Friday, 8 April 2011

WALK ON THE WILD SIDE

We received some lottery money to celebrate Queensdown Woods being part of the new South Downs National Park. Some of this is being used to take Moulsecoomb Primary pupils around the woods and surrounding area with wildlife expert Dave Bangs. Here are his notes from a Year 4 trip to Moulsecoomb Wild Park and beyond on 5th April 2011

'We actually found a lot of wildlife this afternoon amidst all the running around and letting off steam !! On the steep slope overlooking Lewes Road we found lots of little sky blue flowers called violets…actually Hairy Violets, Viola hirta. They don’t smell…but later on, in the woods, we found big clumps of darker blue Sweet Violets, Viola odorata, which are the only British violets that are scented.

We also found a little violet-black round beetle that bled a drop of blood onto my hand. That is the Small Bloody-nosed Beetle, Timarcha goettingensis, and it is a rarity. The blood scares off birds that might want to eat it. Its larvae eat bedstraw plants, and you get lots of bedstraw in the Wild Park. This beetle is special and precious to the Park.

On the grass were scattered the bodies of lots of queens and young worker bumble-bees, which had had their abdomens (bottoms) bitten in two and the juicy innards picked out. I don’t know what bird does that. Could it be Crows, or Blackbirds ? Most of the bumble-bees were the Buff-tailed Bumble-bee, Bombus terrestris, but one was a Large Red-tailed Bumble-bee, Bombus lapidarius.

The grass looked golden-yellow in places, and this is because there is lots of moss in it. The moss is there because rabbits are nibbling down the grass and the moss takes its place – because the rabbits don’t like eating it. Most of the moss is the Neat Feather-moss, Pseudoscleropodium purum…try saying that quickly !!

In the woods above the grassy slope we found lots of a green plant called Dog’s Mercury, Mercurialis perennis. It is called that because it is poisonous, for mercury used to be a common poison. Anything with ‘Dog’ in front of it means ‘of poor quality’ (like ‘dog violet’…violets that don’t have a fragrance).

We did find lots of hard brown-black knobbly fungi growing on old rotten ash branches. These were King Alfred’s Cakes, Daldinia concentrica. Do you remember the story of how the fungus got its name ?

When we sat down and you all looked for mini-beasts we got quite a list. There were two nice Ground Beetles, Carabidae. They are sort of flat looking, because they need to burrow between all the leaves on the ground and the best shape to do that is flat ! One of them had a fat tummy, so that told me it was a female, because in spring the females are full of eggs to lay. We also found two handsome beetle larvae that some of you called centipedes…but these larvae had only 6 legs, like all insects. We found lots of little black ‘pills’, like rolled up woodlice. But that’s not what they were. They were Pill Millipedes, Glomeris marginata. We also found one more ordinary millipede with little legs underneath that you couldn’t see…making it like a tiny snake.

We found one tiny woodlouse called Philoscia muscorum. ‘Muscorum’ means ‘found in the moss’.

You picked up three kinds of ‘mollusc’ (slugs and snails). The big black slug was Arion ater. These big garden slugs are sometimes found in a bright orange colour, too. You found LOTS of the banded shells of a beautiful snail called the Black-lipped Banded Snail, Cepaea nemoralis. Most of them had live snails still inside. These snails come in many different colours…pink, orange, yellow, and with many different kinds of black banding. We also found lots of big empty shells of the Garden Snail, Helix aspersa. These big snails were brought over by the Romans for eating. Now it’s the snails who eat all our garden flowers and vegetables !!

We also found a special flower with glossy spotted leaves and ‘spike’ of mauve buds just coming into flower. This was an Early Purple Orchis, Orchis mascula. They used to make the roots of this orchid into a drink to help women conceive babies. In eastern countries they still make a drink called ‘salep’ from its roots. In the old days this drink used to be made in England, too. If you go up to the hill fort in late April, you will see hundreds – maybe thousands - of these orchids in flower.

Orchids are a very exotic flower…the sort-of-royalty of flowers…the tropical ones are kept as a sign of wealth and power…though you can buy them in supermarkets nowadays !!

One girl also found a fragment of a flint fossil, with a bit of fossil sponge in it…probably about 90 million years old !! You can find all sorts of fossils amongst the flints and chalk lumps exposed on upturned ‘root plates’ of fallen trees or on the bare ground in these woods…things like sea urchins and cockles.

We left the woods and went up onto Hollingbury Castle…the prehistoric hill fort that sits on top of Hollingbury Hill. It has a tall defensive bank and ditch all round it. When it was built, in the Iron Age, about 3000 years ago, it also had a tall wooden ‘pallisade’ on top of the outer bank, and strong timber gates at 3 entrances. The gate post holes of these gates are still marked by iron bollards that some of you sat on. The hill fort would have been lived in by some petty king who lorded it over the local farmer folk…a bit like the posh people who build big grand houses in our countryside today !!

In the middle of the hill fort were a number of low mounds with dimples in the middle. These hillocks are the burial mounds (also called ‘barrows’ or ‘tumuli’) of ancient Bronze Age farming folk who lived on these hills long centuries before the hill fort was built. They buried their dead in the middle of round mounds, shaped just like their round houses, which had the fire site in the middle. The dead were the heart of these sacred mounds, just like the house fires were the heart of their roundhouses.

Two or three hundred years ago it became very fashionable for posh people , like parsons and lawyers and squires, to take their servants up on these hills and dig for treasure and curios in these mounds. That’s why all the mounds we climbed had dimples in them…because they’d been plundered for treasure, like you dig the egg out of the middle of a scotch egg !!

Afterwards we circled round the top of the combe and down through the woods. We could just see the flock of Jacob’s Sheep that the council have brought in to nibble down the pasture and keep all the wildflowers and butterflies happy.

All our ancient Downland grassy places (like the Devil’s Dyke and Newtimber Hill, as well as the Wild Park) were made by ancient shepherding people over the past six or seven thousand years…that’s how old these places are.'

Dave Bangs has written 'Freedom to Roam : Guide to the Brighton Downs' (http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page_id__9401_path__.aspx)
'Whitehawk Hill: Where Turf Meets The Surf' (http://home.btconnect.com/brightonuwg/buwgbooks.html)

Monday, 4 April 2011

Tadpole time

It's that time of the year when the tadpoles have hatched and the newts are busy eating them. Along with our big wildlife pond we have an old bath which we use as a tadpole refugee. But the newts keep getting through the nets we put over the bath and the pupils have a great time fishing them out and putting them back into the big pond. We also feed the tadpoles fish flakes cos once they get too fat the newts can't fit them in their mouths! We also hope having enough food will stop the tadpoles eating each other.
It's hard being a tadpole. Out of 2,000 that hatch only about two become frogs.
The other problem we have is getting the pupils to look after their own little plots. For some reason they prefer pond dipping to sowing vegetables.