwin’s shadow

Ray Hale gave us a passionate and considered talk about the contribution that Albert Russel Wallace made to the science of evolution. Underpinning Ray’s exposition was a desire to understand why he is “the most famous man we have never heard of”.

Wallace, the eighth of nine children, from a “downwardly mobile family”, left school at 14. After training as a surveyor, in 1843 he got a job at Leicester College as a cartographer (he was too shy to teach) where he met Henry Walter Bates with whom he shared his lifelong interest in insects. In 1847 Wallace wrote to Bates saying that he wanted to study one family with a view to establishing the “theory of the origin of species”. So the two set off to the Rio Negro in the Amazon to collect insects.

However they parted company in 1852 and Wallace returned home with six crates containing everything he had collected in three years. Tragically the ship caught fire and he lost everything bar a couple of drawings and a page of notes. Undaunted, in 1854 he set off alone to Borneo.

In that region Wallace noted that animals and birds to the west of a line were different from those to the east. In 1857 he understood that the differences were due to two separate landmasses which had never joined despite the narrow strip of water between them. This is now known as the Wallace Line.

In 1855 Wallace sent a question to Darwin whom he idolised: “Shall I continue?” Darwin replied, “Stick with it.” Spurred on, Wallace continued his research and in 1858 he sent Darwin a six-page essay describing the theory of evolution! Darwin was mortified and was advised to publish his work without delay. The original paper had both Darwin’s and Wallace’s names on but that was omitted from a later paper.

Ray explained that the theory of evolution developed over many years and was explored by many people including Darwin’s grandfather, Robert Chambers, Herbert Spencer, Thomas Malthus, Wallace and Darwin. Darwin did not invent the theory but sought to explain it.

Why should Wallace be remembered? Because Darwin acknowledged that he drew inspiration from Wallace (page one of Origin of Species) and Wallace was the catalyst for publication. We should acknowledge Wallace because of his tenacity in pursuing his research in the field (Darwin was only exploring for five years) his 22 books including The Malay Archipelago; and his 1,000 articles. As an eminent scientist, Wallace received many honours in his lifetime including the Gold Medal and Order of Merit; and a large number of species have been (and are still being) named after Wallace. In 1869, in Indonesia Wallace foresaw that we would destroy the rain forests.

Why is he not remembered? Coming from a humble background, Wallace was not socially respected and was academically rejected. An example of the contemporary sneering and snobbery he faced was when he was described as an “itinerant insect collector”. His beliefs in spiritualism, phrenology, socialism and intelligent design were derided.

Wallace venerated Darwin and never wanted to claim the honour for himself. But, thanks to his many admirers, including Bill Bailey and Ray himself, Alfred Russel Wallace’s contribution is increasingly acknowledged and he now has a statue outside the Natural History Museum and his portrait has been returned to its previous prominent place in the gallery.

Jenny Wistreich

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9th December 2014 - Michael Blencowe “Extinct Bird Watching”– presentation to the Christmas Social

In the talk that formed the first half of the Christmas Social, Michael Blencowe strayed from his usual interests and introduced us to the fascinating, bizarre and melancholic world of extinct bird watching. Presenting extracts from a spoof Edwardian naturalist diary, Michael described an odyssey that began with his artist friend Mark Greco wanting subjects for his contributions to the ONCA (1) 20012/13 project “Ghosts of Gone Birds”.

Promising heroes, villains, world travel, whistling Maoris and unusual sexual practices, the first part of the talk concentrated on the fate of the Huia – a New Zealand bird that became extinct at the start of the 20th century. The Huia suffered from Captain Cook, habitat destruction and the misfortune of having fashionable tail feathers. Poignantly we heard a recording of Henare Haumana, a member of the 1909 expedition that failed to find the bird, whistling its call.

The second section followed the extraordinary adventures of Georg Steller – a German naturalist who, after a chaotic overland journey, joined Bering’s 1741-2 ill-fated expedition to Kamchatka (2). Many new species were recorded by Steller, of which many are now extinct, including the Spectacled Cormorant.

We were then introduced to a 19th century naturalist, Andrew Bloxam, best known for his travels on HMS Blonde to Hawaii and other mid Pacific Islands (3). On the island of Mauke he named and recorded a bird that is now extinct, Aplonis mavorhnata, the Mauke (or mysterious) Starling.

After this account of what has been described elsewhere as a distant echo of a long lost, long destroyed world (4), Michael Blencowe summarised major contributors to species extinction: habitat destruction, introduction of non-native species, and native species slaughter. He used Hawaii as a case study where, as The American Bird Conservancy notes: since human colonisation 71 species have become extinct – 23 since the arrival of Captain Cook.

The talk then took a more contemporary turn with a diary of the Blencowe and Greco search for specimens of extinct birds. First stop: the Last Tuesday Society Shop in Hackney – for two Huias glimpsed on Ebay. The shop was closed. Next, an enquiry to the Natural History Museum at Tring – housing the collection of the 2nd Baron Rothschild. A cautious response – the museum had recently been robbed by someone posing as an artist. Eventually, passports and other ID in hand, they got to see and handle specimens of the Huia, Spectacled Cormorant, Laughing Owl and the only known example of the Oahn Thrush.

Another poignant fragment ended a memorable and highly entertaining talk. We listened to a 1987 recording from the Hawaiian Island of Kaua’i – the Kaua’i O’o – now extinct.


(1)ONCA : One Network for Conservation and the Arts – a Brighton based hub for art, ecology and education.

(2)Georg Wilhelm Steller’s Journal of a Voyage with Bering 1741-1742

(3) Diary of Andrew Bloxam: naturalist on the Blonde on her trip from England to the Hawaiian Islands 1824-25

(4) Marcel Robischon’s review of Steller’s Journal in the Natural History Network’s list : 101 Natural History Books That You Should Read Before You Die.

Paul Chalmers-Dixon

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Page updated 31st December 2014