Great spring for rare and endangered species at Dunstable Downs

Ranger Rose:

It’s lovely to hear more about our splendid wildlife from the experts!

Originally posted on National Trust in the East :

A tiny and very rare wild flower called Field Fleawort has been re-discovered on Dunstable Downs in Bedfordshire, after an absence of more than 40 years. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t heard of it, this plant is so rare, that it’s listed as one of Britain’s endangered species.

National Trust Wildlife and Countryside Advisor, Stuart Warrington picks up the story…

Field-Fleawort-by-SWField Fleawort is only found on the dry thin soils of chalk downland, with a handful of sites in the Chilterns, South Downs and Salisbury Plain. What makes this plant so hard to spot is its tiny leaves, and the fact that only a few of them will produce their yellow flowers each spring. Dunstable Downs was one of the first places in Britain where this rare plant was found, with records dating back to 1892, but over the years very few people seem to have been able to…

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A wild sleepover with the Rangers

The Bedfordshire Rangers had a great time last weekend doings some of the ‘50 things to do before you’re 11 3/4‘ with six families who joined us for our annual wild sleepover!



We started on Saturday afternoon and managed to get most of the tents up before the rain arrived but had to flee to a barn for shelter and to try our hand at making grass trumpets (No. 25) – Ranger Rose ran out in the rain (No. 6) to fetch a few handfuls of suitable grass and we soon had an orchestra’s worth of noisy grass trumpets.

Stomping through wet grass after a heavy shower

Stomping through wet grass after a heavy shower

When the rain stopped we headed out to track wild animals (No. 34) and less than 20 meters from the tents we spotted signs of rabbits. A little further on (after stopping to feed the pigs grass through the fence) we found deer tracks and an abandoned badger sett as well as several shallow holes in the ground which we checked for badger poo! Close to Whipsnade Tree Cathedral we saw how humans had affected the landscape as many of the trees beside the path were coppiced.

tracking wild animals

Checking for badger poo!

Back at the campsite we cooked our dinner (No. 47) on a selection of small fires expertly managed by Ranger Steve who also helped with getting the marshmallows toasted to perfection :)

Ranger sized portions of veggie bolognaise!

Ranger sized portions of veggie bolognaise!

The weather cleared once more for our night nature walk (No. 40) although not enough for star gazing (No. 27) and we headed over to one of our biggest setts but didn’t manage to sneak up on any badgers. On the way back (climbing a HUGE hill – No. 28) we saw bats and heard owls and we made it back in time for hot chocolate before bed.

After a night of camping out in the wild (No. 3) we went next door to feed the pigs their breakfast (No.23) before having our breakfast (sausages).

visit a farmThe porkers in this picture are being fattened up for bacon and will be available soon (from Tony via Trust Our Pigs).

Thank you very much to all the families that joined us – we had a great time and look forward to seeing many of you at the next Run Wild – Free family activity walks on the first Sunday of every month.



Doings on Dunstable Downs

Matthew Oates, the National Trust’s National Specialist on Nature has written the following blog post following a visit to Dunstable & Whipsnade Downs earlier this week. To find out more about Matthew – 

I first visited the Dunstable Downs thirty years ago, in pursuit of His Grace the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. Then, the downs held a tiny colony of this little jewel, seemingly on the verge of extinction. But by careful and highly targeted habitat management, by the National Trust and members of Butterfly Conservation, the colony has increased and expanded wondrously. In just over an hour on May 19th this year I counted 46 individuals, and would have seen many more on a more vigorous search. By Duke of Burgundy standards that is a sizeable population – I reckon that any site where more than 50 individuals can readily be counted in a couple of hours or so is of national importance. So there you have it, conservation works!

Duke of Burgundy

The great news is that the Rabbit population is down. That means that the downland grasses and flowers are starting to recover. The problem with Rabbits is that there are either too many or too few of them, and they devour our treasured downland flowers but leave coarse and invasive plants untouched – i.e. they eat the wrong things. Upright Brome Grass is now beginning to reassert itself – it can reassert itself too much of course, in which case we may need to send for the cows. Field Fleawort, a rare and declining downland plant, has reappeared after a lengthy absence. I hadn’t seen it anywhere since the early 1990s, and am a man of the chalk downs. The orchids are looking good too.

Field Fleawort Dunstable Downs 19.5.14

There are problems still, of course: bramble wants to take over the world, rather like the Daleks, and there is too much scrub still. But we have worked out how to control Wild Raspberry which is curiously invasive on these downs (the only other place I know where it is a problem species is Savernake Forest in Wiltshire).   In all, Dunstable Downs is in wondrously good heart! Expect more minor miracles from here.

Matthew Oates

Butterflies and blooms

The Bedfordshire Rangers had a lovely group walk this morning with some of our volunteers and Stuart (The National Trust’s Nature Advisor for the East of England). We were working on our guided walk skills as tomorrow is the first guided walk of the season (Saturday 17th May – Butterfly walk – there are a few places still available if you can make it to the visitor centre on Dunstable Downs at 11am!).

"Sedges have edges, and rushes are round, But grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground"

“Sedges have edges, and rushes are round,
But grasses have nodes from their tips to the ground”

Dunstable and Whipsnade Downs have some very special features – the sunken trackways – which are folds in the hillside formed by many centuries of foot traffic (people and their sheep). These are great for butterflies and flowers as they are quite sheltered from the wind and have both a north and a south facing slope in a small area which provides suitable habitat for a wide variety of species.

The sunken trackways on Dunstable and Whipsnade Downs are peppered with cowslips - the food plant of the Duke of Burgundy caterpillar

The sunken trackways on Dunstable and Whipsnade Downs are peppered with cowslips – the food plant of the Duke of Burgundy caterpillar

We were paying particular attention to butterflies and their favourite food plants but also saw a wide variety of chalk grassland plants coming into flower. Meadow buttercups were strewn across the sheep field (which isn’t yet being grazed) and silverweed clustered around the gate onto the lower half of Whipsnade Downs. As the path dipped down into the first sunken trackway we saw five different types of butterfly in quick succession – green hairstreak, grizzled skipper, brimstone, large white (also known as the cabbage white) and the Duke of Burgundy (one of the UK’s most threatened butterflies).

His grace the Duke of Burgundy

His grace the Duke of Burgundy

Coming into flower were a myriad of yellow blooms – mignonette, horseshoe vetch, creeping buttercup, rock rose, and meadow buttercup. There were large patches of my favourite little blue flowers – Germander speedwell (sounds like the name of a Bond girl)! We also saw huge numbers of orchid leaves, some with buds starting to show – it looks like it will be another great year for flowers on our hills!

The first bits of colour are showing on our common spotted orchids already!

The first bits of colour are showing on our common spotted orchids already!

For more information about guided walks across South Bedfordshire see our pages on the National Trust website.

Our Easter Traditions – Orange rolling on Dunstable Downs

imgresFor at least two hundred years on Good Friday, the people of Dunstable and neighbouring villages would gather at the top of the Downs, then chase oranges thrown down the hills, attempting to catch them. There is some great footage from 1938 of this on

The origins of this event are unknown, but it is believed to have started in the mid-to-late 18th century. By the end of the 19th century, newspaper records show that it was an annual event attended by hundreds of people, known at the time as “pelting oranges”. At this time it was common for bands, fairground-type rides and stalls to set up at the bottom of the pit, to further entertain the revellers. At the turn of the 20th century there were issues with rowdy elements within the crowds, in one particular instance over-running a coconut shy, eventually resulting in banning of such amusements in 1914. However, the event would continue, with increasing visitors from further afield such as London, as transportation improved.

WWII was to bring the first break from this tradition, as by 1941 the fruit was in short supply owing to rationing. Post-war the Dunstable Chamber of Trade attempted to bring back the event, but by 1968 it was decided rest it, due to Health and Safety regulations and a lack of support from local traders. Apart from isolated attempts to revive the event, such as in 1985, and despite fond memories from older locals, these factors plus the build-up of scrub on the slopes make it impractical to hold the event today.

A new lease of life

Spring is the season of new life: the birds are nesting, flowers are in bloom and butterflies do their acrobatic courtship dances in the sky. However, this Spring marked the end of life for one mighty oak in the hedge line of Sundon Hills Country Park, which came crashing down a few weeks ago. The fallen giant lay crushing the fence and obstructing the path so the Ranger team were called out for a mammoth clean up operation.DSCF3386The first task was clearing off the masses of ivy that had enrobed the tree in a leafy blanket. The vines had grown thick and woody; it took an hour of precision cutting with pole saws and chainsaws to strip it off before the true scale of the oak below was revealed. With the tree bare it was now plain to see that we had a truly hefty piece of wood to move, and the trunk would have to be cut. Once the chainsaw had done its work we could peer inside, and then we made an exciting discovery…the outer hard wood of the oak was perfectly intact, whilst the centre was completely rotten away. We had a perfect wooden tube, wide enough for a child to crawl through, and this natural tunnel was surely the next addition to our Chute Wood playscape. We just had to get it there..DSCF3395The winch of a Landrover is an impressive piece of machinery, but we really put it through it’s paces lifting this tree. Reversing inch by inch to push the vehicle under the wood, trying not to push the fence down that was supporting the trunk and reluctant to cut the length any shorter…it was a complicated logistical challenge, as well as a test of our vehicle’s power. Suddenly it glided into place, fitting on the back without an inch to spare. We had our treasure!DSCF3402Lying back in our yard now, this wonderful length of oak will soon be installed in the woodland for people to explore, climb on, play in. Rather than a death, it seems more like a rebirth for this tree, after standing hidden away for so long under an ivy cloak it can now be admired by all our visitors.

If you go down to the woods today..

..tread very carefully, because there’s a miniature world of weird and wonderful dens underfoot! This is not the work of pixies and fairies, in fact these tiny homes were created by human hands. Children’s, to be precise, to house a host of mini-critters, such as this fellow:

(it's a badger..)

(it’s a badger..)

The Rangers have been leading den-building sessions with our regular Run Wild rabble and some visiting school groups, but instead of shelters for ourselves we imagined where foxes, badgers and hedgehogs might sleep. We thought it best to use some softer, more cuddly models as the real animals can be somewhat shy (and spiky!), and used sticks, bark and leaves to make shelters. Imaginations overflowed as mossy clumps became cosy blankets, pine cones were reinvented as dining furniture, pine-needles became gate-posts in expertly crafted miniature gardens.


We hope that thinking about the habitats and environments of wild animals will encourage future generations to make space for nature in our increasingly industrialised, urban society. There are other benefits to this kind of play too, as young children develop problem solving skills and learn to effectively cooperate and work as a group. Most importantly, we all had a lot of fun….so if you go down to the woods today, why not build a den?