Reports

3rd January 2017 Riverside Park Newhaven.

Tucked away on the northern edge of Newhaven between the Ouse and Piddinghoe Road (C7)is Riverside Park. It is an area that has been used by local people for recreation for decades but yet is surprisingly unknown beyond the town. Virginia Pullen, Landscape Architect for East Sussex County Council gave a presentation explaining something of the history of the area and the plans that would manage it as a nature reserve for the next 5 years.

Riverside Park is predominantly located on a brownfield site, the area having been used for landfill in the decades between 1960 and 1980. Behind the football pitch and play-area is a wide range of habitats spread over about 2 hectares. The low lying areas next to the river have a role in the flood defences for Newhaven and in this area there are reed beds, drainage ditches, salt marsh and ponds. Unfortunately some of the ditches have been affected by seepage from the landfill site though there is no information as to whether this has significantly affected the ecology. As the ground rises there is old meadowland, banks covered with scrub and then a central area where the landfill site has been capped off with a thin layer of soil brought from out of the locality.

The variety of habitats in the Riverside Park, from the very wet to the very dry, has resulted in a large range of plants, some common, some unusual and some nationally scarce. The Park doesn’t appear to have been comprehensively surveyed, though there was a brief survey of breeding birds that revealed 36 species and there has also been a lizard survey that showed good numbers of the common lizard and the slow worm. More survey work is needed for all flora and fauna and in particular Virginia highlighted the lack of information on invertebrates and fungi. Assistance in undertaking these much needed surveys by members of SNHS would be much appreciated.

Since the closure of the landfill site there have been a number of proposals for the use of Riverside Park but a strong local residents group successfully lobbied against these developments and it is now accepted that it will be an area of informal recreation and a nature reserve. There is a five-year management plan, undertaken by Ecology Conservation which because of financial constraints, mainly consists of small interventions such as scalloping the edges of the paths, removal of blackthorn, bramble, sycamore and Japanese knot weed and coppicing. A couple of hibernaculae and some barn owl boxes have been installed and there is also a bird watching screen that overlooks the unimproved meadowland.

More information on the Riverside Park can be found on the Facebook page of the Friends of Riverside Park or on the East Sussex County Council Riverside Park web page.

Marion Trew

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 Reports

17th January 2017 - Local Marine Wildlife & Conservation

Many of us were expecting this talk to be something special. It didn’t disappoint.

Nikki Hills, Sussex Wildlife Trust, spoke for nearly an hour showing some excellent photograph of marine life. After a tea break she concluded with information and photographs which were particularly focussed on our bit of the English Channel.

In her role at the SWT Nikki has a special interest and responsibility for Marine Conservation. She nicely conveyed a passion and enthusiasm for this and was able to give us much information about the current legislation applying.

Alongside her excellent photographs Nikki described the recent government initiatives resulting from the 2009 Marine and Coastal Access Act defining Marine Conservation Zones in the Channel. These are rather like nature reserves in the sea. Each zone has its own Management Plan re fishing etc. There are six so far of which some have full approval, others have decisions pending and there are four more planned.

Nikki’s ‘tour’ of the zones:

Nikki illustrated her description of the zones by showing a map and then describing the topography and showing photographs of the organisms found in each zone.

Kingmere – off Worthing – APPROVED

Rocky reefs and a wide variety of species such as blennie with ginger eyebrows and black bream with the male making a nest in the gravel. The management plan for this zone would have advice for fishing which scraped the sea bed so that the nests were not disturbed in the breeding season. Storms could also be a problem for breeding.

Offshore Overfalls - APPROVED

Sandstone reef and sand and gravel:

  • An undulate ray – the Shark Trust wants to know if we find shark egg cases
  • A slipper limpet – one of a chain of 12. Interestingly the slipper limpet is an alien species having been imported from America in the 1920s
  • Japanese wire weed - another alien
  • Leathery sea squirt – a top Sussex alien.

Selsey Bill and the Hounds – decision pending

Limestone reef with sponges and coral, common harbour seal, grey seal, crustacea and boring piddock

East Meridian – decision pending (Beachy Head)

Rocky habitat with mud sediment – attracts large predators, cuttlefish – a mollusc with an internal shell commonly found on the beach they live for about a year and lay a mass of berry like black eggs. Nikki successfully reared eggs in an aquarium tank.

Beachy Head East – decision pending (fishermen are keen to have this designation as here they fish using pots not drag nets)

  • Chalk and sandstone reef
  • Anemones, sponges, sea squirts and short snouted sea horse

Beachy Head West

Chalk platforms offering a 3D habitat of chalk, sand and mixed sediment: stalked jellyfish – first for Sussex (a red blob attached to sea lettuce), sea slug - a voracious mollusc capable of ingesting a sea anemone and then ‘pinching’ its sting cells, blenny, prawns, snake lock anemone – a spectacular green anemone which becomes bright green under UV light – the ‘greenness’ coming from a protein which protects from the sun.

Nikki concluded with ideas of ways to get involved: become a ‘friend’ of marine conservations – look on the SWT website, take part in a shore search – consult SWT website and spread the word about marine conservation and the need to care for the exciting world beneath the waves.

Questions were asked about the effect of the Rampion works offshore and though not much is known about the effect it might have on the marine life it is bound to cause changes.

Nikki had brought a collection of items which she had collected from Seaford beach, including a sponge, slipper limpet shells, cuttlefish shells and a sea squirt, all of which were available for perusal during the tea break and at the end of the meeting.

The meeting finished with a vote of thanks given by Colin Pritchard.

Coralie Tiffin

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 Reports

7th February 2017 - Improving the Rivers Ouse and Adur: Ecology, Hydrology and Water Quality Peter King Senior Project Consultant

A large audience heard Peter introduce the subject of his talk, the work of the Ouse and Adur Rivers Trust (OART), representing an amalgamation in 2011 of ORT, established in 1995 and ART, established in 2007. This is essentially a trustees, members and volunteers-based organisation seeking to improve river quality. Financial support derives from a number of sources including Lewes DC, the Environment Agency (EA), Woodland Trust, South Downs National Park Authority, Rampion, postcode lottery, donations and fundraising. OART collaborates with a large group of like-minded organisations – Southern Water, National Trust etc., etc. The catchment of the two rivers includes 100s of thousands of kilometres of waterways from the main rivers to small ditches.

The current ecological status of these rivers is not high, according to the EA who grade all water bodies, of which there are 47 in OART, across 35 different factors. Peter’s talk focussed on fish populations, water quality, invertebrate populations and geomorphology (the physical characteristics of the catchment). Although there have been successes, such as improved connectivity for fish (sea and brown trout in particular) by reducing solid in-channel barriers such as weirs, there is still much to be achieved to improve water quality.

One approach is to modify the channel to improve habitat. Past channelization for boats is gradually being reversed. One initiative has involved restoring natural meanders as shown on aerial photographs, the old channel retained as a huge fish refuge. Less expensive channel shaping is achieved by installing berms of interwoven branches. These have also been used to reduce trampling of river banks by cows which can release silt into the river which spoils fish spawning grounds. The introduction of land-based gravel (from Horsham) is cheap and enhances spawning grounds, especially for sea trout. The planting of 12,000 trees is designed to improve the environment for invertebrates, increase natural recharge of groundwater and provide shade for climate change mitigation. River temperatures of 31oC have been recorded in southeast England. Above 24oC organisms begin to die!

Water quality is a complex, multifaceted problem not just confined to sewage and cattle. Run-off from roads, poorly maintained septic tanks, medicines and industrial effluent all complicate the issue. Help with these problems is driven by a combination of water companies and farming organisations. OART monitors water at hundreds of sites. Phosphate pollution, in particular, is already rated poor and declining further. Phosphates are diluted by winter precipitation but often spike in the summer during low flows. Invertebrates give clues to pollution. Mosquitoes are found only in the poorer areas of the river.

So how is OART contributing to river improvement? Farm walkover surveys, landowner workshops, reed bed creation, stream monitoring, raising of public awareness, independent investment, university collaboration with student projects and the organisation of voluntary work are all ways in which OART is contributing to the enhancement of the fluvial environment in our part of Sussex.

As individual members of SNHS we can also contribute. It is often a case of changing mind sets. So, use low-phosphate home products, don’t flush chemicals, paint and oil down the drain (one gallon of oil can pollute a million gallons of drinking water).

Larger initiatives, by EA and LDC for example, include a Natural Flood Management scheme south of Barcombe Mills. Traditionally the aim has been to evacuate flood water out of the catchment as quickly as possible, but this only transfers the problem downstream, which may be exacerbated if coinciding with a high tide in the estuary. Instead, above Barcombe Mills, flood embankments have been removed to allow 60 acres of floodplain to be inundated, rather than downstream urban areas such as Lewes. In addition, the flow is slowed by the installation of small barriers woven from tree branches which create retention ponds in the stream during high flows but allow free passage of water beneath them during periods of low flow.

In summary, OART has been involved in a wide range of activities designed to improve the Ouse and Adur rivers - one National Flood Management project, 125 km of river survey, 6 landowner workshops, 8.6 km of river enhancements, 10 farm reports, 4000 water samples, one historic meander reinstatement, the fitting of 2 fish passes and 9 eel passes and the removal of 9 weirs.

Peter’s generously illustrated talk raised a number of interesting questions relating to legal issues, trees, silting, mammals and the scale of the fluvial network. OART has no legal powers and relies heavily on goodwill of local authorities and landowners: it takes years to get through legal hoops, but structures must now be open to eels since 2015 following a massive crash in their numbers in south eastern rivers. European legislation has driven much of the change. Regarding trees, ash is presently unsuitable and alder and willow also carry problems so OART has cast the net more widely and much Black Poplar is being planted. Attempts are made to equate with what is already in the area so that the new planting is less obtrusive. Hopefully, structures for slowing the water will not cause silting up of rivers as this material is likely to be flushed during flood peaks. As far as mammals in the rivers are concerned there are relatively few. Water voles are absent from the Ouse and both rivers lack the high quality required by otters which are an indicator species of rivers in very good condition. At the same time some river users don’t want them! Most would happily do without mink - 58 were taken on the Adur in 6 months – as these are very detrimental to other wildlife. The massive river network is gauged every 15 minutes, 365 days per year, volunteers observe sea trout numbers and the EA assess the rivers through the water body system.

Anne Fletcher thanked Peter for his excellent talk, remarking how much had been achieved by just 1.6 personnel directly employed by the Trust!

Colin Whiteman

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 Reports

21st February 2017 - Downs in Winter Colin Whiteman (with thanks to Fran Rawlinson, Jim Howell, Marilyn Binning, Richard Mongar and Colin Pritchard for sharing their winter images)

Winter has always had a strong attraction for me, not least the skeletal beauty of leafless trees, so when our speaker on badgers gave backword, it was too good an opportunity to miss to talk about the ‘Downs in Winter’. The Downs in different weather contexts - snow, frost, fog and crisp winter sunshine - provided background structure, with a secondary focus on coastal downs and the Cuckmere valley. A few images to begin with suggested that Eric Ravilious (1903-1942), the well-known artist, was also attracted to the ‘Downs in Winter’ this being the title of his 1934 painting of Beddingham Hill. The old horse-drawn roller in the foreground helps to provide perspective to this sparse winter downland scene, and reminds us that the Downs is essentially a farmed landscape.

Who can resist the Seven Sisters, where the dry valleys of the Downs intersect the coastline? Certainly not the 30 people featured in the close-up picture of Haven Brow, most westerly of the seven. Fulmar and a peregrine provide natural history interest along the coast in winter.

When the sun shines, the air is calm and stark trees reflect in a mirrored lake, the Downs adopt an ethereal atmosphere. Rabbits graze, yellow lichens and red berries shine. Fungi provide points of colour, not least the cobalt crust fungus, apparently unrecorded in Sussex since 1938 yet seen recently at several places around Seaford. A dead teasel contrasts with the yellow gorse, the latter flowering somewhere every month. A favourite is carline thistle whose yellow dead heads survive the winter bringing splashes of colour amid the dull grasses. Sheep safely graze against a backdrop of leafless trees, the stonechat maintains his winter territory on the barbed wire fence and in the commemorative copse on Blackcap Hill, west of Lewes, replanted for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, a selection of thrushes - song thrush, redwing, fieldfare and possibly mistle thrush – flick the fallen leaves aside in their search for nutritious protein.

North of the copse, the Downs scarp slope presents a quite different aspect; hard frost, ice crystals coating the grass stems with a myriad sharp white points where the hoar grew in the blast of northern arctic air. Lewes Brooks area of the Ouse valley has a white sheen extending onto the Downs in the cold air, a frozen image reflected in the Cuckmere also. Above Lewes, hoar coats stunted hawthorns, the tips of their remaining berries and strands of sheep’s wool where the unsuspecting animals have wandered too close to sharp thorns. Horses are coated in this weather, while moles, beneath their scattered hills, presumably dig deeper to escape the frost.

In these cold conditions cloud often forms at ground level - fog – and frosty views lose their background. Temperature inversions, in which the air is colder close to the ground than above, enable viewers to look down on dramatic cloud-filled valleys, from which cloud can sometimes be seen spilling over a ridge into the adjacent valley as was observed recently near Beddingham Hill (It works best on the screen with video!). With the Cuckmere valley full of cloud, and Seaford Head surrounded by cloud, South Hill barn barely showed from Haven Brow, backed by a reddish evening afterglow.

With snow landscape is transformed. The stile at the corner of the big South Barn field stands stark against the dark grey background as the snow falls, and the tourists had obviously scorned Haven Brow when its image formed the background to another snow-filled scene near the coastguard cottages. Once the storm has passed the snow sparkles in a different landscape. Streamlined snow reflects the wind and footprints the passage of people. Animals – sheep, early lambs, cows and a forlorn rook generally are less happy, though hares in one image seemed oblivious of the snow.

Melting snow and heavy rain bring floods to the Cuckmere and enhances the view from the Downs, but footpaths can be a muddy nightmare for walkers. Still there is plenty to do on nature reserves and several members of SNHS volunteer; clearing scrub to produce vegetative scallops, erecting and dismantling fences for grazing conservation and most recently setting out the new reptile refugia across SHLNR. But this activity must cease by March to avoid disturbing wildlife. Already in February snowdrops, violets and catkins hint Spring is close.

After the obligatory concluding sunset photograph, Mike Squires led a generous vote of thanks.

Colin Whiteman

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 Reports

7th March 2017 – AGM and talks

About 40 members were present and four apologies for absence were received. Jim Howell began by saying that his first year had been a steep learning curve as he had been asked to become Chairman soon after joining the Society although Anne Fletcher’s assurance that the Committee knew what they were doing was absolutely right: a tremendous Committee. One of his targets now was to get to know members properly.

During 2016 Deirdre Daines had had to leave the Committee and Coralie Tiffin had decided that the time had come to step down. However, Marion Trew had agreed to be put forward for election. JH then thanked a number of members for their contributions, often behind the scenes, to the Society throughout the year. He also said that 13 new members had joined during the year and that the Society’s finances continued to be in a healthy state.

JH then said that a recording group had been established to share ideas and thoughts about the various recording activities being developed by the Society, with Paul Baker heading the work as recorder. However, there needed to be a balance between those members who wished to become more involved in this way and those who just wanted to learn about and enjoy the wildlife.

JH said that details on a new long term lease on the Seaford Head LNR are being finalised and he thanked Colin Whiteman for his input in helping to bring about this tremendous achievement.

Looking ahead there were two more talks before the outdoor programme began. Regarding the latter JH explained that the Committee had decided, after much discussion, to increase the number of walks requiring prior booking. This was because of either parking restrictions and/or the need to limit numbers on walks. He asked for feedback from members in order to gauge whether this approach needed to be reconsidered.

The minutes of the last AGM were agreed and signed. On matters arising JM stated that it had been decided to take up the entitlement under the RHS insurance to visit one garden a year and that the 2018 outing would be to Wisley.

Richard Mongar thanked Mike Staples for examining the accounts. Income was up substantially because of increased membership and expenditure was down, partly due to reduced costs of the Christmas social. Refreshment sales raised £190 for the Seaford Head LNR. Net assets were up £500 on the previous year. However, income this year was £300 less than it should be because a number of members had not yet renewed their membership, which raised the possibility that end of year assets could return to the 2015 level. JH thanked RM for all his work.

Andrew Painter thanked all those who had contributed to the magazine over the year and also RM for printing and sending out the e-version. The next issue would be ready for collection, together with the outdoor programme card, on 14 March.

Turning to outdoor meetings PB thanked Marilyn Binning for organising the 2016 outdoor programme, Pru Cooper-Mitchell, particularly for the Pulborough outing, and all walk leaders. Due to the kind weather all 12 walks took place. Regarding 2017 he and CT had arranged a varied programme of walks plus the full day outing. He mentioned some of the forthcoming highlights and also reiterated JH’s point about having to subject more walks to prior booking. PB thanked CT for all her work over the past year and said that she would remain involved as co-ordinator of lifts. MT had accepted the challenge to assist him in the 2018 programme.

In respect of the indoor meetings Colin Whiteman apologised that on two occasions the arranged speaker had been unable to come and that he had had to stand in on both occasions. He suggested that should this happen in the future perhaps other members would be willing to put a talk together. Colin Pritchard later voiced appreciation, for the record, of the professional way CW had presented his two talks.

CW said he was midway through putting the next indoor programme together; he thanked everybody who helped set up things at the meetings.

JH then thanked CT for her work and presented her with a book token. He then introduced MT and asked all committee members to present themselves. All members nominated for 2017 were then elected en bloc.

After the tea break members heard presentations from three members: Anne Fletcher on marsh frogs, Chris Brewer on grasslands and Alison Baker on the continuation of the history of the SHLNR.

Susan Painter

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 Reports  

14th March 2017- Butterfly Conservation’s Regional Action Plan – Steve Wheatley.

This informative and enjoyable talk was really a ‘tale of two halves’ – half about the work of Butterfly Conservation in Sussex and half about working with butterflies in New Zealand. Whilst seemingly very different, there were some interesting comparisons made about butterfly conservation in the two halves of the world.

Steve Wheatley is Butterfly Conservation’s Regional Officer for the South East. He explained that Butterfly Conservation, whilst a national organisation, is relatively small when compared with other charities and much of its work is undertaken by volunteers or through larger organisations. To make the most of limited resources Butterfly Conservation’s Action Plan targets priority species and locations. They have identified that the South Downs and the High Weald are good areas for butterflies but species are declining and so these areas have been targeted in the Action Plan. The way the Action Plan works was illustrated by looking at several species. The marbled white, which is widely distributed in the South East, appears to have been successful with its numbers increasing by 11% since the 1970’s. The chalkhill blue is found in fewer locations and over the same period has declined by 36%. The picture for the silver spotted skipper is mixed. Firstly it is uncommon and has restricted distribution in the UK where its numbers have gone down nationally by 12%, however if the East Sussex population is considered then this butterfly has increased by 465% since the mid 1990’s. East Sussex has 40% of the UK’s silver spotted skippers giving it a great deal of importance. The grayling, whose numbers have declined by 40% is faring the worst and it is only found locally in Deep Dean and Windover Hill (north of Lullington Heath). Butterfly Conservation is studying why this butterfly is restricted to such a small area of the Downs and why it doesn’t seem able to colonise nearby areas of apparently suitable habitat.

The Action Plan targets important species such as these and focuses on investigating why there is species decline. Butterfly Conservation has a substantial database going back many decades and this forms the basis for policies to improve the situation. Species-specific factsheets are available on their web site and information about the current state of our butterflies is provided to landowners, country side charities and the National Park Authority. Guidance on the best way of managing land to benefit butterflies is available. Giving advice about land management is not the only way in which the action Plan works. In Abbots Wood Butterfly Conservation intends to release a number of small pearl bordered fritillaries, in the hope that they will be as successful as the pearl bordered fritillary was ten years ago.

Butterfly Conservation relies heavily on volunteers to get the data that informs its Action Plan. There are 8 transects around Seaford which are walked regularly and further information is obtained through The Big Butterfly Count and from individuals who record their sightings on the web site of the Sussex Branch of the organisation.

Whilst Butterfly Conservation is well established in the UK, in New Zealand they are less experienced. Steve Wheatley was involved in helping them develop methods of recording species. He targeted the Forest Ringlet, a rare and very beautiful species endemic to New Zealand. He contrasted the amount of data held in the UK about butterflies with the more limited and less precise data held in NZ. He highlighted the problems of studying a rare species in under populated and remote locations where there are highly poisonous plants and dense forests to negotiate. In comparison looking for the rare grayling on the Downs seemed very easy. He also noted that even though a species is thought to be rare and in decline, in New Zealand it is still acceptable to kill specimens for collections. Both countries have similar conservation issues and both are struggling to work out why species are in decline. At the moment there are no definitive answers but it is reassuring to know that research is being undertaken.

Marion Trew

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28th March 2017 - A Stroll Along An English Country Lane

Our speaker, Ray Hale, is a naturalist specializing in the study of insects and spiders, particularly those found in Borneo where he leads wildlife expeditions and tours. However, he was prompted to compile a lecture on the wildlife found nearer to home after a member of the audience at one of his Asian wildlife lectures commented there was nothing interesting to see in England!

Ray began with a few statistics giving the approximate number of species found in and around the UK: mammals – 101; reptiles – 11 (although some people would argue there’s only 6); birds – 598; spiders – 650; and insects – 21,000.

Ray is based in Polegate and believes Sussex is one of the richest counties in England for wildlife. He has travelled around the county photographing and documenting the wildlife – from the west at Mill Hill Nature Reserve (grassland), north to Abbotts Wood (forest), east to Rye Harbour Nature Reserve (sea/wetland), and south to Beachy Head and Eastbourne (urban).

Ray started with a selection of the wild flowers commonly found in Sussex including bindweed, woody nightshade, field poppies, cowslips, fritillaria, foxgloves, (notorious, he said, as a poison in late Victorian times for wives wishing to dispose of their husbands – don’t try this at home!), orchids, and an unusual black iris which Ray saw in Abbotts Wood, but which sadly, when he returned the following day to photograph, had been dug up, which is illegal.

Ray then moved on to insects with some beautiful shots of mating soldier beetles, cardinal beetles and a magnificent stag beetle. Other insects included shield bugs, froghoppers (which produce a froth – cuckoo spit – in which to lay their eggs), and our native ladybird which is sadly in decline, mainly through predation by the harlequin ladybird, an introduced species which has spread rapidly throughout Great Britain. Pictures of a dragonfly and damselfly were used to illustrate how to tell them apart - dragonflies hold their wings outstretched, whereas damselflies fold their wings over their bodies. Ray showed us a photograph of a scorpionfly which he had seen obtain a free meal by sneakily stealing a trapped fly from a spider’s web! He then moved on to moths with a photo of a hummingbird hawkmoth taken at Beachy Head, and pictures of the privet hawkmoth, and the fearsome-looking elephant hawkmoth caterpillar, which can often be found feeding on fuchsias. Ray also related how he was called out to see a 30 ft length of hawthorn hedge that was covered in “giant spiders’ webs” but which on closer inspection (as he had already surmised) turned out to be a huge expanse of silk ‘tents’ spun as protection by caterpillars of the ermine moth. We saw pictures of peacock, red admiral, tortoiseshell, gatekeeper and speckled wood butterflies, and would all agree with Ray that butterflies seem to be less numerous these days.

Ray then moved on to one of his particular favourites – spiders! There are approximately 650 species of spider in the UK, but although Ray has been studying spiders since he was 10 years old, he has only found and photographed 102, and he pointed out that there are no dangerous spiders in the UK – not even the false widow. He showed us some rarities, including a superbly camouflaged wolf spider he found at Camber Sands, and the purse web spider, (the only British tarantula), a colony of which can be found on the cliffs overlooking Beachy Head. At Mill Hill NR Ray found the black and yellow striped, aptly named wasp spider which has colonized the south coast over the past 100 years. We were also reminded of the perils of being a male spider when Ray showed a picture of a female being approached by a much smaller male which ended up as her dinner!

Reptiles are not easy to see and there are very few in Britain. Grass snakes often hunt in water, and our only venomous snake, the adder, is actually quite timid and will normally flee before you see it. Lizards include the common lizard and the slow worm, (a legless lizard), which if you feel along its body you can feel two bumps which are the vestiges of legs.

Ray then showed a selection of birds – jay, collared dove, green woodpecker, blue tit, long tailed tit, robin, and the wren - which for one of the smallest birds is one of the noisiest! Ray also had a photo of a young blackbird which was speckled with white – apparently it became fully black as it matured.

Mammals which may be encountered include hedgehogs, although these are in decline, and grey squirrels. Sadly, there are no red squirrels in Sussex, having been replaced in most areas of Britain by the grey, 30 pairs of which were introduced in late Victorian times. Occasionally, black or white variations of the grey squirrel are seen, and there is a colony of albino squirrels in Hampden Park in Eastbourne. Badgers are an iconic British mammal, and foxes are ubiquitous, just as much at home in towns as in the countryside nowadays – Ray was thrilled to have a couple of fox cubs in his garden one Spring.

A very interesting talk to encourage us all to keep our eyes open when out and about, and to appreciate the varied flora and fauna of our fair county!

Peter & Joyce Austen

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3rd October 2017 - Amphibians and Reptiles with a Sussex Flavour

Jim Howell welcomed Chris Drewery from the Sussex Amphibian and Reptile Group, the first County Group of its kind, dating back to 1896. Chris’ talk outlined the evolution of amphibians and reptiles, highlighted the differences between them, reviewed local survey work from Weir Wood Reservoir and Seaford Head Local Nature Reserve, and concluded with some unusual and spectacular images of these animals from the Sussex region.

Chris acknowledged the generally negative image people have of snakes and lizards. One dictionary defines a snake as a treacherous and deceitful person, going back perhaps to the biblical Adam and Eve. In contrast, at Iona Monastery in Scotland, there is a copy of a Celtic cross with 12 serpents, suggesting that snakes were seen as a sign of rebirth because they shed their skins. But their cryptic lifestyle means that they are rarely seen and so relatively little known. The audience certainly knew more by the time Chris had finished!

Native amphibians include common frog and toad, natterjack toad, palmate, smooth and great crested newts and pool frog. Native reptiles include grass snake, adder, smooth snake, common lizard and slow worm. In zoological terms amphibians and reptiles are Tetrapods (vertebrates with four limbs). Their evolutionary beginning can be traced back to lobe-finned fish in the Devonian Period, 390m years ago. Their fins contained a bone structure similar to present-day tetrapods, such as humans!

The differences between amphibians and reptiles can be summarised thus:

AmphibiansReptiles
Permeable skin to assist respiration More efficient resp. so scaly skin
Flat swimming tail Thinner tail for balance
Must return to water to breed
Eggs laid in water by frogs and toads Snake eggs on land in June/July e.g. in compost heap
Single egg on leaf by newt
Frogs and toads born as spawn, then grow legs and body Young reptiles look like adults

Chris then briefly illustrated the common local reptiles, adder which may be up to 60cm in length, grass snake which usually grows to 1m but exceptionally to 3m in length, common lizards which are usually patterned brown but can be black if excessive melanin is present, and the slow worm (also a lizard) which has eyelids. Reptiles are cold-blooded, a characteristic influencing their metabolism. Remarkably grass snakes may eat only three good meals in a year! They operate best at 25-35oC, well above normal temperature, and reach their desired temperature by basking and muscular effort. Refuges warm in the sunshine so are good to use on a cold day. Chris illustrated an exceptional mixture of six reptiles, snakes and slow worms, all in the same place.

Finally, before the refreshment break, Chris outlined the two surveys in which he is involved, one at Weir Wood reservoir and the other, closer to home, on Seaford Head LNR.

The attraction of the Weir Wood site is its prime grass snake habitat – meadowland providing great cover, an area closed to humans and dogs by Southern Water, and a series of ponds and streams with abundant food. 10 reptile refuges per hectare were laid out. There were no sightings until the end of April, possibly due to excessive precipitation during the preceding winter. After a slow start in May numbers peaked in June and maintained a good level through to the end of September. The distribution of sightings suggested that the snakes retreated to drier areas for winter hibernation before returning.

The Seaford Head LNR survey began in 2017, with the aid of several SNHS members, when about 50 refuges were laid out, mostly in the Hope Bottom area (see map below) where scrub offers cover, old rabbit holes provide potential hibernation sites, and adders had already been observed.

Seaford Head Reptiles

The lines and letters indicate the general zones of distribution of the refugia. They are used in the following table by Chris, to review the results for adder. Note that the number of visits varies from month to month:

AreaMarchAprilMayJuneJulyAugSeptOctTotal
A0 0 0 01 0 10 0 2 10 0101 007
B0 0 0 01 0 10 1 2 10 0321 0012
C0 0 0 00 0 00 0 0 00 0001 102
D0 0 0 01 1 10 1 1 30 0320 1014
E0 0 0 00 0 00 1 1 20 0210 018
F0 0 0 00 0 00 0 1 10 1210 006
Others0 0 0 00 1 00 1 0 00 0101 116
Total0 0 0 03 2 30 4 7 80 11264 3255

[Note: October has been added by the author since Chris’ talk.]

Chris commented that this suggests that the adders were lying up in gaps in the dense scrub in March and gradually emerged at the edge of the scrub and beyond in April and May before peaking in July and decreasing thereafter. The dip in June remains a puzzle. Marilyn Binning and Colin Whiteman, running the last survey before Chris’ talk, were fortunate to record all four of the expected reptiles, adder, grass snake, slow worm and lizard, for the first time since the start of the survey.

Chris concluded his talk with a discussion of a few rarities in the region and some stunning photographs of reptiles in a range of situations. Smooth snakes are very rare. Twelve were translocated from a Bournemouth development site to Amersham Common near Midhurst 20 years ago and still only number 30 after surviving a fire. As a burrowing snake they require a sandy heath habitat, as does the sand lizard. Adders were shown in various situations and poses - climbing up a tree in Ashdown Forest, flattening the body in pregnancy to increase the area exposed to the sun to incubate eggs, and appearing alongside a grass snake under one of the SHLNR refuges. A striking black (melanistic) adder may warm up more readily, but, of course, be less well camouflaged. Finally, only the third reported British short-toed (snake) eagle, Circaetus gallicus, was seen over Ashdown Forest in 2017 with a snake dangling from its talons.

Colin Whiteman proposed a vote of thanks to Chris for his stimulating and informative presentation, which was generally acclaimed by the appreciative audience.

Colin Whiteman

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Page updated 28th October 2017