Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Pewsey Downs Report

Sunday, 16th June 2013:
Pewsey Downs NNR (Leader: Tom Cairns)

On a damp grey morning, eight hardy souls gathered in the Natural England car-park that was surprisingly busy with both walkers and preparations for a horse-riders’ orienteering event.

As we walked up to the Wansdyke, a small flock of Linnets was observed in a Hawthorn bush together with a Yellow-hammer, bright against the darkening sky, whilst the sound of Skylarks above our heads deluded us into thinking that the weather might improve. It did not!

The Wansdyke, a 5th century boundary between two Saxon kingdoms, is particularly well-preserved here with its high earth-bank and deep ditch and we were able to walk along the top from which the distinctive ‘plum-pudding shape’ of the 6,000 year old Silbury Hill burial mound could be seen in the distance. As the drizzle started to thicken, bright yellow patches of Horseshoe Vetch and intense blue patches of Chalk Milkwort lightened the gloom as we continued to walk along the top of the earthwork.
A Meadow-pipit was seen and heard and a Buzzard flew overhead.

Forgoing the opportunity to make a long steep climb up the back of Milk Hill, we left the Wansdyke to join the Mid-Wilts Way at the top of the hill, stopping for a brief chat with the friendly local farmer whose arrival had disturbed a large Hare sitting in the field. He owned both the land and the native Wiltshire Horn sheep and young beef steers that provided the essential grazing for the wildlife-rich grassland of this National Nature Reserve. He enthusiastically told us that he had seen a Hoopoe on his land some time ago.

The patches of Horseshoe Vetch grew in size and number as we walked over to the south side of the hill where Kidney Vetch and Rock Rose added their contribution to the yellow palette as did the paler lemon hue of Mouse-eared Hawkweed. Many orchids should have been at their peak flowering but only a few emergent heads of Common Spotted Orchid were seen. Despite one week of warm sunny weather, the ‘season’ was still running nearly a month late.

As the rain set in, the wind got up and the temperature dropped, we unsurprisingly chose not to stop for lunch but were humbled by the sight of a party of not-so-young campers perched amidst some Gorse bushes on the brow of the hill and who were happily sitting in the rain drinking their tea and eating their sandwiches! Nearby, Swifts swooped low over the ground to catch what few insects were airborne.

Despite the inclement weather, we admired the increasing richness of the flora as we passed over the top of the Alton Barnes White Horse and onto Walkers’ Hill where Red Fescue took over from Upright Brome as the dominant grass in fields that were alive with colour. Wild Thyme and Rock Rose particularly favoured the old mole hills and, in amongst the yellow of Horseshoe and Kidney Vetch, we found individual spikes of Field Fleawort, a nationally rare plant that bears a single large daisy-like yellow flower.

As the car-park came into view, a brief respite from the rain allowed us to detour away from the path around the southern edge of the hill to a sunken Neolithic earth structure called ‘The Enclosure’ where local tribes gathered to feast after taking their livestock up into the hills for spring and summer grazing (transhumance). This less well known part of the reserve is significantly more sheltered and warmer than elsewhere and here at last we were able to see not only lots of emerging Common Spotted Orchids but also Fragrant Orchids and Lesser Butterfly Orchids including a fine specimen of the latter in full flower.

Because of the poor weather, we finished at 1pm, two hours earlier than planned, but had managed to see, experience and enjoy quite a lot of interest despite the rain.


Thank you Tom


I went up to Pewsey Downs again yesterday to get some of those photos that weren’t possible on Sunday . and the view coming back towards the White Horse. There were quite a few Adonis Blue Butterflies around yesterday as well but they wouldn’t stop long enough for me to photograph them!



click photos to enlarge

Burnt-tip Orchid


Lesser Butterfly-orchid
Chalk Milkwort

Regards Tom

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