5th March – AGM and Talks

About 45 members were present and eight apologies for absence were received. Jim Howell began by saying that 2017 had been a very busy time for the Society which had been strengthening its partnership with various organisations. He thanked all committee members for their work, and also a number of members for their contributions, often behind the scenes, during the year.

Membership numbers remained around 100, of whom quite a few were new members; finances continued to be in a healthy state but there was no room for complacency. JH would be sending out shortly a questionnaire asking members what they felt could be done better and, after looking at the results, he would report back as to what the committee had been able to do. There had been a few heating and sound problems at St Luke’s. JH was grateful to Colin Whiteman for stepping in for one of the booked speakers and he asked if anyone who would be able to do a talk to contact CW.

Wildlife recording was proving successful over a wide range of topics, with an enthusiastic and growing band of wildlife recorders. CW was already planning next year’s programme with the possibility of one of the meetings combining both indoor and outdoor programmes elements. The 2018 outing would be to Wisley. Finally, there was the opportunity to get involved in the Seaford community wildlife project which Michael Blencowe, the architect of the project, would be talking about after the break.

The minutes of the last AGM were agreed and signed; there were no matters arising.

Richard Mongar thanked Mike Staples for examining the accounts for 2017. Income from subscriptions was down on 2016. Overall expenditure was slightly up. There was an operating surplus of £192 for the year. JH thanked RM for preparing the accounts and MS for auditing them.

Andrew Painter thanked all those who had contributed to the magazine and also RM for printing and sending out the e-version. He said that the March edition was ready for collection. JH thanked AP and RM.

Turning to outdoor meetings Paul Baker thanked Coralie Tiffin for helping to arrange the 2017 programme and for continuing to organise lifts. He also thanked all walk leaders; only one walk had not taken place because of bad weather. The walks continued to be popular as had the all-day outing. The new approach for 2017 of making some of the walks bookable would not be continued in 2018 because it had not proved necessary and also added greatly to the work of arranging them. PB then thanked Marion Trew for helping put together the interesting and varied 2018 programme which he hoped members would enjoy. This year a larger coach seating 49 had been booked for the outing to Wisley in April which was almost fully subscribed. JH thanked PB and MT.

In respect of the indoor meetings CW said that various difficulties, alluded to earlier, had cropped up leading to revision of the programme; he was grateful to everyone for making sure that it all worked out well in the end. He had already arranged much of the 2018/19 programme. CW asked if anyone with ideas for a talk for when something went wrong in the future to let him know. He was then thanked for stepping in at short notice himself. He concluded by thanking everyone who helped to make these meetings a success, often behind the scenes, from bringing in books to making the tea.

Marion Trew then talked about the Society Facebook page which Mike Kerry had kindly set up nine months ago with the aim of enabling members to talk to each other in an informal environment and facilitate sharing of what they had noticed throughout the year, whether common or unusual, sometimes including photos, also asking questions. About a quarter of the membership had now signed up and there had been nearly 500 postings. She was delighted to report that there had been no problems such as inappropriate postings, probably because entry was controlled and mainly confined to members. She ended by encouraging members to try Facebook out.

JH said that members were very welcome to join the committee. A new secretary would be needed next year and anyone interested was invited to talk to SP and perhaps come along to a committee meeting. All members nominated for the 2018 committee were then elected en bloc.

Under any other business the 2019 outing venue was raised and PB would look at all options with MT during the summer. The possibility of including a short walk for those who were not able to walk far was already being looked at.

After the break members heard presentations from Michael Blencowe on the white-letter hair streak butterfly and also the Seaford community wildlife project, Paul Dixon on Seaford Head Butterfly surveys 2017, and Chris Drewery on reptiles.

Susan Painter

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19th March 2019 The Evolving World of Orchids

Janet and Jim Howell presented the final talk of the 2018/19 season, introducing us to the world of wild orchids.

Jim mentioned that he first became interested in orchids after encountering first a bee orchid and then a fly orchid in the vicinity of Box Hill, in Surrey. Janet then gave an introduction to orchid biology, focussing especially on their evolutionary diversity.

“So how have orchids become one of the most diverse plant families with the most numerous species in the world? Orchids have lied, cheated and stolen to get to this position. If they were humans, you might liken them to a powerful Mafia cartel.”

Orchids are the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants, consisting of at least 25,000 species. They are pollinated by a greater variety of organisms than any other family, ranging from insects to mammals to a nocturnal bird. There is evidence from a specimen in amber that they were around at the time of the dinosaurs and probably originated about 1 hundred million years ago.

Janet gave details of the flower structure, roots and leaves of orchids. She explained that they tend to thrive in extreme habitats (eg as epiphytes on rainforest trees, in chalk grassland and in marshy areas). Unlike most plants, which provide food for the germinating seedlings, orchid seeds lack nutrients: Instead the seeds only develop in association with fungal mycorrhiza and grow parasitically; it may take several years for the young plant to emerge above ground and start photosynthesising. In some cases (eg coralroots and bird's nest orchids), the mature plants continue to live parasitically and do not have chlorophyll.

Although orchids are usually pollinated by insects, this is often not good news for the insects. In the case of the Genus Ophrys (the bee orchids and relatives), there is again a very specific relationship between the orchid and its pollinator species. Ophrys species have evolved to attract pollinators through sexual mimicry – either they physically resemble the female of an insect species, and/ or they produce pheromones which will attract a male insect. Either way, when the male insect arrives, it receives the pollinia of the orchid. Orchids which use this technique normally flower about a week before the female insects emerge. Having said that, orchids can self-pollinate. In the UK, the normal pollinating insects for the bee orchid are not present. In this case the pollinia drop down allowing self fertilisation. In some species the pollinia liquify to facilitate self fertilisation.

Another oddity about orchids is they have evolved to produce viable hybrids – plants whose parents are different species. Other plant groups have very strong barriers to prevent accidental hybridisation, and any that do form tend to be sterile. But many orchids species will readily hybridise and produce viable hybrids, which will then back-cross with one of the parent types. This is a high-risk strategy, since the hybrids may not be compatible with the pollinator insects. However, if successful it can lead to rapid evolutionary change as genes are transferred between species.

Because of their complex life cycles and dependency on other species, orchids are extremely sensitive to environmental changes. For example, many orchids typical of unimproved chalk and limestone grassland will disappear if the ground is ploughed or treated. This sensitivity means that orchids are a good indicator of an unimproved, natural habitat such as chalk.

Orchid flowers and potted plants account for 10% of world trade in flowers. There are a number of reasons for this. The complexity and variation in the flower make them extremely attractive as house plants. Alongside that it has evolved to stay in flower for a long time. This is due to the infrequency of pollination which has meant that the flower stays for a long time. Also the pollinia means there is no airborne pollen so these flowers are suitable for hay fever sufferers. The only large-scale commercial harvesting of an orchid product is vanilla, derived from the seed pod of Vanilla planifolia.

In the second half of the talk, Jim showed us orchids from various sites, starting at Seaford Head. Members of the Society are active in recording orchid numbers locally; for instance, green-winged orchids on Seaford Head, burnt orchids in Cradle Valley and early spider orchids at Belle Tout. Some of the other interesting UK sites Jim mentioned are Box Hill (various species, including man, musk and greater butterfly orchids), Wye National Nature Reserve in Kent (late spider orchid and many others), and Royal St George's Golf Course, Sandwich, Kent (lizard orchid).

There are many locations on continental Europe with a much greater diversity of orchids than the UK. Jim mentioned the Gargano Peninsula (Italy), Crete and Cyprus and showed us species typical of these locations. Janet rounded off the event by showing us orchids found on their trips to Canada, Ecuador and the largest orchid in the world (the Giant Tiger Orchid) from Raja Ampat (Indonesia).

Janet and Jim Howell

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10th April 2019 Report of a visit to Woods Mill

On a dull, but fairly mild spring day, 10 of us arrived at Woods Mill Nature Reserve, the headquarters of the Sussex Wildlife Trust, for a short talk about the reserve and then a guided walk. Michael Blencoe gave a light-hearted overview of the history of Woods Mill covering the period from its first mention in the Doomsday Book up to its 50th Anniversary as a Nature Reserve in 2018. The mill and surrounding land has apparently had a varied history, and apart from being a working flour mill for centuries it has also been a private house and a tea room. Its last private owner was Dr Smith and upon his death in 1966 the land and buildings were willed to the Sussex Naturalist Trust which later became the Sussex Wildlife Trust.

We learned that much of the land at Woods Mill has been landscaped and modified by its various owners so many of the ponds and streams are either additions or changed from their original state. Because it was a private house for a considerable period there are also a number of trees and plants that are not native. Despite this there is an area of untouched ancient woodland and some reasonably pristine meadows.

During the walk round the reserve Michael Blencowe told us what existed in the various areas though we were not fortunate to see everything.

The birds were clearly very active and we saw from a distance a swan on the nest and the boxes that have been installed for kestrels and barn owls, these birds have been productive in previous years and it is thought that they are currently sitting on eggs. We also saw or heard blackbird, robin, mallard, little grebe, wren, black cap, chiffchaff, willow warbler, chaffinch, long tailed tit and a stock dove. Woods Mill is a site frequented by nightingales and turtle doves but we were not to see them this time.

There were a number of spring flowers including primrose, bluebell, wood anemone, moschatel, common dog violet, cuckoo flower, white dead nettle, hemlock water dropwort, daisy and dandelion. The blackthorn was coming to the end of its flowering period and must have been magnificent, but the sallow was in full bloom and attracting insects.

Despite the overcast day, there were still insects visible including bumble bees, wasps, hover flies, dark bordered bee fly, and representing the butterflies we saw small numbers of brimstone, orange tip, peacock, small tortoiseshell, red admiral, and comma. The holly blue and speckled wood butterflies were present but not visible.

For me, being a sucker for things that are small and fluffy, the highlight was finding a pair of wood mice who had made a neat little nest under a reptile refuge.

This visit to Woods Mill was a good reminder of what a lovely area is encapsulated within the nature reserve and what an excellent variety of things there is to see. Our thanks go to Michael Blencowe for giving us an enjoyable and informative guided tour.

Marion Trew

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30th April 2019 – Belle Tout/Shooters Bottom – Spring Flowers

On a fairly pleasant morning about 26 of us met up in the car layby nearest to Belle Tout. Chris Brewer began by pointing out a mass of cowslips and saying that as the object of the walk was to see spring flowers we could all now go home! He said that if some members did not wish to do the whole walk there would be an opportunity to turn back later on before a steep climb.

We set off in the direction of Horseshoe Plantation. Flowers seen during this part of the walk were bluebells (native), bulbous buttercup, burnet rose, common storksbill, cow parsley, dog violet, early purple orchid, germander speedwell, glaucous sedge, ground ivy, hoary cress, milkwort, wayfaring tree, and wild mignonette. We also saw some very small early spider orchids thanks to David Palmer who had marked out their position earlier in order to make them easier to spot.

A small copper and a speckled wood butterfly were also seen in this area. And a bloody nosed beetle which Chris handed round in a collecting pot for all to see before releasing it.

We then crossed over the road and proceeded to Cornish Farm seeing and hearing a skylark on the way.

Alexanders, bird’s- foot- trefoil (not in flower yet), common vetch, dove’s- foot cranesbill, hedge mustard, poppy, red dead nettle, and ribwort plantain were among the plants noted. Also a corn bunting was seen. We continued through a fenced in track, fortunately separated from two magnificent bulls although they appeared fairly docile. We saw a number of brown-tail moth caterpillars which are best looked at but not touched because their hairs can cause anything from an unpleasant irritation to, in extreme cases, loss of sight should a hand then touch an eye.

We reached the dew pond and saw reed mace. Also water crowfoot which Chris took a sample of in order to examine later to see which one it was. At this point in the walk several people left to go back to the carpark. Continuing on we then saw lesser burdock, musk thistle, and small nettle. Just before a steep climb three more decided to take the opportunity to turn back. At the top we paused to admire the view back towards Horseshoe Plantation, and the young lambs. Noted were common chick weed, common field- speedwell, field madder (out early), field wood rush, goat’s-beard, scarlet pimpernel, shepherd’s purse, sweet vernal- grass in flower, and the remains of a hairy violet. Also a number of St Mark’s flies no doubt encouraged by the weather warming up during the morning.

On the last leg we saw burnet rose in flower (early), and wood sage. A linnet was also seen. In an area called Bullingdean we all looked hard for the early spider orchid which proved elusive until an eagle eyed member spotted one. This is also a prime site for the moon carrot although it was too early to see any signs of it. Just before arriving back at the car park we all looked for the lady orchid but without success. Last sighting of the morning was a small heath butterfly.

Our thanks go to Chris for, as always, a most informative and enjoyable walk.

Susan Painter

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page updated 31st May 2019