Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Free pleasures

Crow Sheepcote Valley
The sheep are gone from Sheepcote Valley - they've been in occupation for a few weeks, but now it's bare apart from wool snagged on the brambles. Crows and magpies are ever present but the hawthorn's out and I saw my first violet hidden by a path weeks ago. The valley goes through two stark changes of colour once the hawthorn comes out - a swathe of cream when the cow parsley blossoms, blue when the creeping bellflower appears on the slope. 
Sheepcote valley doesn't look much but it stretches over 220 acres. It's a Site of Nature Conservation Interest and part of the South Downs National Park which protect it from development.
It's also famous as a breeding ground for skylarks. People used to eat larks - in fact lark-catching wasn't banned until 1931. Brighton and the Sussex Downs were hunting grounds for a 19th century trade that delivered as many as 40,000 larks a day to Leadenhall market in London.
The larks are one of the greatest free pleasures of a walk in Sheepcote Valley. The other is the view of the sea - grey, blue, black, silver and once I saw a chemical yellow hung on the horizon. But I'm as delighted by the racehorses exercising along the gallops on the ridge as I am by the larks and although I loathe the idea of birds in captivity, it's thrilling to see the bird man exercising an eagle or owl.
According to the friends of Sheepcote valley, all year round residents of this scrappy, untidy place are green woodpeckers, meadow pipits, stonechats, blackbirds and flocks of goldfinches and linnets with their jerky flight. Wagtails like the puddles and the hunting birds are kestrels and sparrowhawks.
Visiting birds - wheatears, black redstarts, common redstarts, spotted and pied flycatchers, whitethroats, willow warblers, dunnocks and greenfinches. Sheepcote is first landfall in April and May for swallows, house and sand martins and swifts after the Channel.
Summer's also a time for the travellers to pitch up off Wilson's Avenue at the top - they come in waves. And one year there were a couple of caravans of rabbit catchers with their noisy caged terriers. 
The official line on Sheepcote Valley's environmental significance is "interest almost entirely lies in its early successional stage wildlife – ‘arable weeds,’ which need disturbed ground (like venus’s looking glass), open chalk grassland (which the bee orchids and the famous swarms of creeping bellflower need), and ground nesting birds (skylarks and meadow pipits)."
It's an unlikely paradise, but when the elder flowers are out, there can't be a sweeter smelling place - and that won't be long now.

Skylarks with chicks by Pratts of Brighton from Historical Victorian Taxidermy

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