Last chance to see a spectacular display of orchids at Sharpenhoe!

The fields near to the car-park at Sharpenhoe Clappers have been in meadow restoration for more than 20 years. These were a huge arable field before the Trust started this habitat restoration work. We are especially pleased to see a huge abundance of pyramidal orchids across these fields this summer. The flowers, which are mainly pink but can be purple or even white, are beginning to ‘go over’ now but we ‘guestimate’ that there are over 5000 flowering spikes. Pyramidal orchids are a good indicator of quality chalk grassland, so to see such an abundance in these meadows is very satisfying.


There are also good patches of other wildflowers such as birdsfoot trefoil, lesser trefoil, rough hawkbit, red clover, white clover and a scattering of bee orchids too. An unusual plant, with a brown flower, is the knapweed broomrape, which we first saw in these fields 3 years ago. There are now hundreds present. This plant steals its food from a host plant, by plugging its roots into those of the knapweed.


Also worth looking out for are the marbled white, dark-green fritillary and chalkhill blue butterflies, all of which are on the wing now.


Fly Orchid at Sundon Hills

At Sundon Hills country park we have a very rare special Orchid which is in flower at the moment.


It’s called a fly orchid and attracts a specific digger wasp, to its flower with the view to pollinate. The Orchid mimics this digger wasp by sight and smell (emits a specific pheromone), as the unwitting fly tries to copulate with the flower, it plies its head with its pollen which it then takes to the next fly orchid!

Fly orchids are rare in Bedfordshire the only site being at Sundon, and are nationally declining. They have an affinity for Beech/Birch woodland on Chalky soils. They flower early in the season April-June.

fly 2

Skylarks Singing

You’ll probably hear skylarks long before you see them. In Spring and Summer, they’ll be advertising their territory with a spectacular flight display, rising high above the downs, singing constantly.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) singing while hovering, Cheshire, UK, April

As a bird itself is relatively unspectacular, being a pretty drab brown streaky colour with 2 distinctive white stripes at the sides of a triangular tail. It also has a crest on its head which raises when the bird is alarmed.

Skylark (Alauda arvensis) perched on a dry stone wall at dawn, Derbyshire, UK, June

Their song was once heard all over the English countryside, but in the past 30 years their numbers have fallen by oiver half. As is the story for most farmland birds. Modern farming methods have greatly reduced the areas where they can feed and build their nests on the ground.

Here on the Downs, as with most places they nest in medium-length grass, so please look where you’re putting your feet when off the path!

Spring has Sprung…

Spring, the season between winter and summer where temperatures gradually rise. It extends from the vernal equinox (day and night equal in length), March 20 or 21, to the summer solstice (year’s longest day), June 21 or 22.

In many cultures spring has been celebrated with rites and festivals revolving around its importance in food production. The concept of spring is associated with the sowing of crops. During this time of the year all plants, including cultivated ones, begin growth anew after the dormancy of winter. Animals are greatly affected, too; they come out of their winter dormancy or hibernation and begin their nesting and reproducing activities; birds migrate from warmer climes in response to the warmer temperatures.

 Barn swallow (Hirundo rustica) in flight, Cheshire, UK, June

The ecological definition of spring relates to biological indicators; the blossoming of a range of plant species or the activities of animals. It therefore varies according to the climate and according to the specific weather of a particular year.

Easter falls in this period and is categorised by the blooming of Daffodils. Of which are non-natives, believed to be escapees from private collections, but still nice to see this time of year. Here at the Downs we an Easter egg trail, which was so successful, with over 1000 children taking part.

Daffodils growing in the garden at Monk's House, East Sussex.

The white blossoms of Hawthorn and Blackthorn also line hedgerows and roadsides, before trees come into leaf.

Bluebells are also a good indicator of spring, covering the floors of ancient woodland in a rich purple.

The gardens in the spring at Rufford Old Hall, Lancashire.

There are a number of events on the downs including a number of ranger led walks; spring flowers, orchids, butterfly and glow worm walks. Keep an eye on the NT website for the adverts and how to book.

Lambs at Sundon and the Clappers

It’s that time of year again and the spring lambs are being turned out onto pastures to fatten up for the season.

Sheep and lambs grazing in the parkland at Calke Abbey, Derbyshire.

At Sundon Hills and Sharpenhoe Clappers the lambs have been put back onto the land following a successful lambing season by our tenant farmer. We ask dog walkers to please be respectful of this and to keep their dogs on leads.

Lamb in May at Calke Park National Nature Reserve, Derbyshire.

The sheep at these sites act as a natural lawnmower, keeping the grass short which is part of a wider long term plan to un-enrich the land, removing the nutrients and inevitably reverting the land back to a florally rich chalk grassland habitat which is a nationally scarce habitat.


A walk on Whipsnade Downs

With a couple of hours free this afternoon I thought that I would take a wander around the Downs. If the truth was told I was butterfly twitching, hoping that I might see a very early Duke of Burgundy or possibly a Green Hairstreak. and

In the end I saw a Peacock and a Brimstone, too early for the others. Already in flower I saw cowslip, the food plant of the Duke of Burgundy, violets and blackthorn.

Violets Cowslip

You might be able to see the leaves of a Common Spotted Orchid, there is a clearer one below. These orchids are one of eight species which can be found on the sunken trackways during the year.

Orchid on trackway

Orchid on trackway

The next thing that caught my eye was bright in the middle of the path – why do people do this?

Then I came across this plant and I was stumped which was a bit embarrassing as I used to a woodland manager.


Can you guess what the plant is, I didn’t until I saw a more developed one.

Beech seedling

Quite a cute seedling.

I was heading back to the car now and wishing I had a birder with me. I had seen Red Kite, Buzzard, Kestrel, Blackbird, Wood Pigeon and lots that I couldn’t identify.

If you are near the downs over the next few days have a walk and see what is about, you might be the first person in Bedfordshire this year to see a Duke of Burgundy. If you feel like recording what you see you can do so on the Bedfordshire Natural History Society website –

Alternatively you could email your records to


Motte-and-Bailey Ditch clearance at Totternhoe

This winter one of our projects has been a Norman, 11th century Mott and Bailey ditch at Totternhoe. We have finally finished and the results are spectacular. Go to Totternhoe Knolls and see the results for yourself.……

ditch 2

A motte-and-bailey castle is a fortification with a wooden or stone keep situated on a raised earthwork called a motte, accompanied by an enclosed courtyard, or bailey, surrounded by a protective ditch and palisade.


Here we cleared out one of the ditches of scrub in order to improve the ever rapidly depleting rich chalk grassland habitat there is at Totternhoe and to protect and enhance the Scheduled Ancient Monument from disturbance.