RICHARD WILLIAMSON: So much to see in land moulded by the millennia


Here is just one of the butterflies we should see on the West Dean Woods open day on Saturday.

Brian Henham of Chichester took this magnificent photograph of an Essex skipper, which is actually one of the smallest of all British butterflies.

It is very similar to the small skipper and can be separated only by the tips of the antennae, which are black: clearly seen in this photograph.

It was first noticed as being different in 1888 when a butterfly collector by the name of Hawes caught one in Essex and thought it was a bit of a queer variant of the small skipper.

By 1890 the difference was accepted and Britain had a new butterfly to its list of 56 species.

This year there are scores of both in the long grass of the Downs and old meadows.

But unless you are used to looking for them, they will pass you by.

They are no bigger than bluebottle flies, and whizz around and around with the same sort of mad speed.

But they don’t buzz, so you hardly know they are there. All the other butterflies on this reserve are much easier to see.

There should be several

silver-washed fritillaries which are almost the same bright orange, but three times bigger than the skippers.

There should be plenty of ringlets, which look as though they have flown out of a sooty chimney.

Usually 17 species are flying on this 40-acre nature reserve at the end of July.

Apart from butterflies, we have 42 species of breeding birds as well.

Hopefully we’ll see the buzzards high above as they circle lazily above the woods. We may also see the parties of marsh tits and great tits, but birds are moulting at this time of year and skulk into the bushes.

Flowers will be far more visible. An unusual flower here is red bartsia, which parasitises grass roots.

Enchanter’s nightshade grows in my garden. Two species of St John’s wort flower along the rideways together with wood trefoil, eyebright, tansy, woundwort, bugle, woundwort, and common catsear.

One tall flower that attracts butterflies is hemp agrimony. Taller still is marsh thistle, which can top six feet and gives masses of nectar to small hoverflies and bumblebees.

The ancient coppice system might well have been worked here for centuries, but nobody knows for how long.

What you will see as well are the field boundaries of farmers who worked what is now woodland, 3,000 years ago during the Bronze Age.

They had pigs and sheep, barley and meadowland where now is ancient woodland.

This gallery of lynchets runs throughout these woods, with massive banks now moulded by millennia into a geometric pattern whereever you look.

I have picked up many flint tools as well, most of them rudimentary as used in the cultivation of the ground.

They lie around everywhere, together with potboilers, which were stones heated in the embers, placed in earthen pots to make the water boil for cooking. There is so much to see, so come along on Saturday.