Eight reasons to love South Downs heathland
The South Downs National Park celebrated its 8th birthday on 31 March and we’re marking the occasion with eight breath taking clips getting up close and personal to some special heathland wildlife.
Lowland heath, one of the rarest habitats on Earth, was created more than 6,000 years ago when Neolithic man began to clear the forests. The acidic sandy soil couldn’t be used for growing crops so was put aside for grazing and what emerged was a landscape of dry heath and wet bogs and within its dwarf forest of gorse and heather lies a magical world.
In early spring many of the creatures that live on the heath are emerging from their burrows after a long winter in hibernation. In April male sand lizards develop dazzling green patterns on their flanks – an irresistible lure for females who wiggle their tails to woo their suitor. Once they’ve mated, the male might guard the female for several days fighting off any other males who approach her. If he keeps out of trouble, he could live for up to 12 years.
The adder is Britain’s only venomous snake. Mice, frogs and sand lizards are all on its menu.
The rare Dartford warbler lives nowhere else but here on the heath. The arrival of spring brings an explosion of insect life and with their brood already in the nest, these warblers are busy foraging for bugs to feed their young.
A field cricket emerges from his burrow. Just outside he clears a small platform, and begins his serenade. No longer able to fly, its wings have adapted to produce it’s distinctive chirping sound. Amazingly, the female can tell how strong and healthy he is just by listening to his song.
The male natterjack toads begin their evening chorus. It’s not exactly a love song, but to the female toad, it’s as good as it gets – and the louder, the better. Said to be Europe’s noisiest amphibian, the natterjacks can be heard up to several kilometres away.
Silver studded blue butterfly
In June a flush of purple covers the heathland when the bell heather comes into flower. It’s a rich source of nectar for many insects that live here including this silver studded blue butterfly. The male butterfly lives for just a few weeks. His sole purpose is to find a female. Once they’ve mated, she’ll crawl down into the heather to lay her eggs.
The digger wasp has a special interest in caterpillars. The wasp is prepares holes in the ground, paralyses the caterpillar, lays a single egg on its body and buries it alive. Entombed beneath the ground, a few caterpillars are buried in each cell. The new wasp larva will devour them, one by one, and emerge as an adult next spring.
The tiny sundew plant is perfectly adapted to survive on these nutrient poor soils. Its leaves have evolved to produce shiny sticky droplets – an enticing but lethal meal for a passing insect because the sundew is carnivorous. The insects are trapped on the leaf, which will eventually close around digest it.
Lowland heath is a fragile habitat. 95% of it has been lost worldwide and 20% of what is left, is in the UK. Fragmented by development and forest encroachment, the wildlife in these small islands of heathland remains highly vulnerable.
But great efforts are being made to bring back grazing and to create wildlife corridors, linking the heathlands together, helping the animals and plants that live here to flourish.
Find out more about our work to protect the small pockets of lowland heath that remain in the South Downs through the Heathland Reunited project