Sue Whigham takes a trip to the coast to discover what makes the nature reserve at Rye Harbour such an incredible habitat for our wildlife
We have the forces of the wind and the sea to thank for the initial formation of the nature reserve down at Rye Harbour, a 475 hectare site which is an integral part of the Romney Marsh, Dungeness and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific interest.
It is made up of many precious and varying habitats including ever changing shingle ridges, saline lagoons, reedbeds, ponds and gravel pits and saltmarsh. All of these provide ideal and safe habitats for an extraordinary variety of interdependent birds, plants and invertebrates. Many of the creatures and plants here are endangered or rare but ongoing and expert management of the Reserve has meant that we are lucky to have such a special place and such biodiversity on our doorstep.
The skies are huge here and the light is ever changing over the sea and the shingle. No two visits are the same. And now, in the spring, the skylarks are singing their hearts out above the Reserve, so different from the winter months when you see them feeding together in companionable groups.
On the shingle things are stirring right now with the emerging shoots of the sea kale taking pride of place. Their leaves are purple and crinkly in their infancy but they soon become a lovely glaucous greeny-blue as they mature. There’s never a dull moment in the cycle of this perfectly adapted plant’s life. Waxy leaves help to prevent water loss. Even the shape of the curly leaves helps with the retention of water and as the water droplets get larger in the nooks and crannies of the leaves, it will eventually make its way to the plant’s extensive roots deep beneath the shingle ridges.
And as the flowering season of the kale finishes, the yellow horned poppy, Glaucium flavum, begins to flower both alongside the path parallel to the sea and on the edges of the shingle. I love this plant for both its rich yellow flowers and its long, elegantly curved seed heads growing out at all angles from the plant. Once they are ripe, later in the year, they will split open and the seeds will be ejected some distance from the parent plant. All clever stuff as they don’t want to be in competition for nutrients or water in these inhospitable conditions. Seventeenth Century herbalists were convinced that the roots of the poppy were the answer to healing bruises as its early name of Bruiseroot suggests, but in fact most parts of the plant are both toxic and hallucinogenic. Another country name for the yellow horned poppy is the rather charming ‘Gold Watches’ which describes the flattened face of the flower perfectly.
Rye Harbour provides perfect conditions too for Viper’s Bugloss, Echium vulgare, as it thrives on a shingly sandy soil which is occasionally disturbed by the passing walkers (and their dogs). Its flowers start off pink but they then become a rather extraordinarily intense ultraviolet. Interestingly, as a plant it provides a source of food for several rare invertebrates – in particular three moths including the black and white Five-Spot Ermel micro moth whose larvae totally depend on both its flowers and its seeds.
And tucked away in the shingle there are several low growing treasures. One is a sub species of Herb robert, Geranium robertianum subsp. maritimum which, although it is tiny and not at all flashy, has an interesting past. Flowering in early summer, small pinky flowers appear from reddish foliage and over the years it has been known by no less than 117 common names. I particularly like the evocative ‘Dolly’s Pinafore’ and ‘Granny’s Needle’ but ‘Death Comes Quickly’ is a little less charming! The plant is said to bring good luck nevertheless.
One of my most favourite wild flowers is Wild Carrot, Daucus carota, and the introduction of this plant in quantity to the Reserve has meant that the rare and lovely Sussex Emerald moth, which feeds off the plant, has been successfully introduced to Rye Harbour. Pure white umbellifer flowers are produced in great profusion. Once the flower is over, the spent flower turns in on itself into a bird’s nest shape which is equally striking. It’s not unusual to see insects like the distinctive Red Soldier Beetle feeding off the flowers and it is thought that the red centres are specifically designed to attract pollinators.
Another plant to look out for and which has benefited from the Reserve’s rabbit free zones is Stinking hawksbeard, Crepis foetida, which was declared extinct in the 1980s. The last few plants were seen at Dungeness but fortunately seeds were collected and saved. And in 2000 just thirty-seven plants were introduced to Rye Harbour and protected from the rabbits by small cages. However, as soon as their flowers grew through the top of the cages, they were eaten. The plant resembles a tall dandelion with slimline yellow flowers and distinctive red markings on the outer petals. You’ll recognise them later on in the season too as their seed heads are white as white and, to quote, look like ‘gigantic cotton buds’.
The shingle is home to tiny snapdragons too. Lilac carpets of Ivy leaved toadflax, Cymbalaria muralis, appear in the spring and flower on through until autumn. One of the most interesting things about this little flower is that its ‘mouth’ is closed. And it can only be opened by either bumblebees or a large solitary bee. The flower’s lower lip consists of two orange mounds which draw the bees in as they recognise the ‘honey guide’ provided by the flower and which then enables them to open the flower by alighting on its bottom lip. They then cross pollinate the plant thoughtfully leaving a trail of pheromones to let other bees know that the flowers they have visited no longer have any nectar so they don’t need to expend any precious energy trying to gain access and pollinate those particular flowers.
Finally, there are over five hundred flowering plants recorded on the Reserve to seek out and enjoy, so go on, what’s stopping you?
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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