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Book Review: From Bullingdon Prison to Brandy Hole Copse

December 13, 2011 2011 Winter No Comments

In January 2009, Patrick Barkham, the Guardian’s Cambridge-educated feature writer, set himself the task of seeing and photographing within the year, every one of the UK’s 59 species of butterflies. Ambitious? Yes. Heroic? Possibly. Nerdy? Maybe. However you judge it, Barkham’s decision resulted in The Butterfly Isles, a rare delight of a book, which has recently been published by Granta Publications.

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Queen of Spain Fritillary

Barkham’s butterfly year began in February, searching for the microscopic eggs of Brown Hairstreaks in the straggly blackthorn trees outside Bullingdon Prison, and it ended in Brandy Hole Copse – of which more, later. The search was led by a burly senior prison officer, who was also a big butterfly enthusiast, and was keen to manage the hedges surrounding the prison in order to help Brown Hairstreaks to live there. During the following nine months, Barkham travelled the length and breadth of the British Isles, and in so doing, he met a range of well-informed, but distinctly specialist, characters. They ranged from Jeremy Thomas, the modest, scholarly Professor of Ecology at Oxford University, who had single-handedly saved four or five British butterflies, including the Large Blue, from certain extinction; through to Maurice Hughes, a powerful-looking Ulsterman who drove Barkham in his souped-up version of a high performance Volvo, from Belfast City Airport to the Craigavon Lakes in Armagh, in order to help him track down Britain’s newest butterfly, a Real’s Wood White.

Barkham is extremely well-informed about the eating and mating habits of each species of butterfly, and about the experiences and recollections by the butterfly collectors of yesteryear. He wears his scholarship lightly, and writes with verve and a beautifully light touch. The book may well become a classic of British nature writing, Barkham was also lucky, as 2009 was a good year for butterflies. For in May of that year, as in 1996 and 2003, Britain was invaded from the Continent by swarms of Painted Ladies. Moreover in June, Butterfly Conservation also discovered a swarm of Heath Fritillaries in a clearing in Blean Woods, just outside Canterbury.

But the peak of Barkham’s year came in October, with the discovery in Brandy Hole Copse, of a Queen of Spain Fritillary. He was alerted to its presence by Neil Hulme, a fit-looking micro-palaeontologist, and the Chairman of the Sussex Branch of Butterfly Conservation, who arranged his work for oil companies around summers seeking butterflies. According to Hulme, the butterfly had probably come from Normandy and followed one of the fingers of Chichester Harbour inland. It was to be Barkham’s sixtieth species, which meant that, by the end of the year, he had seen and photographed one more than he had originally planned.

Barkham’s book ends with some evocative descriptions of the Copse, and with him and Hulme leaning in and admiring the female Queen of Spain ‘as she lay flat out [with] tiny traces of spilt male sperm upon her body’. ‘It was not beyond the bounds of possibility’, Barkham claims, that this single butterfly ‘could be the first generation of a new resident species, the first in a vanguard of Continental butterflies tempted by the warmer currents and milder winters to try their luck across the Channel.’ Let’s hope he is right.

Vincent Porter

Patrick Barkham, The Butterfly Isles. A Summer in Search of Our Emperors and Admirals, Line drawings by Helen Macdonald, Granta Publications. Hardback 2010, paperback 2011.

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.

Letter to the Editor

January 1, 2011 2010 Winter No Comments
White Admiral Butterfly

White Admiral

Walking through Brandy Hole Copse recently, I was very disappointed to find that many of the old honeysuckle stems rambling over the trees in Willow Glade had been cut through and allowed to die. Honeysuckle, preferably in shady overgrown woodland like Willow Glade, is the only food plant for the larvae of the White Admiral, which is one of the Copse’s ‘special’ butterflies. Killing and removing this honeysuckle is therefore highly likely to have serious consequences for the continued existence of White Admirals in the Copse.

This point was specifically included in the 2008–2013 Management Plan for the Copse. Section 7.4 clearly states that: ‘Any tree cutting… in this compartment must take account of the conservation requirements of White Admiral butterflies and their need for mature trees, honeysuckle and bramble. No honeysuckle must be removed without prior agreement.’ I am not aware that any such agreement has been sought.

In the same vein, it is worth reminding everybody concerned with the management of the Copse that ivy rambling over trees is an extremely useful plant ecologically because

  1. it is the larval food plant for the autumn brood of the Holly Blue butterfly;
  2. the nectar produced by ivy flowers is invaluable for Red Admirals, Peacocks, Commas and many other insects in the late autumn when there are few other nectar sources around;
  3. thick masses of ivy provide shelter for insects that hibernate including Brimstone and Peacock butterflies.

The removal of honeysuckle and ivy climbing over the trees in the Copse can only have negative effects on its butterflies. Neither plant should be removed without seeking prior approval from the Management Board.

Yours sincerely, Mike Perry, Chair, Chichester Natural History Society

A Bank for Nature

January 1, 2011 2010 Winter No Comments

Richard Williamson celebrates the biodiversity of the Copse and highlights the need to preserve the biosphere in our bank.

At first glance, Brandy Hole Copse is just a pleasant little wood with bluebells, butterflies and birds for lucky local residents to wrap around their homes. It is also a lung where city folk can walk in safe surroundings, making 15,000 day visits per annum. That is the general view of one of the species that knows this nature reserve: Homo sapiens.

What of the other 1,297 species so far recorded? Most of them we humans hardly notice. We may see and recognise a Fox or a Grey Squirrel if it crosses our path, but there are seven species of bats alone among the seventeen different mammals. There are 10 different snails with wonderful names such as Pea Mussel and Trumpet Ramshorn. Birds flit about in the treetops with rooks, robins and blackbirds most obvious, but altogether 44 species have been recorded, with rarities such as the Willow Tit and the Green Sandpiper.

114 different fungi play out their brief lives above ground after networking unseen in what to them is an underground haven of good soil and clean air. At night 200 different moths arise from their crèches in 174 different flowering plants. They have wonderful names such as Satin Lutestring and Maiden’s Blush. The casual visitor might see a Devil’s Coach-horse but another 282 beetles are marching over the ground and through the trees on their mission to recycle the detritus from dying tissue. Four different bumblebees do their bit to pollinate our food crops: we would be lost without them. Each has its own particular requirements for a home base.

We all appreciate the big bright butterflies flitting past but there are altogether 26 species of butterflies that have safe homes in the reserve. That these survive is due to the work of volunteers who manage the coppice and the rides. Each species has its own requirements: apart from needing nectar from flowers, they will only lay their eggs on a particular species of plant. Speckled Woods need that special dappling of light and shade their work provides. So you can wonder at the Holly Blues as they search the ivy of the gardens and woodlands for the best place to lay their eggs so the caterpillars will get a good meal when they hatch. Dense ivy clumps are also vital to the butterflies that hibernate, such as Brimstone, whose burst of bright sulphurous yellow tells us spring has arrived, and all is well with the world. Masses of honeysuckle are essential for the survival of the White Admiral butterfly found in the copse. Recently the rarest of all British butterflies, The Queen of Spain, bred in the reserve.

Variety is everything: bio-diversity is not just a buzz-word. It has a very real meaning. Brandy Hole Copse is a wildlife city in its own right. The surrounding private gardens are all part of the superstructure. So are the hedges and lanes leading out to join up with other reserves and gene pools. Chiffchaffs, Nightingales, and all other migrant birds use these green highways on their ways inland to spread out in spring and on their way back to the coast and on out to Africain the autumn. So do the butterflies, the beetles, the bats and the animals that bring in plant seed or carry it on to colonise other places.

It is vital to keep it all safe and properly managed to help make our own ecosystem safe. If the natural world breaks down, then the downward slope for humans will rapidly follow. The last government introduced the Lawton Report, which recognised the value of a benign urban landscape that can complement the countryside to everyone’s advantage. Wildlife must be allowed to co-exist with us, and Brandy Hole Copse shows how this survival and networking can be achieved in the easiest and most pleasant way for all. Our understanding of farming wildlife to our advantage grows by the day as does our moral understanding of concern for species other than ourselves.

Brandy Hole Copse is where we keep our biosphere in the bank, our species on deposit. If we really are prudent, we can enjoy the interest, while never spending the capital.

Queen of Spain Fritillary seen in the copse

September 15, 2008 Friends, Natural History No Comments

Report by Mike Perry

Wandered through Brandy Hole Copse today – hoping to see some butterfles. Only saw one – but what a butterfly! A Queen of Spain Fritillary resting on a fleabane flower. A migrant, the QoS is a real rarity – a preliminary check of Sussex records suggests it was last seen here in 1969 so it’s a bit special.

One up to Brandy Hole – knocks all those Silver-washed Fritillaries into a cocked hat!

Images of Brandy Hole’s very own Queen of Spain Fritillary.

Queen of Spain Fritillary Queen of Spain Fritillary

The Copse never ceases to amaze me!

The County Lepidopterist Colin Pratt has now confirmed the identification. He also says that no Queen of Spain was found in Sussex from 1969 to 2007 when one was found in Storrington and there were two unconfirmed reports from Kingley Vale. If numbers are increasing we may not have to wait 50 years to see the next one!

See the UK Butterflies website for more details and pictures of this butterfly.

Awards for the Copse

December 4, 2007 2007 Autumn No Comments

South East in Bloom Award 2007

Jo Brooks and Nigel Brown receiving award from Duncan Goodhew

From the Chairman, Graham Ault

We were delighted to hear this Summer that the Copse has been recognised and commended again in the South East in Bloom Competition this year. We were visited by two sets of judges back in July, one as part of the Chichester entry for towns and cities in the South East and one as part of a special ‘Country Parks’ category.

South East in Bloom Award

The Award

Chichester won a silver award based on a number of parks and open spaces around the City, and Brandy Hole Copse was a significant part of that award. In the Country Parks category we fought off a strong challenge from a nature reserve in the Ouse Valley, Newhaven, to win the silver award.

I can confirm that there is a plaque for each of these awards although the District Council will not trust us to keep the Country Parks plaque (probably very wise!). However we can borrow it for special occasions.

There are times when we wonder if it can be worth all the effort that goes into preparing for this competition, but we have had great support from the District Council, who put together an excellent briefing document for the judges and supervised the whole process. My thanks in particular to Jo Brooks, our Environmental Officer at the Council.

This is all good news as it has been such a disappointing year in the Copse with the poor summer weather, the invasion of the travellers and the ever present threat of housing development.

Although I sometimes get depressed about the activities of some youngsters who vandalise the Copse and show it no respect, I must mention one young lady, Rosie Collins, who has, for the second year running, chosen to do her Duke of Edinburgh Award project in the Reserve.

Having done a wonderful job last year in recording our mature trees, she has this year carried out an excellent survey of butterflies and their nectaring plants (with some excellent guidance from Mike Perry). Thanks Rosie. It makes it all worthwhile!

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