13th January 2015 - Management of Seaford Head LNR

This was a meeting which was dogged by illness and unavailability but happily it was reorganised at short notice to utilise the local talent and turned out to be a vibrant, informative and enjoyable afternoon. There were three presentations, covering different aspects of the Reserve.

Anne Fletcher spoke as a member of the Management Committee of the Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve about the membership and function of the committee and the Management plan and the Management objectives for the Reserve. This was followed by a talk from the warden, Sarah Quantrill, outlining the action currently underway. After a tea break, Colin Whiteman talked about the recent Moon Carrot survey conducted in August 2014 to meet one of the objectives of the management plan. There was a chance to ask questions after Colin’s talk.

The Management Committee

With representation from both statutory and local voluntary bodies the Reserve is owned jointly by Seaford Town Council (50%), National Trust (35%), East County Council and others (15%). The committee is responsible for spending taxpayers’ money designated by Seaford Town Council. The Sussex Wildlife Trust is responsible for managing the Reserve and for implementing the Management Plan.

The current plan was commissioned in 2011 and its ranger was appointed in 2013. There had been no ranger working on the site for some time and there was concern that it was degrading, with a lack of ecotone (no gradation of habitat), about loss of ecological interest and lack of attention to the SSSI designated features.

163 hectares in all, the reserve contains a range of different habitats: chalk cliff, semi natural grassland, vegetated shingle, salt marsh, semi natural woodland, coastal scrub and farmland.

The plan has 7 objectives and an associated schedule of works which is designed to cover the years 2013-2018.

What is happening now?

Sarah Quantrill showed a map which described the 5 different compartments of the reserve. There is much ongoing work, to do with scrub clearance, fencing, creation of new rides, use of cattle and now 29 Herdwick sheep. All this is an attempt to regenerate, to encourage a range of species, to conserve and to control invasive species like Japanese knot weed and cotoneaster. There is much happening but it all depends on a flow of funds initially, and then to maintain what changes are made. One issue of current concern is the Environment Agency work at Cuckmere and the effect on the salt marsh. The work on the reserve is managed by Sarah and carried out mostly by volunteers.

Moon Carrot survey 2013

Colin Whiteman talked about the recent Moon Carrot survey carried out in August 2014 and managed by Chris Brewer. He described the rationale and conduct of the survey this year. One of the targets in the Management Plan is the requirement that the plant be mapped and monitored at least twice in the next 5 years. The results showed that there had been a decrease in the number of plants this year which may be due to several factors like weather conditions and the competition from encroaching tor grass. However, the point was made that it is impossible to identify trends from only 2 sets of results. It is therefore important to continue the survey and a recommendation from the Sussex Biodiversity Records Office is to possibly change the methodology to include the use of quadrats. A GPS had been used to locate the transects.

Credit and thanks are due to Chris Brewer for managing the surveys and for writing the report.

The meeting closed with a short session of members questions.

Coralie Tiffin

return to top


27th January 2015 - Madagascar – the eighth continent

In terms of its wildlife, Madagascar has a credible claim to be considered as the world’s eighth continent. Although an island of only 587,000 km², it supports such an extraordinary level of biodiversity that it forms a zoo-geographic region of its own characterised by an astonishing level of endemism. Among its well over 200,000 species of life form, there are over 150,000 species of invertebrate (over 90% endemic); 365 species of reptile (96% endemic); 500 species of amphibian (98% endemic); almost 1000 species of orchid (over 75% endemic); 290 species of bird (42% endemic) and over 300 species of butterfly (two-thirds endemic). Most remarkable, at a higher taxonomic level, Madagascar is home to eight plant families, six bird families and five primate families found nowhere else on earth.

The explanation for this astonishing level of endemism is partly one of timing. Madagascar was created during the break-up of the super continent of Gondwana 200 million years ago and it was separated from mainland Africa 150-165 million BP. This means Madagascar was already isolated before birds and mammals appeared on earth. As a result, its wildlife evolves along its own distinct pathways influenced mostly by altitude, climate and geography. The second reason for this unique level of endemism is related to location. Madagascar is around 400 km off the African coast but in the absence of intervening islands to enable new species to cross this barrier many African families are completely absent – for example, Madagascar has no cats, dogs, or ungulates. Its wildlife thus exemplifies the effect of a combination of rapid speciation among very small founder populations conditioned principally by geology/rainfall effects while the influence of colonisation from Africa is both very limited and random.

Unfortunately, this unique eco-system is severely threatened. Although the first nature reserve was established in 1927, until the 1960s nature conservation was an extremely low priority. Despite a brief surge in interest between 2002 and 2009, during which the area protected tripled in size to 6m hectares, the coup in 2009 brought this progress to a complete halt as illegal logging boomed and protected areas were subject to widespread devastation. Since the return to democracy in 2014 efforts have been made to restore the momentum behind nature conservation but Madagascar remains locked in the predictable but unusually severe vicious spiral of population pressures and rural poverty driving rapid habitat loss and unsustainable levels of hunting in a country with a median age 18.2 years, the eighth lowest GDP per capita and the tenth lowest calorie intake in the world. In addition, corruption is rife and illegal logging for rosewood and ebony is largely uncontrolled.

The bottom-line therefore is that while some pristine habitat still exists, it is disappearing at a catastrophic rate. Worse still, the prospects for the future are bleak given that only 12% of land has any form of protection in National Parks and reserves and only 18% of primary vegetation remains. Even more alarming is that deforestation is having an unusually devastating effect for the simple reason that 80 of the 118 endemic bird species and 33 of 37 endemic bird genera are forest dependent. As a result, in recent years two species have become extinct, 12 more are critically endangered and another 36 are considered near-threatened/vulnerable - and much the same could be said about Madagascar’s other wildlife.

After this rather sombre introduction, the audience was shown 243 photographs of many of Madagascar’s most iconic families and species. There was a good representative selection of endemic bird families such as the Ground-rollers, Couas, Mesites, Vangas Asities,and Tetrakas along with a photograph of a pair of Madagascar Fish Eagle - 1 per cent of the entire world population! In addition, equal weight was given to Madagascar’s mammals including representatives of each of the separate Lemur families. Perhaps most spectacular in this section, however, was the Highland Streaked Tenerec; a bizarre hedgehog-like creature most notable for its enormous reproductive capabilities – in order to feed up to 32 offspring in a single litter they have the unique distinction of possessing 17 pairs of nipples. In addition, the discussion ranged over reptiles, frogs, chameleons, butterflies, dragonflies and it ended with a selection of weird and wonderful insects such as the Rainbow Milkweed Locust; a specimen so curious that it gave the appearance of having been designed by a committee of primary schoolchildren suffering a severe case of imagination overload – and armed with too much paint.

Bob Self

return to top


10th February 2015 - Sussex Wildlife 140 million years ago

This talk covered the wildlife of Sussex as shown in the fossil record between 125 and 140 million years ago, a period in the Early Cretaceous we refer to as the ‘Wealden’.

Rivers and Lakes – We started by looking at the wildlife in the freshwater rivers and lakes. Examples were given of the three types of ray-finned bony fish found in the Wealden; the primitive palaeoniscids known only from a single species, Coccolepis; the holosteans, the commonest being Lepidotes; and the teleosts, known only from one species, Leptolepis. However, the recent discovery of otoliths (fish ear stones) which are too large to belong to the diminutive Leptolepis suggests there were other larger teleosts present at that time. Freshwater sharks swam in the lakes and rivers. We mainly find remains of their hard parts – teeth and fin spines – because their skeletons were composed of cartilage which does not normally fossilize. However, at Cooden Beach, East Sussex, complete sharks heads can be found encased in ironstone. An illustration of a shark’s jaw from Cooden demonstrated how new teeth moved forward to replace the old worn ones in a conveyer belt-like process, much as they do in present-day sharks. There were also turtles and crocodiles in the Wealden lakes and rivers, including the dwarf crocodile Bernissartia at around 60 cm long, and the much larger Goniopholis, which grew to around 3 metres and was very similar to modern day crocodiles. Remains of both have been found in Sussex, including a Goniopholis snout from Cliff End, near Pett, showing large tooth sockets on its underside.

Plants – Plant life in Wealden times was totally different to that which we see today. The landscape was dominated by cycads, ferns, conifers and an extinct group called the bennettitales, with very little evidence of flowering plants. However, Sussex can boast one of the world’s most important Wealden fossil plant localities in the 5-mile coastal section east of Hastings from Rock-a-Nore to Cliff End, Pett. Most of the fossil plants known from the Weald are found along this section, including a recently discovered in situ bed of quillworts. Other plants found there include ferns, conifers, cycads and bennettitales – examples were shown of all these groups, and it was noted that, with the exception of the bennettitales, most of the families represented in the Weald were still around today. The rocks at Hastings are 140 million years old, and it’s not until we get to the younger rocks of the Weald Clay at Burgess Hill in West Sussex (130 million years old) that we see the first evidence of flowering plants with the recently discovered Bevhalstia pebja, although the true affinities of this small, aquatic, herbaceous plant are still uncertain.

Insects – Fossils of insects are generally found in the finer sediments of the Weald Clays (130 million years old), and although normally known only from wings, an exceptionally well preserved hawker dragonfly was shown where the body was also preserved. There were also examples of other Wealden insect families, including stoneflies, grasshoppers/crickets, cockroaches, termites, true bugs, snakeflies, lacewings, scorpionflies, caddisflies, true flies, wasps and beetles. Insect fossils are quite rare at Hastings because the sediments are so coarse, but an exception is caddis tubes, the protective cases constructed by caddisfly larvae. These have been found in their hundreds at Rock-a-Nore, east of Hastings. The most commonly found are constructed from the shells of a bivalve clam-shrimp (conchostracan), but specimens have also been found made from plant matter, fish bones and even one from small pieces of amber. Almost all the insect families illustrated are still around today.

Microvertebrates – A wealth of microfossils have been recovered by breaking down and sieving clays from Wealden plant debris and microvertebrate beds. Microfossils of frogs, salamanders and lizards have all been extracted from rich lenses of fossil microvertebrate material from a Sussex quarry, and teeth representing three extinct lineages of mammal have been recovered from a conglomeratic bone bed commonly found at Cliff End, Pett – the Cliff End Bone Bed.

Dinosaurs 1 – Finally we looked at the various groups of dinosaurs. A number of carnivorous theropod dinosaurs were illustrated together with the world’s smallest adult dinosaur, identified from a single vertebra found in a Bexhill quarry. The large, long-necked herbivorous sauropod dinosaurs (like Diplodocus in the Entrance Hall at the NHM) are extremely rare on the UK mainland, but recent discoveries have included a diplodocid toe bone from Cooden Beach (larger than the NHM specimen), and a sauropod trackway along the Hastings coastal section. Sussex can also boast remains of armoured dinosaurs, with several bones recovered from a Bexhill quarry and a brain case from Fairlight Cove, near Hastings – the first from the UK. Remains of herbivorous ornithopod dinosaurs are well represented in Sussex, particularly the iguanodontids. These are often referred to as the cows of the Cretaceous because herds of them would have been moving across the Wealden landscape browsing the vegetation. In 2013 the remains of two iguanodontids were discovered at a quarry in Bexhill and so far more than 200 bones have been recovered.

Dinosaurs 2 (Birds) – It is now generally accepted that birds have evolved from small, carnivorous dinosaurs and one of the most important finds to come out of Sussex in recent years is a bird tooth, found at a quarry in Bexhill after sieving several hundredweight of clay. Its identification has been established by comparison with complete early Cretaceous birds from China, and at 140 million years old is the earliest evidence we have for a bird in the UK.

How our view has changed – Finally a comparison was made between what we knew of wildlife in the Weald 50 years ago and what we know now, and the knowledge we’ve gained over that period has filled up the Wealden landscape with lizards, frogs, salamanders, insects, more mammals, birds, and a whole range of dinosaurs and pterosaurs, both big and small.

Peter and Joyce Austen

return to top


24th February 2015 – AGM and talks

Keith Blackburn welcomed visitors and the 40 members (approximately) who were present. Nine apologies for absence were received. He gave members the sad news that Dot Moore, a long standing member and committee member, had recently died and said that a donation has been sent to Cancer Research. As this was KB’s last AGM before stepping down as chairman he began by reflecting on some of the changes that have occurred since he became chairman in 2007. The Society has now been going for 55 years and has moved from the Downs to the better premises at St Luke’s. Membership has increased from about 40 to 70/80, a tea break which gives a chance to talk has been introduced, and we now have our own website, thanks to Chris Brewer. The finances have improved and are now in a healthy position. This gives the Society the freedom to try out new things- e.g. a Christmas social which proved popular and will be repeated, and no longer charging for teas but instead inviting voluntary donations to Seaford Head Nature Reserve. A First Aid kit, maps and optics for viewing insects have been purchased for which KB thanked Coralie Tiffin and Deirdre Daines. A subsidised trip to Arundel has been arranged, as has an extra indoor meeting. There is now a good turnover of committee members which brings in new blood. KB thanked all committee members. The minutes of the last AGM were agreed and signed.

Richard Mongar then presented his statement of accounts for 2014 and thanked Mike Staples for examining them. He explained that income is down a little, mainly because of not charging for refreshments, and expenditure is up due to several factors, including the Christmas social, printer, and paying walks leaders. The operating surplus will be around £250 when the hall fees have been paid, and there will be a reserve of around £2,500 by end of 2015. Ruth Young asked about plans for spending some of the surplus and was assured that this is in hand. KB thanked RM. The accounts were approved and Mike Staples was re-elected as auditor.

Andrew Painter thanked all those who had contributed to the magazine over the past year and thanked RM for printing the magazine. The next issue would be ready for collection on 10 March which would include the new programme card. KB thanked AP and SP for their work, and also RM for printing the magazine.

Turning to outdoor meetings, Marilyn Binning said that there were 14 walks in 2014. With the exception of the dragonfly walk, which had to be cancelled, the weather was kind. She thanked leaders of walks. Together with several members she had put together a slideshow to look at during the tea break. MB has arranged 12 walks for 2015 plus a day out at Arundel. Three of these are members’ only outings. She asked for ideas on walks for next summer and also for new leaders. KB said that MB was fairly new to the Society and thanked her for her very successful contribution.

Anne Fletcher then introduced the new guidelines for safety on walks, a copy of which would be in the next magazine. Coralie Tiffin had put together a first aid kit which committee members will hold and liaise with the leader. AF said there would be a need for first aid certificate holders. The aim is to keep things informal, but AF made the point that ultimately individuals remain responsible for their safety. Mike Squires asked about liability and was assured that this is covered.

In respect of the indoor meetings, Colin Whiteman thanked members for turning up for the talks and felt that they seemed to have gone well. There was one no-show but he thanked AF and Sarah Quantrill for stepping into the breach. Looking ahead to next year there are already 5 definites with several others almost arranged. They range from a talk on chalk grasslands to one on water voles. CW invited members to come up with suggestions. KB thanked CW.

Turning to the election of the committee all members were standing again with the exception of KB and Penny Lower (who was resigning due to other commitments). Paul Baker agreed to be a co-opted member. After the Committee was elected en bloc KB handed over to Anne as chair. Colin Pritchard thanked KB for his valued contribution towards all the improvements in the Society under his watch and presented him with a token of appreciation.

Under any other business Ana Swaysland suggested that everyone should wear name tags. When AF asked for a show of hands opinion was divided fifty fifty and she suggested that all those members in agreement made their own badges to wear at the next meeting .

During the tea break members were able to enjoy a slide show of walks during 2014 and afterwards Peter Austen, Colin Whiteman, Colin Pritchard and Mike Squires each gave a short presentation on walks they had led during 2014. This was not only to enable members who had been unable to go to get a flavour of what had been seen but also to remind members who had gone to look back at what they had seen.

Susan Painter

return to top


10th March 2015 - Beetles in their Sussex habitats - Graeme Lyons – SWT Senior Ecologist

I arrived at St Luke’s to find our speaker, Graeme Lyons, sitting under a tree in the corner of the lawn because he had arrived early and didn’t want to interrupt a funeral. But no time was wasted. Graeme had captured a beetle that had landed on his knee, which, he said, would have made an interesting exhibit if it had been substantially more than 3 mm long! However, this did not detract from the enjoyment of the talk: Graeme has seen 1000 beetles in the last 5-6 years and was nothing if not knowledgeable, enthusiastic and humorous in his beautifully illustrated talk.

In terms of numbers, beetles (Coleoptera) with the 4072 UK species are third in the list of insect orders in Britain and Ireland behind the Hymenoptera (7500 species), which include tiny parasitic wasps, bees and ants, and the Diptera (true flies) with 7064 species, but ahead of the butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera) with only 2572 species. Graham’s brief introduction also included the structure of beetles - not all fly because some have fused wing cases (elytra) – and the ‘big five’ families – Rove (1124), Weevils (468), Ground (362), Leaf (274) and water (c.200) beetles. About half of the UK species are on the Sussex list, surprisingly not as many as Surrey, even though we enjoy a coastline. If you find anything unusual the man to contact is Peter Hodge, the county recorder of coleoptera.

Graeme then began a trawl through the families, exemplifying each with stunning pictures, fascinating information and often humorous anecdotes associated with his finds. First up were the ground beetles (Carabidae), 362 species of mostly ground-dwelling predators such as the Heath Tiger Beetle (Cicindela sylvatica),once extinct in Sussex but now conserved on special ground scrapes at Iping Common, the Green Tiger Beetle (C. campestris), Carabus arvensis, and the scarce Cymindis axillaris, the last two lacking English names. Graeme advised that having captured your beetle it is best to put it in shade to cool down and slow down before attempting photography in a chosen setting. For some species, such as Chlaenius nigricornis and Elaphrus cupreus, the Peacock Beetle, it is worth using a microscope to see the details on the elytra).

The Ladybird family – yes, they are beetles too – Coccinellidae are mostly predators and relatively easy to identify. The Scarce Seven-spot Ladybird (Coccinella magnifica) – why didn’t they call it ‘The Magnificent Seven’(?) – is found only on or near Formica species wood ant nests, generally from March to April. The rare orange-red 13-spot Ladybird (Hippodamia tredecimpuntata) has recently been rediscovered at Pevensey Level after a 50 year absence. The Larch Ladybird (Aphidecta obliterate) unusually is spotless, but with a black line along the suture between the elytra. 18-spot Ladybirds (Myrrha octodecimguttata) are normally associated with Scots pine.

In contrast to the previous two families, the 274 species of leaf beetle (Chrysomelidae) are vegetarian and often host-specific. They include the flea beetles, designed with an enlarged hind femora, to leap dramatically away from predators and surprise their handlers. Clytra quadripunctata is another species favouring wood ant (Formica rufa) nests, this time as a host for larvae development. The Alder Leaf Beetle (Agelastica alni) was a red data book species focused on the West Midlands but is now more widespread, an example of the variability of our beetle fauna with species moving in and out of existence in UK. Cryptocephalus biguttatusis is a black beetle with two prominent yellow spots on its apex. Donacia clavipes is very variable in colour and lacks a good identifier. D. crassipes likes water lilies and has recently been found at Woods Mill, though scarce. Chrysolina hyperici, with curious pairs of punctures on its elytra, is the St. Johnswort (Hypericum spp.) Beetle, being found in clusters on the terminal leaves and flower buds of this plant. C. Americana, the attractively striped Rosemary Beetle, is actually an introduced species from southern Europe and has become something of a pest in the UK. Finally, we saw a larva of the Bloody-nosed Beetle (Timarcha tenebricosa), the largest British leaf beetle at 10-20 which exudes a red fluid from its mouth as a defence mechanism.

And so to the Longhorn family (Cerambycidae), Graeme’s favourite, with about 70 species, all bar three feeding on dead wood as larvae. This is a large, charismatic, easy-to-identify family active from May to August. Amongst the images we were shown were Agapanthia villosoviridescens, quite a mouthful, and Pogonocherus fasciculatus which, besides being new to Sussex, remains etched in his memory because he knelt on a wood ants nest while attempting to photograph his find, with dire consequences on which he did not elaborate! Leptura aurulenta, photographed at Ebenoe Common is distinguished by the golden-yellow hairs on the front and back of its pronotum. The Wasp Beetle (Clytis arietis) superficially resembles that insect, while the rare Tanner Beetle (Prionus coriarius) sports spectacular antennae. They have evolved large eyes to see around their bulky antennae.

Weevils occur in several families and, like the leaf beetles, are vegetarian. The clover leaf weevil (Hypera zoilus) and the Hazel Leaf-roller Weevil (Apoderus coryli) are obviously plant related, the latter with a narrow neck separating its black head from a bright red thorax. Limobius mixtus is very rare, occurring at only one site. It feeds on stork’sbill which is quite widespread so it is not food that is restricting this beetle. Only one Banded Pine Weevil (Pissodes pini) has been found in Sussex – on pine. Syagrius fulvitarsis, the Fern Weevil, is a native of Australia which has been introduced. Graeme was fairly relaxed about such introductions, as he intimated in response to a question, as there is little control anyway.

Click Beetles of the Elateridae family produce their characteristic sound by rubbing thorax against abdomen. Examples of click beetles are Ampedus cinnabarinus, which is found at only two sites in Sussex, and Prosternon tessallatum, the Chequered Click Beetle, which can be distinguished under the microscope, by the arrangement of its many hairs.

The Water Beetles are not a true family, more a way of life, with several families evolved to water. The 200 or so species are often very similar in appearance. Victorian coleopterists were little attracted to their generally dull colours and so they tend to be less well researched. However, the Great Silver Diving Beetle (Hydrophilus piceus) measuring a whopping 38-48 mm, though rare generally, is not uncommon in East Sussex.

Dung Beetles (Scarabaeidae), including chafers, number 83 species with 40 in just one genus. Aphodius fossor is a shiny black species and very convex. Spring Dumble Dor (Trypocopris vernalis) is a rare species recorded on Seaford Head, presumably feeding on rabbit droppings, though of course there are now cow pats since the British Whites have been grazing. Apparently one of the hazards of recording dung beetles is getting them in your hair – with dung attached!

Rove Beetles (Staphylinidae) are a large family (nearly 1280 species) of often elongate predators of which the Devil’s Coach Horse (Ocypus olens) is a spectacular example

Paederus and Stenus are two genus found by Graeme in the strand line of flood debris. These are beetles that often require genitalia dissection for species identification.

Finally, the Deadwood-associated Beetles are 700 species from many families. Some are large, many rare, and there are some 100 introductions. Graeme illustrated Agrilus biguttatus, the Oak Jewel Beetle, the Lesser Stag Beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus), which can give you a nip, and Oedemera femoralis, ‘gift wrapped’ in a spider’s web. Finally, Diaperis bolete, a fungus feeder, usually found on the large brackets of the birch polypore fungus, Piptoporus betulinus, Tomoxia bucephala with a long rear end which jiggles around and is very active, and Helops caeruleus, another striking beetle with a blue or purple sheen, which develops in decaying oak.

During Graeme’s talk it had become clear that many beetles are site specific; they have evolved to favour particular habitats, often at the complete exclusion of others, and he rounded off by highlighting some of these. Some of the more charismatic beetles are found in particular micro-habitats and he illustrated some of these to end his talk. They include dead and decaying wood, veteran trees (he put his back out trying to collect and photograph in such a habitat), and bracket fungus. Hollow trees provide stable environments and the litter inside often contains many beetle body parts. (Incidentally, Graeme might have pointed out that coleopteran remains from ‘Ice Age’ deposits have often been used to provide information about environmental change. Beetles, being mobile, indicate rapid climate changes more effectively than tree pollen because trees migrate more slowly.) Carrion, dung and wet mud are other habitats and it is always worth checking flood debris (the beetle’s tsunami) which collects many species as it crosses the landscape.

Overall a fascinating talk combining a wealth of information about coleoptera, delivered with just the right amount of humour and self-deprecation. Roger Bullock delivered the vote of thanks supported by a hearty round of applause from the audience. Who will be the first to add to the SHLNR’s coleopteran species list, or has Graeme found them all, already?

Colin Whiteman

P.S. The following appears on the web for anyone who wants to start their own tick list. A. G. Duff (2008). "Checklist of Beetles of the British Isles" (PDF). The Coleopterist.

return to top


24th March 2015 - Bumblebees

The final talk of the season, on the 24th of March, was given by Dave Goulson who is Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Sussex, and has recently been recognised as one of Britain’s top 50 conservation heroes for his work in founding the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, the reintroduction of the Short-haired Bumblebee and speaking out about the dangers of neonicotinoid pesticides.

Dave told us that bees originated from wasps some 120 million years ago, with 20,000 species now recognised worldwide. Bees evolved into bumblebees about 30 million years ago, resulting in approx. 250 species including about 26 in the UK. Different bee species specialise on different plants. All our bumblebees belong to the genus Bombus and feed on nectar or pollen.

Bumblebees are social animals and have an annual life cycle. In the Spring large queen bees emerge after six to eight months hibernation seeking suitable holes to nest in. They gather pollen into the nest and lay their eggs into the pollen ball. A few weeks later the first ‘daughter’ bees emerge, while the queen stays in the nest producing 200 or 300 workers until mid-summer when males are produced. The males only exist to fertilise the females, which they outnumber by six or seven to one, and each of these young queens is only fertilised once before burrowing into the ground and hibernating until the following Spring. The original queen dies.

Bumblebees thrive in cooler, more northerly climates. The Eastern Himalayas has the most species and is probably where they evolved. Unlike nearly all other insects, they are warm-blooded. They generate internal heat by flapping their wings up to 200 times a second when flying, keeping themselves at around 35°C. To stay active bumblebees need large numbers of flowers to provide energy. Without sufficient pollen they can get cold and unable to fly. Bees can smell if a flower has been already visited and had the pollen taken. Avoiding these flowers saves time and energy, being able to navigate successfully over considerable distances also helps!

Many vegetables and most soft fruit are pollinated by bumblebees as well as thousands of wildflowers. In spite of their importance, bumblebees are not doing well with many species declining and three becoming extinct. The main cause of these declines has been the loss of flower-rich grassland. Leguminous plants are able to grow on particularly poor soils, and by having high protein in their pollen are particularly valuable to bumblebees but farming is ‘improving’ these soils through use of artificial fertilisers.

Bees suffer from a wide range of diseases, and honeybee-keeping and their transportation throughout the world has spread their pests and diseases to wild bee populations which have little or no resistance. Neonicotinoid pesticides have been around for about twenty years and are widely used to protect crops against pests. These pesticides are extremely toxic to bees but are even contained in sprays for garden use.

Dave realised that very little attention was being paid to scientific research and articles about the decline of bees, so nine years ago he set up the Bumblebee Conservation Trust highlighting the things that people can do to help. The first priority is to put more flowers back into the countryside.

School packs were developed by the charity and have proved successful. Also, Citizen Science Clubs organise range of fun activities including gathering information about the population and bee-friendliness of gardens, to help build up a picture of what is happening to our bumblebees. 25,000 records have been submitted of bee locations, species and pictures since 2007.

Bee-friendly gardening is another approach. Avoid annual bedding plants, as these plants have had their insect friendliness bred out of them, and grow traditional cottage garden plants and wildflowers instead - ivy is particularly valuable. Willow is a good alternative to non-native ground covering shrubs (which are not wildlife friendly) along with native roses and small trees like hawthorn and whitebeam to provide pollen and berries. There is a more comprehensive list on the Trust website.

It was noted that Seaford Head has some very rare bee species although little is known about them. Anne Fletcher noted that the management plan for the area involved work to improve their habitat.

After a lively question and answer session Coralie gave a vote of thanks.

Paul Baker

return to top


6th October 2015 – Water Voles

Our speaker for the afternoon, Rowenna Baker from the University of Brighton, has been studying water voles since 2009. She began by explaining that they are the largest of the three species (the others being field and bank voles) at around 200g in weight and 30cm in length including the tail. The Scottish water vole is smaller and was thought to be closely related but, following research in 2005, it is now known that there are significant differences in genetics and that they arrived in Great Britain at different times and at different locations.

The water vole is well adapted to semi-aquatic life having dense fur which acts like a wet suit keeping it insulated and dry, ear flaps to keep the water out, large feet and is a strong swimmer. It lives in a range of wetland habitats, needing permanent slow flowing water and well vegetated areas. The survival rate is linked to vegetation cover. The water vole needs to eat 80% of its bodyweight every day, so spends a great deal of time eating. It eats mainly reeds, sedges and rushes, although over 200 plant species have been recorded in its diet, but will also eat insects and molluscs. Water voles live in burrows along the river banks which they dig out by using their feet and teeth. They create both above and below water entrances for protection against predators. The females are aggressive and very territorial, covering a range from 20 to 200 metres. They use latrines to mark territory. The males overlap ranges with a 500 metres range; with them size matters because the bigger ones are able to attract more females. Life span in the wild is on average only 7 months to 1 year, but can be around 3 years in captivity.

During the winter, a time when there is more risk of flooding and predation, the water vole spends the majority of its time in a burrow and will need to weigh around 180g in order to survive. When the weather improves in the spring it emerges and fighting starts. Breeding will continue as long as the weather remains good. A female may have up to 5 litters in a year – so can produce as many as 25 young a year.

The water vole has suffered the fastest decline of any UK mammal with 80% of the wild population being lost, while in Sussex over 90% of the population has been lost. Rowenna went on to explain the main reasons. Many of its habitats have been claimed for agriculture or building. Marshes have been drained. Whereas reeds used to be cut by hand, large machines are now used to control them. Another major factor is the invasion by the American mink. They were first introduced in the 1900s for their fur and by 1920 records show they were breeding in the wild. The mink quickly colonised the habitat of water voles and since they can access burrows and hunt along the margins are able to wipe out the water vole population extremely quickly. The remaining small water vole population then becomes isolated creating a risk of extinction.

A number of steps are currently being taken to reverse the decline and to maintain the extant population - enhancing and creating habitats, managing ditches by cutting in rotation to keep some vegetation, controlling mink and increasing knowledge and awareness. Under European law the water vole became a fully protected species in 2008.

Action is also being taken to re-establish the population. Research is being carried out with the aim of conservation value of non-linear and linear wetlands for voles: demography, relatedness and genetic diversity; also landscape patterns in genetic variability.

Over two years studies have been carried out in West and East Sussex, Kent and Greater London. Several WWTs, including the one at Arundel, have trapped a number of voles, taken full details and micro chipped them before release in order to record the survival rate. This has shown that voles are actually doing well in the Arundel area. Information can also be gathered without trapping. Voles are encouraged to pass through a tube (similar to part of a drain pipe) by placing pieces of apple (to which they are partial) inside. As they leave hairs behind, researchers are able to get genetic samples from them. Over two years nearly 400 samples have been collected. All this is very labour intensive and time- consuming. Analysis of the data gathered has shown that there are two different types: microsatellites which have DNA from both parents and mitochondrial which have DNA only from the female. Key findings are demography, relatedness and generic diversity. Rowenna’s research has found that there is quite some genetic diversity in the South East with more blood lines present than in other regions.

Monitoring over the summer of 2012 to summer 2013 has shown the impact of summer floods; in linear wetlands voles suffered more winter loss than in non linear habitats and a lower percentage of females overwintered.

Related females can form kin clusters. The pros are that population can increase because less energy is used up protecting themselves from neighbours while the cons are in-breeding between a related population.

The steps that can be taken to improve conservation include taking opportunities to enhance habitat by creating wetlands on the edge of flood plains, increasing bank side trees and reeds, altering the way in which vegetation is cut, and improving cutting techniques near to the water edge by grading it to encourage water voles. Non-linear wetlands can be created and conserved. Controls on re-introduction can be tightened. There is a need to think local to conserve genetic diversity and heritage. Diversity is the key to conservation.

Rowenna’s enthusiasm and depth of knowledge were amply demonstrated during her talk and led to a lively Q and A session after the tea break.

Susan Painter

return to top


20th October 2015 – History of Bishopstone Tide Mills

Our speaker this afternoon was Kevin Gordon from the Seaford Museum. It all began in 1761 when three corn merchants took out a 500 year lease on the land, a deed necessitating an Act of Parliament. They realised that this was a suitable area in which to build a mill because of its direct access to the sea which would also mean that, at a time when transport generally was not particularly good, they would be able to supply towns like London with flour.

Later on the mill changed hands and a naval contract was obtained for supplying the battery stationed at Blatchington where, because of the threat of invasion, around 1,000 men were stationed. Their poor living conditions led in April 1795 to a mutiny when a group of them stole a boat from Tide Mills and took it to Newhaven where they gave away the cargo of flour. Retribution by the authorities was severe: of the twenty four men court-martialled four were executed by a firing squad composed of men from their own regiment. Ironically, shortly afterwards conditions were greatly improved.

The mill was then taken over by William Catt (1780-1853). During his tenure he increased the 5 sets of millstones to 16 sets and expanded his military contract to cover Portsmouth to Dover. He drained the land in order to grow his own wheat and also bought a Brighton brewery. He donated money towards providing trains between Brighton and Hastings and built up sea defences. He provided a fire engine to deal with frequent fires caused by flour igniting. When there was a shipwreck he would halt all work in order to go and see what could be salvaged. In 1851 a census showed that 60 people were working in the factory. He was a caring owner who looked after his workers, for example providing a roasted ox on festive occasions. On the other hand, if workers arrived back later than 10 pm after drinking in the Buckle Pub they were locked out!

His only son George took over the mill but in 1864 the railway came to Seaford which led to the end of the mill’s profitability because ships were no longer needed to carry flour since people could now obtain flour from elsewhere. Mills were not particularly efficient to run, only working twice a day with the tides which meant that the working day times also changed with the tides.

George blamed the building of the railway embankment for increasing problems with flooding at high tide and during storms. The expansion of Newhaven Harbour in 1877 added to his troubles and he decided to sue them but died. The family struggled on for a short while but eventually had to sell the mill which was finally demolished in 1901.

In 1906 Marconi built a radio relay station there. This was expanded during WW1 and a hangar was built for seaplanes which patrolled the coastline looking for enemy submarines. By 1917 about 200 Admiralty staff were based there and Tide Mills residents found themselves in a military zone needing i.d. papers to move around. Seaplanes at this time were made of canvas so had to return to base when it was wet! The navigator was the only one who could see so he had to move the pilot’s head to indicate direction. He also had a homing pigeon in his pocket to send off with a message in case of ditching, and in addition had to map read in the open air! On one occasion a German submarine was spotted and destroyed by a bomb off Beachy Head. However, as they were carrying 2 bombs, they were told off for not dropping both.

In 1920 Chailey Heritage built a hospital at Tide Mills for children with ailments like rickets and TB. The children used to sleep outside most of the time unless it was wet. There was also a school run by Matron Edith Powell who went on to found Searchlight in Newhaven.

By 1937 conditions were extremely bad. The Daily Mail reported at some length at how dreadful, comparing it with “progressive Seaford” to the East and “continental Newhaven” to the West. Residents were given 9 months to leave and by the outbreak of WW2 in 1939 the Admiralty had moved in.

Kevin told us that he had met one of the last surviving former residents of Tide Mills, Percy Thompson (1920-2007), shortly before his death. He remembered arriving as a small child with his family from South Wales and finding school difficult to start with as he spoke no English. Conditions were basic with no running water or electricity but he enjoyed his childhood. He talked about seeing racing horses being bathed in the sea and serving refreshments on the beach to people from London who had arrived at Bishopstone Halt.

Virtually all has gone now. For anyone wishing to know more, Kevin leads walks round Tide Mills in summer. On the 3rd Sunday in the month Friends of Tide Mills hold a beach clean- up for which volunteers are always needed.

Kevin’s entertaining way of imparting his extensive knowledge really brought to life the history of Tide Mills and we all learnt something new.

Susan Painter

return to top


3rd November 2015 – Conserving National Trust Downland

Lee Walther, a Ranger with the National Trust, spoke to us on two subjects, the first of which was the Birling Gap Coast Bioblitz, May 2015.

The Bioblitz, part of a wider NT initiative, was an event to record local species in the area’s different habitats. On the day they clocked up 836 records of 511 species in the vicinity of Birling Gap. The event was a collaboration with the SWT, RSPB, SDNPA, local academics and the general public and involved 600 people.

All records were sent to the Recording Office at Woods Mill. These included 209 plants, 44 birds (landwatch only), 20 beetles, 15 butterflies and 23 bees, wasps and ants. There were no rare recordings but a popular find was the privet hawk moth.

The NT’s coastline project, Project Neptune, aims to protect and prevent the urbanisation of our coastline, to which end the NT now owns 772 miles of coastline.

Ashcombe Bottom

Ashcombe Bottom, the subject of Lee’s second presentation, is a diverse downland wood located on Blackcap, to the west of Lewes. It is unique because the woodland is on a south facing slope and has not been managed for some years. Historically it has been used as a pheasant shoot so the rides and glades have been mowed. The damage caused by the pheasants is not being researched or prevented. It is an SSSI but the SSSI officer from Natural England is not concerned about any possible impact of the pheasants on the site.

It is most likely an ancient wood as it is on a map of 1625 and has some indicator species including primroses in the middle. Its features include veteran trees and large hazel coppice stumps, which are home to dormice, and an abundance of invertebrates. One hundred and sixty species of mosses and lichens have been recorded.

The NT has owned the wood since 1992 but, although it has a Management Plan, the wood has predominantly been left to its own devices. There are plans to cut halos around stressed veteran trees, and restore some of the coppiced hazel stools (last worked 1940) and it is hoped that conservation work on the damp micro climate could encourage nightingales, which were there 50 years ago, to return.

There is very little public access, but the ride is used as a gallop. You can walk east from Ditchling Beacon car park or west from Lewes prison.

Jenny Wistreich

return to top


17th November 2015 – Winter Storms 2013/14 - Alan Gray

Alan structured this talk, on a notable period of winter storms in Sussex, around three landscape features: coastal beaches, cliffs, which took the brunt of marine effects, and rivers, which responded by inundating their adjacent floodplains.

Beginning at Shoreham beach, Alan illustrated the fact that a considerable amount of industrial capital occupies this section of coast but the beach is protected only by old groynes and is very vulnerable to scour during storms. The scale of this effect is related to wind strength, fetch (distance over which waves can build) and the length of time that the wind blows. The authorities were obliged to respond to the storms by replenishing the beach, both by dumping gravel from elsewhere along the shore, or pumping it ashore from dredgers. A problem with dumping arises because the gravel is often mixed with finer material and compacted by heavy vehicles. This means that the beach does not drain so readily and is more easily eroded. The compacted material also gives rise to steep bluffs on the beach which are difficult to cross, a problem frequently met with on Seaford beach.

Brighton survived the relatively mild storm of 25 December 2013 and the strong blast of 5 February 2014 because it is effectively protected, though the West Pier continues to suffer damage. Some shingle was thrown onto the promenade but most was scoured seawards, the east beach retreating almost to the Volk’s Electric Railway line.

Newhaven Harbour arm often shows spectacular spray effects, but has the effect of diverting shingle from the Seaford Beach. It was interesting to see historical photographs of Seaford from 1912 and the 1950s when groynes helped to maintain the beach. Following beach nourishment in the late 1980s, these have been buried but some reappeared briefly after 12 December 2014 indicating the extent of shingle removal. Redistribution of Seaford shingle towards the middle of the bay (costing £300,000 in 2014) is often necessary, as shingle is constantly moved by longshore drift towards both Splash Point and the Newhaven east jetty.

At Cuckmere Haven shingle was dredged until the 1960s. In March 2014 there was a large shingle bank but there are considerable fluctuations in the amount and position of the shingle as wind direction changes. Alan believes that natural processes restore the beach, and that it looks after itself. On the east side there is more room to manoeuvre (no Coastguard Cottages) and no bulldozing is allowed in this area.

So, in summary, Brighton is protected, Seaford is nourished and the Cuckmere copes.

With regard to flooding, the Arun was badly affected on 8 February 2014, especially in the area of Amberley Marshes, but then a key function of floodplains is to store flood water, not house people!

The Ouse, north of Lewes, has seen more severe flooding from the 50s and 60s onwards. 4-6 inches of rainfall fell on 11-12 November 2000 affecting Plumpton, Barcombe, Uckfield and Lewes in particular. The Coastal Communities 2150 Project, funded by the EU, Interreg and the Environment Agency, considered the Ouse valley in the context of climate change and potential sea level rise. Amongst other considerations, should housing be raised, and the A26 and A259 relocated?

The Cuckmere was straightened in 1846 and 1880 in the hope that this would alleviate flooding. In November 2000 only the north end of Alfriston was affected but the water ponded up on the floodplain beyond the embankments, which of course inhibit subsequent drainage. After 10 February 2014 the Seven Sisters Country Park area was flooded by sea water and upwhelling groundwater as well as normal flood waters, but overall, in Alan’s opinion, Sussex river systems coped well, aided by various flood prevention methods.

Turning now to the cliffs, Alan illustrated examples of cliff erosion. These included a tunnel through a spur below the Seven Sisters, the cliff fall of February 2014 in the area occupied by the Kittiwakes colony east of Splash Point, and the rounding of boulders below Seaford Head, between 26 December 2013 and 10 January 2014, due to the relative hardness of chalk and flint. He illustrated the third point by a simple experiment, smashing chalk between flint nodules. Calcite forming the chalk scores 3 on Moh’s Hardness Scale (1 for talc, 10 for diamond) while flint comes in at 7. The cliffs at Birling Gap have been eroded again and another cottage had to be demolished in 2014, following further significant cliff falls due to the storms of 28 January 2014, 24 February 2014 and 4 March 2014. Historical photographs from 1906 and 1970 emphasise the extent of retreat, around 0.75 m per year on average. The cottages at the Cuckmere are also in danger and significant remedial repairs were necessary to protect them following these storms, but it is a costly business.

Alan believes that Sussex “got away with it” in 2013-14, but how will we adapt to on-going climate change, and what policies will be adopted to alleviate future problems?

Alan’s final slide, of a ‘Brocken Spectre’ at Devil’s Dyke, seemed like a non-sequitur, but it was worth seeing and allowed him to state that “on that ghostly note I will disappear”!

Keith gave the vote of thanks. The talk was “excellent”, and “even included an experiment”! Just over 50 members were present.

Colin Whiteman

return to top


9th December 2015 – Nocturnal Wildlife - Michael Blencowe/Christmas Social

Following his entertaining talk on extinct birds at last year's Christmas Social, Michael Blencowe returned to share snippets from his 2015 nocturnal nature-watch diary.

The many highlights included: trail camera footage of roe deer, foxes, badgers and domestic cats; video of the world's largest bat colony in Austin Texas; sound and video of Mediterranean tree crickets at Dungeness; and many nocturnal sound recordings, including nightingales, redwings and quail - the last two a reminder that smaller birds often migrate at night.

There was no shortage of practical advice, not least on how to dissect owl pellets on a kitchen table and how to send dead polecats via Royal Mail.

Understandably, observing nature at night is difficult. From the start we were warned to have low expectations given the problems of finding, seeing and recording nocturnal creatures. Observations are mostly limited to droppings, scrapings, footprints and very occasional road-kill. Such was Michael Blencowe's experience when looking for bears and wolves in Spain and Sweden - when traces were all he found. But they were very enjoyable traces and the talk as a whole was a reminder of just how much wildlife was active at night and how we might discover what was out there.

After the talk we had seasonal refreshments, watched a slide show of scenes from this year's walks and were sometimes challenged, but thoroughly entertained, by Deirdre's quiz.

In all a very successful event and many thanks again to all who helped with the catering and other arrangements.

Paul Chalmers-Dixon

return to top

Page updated 29th January 2016