Above the clouds on the South Downs

This is not really to do with ecology, and certainly not based in Grantham, so you’ll have to forgive me straying off message!

We went down to stay on a campsite at the base of the South Downs in the campervan just before New Years. We set off in dense fog which, but for a few breaks, persisted all the way down the country. We arrived an hour before sunset, pulled on coats and boots and headed off up the hillside near Ditchling Beacon in the optimistic hope that we could climb up above the pea-souper which had enveloped us all day. Optimistic but not expectant, we were rewarded for our efforts!

Walking up the track was like ascending in an aeroplane on an overcast day, when you break through to find that it’s a sunny day above the clouds. This is effectively the same thing – the clouds in this case are lying over the land due to a temperature difference known as an ‘inversion’ – when there is colder air below and warmer air above meaning that the cloud becomes trapped close to the land. As well as the temperature inversion, you need other conditions such as lack of precipitation and little or no wind to maintain this. This is an excellent blog post to explain more about cloud inversions, and how, when and where to catch them!

img_0859
The view just as we rose above the fog which filled the valley before us but left our position and the wooded hillside opposite clear. I love how the cloud extends out north across Sussex as far as the eye can see.
IMG_0869.jpg
The fog passing through the trees at the point where the land lifted clear.
img_0962
The view from the top looking out towards the coast with Brighton nestled somewhere below. The sheep would often stand and stare out, making it difficult not to imagine that they were appreciating the view as well!
IMG_0935.jpg
The view out across the downs, with fog swirling up the valleys and flocks of birds dotting the sky on their way home to roost.
img_1066
A way marker for the South Downs Way against the afterglow of a sunset we never expected to witness after a day spent in the damp darkness of a fog-covered countryside.

What inspired this optimism was another recent experience – just before Christmas we were staying in Freiburg and left the city on a murky foggy day to catch a cablecar to 1000m up. We found an incredible sight awaiting us – not only were we above a thick layer of cloud but there was a further layer of cloud above us meaning that the setting sun lit both layers in one of the most magical experiences I have ever witnessed – a few photographs below to give you an idea!

 

Advertisements

Bonsai botany

Chalk grasslands on downland are often case of bonsai botany – the low nutrient status due to the chalky substrate, combined with grazing by sheep or cows favours low creeping species, or those willing to operate in miniature.

Squinancy wort - Asperula cynanchica
Squinancy wort – Asperula cynanchica

Squinancywort is a small, mauve-lilac flowered member of the bedstraw family, of which the strong, scrambling sticky-weed or cleavers is perhaps the most commonly known example.

Ladies bedstraw - Galium verum
Ladies bedstraw – Galium verum

Ladies bedstraw is another member of the bedstraw family – the four-petalled flowers are common to all members of the bedstraws although the majority are white – ladies bedstraw is one of two yellow flowered members of the genus.

Beaked Hawk's-beard - Crepis vesicaria
Beaked Hawk’s-beard – Crepis vesicaria

Beaked hawk’s beard is usually a more robust plant, but here it was growing in a low, creeping habit. The red-flecked undersides to the petals however make it distinctive.

Common restharrow - Ononis repens
Common restharrow – Ononis repens

Common restharrow is a low-growing member of the pea family with beautiful, striated foxglove-purple flowers.

Bird's foot trefoil - Lotus spp.
Bird’s foot trefoil – Lotus spp.

Birds-foot trefoil is another member of the pea family with sunshine-yellow flowers. It is quite a common sight, often included in wildflower mixes and a big hit with many of the butteflies such as the skippers and the blues.

Kidney vetch - Anthyllis vulneraria
Kidney vetch – Anthyllis vulneraria

Kidney vetch is a third member of the pea family – the flower heads contain clusters of the small pea-flowers – just as the bird’s-foot trefoil but multiple and in miniature.

Small scabious - Scabiosa columbaria
Small scabious – Scabiosa columbaria

Small scabious is a a soft lilac coloured flower with open heads which attract a wide range of pollinators including solitary bees, bumblebees and butterflies.

Round-headed rampion - Phyteuma orbiculare
Round-headed rampion – Phyteuma orbiculare

Round-headed rampion is something of a rarity nationally, but was quite common in patches of the grassland on the south downs. It is the County Flower of Sussex and quite a striking blue up close. It seemed to be a particular favourite of the six-spot burnet moths which had just emerged, judging by the empty pupae cases lining the dry grass stems.

The downs have a particular character of their own, but many of the species above (with the exception of the rampion) can be seen much closer to home in the Midlands – there are a number of excellent calcareous grassland sites around Grantham, the finest of which has to be Barnack Hills and Holes NNR just down the A1 near Stamford but a number of other Lincolnshire and Leicestershire Wildlife Trust sites also boast an exciting range of calcareous meadow species – use the Nature Finder app to see what is closest to you.