Saturday, 24 November 2012

Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve on a Summer's Day

As is often the case with the best laid plans, my 'series of catch up posts' wasn't to be but as the weather here has been so very gloomy for the last few weeks I thought it would be nice to be transported back to one of the very few sunny Summer days we had this year and show you a visit I made to Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve. The reserve is located high on the steep north western escarpment of the Chilterns and part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Beauty (COAB), it is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The beauty of this special place was, for me, marred by the ever present sound of traffic from the motorway, the M40 having been carved straight through the chalk hill, the heart of the reserve, which has resulted in reserve land on both sides of the motorway. For much of the time it is only the constant hum of the traffic which disturbs the tranquillity of this lovely place but there is one part which involves a lengthy walk along a narrow track on the top of the very steep hillside where the motorway is in full view far below. Some would probably not find it intrusive but for me it spoilt the place and it is a mystery to me why the decision would have been made, back in 1974, to cut the Chiltern escarpment through the middle of a supposedly protected National Nature Reserve despite, apparently, fierce and passionate opposition at the time by conservationists. I hasten to add I am not being hypocritical and did not travel on the motorway to get there, even though it would have cut the around an hour and a quarter journey by about twenty minutes or so, preferring to avoid such soulless routes whenever possible.


My little rant over ;-) and back to the purpose of the visit which was primarily to look for the Chalkhill Blue butterfly. It is fortunate I didn't go for the Red Kites which should have been there in abundance as the only one I saw was on the journey there! Unlike the visit to nearby Watlington Hill in 2009 when they were everywhere. You can read about that visit here and here. I should add the visit to Watlington Hill was unsullied by sights or sounds of the motorway but I didn't see any Chalkhill Blues there and had read I was more likely to at Aston Rowant and so it was, although on this occasion not in the large numbers I might have expected.

Chalkhill Blue Butterfly

As the name suggests, this pretty little butterfly is found on chalk downland and sometimes limestone downland. Their larval foodplant is Horseshoe Vetch and large numbers of males may be seen en masse obtaining moisture and minerals from animal dung in the same way as the Purple Emperor. The Chalkhill Blue is a butterfly of conservation concern due to weather patterns during the last decade or so.

'0 could I stand beneath the sky,
With shining grass about my feet,
And catch one bright blue butterfly:
I think that life would be too sweet!'
(E.A. Hart)

I interpreted the poem to mean 'catch' with the eye rather than the hands. I think you know I would never approve of that :-)

I only found one with open wings, a male.

There are a small number of attractive sculptures on the reserve which were created by local artists, mostly from wood found there. Each sculpture has a wind-up listening post where you can hear audio clips of either the artist relating the story behind their piece or children and adults explaining what the reserve means to them.

Despite this next butterfly being relatively widespread throughout the country I had never knowingly seen it before although I know many of my UK blogland friends have. It is quite inconspicuous and rarely settles more than a metre above ground so I may well have inadvertently overlooked it in the past.

 Small Heath Butterfly

I spotted this grasshopper on the naturally trodden, narrow track we were following through the chalk grassland, it is slightly out of focus as it was constantly on the move but the photo also shows how chalky the ground is. I'm not completely sure but think it is the Common Green Grasshopper.

EDIT: Thank you very much to Greenie for confirmation of my ID. As always, I knew I could rely on you Greenie.

 Common Green Grasshopper

'When all the birds are faint with the hot sun,
And hide in cooling trees, a voice will run
From hedge to hedge about the new-mown mead;
That is the Grasshopper's--he takes the lead
In summer luxury,--he has never done
With his delights; for when tired out with fun
He rests at ease beneath some pleasant weed.'

(John Keats)

When I visited Watlington Hill I was lucky enough to see a rare butterfly which is restricted to chalk downland in southern England so I was hoping I might also see it at Aston Rowant, I was not disappointed.

Silver-spotted Skipper Butterfly

This delightful little butterfly is on the wing from late July until early September. They have one brood and the female lays a single egg on Sheep's Fescue (a type of grass), or sometimes on adjacent plants, where they overwinter. In early Spring the larvae hatch and then feed in small silk webs around the food plant. They pupate deep within small tussocks of grass and surrounded by loose silk cocoons. Although the Silver-spotted Skipper is of conservation concern, due to a decline over the last fifty years, its fortunes have improved since the 1980s with the careful management of chalk grassland sites.

Before we set off for the reserve I had made a mental note to look out for another rarity however, when we arrived I was so engrossed in looking for butterflies that I completely forgot but on our way back to the car we passed an information board which mentioned it and decided to double back and make another foray, this time looking not for a butterfly but for a flower.

Consequently I spent another hour or so going uphill...very, very steep, breath taking and back bothering hills ;-) and down dale but with no success having completely lost track of the instructions of the route to follow which were given on the notice board. In the end I admitted defeat and decided to try again another time....Only to get home and find that just the third photo I had taken, on arrival, of a pretty but unknown flower was what I had subsequently spent so long searching for at the end of my visit! Why it didn't dawn on me when I took the photo I really don't know, if it had I would have spent more time taking a better one than this solitary, quick snap :-)

Chiltern Gentian

As we wended our way back through the woodland to the car park this sculpture looked quite magical with the setting sun's rays falling on it through the tree canopy.

A most enjoyable visit rounded off by a couple of Roe Deer running across the track and into the reserve as we started the journey home.

I know this has been rather a lengthy post but as my posts have been few and far between this year I hope I will be forgiven.

Until next time...enjoy the beauty of Nature, wherever you are.