Thursday, 26 June 2014

Hook Norton Cutting and Banks SSSI: clouds of marbled white butterflies

Weds 25th June

An evening visit to the limestone grasslands south of Hook Norton was a truly memorable experience - a fine sunny evening, lots of flowers and impressive numbers of butterflies.
path through the restored meadows
I started my exploration at Cow Lane Farm, an access site promoted by Natural England as a country walk.  There is a small pull-in off the lane and a mown grassy path winds across the main field.  As soon as you enter the field, the great variety of colour of the grasses and flowers hits you.  What is really remarkable is that just over twenty years ago this field was under arable cultivation.  Now it looks like one of our best conserved ancient meadows, though the lack of any ant hills is a small clue that it's origin is more recent.  A great job has been done by the landowner Mary Powell and inspiring to see.

pyramidal orchids
Before long, I am drawn to the numerous pyramidal orchids scattered across the field, and chance upon a patch of bee orchids.  Further on a few clustered bellflowers add a dash of purple-blue to the tapestry.
clustered bellflower
Looking across the fence I notice literally clouds of marbled white butterflies lifting from the tussocky grass and greater knapweed in the adjoining meadow.

marbled whites on greater knapweed
marbled white
marbled white
meadow brown
This is the "Banks" part of the SSSI, and the main source of the wildflower seed that had spread so successfully across the new meadow.  This true ancient meadow has a different character and some really special flowers, many typical of limestone grassland - dropwort, rockrose and sainfoin.  It reminds me, in miniature, of childhood rambles on the South Downs of Sussex.
In late June I am seeing it just at its peak for flowers, but the interest will continue into late summer when fellwort should be common.

six-spot burnet moth on meadow scabious
After wandering around the meadow, I headed a very short distance up the lane to the railway cutting part of the SSSI.  The sun is quite low by now and there is much less butterfly activity.  The wildlife trust care for the site and have a task on their hands keeping the advancing scrub at bay.
railway cutting part of the SSSI
My next stop is Balscote Quarry nature reserve, where I round off the evening watching curlew coming into roost in the ever dwindling shallows of the main pool.  There are two when I arrive and 8.40, then just after nine, groups of three and two drop in.  In recent days up to 16 have come in to roost.  These birds will have completed breeding and are gathering ahead of their movement to wintering grounds somewhere on the coast.
two of the roosting curlews, late evening

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