Hawthorn, by Michael Blencowe

You could set your calendar by it. Around the first day of May, our ancestors would step outside to find foamy white clouds erupting across the Sussex countryside; the Hawthorn was blooming, spring was turning to summer. The sight was so visually stunning and so linked with the arrival of May that Hawthorn became the only British plant to be named after the month in which it blooms. Well, the name Hawthorn is derived from the Anglo-Saxon hagathorn (haga meaning hedge). I’m referring to that other name for Hawthorn: May. 

Unlike the impetuous Blackthorn, which flowers in March before it’s even bothered to grow leaves, the Hawthorn is more dignified. It waits until it has clothed itself in undergarments of lobed leaves before it dons a resplendent gown of exquisite white flowers. This stunning costume and perfect timing meant Hawthorn took centre stage at May Day celebrations and it partied with Green Men, Morris Dancers, Maypoles and May Queens. ‘Gathering nuts in May’ actually refers to ‘gathering knots of May’ to make May Day garlands and decorations. Then, in the middle of the eighteenth century, tragedy struck. I don’t know about you, but I get thrown into disarray twice a year when the clocks change. My life would have gone into meltdown in 1752 as our whole calendar changed from Julian to Gregorian, and we lost an entire 11 days. In this new timeline, Hawthorn now found itself late for the party, blooming around May 12th.

It wasn’t the first time Hawthorn had been cast aside. Superstitions dictated that bringing Hawthorn indoors led to misfortune – even death. This could stem from the fact that Hawthorn blooms release trimethylamine, which gives the flowers that unpleasant smell of cat’s wee and attracts pollinating insects. It’s also a chemical formed in decaying tissue and reminded people of the smell of Black Death – and nobody wanted to be reminded of that.

I remember at primary school being taught ‘Ne’re cast a clout ‘til May is out’. I translated this gibberish into the fact that you should keep your warm clothes on until the end of May. I’ve only just discovered that ‘May is out’ refers to Hawthorn blooming. My clouts could have been cast weeks earlier. But the world has changed since I was a nipper – we’re warming up. For a temperature-sensitive plant like Hawthorn, the blooming times are changing again. Hawthorn is responding to climate change by flowering up to two weeks earlier than it was thirty years ago. It has crept back to bloom around May Day and is now more commonly seen flowering at the end of April. So this May Day, cast your clouts, get out into the great outdoors, and welcome the return of the real May Queen.  

Sussex Wildlife Trust is a conservation charity for everyone who cares about nature in Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife.

We rely on the support of our members. Please consider joining us. Your membership will help us challenge decisions that threaten wildlife, care for more than 30 nature reserves, and inspire the next generation about the wonders of the natural world. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join


Holly, by Michael Blencowe for Sussex Wildlife Trust

I’m sure you’ll agree that these are crazy times, folks. Back in Ancient Rome they had a festival – Saturnalia – which saw their society turn upside down for a week each December. It seems Saturnalia’s traditions of chaos and mayhem are now the daily norm for us Brits but, as we career towards Christmas, we have another thing in common with Saturnalia. We will soon be paying our respects to the Holly tree.

Holly has been celebrated in many traditions over the centuries because, as a native evergreen, its vibrancy in the dead of winter could easily be mistaken for immortality. Holly was the sacred tree of Saturn, the Roman god of agriculture. In pagan tradition, the Holly King ruled over the Oak King from Midsummer to Midwinter. Holly was easily adopted by Christians, who saw many links between the tree and the life of Christ. Today, Holly remains a centrepiece of our Christmas decorations, cards and cakes.

Each Holly tree is either male or female. While both produce delicate white flowers in May, it’s only the female Holly that bears a berry as red as any blood. When these berries are produced in profusion, it’s taken to be a sign of an oncoming hard winter -although in reality it’s the outcome of a successful spring. Holly’s prickles provide protection for nesting birds, their flower buds are food for the Holly Blue butterfly’s caterpillar and their ripe berries are essential for thrushes.

If you’re after a tree filled with folklore then Holly must take a bow. So if you’re planning to deck your halls with boughs of the stuff this Christmas, here’s a quick user guide. First off, never cut down a Holly tree – that’s guaranteed bad luck, a superstition which has spared many Holly trees from the woodsman’s axe. And make sure you leave Holly trees in your hedgerows to prevent witches from running along the top. If you bring Holly into your home at Christmas, it’ll help protect you from those pesky festive faeries. Only female Holly leaves under your pillow will allow you to predict your future in your dreams. Oh, and don’t forget to get rid of your Holly decorations before Twelfth Night (but don’t burn them, that’s bad luck too). Holly trees will protect you against lightning strikes (I’m not sure if this has been scientifically proven so don’t blame me if you still get zapped). And don’t eat the berries, they’re poisonous, but if you have smallpox you can drink an infusion made from the leaves.

Stick to those rules folks and you’ll have a peaceful Christmas. Me? I’ve had enough of the state of the world today. I’m going to pour some wine, put on my toga and pretend I’m in ancient Rome. Somebody pass me my fiddle.

Sussex Wildlife Trust is a conservation charity for everyone who cares about nature in Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife.

We rely on the support of our members. Please consider joining us. Your membership will help us challenge decisions that threaten wildlife, care for more than 30 nature reserves, and inspire the next generation about the wonders of the natural world. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join


Slugs by Michael Blencowe for Sussex Wildlife Trust

I’ve had a strange fascination with slugs since I was a little boy. Back then I believed that they were homeless snails that had lost their shells. It turns out I was right. Sort of. The whole eviction process had started as far back as the murky Mesozoic when some land snails cast off the shackles of a shell and evolved into slugs for some truly independent living. Sure, shells are great for protection and will help you to avoid drying out but they’re clunky and require calcium to construct. Without them you can roam anywhere and (to namecheck another mollusc) the world’s your oyster.

The slug’s shell has never been completely lost — a fragment remains hidden under their skin, a tiny, shrunken souvenir of their snail ancestry. Another link to their slimy dynasty is that all slugs, like all snails, are both male and female. As hermaphrodites, they possess both sets of sexual organs and this means that, if the situation dictates, they can go it alone and simply self-fertilise to produce their offspring. A true state of independence. Self-fertilisation creates a clone – or in a slug’s case hundreds of clones – but the problem with inbreeding is a lack of genetic variability. Clones all possess the same weaknesses. An entire slug population can be wiped out by the same parasites and pathogens. To produce varied and resilient offspring, most slugs go in for the more old-fashioned approach of finding a partner for a quick rustle in the undergrowth.

But one garden slug species has turned this chore into art – a flamboyant celebration of a lack of independence. The spotted and striped Leopard Slugs start their performance by chasing each other around a tree, giving each other sonic, sensuous strokes and cheeky nibbles. Then they climb, shimmy along a branch, and descend on a rope made of their own mucous. Here, hanging in mid-air, the slugs evert their sexual organs, entwining them to create a moonlit globe. This graceful, balletic trapeze performance must be one of the most mesmerising sights on our planet. If you search hard enough, you can find beauty in the strangest places. Still, if I was strolling through the woods at night, I’d hate to walk into it face-first.

Sussex Wildlife Trust is a conservation charity for everyone who cares about nature in Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife. We rely on the support of our members.

Please consider joining us. Your membership will help us challenge decisions that threaten wildlife, care for more than 30 nature reserves, and inspire the next generation about the wonders of the natural world. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join


Hoverflies by Michael Blencowe for Sussex Wildlife Trust
Everyone loves bees, don’t they? Knowing that our bees are in decline has
prompted protests and petitions and highlighted the important service these
buzzing pollinators provide to our planet. Without them our crops and
ecosystems would collapse. Yet many other pollinators that provide the same
service don’t get the same level of public support. So today I’m waving my flag
for the hoverflies.
For some reason, they’re not as loveable as bees. Perhaps it’s because most of
the time people mistake them for wasps. This isn’t totally our fault because
that’s exactly what the hoverflies want you to think. The 283 species of hoverfly
in the UK come in many shapes, colours and sizes but most of them sport
yellow and black stripes, making them easily confused for wasps, bees, hornets
and bumblebees. It’s a strategy called Batesian mimicry and was first proposed
by Leicestershire lepidopterist Henry Bates in 1861. Hoverflies are harmless.
They don’t sting and can’t bite but they have discovered you don’t actually have
to be dangerous to deter predators – you just have to look like something that’s

Yet their devious mimicry isn’t the most incredible thing about them. Their
wings are the things. Hoverflies (like all flies) have just two wings (half as
many wings as bees and wasps). Whereas other flies keep their wings straight,
hoverflies incline theirs to create an angled downward stroke at a remarkable
rate of 120 beats per second. This allows hoverflies to fly to a most amazing
place: nowhere. Hoverflies have become the motionless masters of mid-air.
It’s not all sitting around in the sky though. During their few days of life,
hoverflies fight, fornicate and feed and while busy collecting energy-giving
nectar and protein-rich pollen they inadvertently provide that vital pollination
service to our flowers and crops. And hoverflies have earned the title of ‘The
Gardeners Friend’ because about 40% of them have a larval stage which is
basically a tiny crawling stomach that roams around your flowerbed eating
aphids. Pollination, pest control – next thing you know these beneficial little
insects will be mowing the front lawn for us too.
So why not thank these friendly flies by planting some of their favourite flowers
in your garden – parsley, fennel, borage, hebe, sedum and alliums – and consider
putting in a pond no matter how small. Do your bit for the pollinators and
they’ll keep the world working for us.

(Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent charity caring for wildlife and habitats
throughout Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over
half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife.
We rely on the support of our members to help protect our rich natural heritage.
Please consider supporting our work. As a member you will be
invited to our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on
wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our Sussex guide book, Discovering
Wildlife. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join)

Butterfly Count at Cissbury Ring

On Tuesday 18th July members of Ferring Conservation Group, led by Clive Hope,Graham Tuppen and Jackie Hall, met at Cissbury Ring to take part in the Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count.

Gatekeeper Butterfly

It was a lovely sunny day, with only a gentle breeze, so the conditions were favourable and in all 19 varieties of butterflies, 3 of moths, with numbers of some species well into the 20s. The Group saw Large, Small and Marbled White, Brimstone, Small Copper, Meadow Brown, Gatekeeper, Painted Lady, Red Admiral, Common and Chalkhill Blue, Brown Argus, Speckled Wood, Peacock, Small Tortoiseshell, Wall Brown, Dark Green Fritillary, and Small and Essex Skipper Butterflies, and 6-Spot Burnet, Silver Y and Common Crimson and Gold Moths.

The wildflowers were many and varied, and birds spotted included Goldfinches, a Kestrel, Red Kite and a young Redstart.

The Group also saw the New Forest ponies that grazing freely playing an important part in restoring the iconic features of the landscape. The ponies eat away at dead grass and overgrowing shrubs which help to make space for wild flowers and allows wildlife to bloom.

Everyone agreed that the event was a delightful 2 hours of gentle exercise in a lovely setting with great company.

(Photographs courtesy of Peter Dale)


The Water Shrew

Water Shrew by Michael Blencowe for Sussex Wildlife Trust
I love Jaws, the 1975 movie which sent three men out into the Atlantic on a fishing
boat in search of a marauding Great White Shark. There’s another aquatic monster
hunting in the ponds and shallow streams of Sussex. But to find a Water
Shrew…you’re gonna need a smaller boat.
Water Shrews weigh 15g and measure just 16cm. Unlike other shrews they have an
amazing ability to swim and hunt underwater. They’re covered in dense fur – vital
insulation against the cold and wet. This sleek wetsuit also traps air bubbles,
transforming the shrew into a furry Aero helping it stay buoyant. Powerful, extra
hairy hind feet propel this tiny torpedo through the water.
Water Shrews and Great White Sharks have a common feature that sets them apart
from their close relatives. They both have a striking demarcation between their
dark upperparts and their white underparts. Looking from above, their black backs
blend with the pond bottom or seabed. From below, their pale bellies make them
invisible in the sunlit water. It’s a submarine survival strategy that helps conceal
both hunters and hunted. And the Water Shrew is both.

With sharp, red-tipped fangs, a Water Shrew’s jaws are as fearsome as any shark’s.
But the Water Shrew has a trick up its teeth. It’s Britain’s only venomous mammal.
When it bites it injects a stupefying saliva which subdues its victims. In Jaws, the
grizzled skipper Quint (Robert Shaw) relates the chilling true tale of the torpedoed
WWII cruiser Indianapolis, which sank leaving hundreds of sailors adrift in sharkinfested waters. Well, my mate Barry was once bitten by a Water Shrew in
Newhaven and his finger went all tingly for about two hours. OK, it doesn’t
exactly compare, but the fact that a tiny shrew can make such an impact on a
human is pretty impressive.
Slice open a dead shrew’s stomach and rummage inside and you’ll find bits of
beetle legs, snail shells, and fishbones. They are relentless, frenetic hunters. If the
shrew goes without a meal for more than an hour it will die. What we are dealing
with here is a perfect engine, an eating machine. All this machine does is swim and
eat and make little shrews. Between April and September, the mating of the shrew
can produce 2-3 litters of 3-15 young. They live a fast, brief life. Few of them will
survive for more than a year.
The best way to see a Water Shrew is to sit by a Sussex stream as the sun sets.
Bring a couple of friends and some Apricot Brandy, share some tall tales, and wait
for a shrew to strike!

Stinging Nettles

Stinging Nettles, by Michael Blencowe of the Sussex Wildlife Trust

In the shadows under the Oak trees my enemy awaits. There are hundreds of them, huddled together in a silent, ferocious mob. With their drab green leaves and insignificant flowers, the Stinging Nettle is a joyless plant infamous only for its ability to inflict pain. I can almost hear these nettles straining at their roots, desperately trying to reach me because I am in possession of something they crave: a pair of bare legs. When I started writing this article, I realised that I hadn’t been stung by a Stinging Nettle for so long that I had forgotten what it felt like. So, dear reader, just for you I am wading into a nettle patch in a pair of shorts.

As my legs brush the underside of the nettles’ leaves, I break the fragile tips off hundreds of hollow hairs, and I’m injected with histamine, serotonin and acetylcholine, with a splash of formic acid. This volatile cocktail acts like napalm on my knees – my skin itches and blisters and that familiar fiery, tingling, pulsing pain sears up my spinal cord. The plant does not inflict this agony as some sadistic vendetta against schoolchildren and writers. The nettle’s hairy, hurtful suit of armour is a defence mechanism against hungry herbivores.

Despite our hatred for the Stinging Nettle, we have found many uses for it over the centuries as cloth, medicine, and food. Seventeenth century Sussex herbalist Nicholas Culpeper claimed nettles – which “can be found by feeling in the darkest night” – cured everything from nosebleeds to leprosy. Celebrity chefs extol the virtues of vitamin-packed nettle soups, risottos and spanakopita. And the caterpillars of our most impressive butterflies enjoy munching on nettles too. Red Admirals, Peacocks, Commas and Small Tortoiseshells all depend on them.

Halfway through the nettle patch all this is offering me little comfort. If I focus my mind, I can rise above it and the waves of pain can start to feel strangely invigorating. But not for long and I soon start frantically searching for a cure. Rubbing mashed dock leaves on my legs has soothed my stings since I was a schoolboy, so I was surprised to read that it’s all a ruse. Scientists claim dock leaves are simply a placebo – and the searching and rubbing is just a distraction that numbs the pain.

Beyond the nettle patch I stumbled across an amazing glade of orchids, vibrant and stunning in the sunshine. In an instant the stinging stopped. Maybe it was all in my mind after all. Even when we are in our darkest night we need to keep pushing through the painful patches. There’s something surprising and soothing awaiting us on the other side.

Sussex Wildlife Trust is an independent charity caring for wildlife and habitats throughout Sussex. Founded in 1961, we have worked with local people for over half a century to make Sussex richer in wildlife.

We rely on the support of our members to help protect our rich natural heritage. Please consider supporting our work. As a member you will be invited to join Michael Blencowe on our regular wildlife walks and also enjoy free events, discounts on wildlife courses, Wildlife magazine and our Sussex guide book, Discovering Wildlife. It’s easy to join online at sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/join

Nature Walk around Burpham 20th February

An excellent turnout of 22 members from Ferring Conservation Group set out from the beautiful village of Burpham led by their knowledgeable guide, Clive Hope. Their aim was to observe the diverse and plentiful wildlife this relatively remote area of south-east England has on its doorstep.

This village is built on the side of Perry Hill just out of reach from the flood plain. Therefore wonderful views are apparent for the eye to see with Arundel Castle in the distance to the south west, and views towards the gap in the Downs where the river Arun carves its way to the sea to the north west.

The Group made their way to the large Saxon Burgh on which part of the village stands and this fortification was an ideal place to view farmland birds as well as a range of raptors. As the Group set off several Red Kites and a solitary Sparrow hawk were circling high above joined by a large Buzzard, all greatly defined against the dark grey clouds. A small flock of noisy Guinea fowl were spotted in a farmer’s field with a few Sparrows and Wood Pigeons for company. Two Grey partridge were seen foraging for food in a nearby field, a welcome sight, with their numbers greatly increased by a breeding programme started back in 2003 on the Duke of Norfolk Estate. Further along the track a single Green Finch sat perched on the top of a small tree while several Stock Doves were foraging for food nearby. Unlike most pigeons and doves the Stock Dove nests in holes, usually in trees, but often in old stone barns or similar buildings. Unlike the Woodpigeon it has no white feathers in its plumage and is smaller and shorter-tailed.

As the Group progressed along the route more Red Kites gathered above and were joined by Common Gulls, a small number of Black-headed Gulls and some Starlings. A keen eyed member of the Group spied two Brown Hares ‘boxing’ in the middle of a field. These displays are an exhibit of mating behaviour – although a little early as this usually starts in March. It is surprisingly the females who instigate ‘boxing’ as a way to fend off the mating urges of the males!

The countryside views were enhanced with the sighting of a quaint shepherd’s hut in the corner of a field and a couple of dew ponds suitably located for use by livestock, also, the group witnessed strategically placed winter supplementary feeding stations for seed-eating farmland birds.

As Members made their way back to their starting point 20 or so Corn Buntings were seen perched along the top of a row of saplings. Encouraging signs of spring were apparent with the sound of Sky larks in the distance, hawthorns just coming into leaf and Lords-and-Ladies plants peering out along the edges of the hedgerows. All welcome reminders of warmer days to come and a chance to explore the countryside further.



Walk along Ferring Rife to look at Birds, Flowers and Trees 29th April

Twenty four enthusiastic members of Ferring Conservation Group, in 4 socially distanced teams of 6, strolled leisurely along the west bank of the Rife heading north. The early start soon paid dividends as the keen ears of the group’s leaders identified a Reed Warbler which was also briefly seen by a few members. Also Whitethroats, Chiffchaffs, a Willow Warbler, a Cetti’s Warbler, and Dunnocks (sometimes known as Hedge Sparrows) could all be heard in the vicinity. Further along the route Starlings were seen interestingly using the hole in a mature Aspen tree in which to build their nest.

Many wild flowers and plants were noted adjacent to the banks including Wild Garlic, White Dead Nettles, Hogweed, Ladies Smock (sometimes known as Cuckooflower) and Ground Ivy, but the yellow flowers of the Colts Foot had already gone to seed.

The white lacy flowers of the Blackthorn were in abundance but the Hawthorn trees were still in bud. It was encouraging to see that many varieties of trees including Willow, Rowan, Hazel, English Oaks and  Black Poplars that had been planted by volunteers from the Group in years gone by were largely thriving and doing their bit to act as efficient wind breaks along both sides of the Rife. However, it was alarming to see that the prolonged lack of rain had caused the water levels in the Lagoon areas to be unseasonably low, with no evidence of tadpoles. With eyes raised at the sound of a nearby Green Woodpecker it was a delight to see 2 Little Egrets resting in a tree unperturbed by people passing by. Magpies were plentiful and a nest was spotted at the top of Willow tree precariously being blown about by the cold north wind.

One of the highlights of the morning was the sight of a female Mallard duck jauntily swimming along in the water followed by her 13 (yes, 13!) tiny ducklings. As the teams neared the footbridge a solitary Heron was seen wading in the shallow water before taking flight towards the Kingston Gorse area – it amazed the teams at how large these distinctive birds are.

On a fine day, and at water levels unusually low for this time of year, the Rife appears to be calm and unproblematic, but this wasn’t always the case – prior to the 1980’s it was comparatively shallower and narrower. The construction of the West Durrington estate with the consequence of extra surface run off, and the combination of torrential rain in the autumn of 1980 together with a high tide, the Rife overflowed its banks, flooding many houses in both North and South Ferring of up to 2 feet or more. The same problem occurred 3 weeks later and this prompted Southern Water (who were responsible for maintaining the Rife at that time) to take preventative action. In 1982 a scheme was started to widen the watercourse and raise the banks on both sides. The bank on the west side was left slightly lower than the east bank to allow any excess water to flow into two lagoons that had been created for this purpose.

During the walk around 32 species of birds were either heard or observed along the way in addition to the evidence of many flourishing trees, wild flowers and plants. It was reassuring to find that this important area is still thriving and providing an important and valuable sanctuary for local wildlife. Still in their teams of 6, members enjoyed some refreshments at the outside seating area of the impressive newly built café at Ferring Country Centre.

Woodland Walk at Patching 22nd April

On a beautiful sunny, but chilly, morning 18 members of Ferring Conservation Group met in France Lane at Patching for a woodland walk. With social distancing rules paramount 3 teams of six people with their knowledgeable guides Tricia Hall, Peter Dale and Graham Tuppen strode out across a newly ploughed field following the public footpath signs to discover the secrets at the heart of a typical English wood. Woods are special and remain the last refuge for many fauna and flora, and a place of seasonal wonder.

The hope was to find carpets of Bluebells and the three groups set off at a gentle pace keeping their eyes peeled and ears tuned for the sights and sounds of this wonderful sanctuary of nature. Carefully following the long established footpaths it was soon noted that although some of the Bluebells were indeed in bloom, many were still in tight bud due to the unusually cld April weather. This did not dampen the enthusiasm of the three teams and as they ventured deeper into the wood their reward was soon realised with the green leaves of Dog’s Mercury – this poisonous plant is a good indicator of an ancient woodland. Pretty Wood Anemones were inter-spaced with pale Primroses, delicate Violets and the shade loving perennial, Lords-and-Ladies Lilies. Lesser Celandines added a splash of bright yellow complementing the purple petals of Ground-ivy which is a member of the dead-nettle family and is not closely related to Ivy as its name suggests. Along with Wood Spurge, White Dead Nettle, Red Campion and a few Goldilocks Buttercups they unexpectedly came across beautiful Early Purple Orchids which were apparent in several areas. Although they are uncommon each plant consists of 50 rich purple-pink flowers which give off a strong and unpleasant smell once the flowers have been fertilised.

The clouds of snow-white flowers of the Blackthorn edged the wood and these spiny and densely branched trees can grow to the height of around 6-7m and live for up to 100 years. The favourite winter tipple of Sloe Gin is made from its rich, dark inky berries. Numerous bird sound was identified including Chiffchaffs, Great Tits, a Song Thrush and a rather enthusiastic Wren. The pitiful cry of a Buzzard could be heard on the wind although this bird remained unseen. A single Robin was spotted standing boldly at the side of the footpath and as the Groups made their way back a Comma butterfly was enjoying the warmth from the sun on the branch of a Blackthorn tree, also a Bee Fly had the same idea as it rested by the path. A Brimstone, Peacock and Orange Tip were seen at the edge of the wood. Despite the disappointment of the lack of Bluebells the members thanked their guides and considered the morning an interesting and worthwhile exercise and were grateful to once again take part in an organised Group activity.