Sue Whigham explores the wonderful biodiversity on the Isle of Oxney

We got pretty excited early this morning when we spotted a large stand of ragwort behind a hedge (and luckily nowhere near livestock). Why? Because that would explain the first cinnabar moth that we’ve caught sight of on the Isle of Oxney in twenty odd years – or is it thirty? That was a few weeks ago and what a lovely creature it is. A night flying moth making occasional daytime forays.
Its distinctive colouring is fabulous; crimson hindwings boldly decorated with both strong red lines and spots. The moth’s black and yellow caterpillars congregate on ragwort and their bright markings warn off potential predators because as they continue to feed, the poison from the plant intensifies. Isn’t Nature clever.
Inspired by Michael Howard’s talk at the Rye Harbour Discovery Centre a week or so ago, a friend and I (and three small dogs) took ourselves to the National Trust owned field behind St. Mary’s Church on the Isle of Oxney a couple of days ago. The field is awash with creeping thistles which seem to have grown to mammoth proportions and which we waded through. There are also large stands of brambles and the odd statuesque Marsh Thistle (Cirsium palustre) growing around the stream that cuts through the field.
Whilst I know that creeping thistles are not everybody’s idea of a friend, the place was buzzing with butterflies, moths and grasshoppers – all swooping and dancing around us and alighting on the thistle flowers. We must have looked very odd to any passing walker as we tried to get close enough to snap them whilst they were having a quick break from all this activity.
Butterfly highlights were the Marbled White and a lovely Peacock. The Peacock has very pronounced eye spots and glorious markings, but when it closes its wings it looks rather like a dead, shrivelled leaf. This disguise is obviously to confuse would-be predators. Once disturbed though the butterfly will give a quick flash of its eye spots – enough to frighten off even the most intrepid would-be enemy.
The damselflies too were exploring the field – one with a bright green iridescent head and a long, beautiful blue abdomen. Oh, and translucent wings too. That one did stay put for a few seconds and we managed a blurred image… probably best to enjoy seeing them in the moment.
Michael Howard is the National Trust Head Ranger responsible for 1,100 acres in and around Winchelsea and has been for six years. He also has responsibility for some land on the Isle of Oxney including the field we were exploring this week. With a team of two, plus six able volunteers, his remit is huge but oh, such an interesting and varied job. They look after coppiced woodland, wildflower meadows, reed beds, grazing marsh, coastal paths and more. The volunteers get involved in hard physical work such as reed bed maintenance in the winter months as well as undertaking surveys of the biodiversity they have on the NT land (which is the favourite part of Michael’s job) and it was quite optimistic to hear that the populations of many birds and insects as well as creatures like the water voles and little bank voles are flourishing. Snipe, field fares, corn buntings, and short eared owls were amongst the birds that were mentioned.
The National Trust are also involved in building and installing nesting boxes in different habitats to attract more birds; sometimes replacing ones that aren’t suitable any more or not being used. Recently 15 swift boxes were installed in Winchelsea. I hope I’ve got my facts right on that one. And their barn owl and tawny owl boxes made by one of the volunteers are attracting residents. It can often take a while for the birds to take up home in these – the numbers and the occupancy are all monitored and recorded.
My neighbour built and installed a barn owl box three or so years ago and whilst it hasn’t been discovered by barn owls as yet, a pair of kestrels have been making the most of it and raising a brood each season. It’s wonderful to listen to and watch the fledglings being taught how to hunt by their attentive parents from the field below. The latest news is that a pigeon has now discovered the box and unknown to it, is being viewed on a TV screen in the kitchen!
We heard too about Market Wood at Fairlight which is a parcel of fourteenth century Ancient Woodland managed by the Trust and which is coppiced every fifteen years. Here they use the wood that they have coppiced for fencing and it was interesting to hear about the ‘dead hedges’ that were built to protect from deer. And then there is the land at Crutches Farm which is on the ‘edge of the higher ground surrounding the flat low lying grazing lands of the Brede Valley’. This is designated as part of the Romney Marshes Joint Character Area. The idea is to manage it differently in future with the intention of encouraging more and varied biodiversity.
Some areas will be managed to become wetter; more hedges will be planted to give birds, insects and mammals protection and increased nesting sites and there is also a move afoot to use mob grazing where livestock are on the land in greater numbers but for shorter durations. This then allows for a longer than usual time for grass to recover and provide varied food stuffs and cover.
Mr. Howard spoke about the myriad bees and insects thriving on the land he and his team manage. We were all impressed by the man in Row Three whose bee knowledge was huge! He put us all to shame. I didn’t know that bumble bees evolved in the Himalayas or that there are 26 species of nomad bees in this area or that some bees have longer tongues than others – useful if you want to feed from, say, a foxglove. But there are also other bees who just bite through the top of the flower to get what they need – an ingenious short-cut surely.
I must say that I don’t think many of us had heard of the green tiger beetle, Cicindela campestris, either. This beetle is one of Britain’s fastest insects – it is able to run up to five miles an hour to catch its prey. It is armed with large sickle shaped jaws and a set of sharp teeth. The sun apparently enables them to run faster, so look out for a speedy metallic green creature with purple-y bronze legs.
They have been spotted somewhere near Winchelsea!

Sue Whigham can be contacted on 07810 457948 for gardening advice and help in the sourcing and supply of interesting garden plants.

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