NATURE NOTES: The parks and open spaces in and around Croydon are undergoing the annual, melancholy change, writes STEVEN DOWNES
It always seemed that the end of summer was marked by the staging of the Last Night of the Proms. The nights are drawing in noticeably early in the evening now. Another harbinger of the arrival of autumn came last weekend with the first matches in the local club rugby season.
And since I’ve been walking the dog on Roundshaw Downs, the appearance of Sussex cattle in the paddocks is another marking of the change of season.
I can’t be certain, but to my inexpert eye the three hulking beasts that are slowly chomping their way through the summer’s worth of wildflowers and grasses look to be bullocks – castrated bulls, being fed-up for their beef. Christmas is a’coming, the cattle are getting fat.
The notices around the paddocks went up a couple of weeks ago, and these three brown bullocks seem very calm and content with their lot, though I hope others heed the signs and keep their dogs on a lead in the cattle enclosure to reduce any chance of the livestock being “worried” by uncontrolled pets, as happened to some unfortunate sheep in Happy Valley recently.
The Downlands Project has cattle dotted around Croydon, including down at Coulsdon and Chipstead, where they also use goats and sheep to graze the open space to help, over time, bring the landscape into the sort of pastoral form it might have been a hundred years ago.
At Roundshaw, it is certainly working tremendously well, creating a wildlife haven which is constantly changing with the seasons.
Yesterday, I almost stood on a kestrel.
Distracted for a moment, the next thing I knew a bundle of burnished and bronze feathers was fluttering up in front of me, no more than an arm’s length away, before stretching its wings and taking to the air away from the pathway in a wondrous arc of power and grace and speed.
My guess is that I must have disturbed it while it was enjoying a kill, but its camouflage certainly worked well until the point where it felt it had to take to the air.
These are the most breathtaking of creatures, a fascination for me not only since first seeing Ken Loach’s great film, Kes, but even more so since my uncle took me and my brother, when kids, to a cliff side in the Vale of Llangollen to see those masters of flight, peregrines, nesting and soaring.
And now these airborne speedsters can be watched, in a natural habitat, just 10 minutes from Croydon town centre.
During the early summer months, the sight of a kestrel hunting over the grassland was a regular wonder, whether hovering, or stooping, or soaring off towards its nest, which seems to be in the trees over towards the new houses on the Sutton side of this patch of wildness near the Purley Way. On occasions, it would go about its business oblivious to human presence, even if I was standing less than 20 yards away.
Then, a couple of weeks ago, we spotted two kestrels together: one perched on a fence post, the other flying nearby. It was all too quick for me to get a camera ready, or close enough to record. But Peter Alfrey, a locally based ornithologist, advises that adult kestrels never hunt together. This pair must, then, be this year’s successful brood of chicks.
Let’s hope that there’s plenty of prey in the re-wilded Roundshaw to see them flourish through the autumn. Not that it is left entirely to its own devices. There’s much volunteer time and effort to make sure they put the wild into this wilderness.
First, there was a team of six conservation volunteers strolling around the paddock with large plastic bags, literally flower picking. But they were picking ragwort, the bright yellow, invasive non-native. “If we don’t try to pick it out, then it’ll just take over, and the aim of the project has been to get the downs as natural as possible,” one of the volunteers said.
And then, on a later visit, there was a lone chap with some thick gloves and a pair of secateurs. “I’m just cutting back the brambles from the pathways,” he said, “otherwise people won’t use them.” It is as much part of the environment management as turning out the cattle to graze the downs.
Most of the trees are still in full, green leaf, except the conker trees – horse chestnuts – whose leaves have browned prematurely again, even before the end of August, apparently a sign of disease.
There’s been a chill in the air this past week or so, and the first frosts will speed the autumn recycling process.
The apples that were on the old tree at the far end of the paddock have long gone now, probably scrumped more than serving as bird food. But there’s plenty of berries, hips and acorns on the trees and bushes in and around the paddocks, drawing in various smaller birds, and although there’s still a few bees feeding on the purple heather and some meadow vetchling flowering in the grasses, much of the vivid colour which was present only a few weeks ago is now waning, or gone altogether.
The cattle feasting on the downland grasses are just another sign that there’s a seasonal change, and it’s all there for us to enjoy on our doorstep.
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