10th July: Aston Upthorpe Downs
Leader: David Hastings
A group of eight members met our leader, David Hastings, beside the grain drier at the foot of the Downs at 10.00am on a bright and sunny morning. On arrival there were several birds near the grain drier: Swallows, a pair of Pied Wagtails that were nesting inside the building, three Goldfinches and two Chiffchaffs. A Skylark was singing high in the sky over a wheat field behind the drier. A Whitethroat was also singing in the hedgerow.
The group then started to walk up the track toward the Downs. This turned into a slow meander as the borders to the track were a profusion of wild flowers, dominated by Creeping and Nodding Thistles, Rosebay Willowherb, Knapweeds and other nectar sources that attracted a range of butterflies. Apparently these borders had been devastated the previous year for fencing and hedging work and it was amazing how they had not only recovered, but were in greater splendour and diversity than before.
Butterflies seen by the track were: Large White, Meadow Brown, Large Skipper, Small Tortoiseshell and Comma. At the start of this area a fresh-looking Red Admiral was seen, the first of at least six. As we continued towards Juniper Valley we saw Ringlets, Small Whites, Marbled Whites, Small Skippers, Small Heath and Gatekeeper. There were at least six pretty faded Painted Ladies, mostly feeding on knapweeds, with one seen laying an egg on a thistle.
After a stop at the more open area beneath Juniper Valley, where more of the same butterflies were seen and the flora was changing to shorter grassland, we entered Juniper Valley. Again here the area was alive with colour, dominated by the yellow of Ladies Bedstraw and the purple of Wild Thyme. One of our walkers with considerable botanical knowledge remarked that it would take a couple of days to catalogue the full flora of this rich chalkland grassland that had been cropped short by the resident Rabbits, their holes being a continued hazard while walking. The aged Junipers in the valley still seem to be surviving well, but there was no sign of any regeneration even where some attempt at planting seems to have been made on the eastern slope.
Meadow Browns and Marbled Whites dominated the butterflies in Juniper Valley, but at least three Dark Green Fritillaries (flying very fast as per usual), three second-brood Common Blues, two Brimstones and a Brown Argus added to our list, but no Chalk Hill Blues (our target species) were seen. There weren't many moths; seen were three Cinnabar adults and there were larvae on some Ragwort plants.
To give the location conservation context much of the area we walked, in particular Juniper Valley is designated an SSSI. To quote the citation:
the core of the chalk grassland interest lies in the short swards found in the southernmost area. The grassland is characterised by a fine turf of sheep's fescue (Festuca ovina) with over 16 species of herb associated with unimproved calcareous grassland in Southern England including the Burnt-tip orchid (Orchis ustulata), Horseshoe Vetch (Hippocrepis comosa), Wild Thyme (Thymus praecox), Dropwort (Filipendula vulgaris) and Rockrose (Helianthemum nummularia). A small population of the nationally rare Pasque Flower (Pulsatilla vulgaris) occurs here at its only current Oxfordshire station. The disturbed soils of therabbit warrens support a strong population of the nationally uncommon Wild Candytuft (Iberis amara).
In this connection a group of us on the way back entered the fenced off part of the SSSI where the flora again was prolific. In particular several patches of the cited Wild Candytuft were found in full flower. Another rarity for Oxfordshire was Pale Toadflax (Linaria repens), the wild relative of our garden purple toadflax
The final part of the walk back yielded a Brown Hawker dragonfly and a male Blackcap was heard singing in the scrub. Back at the drier the remnants of a hot and somewhat dehydrated group thanked David for escorting us on the most enjoyable and productive two-and-half hour walk. As well as seeing 18 species of butterfly, another memory will be the profusion and variety of plants in full flower – not a sight too often seen these days.
Report: Graham Bateman with David Hastings and David Richeard
- Felicity Jenkins, Sally & Mike Ainslie, David & Yen Richeard, Julian Smart, Michael Bloom, Graham Bateman
- Butterflies seen:
- Large White, Small White, Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, Red Admiral, Ringlet, Marbled White, Painted Lady, Gatekeeper, Meadow Brown, Dark Green Fritillary, Brimstone, Common Blue, Brown Argus, Large Skipper, Small Skipper, Small Heath, Brimstone