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The Biodiversity of Brandy Hole Copse

September 1, 2011 2011 Summer No Comments

BluebellsThe Chichester Natural History Society, working with a number of other expert societies and individuals, has identified well over a thousand species living in the Copse. They occupy a range of clearly-definable habitats within the Copse, and it was these habitats that formed the focus of Mike Perry’s talk to this year’s Annual General Meeting.

Stag BeetleMany species live out their lives on the surface bark of healthy mature trees. They range from lichens, through many of the birds, to grey squirrels which build their dreys in the upper branches. Trees become biologically much more interesting, however, when they age. Damage from wind and storms produces sites for fungal attack leading to rot, thus creating habitats for many saproxylic organisms such as the stag beetle which live for at least part of their life in rotting wood.

Foxglove and Bumble BeeHoles in trees become particularly important as nesting sites for birds, such as woodpeckers, tree creepers and nuthatches. They also provide roosts for bats. As they rot, standing dead wood and fallen branches provide habitats for many organisms. They should always be left where they are – within, of course, the limits imposed by health and safety. Coppicing of the sweet chestnut stands is essential for maintaining the biodiversity of the Copse. Uncoppiced stands become very dark, when the canopy leafs over in summer, and biodiversity soon becomes low. Coppicing, however, lets in sunlight and rain, both of which encourage the growth of flowers, such as violets, wood anemones and bluebells.

Crab SpiderLater in the year, foxgloves provide excellent sources of nectar for bumble bees, sites for hunting crab spiders and sites on which darter dragonflies can perch, as they hunt.

Even before they start to rot, artificial log piles can also provide shelter for many insects, including centipedes, slugs, woodlice and spiders. These, in turn, provide food for common lizards and slowworms.

Common Darter DragonflyBramble stems, which flower over the log piles and along the rides, are especially valuable. They provide nectar for many butterflies – especially Gatekeepers, Meadow Browns and the beautiful Silver-washed Fritillary – as well as fruit for birds and mammals (including humans!). Finally, a habitat that supports a good population of small mammals will also support kestrels and foxes. All these ecological food chains stem from the original coppicing of the sweet chestnut stands!

Red UnderwingWater always enhances biodiversity. The three small ponds within Brandy Hole Copse should support good populations of many aquatic organisms including dragonflies and damselflies. Yet this has not happened, especially in Willow Pond, because someone has deliberately introduced some fish. These are carnivorous, and eat most other aquatic organisms – until, that is, the herons eat the fish! There is a golden rule in conservation – you can have either a fish pond or a wildlife pond, but not both. This is a policy issue which the Copse’s Management Board will need to address.

Night brings a completely different biodiversity, when some of the most beautiful of all the Copse’s organisms emerge, including its range of over two hundred species of moths, such as the Red Underwing. Regrettably most visitors to the Copse never see these.

Mike’s talk concluded with a reminder that even a small nature reserve such as Brandy Hole close to a city has the potential to produce a surprise of major importance. This was the discovery two years ago that the very rare migrant Queen of Spain Fritillary was breeding on the outskirts of the Copse.

What have you seen?

December 4, 2007 2007 Autumn No Comments

From Tom Snow, Secretary

We would like to better record the flora and fauna of the Copse and who better to ask than you our loyal friends. Surveys are carried out from time to time but it would be great to record what is seen on a daily basis.

In the summer, I took a late evening walk with my wife and dogs and was delighted to encounter a fox in the Copse and two grey partridge in the larger field. On another occasion it was nice to see a slow worm and I know a number of you have seen deer – unfortunately I haven’t! More recently at the pond we have delighted in the moorhens (who raised at least a couple of broods), many mallards and the often to be seen grey wagtail. But what else have you seen? If you would like to help us get a better idea of what is in the Copse please let us have a record of your sightings (date, time, what you saw and your name). You can either e-mail it to me (tomgsnow@btinternet.com) or post a note through my door (Walnut House, 6A Brandy Hole Lane) or that of our education officer Judi Darley ( 2 Bristol Gardens).

We may even try to put sightings (and representative pictures) on the notice boards from time to time to help and encourage other visitors.

Happy hunting!

The Fields and the Copse

April 3, 2007 2007 Spring No Comments

Graham Ault

Have you ever thought how small and vulnerable the Nature Reserve is? Indeed it is so small that you could question whether it is viable for nature conservation purposes.

The Copse is a small area of managed woodland. In places you can walk from one side to the other in about ten seconds! At its broadest it takes a few minutes. It contains archaeological remains which limit the activities that can take place to promote biodiversity.

Birds, insects, plants and animals do not recognise artificial human boundaries. If it suits a butterfly to fly into the fields to survive, that is what it will do. If there is water in the pond in the fields, that may be preferred by some creatures to the more enclosed ponds in the Copse. We cannot artificially say that the edge of the Copse is where nature conservation starts and finishes.

We have some plants, insects, animals that rely totally on the woodland areas but there are many also that rely mainly on the fields. Butterflies are a good example. We have some 24 recorded in the Natural History Society survey data. Only a very small number of those are essentially woodland butterflies (such as White Admiral and Speckled Wood), but the majority rely also on open glades and open fields. Those who walk in the meadows in the summer will see the huge numbers of butterflies everywhere (until the field is cut!).

One of my favourite features of the Reserve is the number of Green Woodpeckers. They sit in the trees at the edge of the Copse, they nest in trees in the Copse but they feed mainly in the fields. Take away the fields and these wonderful birds will leave. Their habitat is the combination of the fields and the woodland.

Informal management of the fields in recent years has demonstrated their potential for new plants to appear or return. Who would have thought we would have records of Common Spotted Orchids at a woodland reserve, but we now have them in both of the fields.

A Reserve that combined both the fields and the Copse would confirm what has in effect developed naturally and would provide for Chichester a Reserve that maximises biodiversity in an area that would then become viable and linked up with the characteristics of the environment to the North and West of Chichester. Surely this is something worth fighting for!

Listen to the evening songs

October 2, 2006 2006 Autumn No Comments

One of the pleasant things to do at this time of the year is to walk in the copse on a warm sunny evening to listen to the sounds around you. The bird calls are delightful.

We have been intrigued by the disappearing ducks. A while back a dozen or so ducklings appeared overnight on Willow Pond, stayed for one or two nights, then walked to Brandy Hole Pond, only to disappear completely the next day. Where did they go to? Perhaps they knew that the pond would dry up. The water level in all our ponds is determined by the water table, which is now at the lowest we have ever seen it. We will shortly need to remove most of the fish from Brandy Hole Pond by netting.

Unfortunately we still suffer from occasional vandalism. The dog bin on the Centurion Way crossing was broken off and had to be replaced. The platform at Brandy Hole Pond was badly damaged and had to be repaired, and the nearby leaflet box post which was pulled up and thrown into the pond has been replaced with a metal post.

The three entrances at the parking area need some attention. The northerly one has collapsed and we have taken the opportunity to close it off and continue the hedge along the roadside, which is kept in such good condition by the “Crumblies”.

The Wednesday working group have been active throughout the year on pond and woodland maintenance. A dipping platform has been built at Cops Pond, following our very successful pond dipping event. Repair and maintenance of paths steps and entrances will continue, and management of the glades to encourage butterflies.

In response to demand we intend to add more discreetly placed seats for the benefit of visitors as we have done in the glade area.

The CDC has been asked to install “cycle path” signs each end of the path linking Centurion Way with the Lane.

We understand that at long last the WSCC has finally conceded to our request for a safe pedestrian access to the Copse from Summersdale and proposes to start work to complete the footpath along Brandy Hole Lane in October. Unfortunately we have not been able to persuade WSCC that a 30mph speed limit is necessary along the parking area. So care is still needed when visiting the Copse and alighting from cars.

Jim Ayling, Task Leader

A place of history and much modern interest

October 2, 2006 2006 Autumn No Comments

Many new members have joined Brandy Hole Copse Conservation Group this year. The two following articles help to set the scene for those who are not familiar with the history of the Copse and some of its most obvious inhabitants, the birds.

Brandy Hole Copse includes the woodland known as East Broyle Copse and part of the Chichester Entrenchment System. This dyke, now registered as a Scheduled Ancient Monument, is believed to have been constructed during the Iron Age.

The Copse occupies some 15 acres of oak and coppiced chestnut woodland along the south side of Brandy Hole Lane and is partly owned by the District Council, with the remainder leased from two local landowners. There are five ponds and some examples of the remaining World War II antitank defences still in position.

The names Brandy Hole Lane and Brandy Hole Pond, at the eastern end of the site, come from the brandy casks discovered in a cave when the Chichester to Midhurst branch of the London Brighton & South Coast railway line was built in 1881. This line, which passes through the Copse, was last used in 1991 for transporting gravel. It was then purchased by West Sussex County Council and opened in 1995 as a pedestrian and cycle path known as Centurion Way.

There are references on early maps to “Roman” and “Smugglers” caves radiating from the dyke. The “Roman” caves were probably natural holes in the ground caused by a subsidence when rain leaches out the sand from the gravel, leaving a vertical hole, a common feature in the area. In 1841 a cave was discovered that extended for 158 feet northwards under the gravel. In it were bottles dating from 150 years earlier. This may have been the “Smugglers” cave indicated on the 1912 map. In 1795 the Chichester diarist John Marsh records how the Company of Volunteers, to which he belonged, marched from the Council House to the Broyle where they practised with their muskets in a disused gravel pit. This may well be the gravel pit that can still be seen in the Copse.

The great storm of October 1987 swept across southern England in a swathe from the Isle of Wight to the Wash and destroyed millions of mature trees. Many of the trees in what is now Brandy Hole Copse were blown down, causing extensive damage to the banks of the dyke system. Chichester District Council removed most of the fallen trees and appealed for a group of volunteers to manage this area of woodland and maintain it for public use and recreation.

The following October at a well-attended public meeting, chaired by Helen Carlton, the Brandy Hole Copse Conservation Group was formed. I was the chairman and committee members were Helen Carlton, Jim Morris, Peter Sykes, Henrietta and Hugh Wingfield-Hayes, Tony Johnson and Len Eyles. Advice was sought from the Sussex Wildlife Trust, the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers and the West Sussex County Council.

With the help of a financial grant from Chichester District Council, and the agreement of the landowners, a small working party was set up to clear the undergrowth and begin a programme of conservation recommended by the SWT Management Plan.

The first major task was to erect a post and rail fence for 300 yards along the roadside boundary of the Copse. This was done in one day by a platoon of soldiers from the Royal Military Police Roussillon Barracks as a local community project. They also cleared the ground and laid a footpath along the base of the dyke, and excavated the wetland areas at the western end to create Willow Pond and Cops Pond, which was named in recognition of their hard work.

Donations from Summersdale Residents Association and BHCCG enabled the WSCC in 1997 to purchase the privately-owned strip of land on the south side of Brandy Hole Pond for a public right of way, thereby finally allowing free access to the Copse from Bristol Gardens.

The BHCCG volunteers managed the copse for 12 years until August 2001 when Chichester District Council designated the Copse as its first Local Nature Reserve and established a Management Board. The first meeting of the board in November 2001 was chaired by Barry Fletcher. Members represented various groups who had an interest in the Copse and an initial Management Plan was drawn up to establish a future programme of tasks. At a ceremony in the Copse on in May 2002 English Nature presented a plaque to the Chairman of the District Council to mark the establishment of the Copse as a Local Nature Reserve. With the aid of a grant from English Heritage, CDC provided three large oak lectern frames with information panels, placed at strategic points. BHCCG has installed stiles at various access points and laid paths and built flights of steps for visitors’ safety. The group has put up many bird, owl and bat boxes and arranged surveys of the bird and insect populations throughout the year, with the help and guidance of the Chichester Natural History Society.

Help over the years has come from the Royal Military Police, Bishop Luffa School sixth form volunteers and the Crumblies, a volunteer group which specialises in hedge-laying and glade clearance tasks. Members of BHCCG carry out most of the work of maintaining the ponds and the woodland with weekly sessions throughout the year.

The Copse is used by local schools for environmental studies and is a safe area for children, walkers and dog owners. Guided walks and illustrated talks are available on request and “The Story of Brandy Hole Copse” is an informative BHCCG publication.

Though there are many access points for pedestrians, sadly the area is unsuitable for wheelchair users. Cycle anchor points are situated at the main entrances but cycling in the Copse is prohibited. There is limited car parking in the lay-by at the western end (pedestrians should take care crossing the derestricted road).

Jim Ayling

Goldcrest to heron – the Copse is home to 35 species of birds

The birds are perhaps the most obvious natural inhabitants of Brandy Hole – apart from the trees, of course. So far 35 different bird species have been identified in the Copse, and any walk there will bring you into contact with some of them. The most easily recognised are familiar garden birds – blackbird, dunnock, robin and wren.

Song thrushes and mistle thrushes are seen regularly. Blue tits, great tits and long-tailed tits can be heard calling amongst the trees. The rarer willow tit can sometimes be seen in the Copse along Brandy Hole Lane and has nested there. The tiny goldcrest may mix with the tits, and can be seen occasionally where there are pine trees.

The noisiest birds in the Copse must be the rooks, in early spring, and the woodpeckers. Great spotted woodpeckers and green woodpeckers, easily recognised by their “yaffle” call, are common. The sparrow-sized lesser spotted woodpecker is much rarer and has not been recorded from the Copse. However, it may be worth looking for it in the tree-tops early in the year before the trees are in leaf. Of the corvids, rooks, crows, jays and magpies are regulars.

Greenfinches and chaffinches are common, but the goldfinch favours the edges of the Copse were its main food, small seeds, can be found. The soft, sibilant whistle of the bullfinch can be heard very occasionally in the trees around Willow Pond. See the striking male bullfinch with his black head, white rump, grey back and rose-red breast, and the much drabber female is sure to be nearby.

Sit quietly on the seat behind the oak at Willow Pond for a while, and you may be lucky enough to see a tree creeper. A quiet little bird, it has a brown back, white underside, and a distinctive downward-curved beak. It runs up the trunk of a tree, probing in the bark for the tiny insects and spiders on which it feeds. The much brighter, brasher nuthatch is also present.

Raptors seen in or around the Copse include sparrowhawks which can often hunt smaller birds over Willow and Cops Ponds. Kestrels, easily identified by their ability to hover on the wind, hunt for small mammals in the fields around, and buzzards, which scavenge for food, occur increasingly in the Triangle. Although Chichester’s most famous avian inhabitants, the Cathedral peregrines, may occasionally be seen from the Copse, they do not hunt there.

Finally, the ponds are used by many birds for drinking, but true water-birds are limited to mallards and the occasional moorhen on Cops Pond. However, if you visit Willow Pond very early in the morning you may be lucky enough to see a heron. Just as they take fish from garden ponds so they will take fish and frogs from Willow Pond – especially when the water level is low.

Occasionally also, a grey wagtail will be seen on the mud surrounding the ponds. It has the distinctive tail-flicking habit of the wagtails and is identified by its grey back and yellow underside.

Mike Perry

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