Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter

Chewed up: the small flock of Sussex cattle, watched by opportunist magpies, chomped their way through the winter on land reclaimed from the former Croydon Airport

NATURE NOTES/JAN 2022: The green, open spaces on our doorsteps are havens for a rich variety of wildlife. In the first of a year-long series of photostories, STEVEN DOWNES takes you for a walk

Starting point: close to the start of my walks, this tree goes through vivid changes over the course of the seasons

Phew! What a scorcher!

As no headline ever said, and certainly not in the supposedly bleak midwinter month of January.

But after 2022 started with the hottest New Year’s Day ever recorded (16 degrees Celsius), the rest of this month has continued to be what the Michael Fishes of this world might describe as “unseasonably mild”.

I have intended, for a while now, to make a regular photographic record of some of my walks with the hound (Katie. As seen on TV), as much as anything to share some of the joy and wonder of our wanderings around what we call “The Paddock”, and what is more widely known as Roundshaw Downs.

The former site of Croydon Airport has been reclaimed by nature, and now is a quite fascinating reserve, the home to a thriving population of a red-list endangered bird species, a special habitat for the rare small blue butterfly, it provides a swathe of ever-changing wildflower meadows through the summer, including greater yellow rattle, and a haven for foxes, kestrels, sparrowhawks and even buzzard. And all within sight, and usually sound, of the Purley Way urban motorway.

Wild wonder: 12 miles from the heart of London, Roundshaw Downs is a thriving chalk grassland habitat that sits alongside the busy Purley Way urban motorway

Roundshaw is classified as a Local Nature Reserve and its habitats and wildlife are very capably helped along the way by mostly volunteer ecologists and enthusiasts working with the Sutton Nature Conservation project.

Winter resident: the occasional goldfinch can be spotted

The reserve itself is nearly 100 acres, but either side are large expanses of sports fields, too, providing a valuable natural corridor for the wildlife.

The volunteers have had a busy week.

They have monthly workdays (and are always looking for new volunteers to help – visit their website to find out more), and this week they were out doing scrub clearance.

Brambles, while providing a rich harvest of blackberries in early autumn for people and wildlife alike, do have a habit of taking over everywhere, so the volunteers have been hacking away at some of the clumps of scrub, while also removing some of the blackthorn which forms boundaries and vibrant hedgerows around much of the site.

Reducing the bramble and encroaching willowherb helps to expose the bare earth and slowly allow the grasses and wildflowers to reclaim the territory.

And then the volunteers removed the cattle.

A small herd of Sussex cattle have been grazed over-winter within sight of the Croydon skyscrapers for the past decade, in a couple of large paddocks, part of an effort to manage the site more naturally and shift away from having to mow the whole of the grassland site. It means that by the end of January, Roundshaw is now the site of south London’s second biggest collection of bullshit, only surpassed by Croydon Town Hall.

Mind where you step… There’s a plentiful supply of cow dung to be had

In past years, I have seen an enterprising gardener arrive, take a shovel and wheelbarrow out of the back of their car, and head off to help themselves to the plentiful supply of manure.

On grey, drizzling days, from a distance and with your eyes slightly narrowed, the Sussex can almost look like a herd of American buffalo on the wild plains.

They are calm beasts, seemingly untroubled by passers-by, but they are impressively large, and you don’t want to go too close to them while they are focused on the business-at-hoof, eating.

Transported to the paddocks usually around October time, after four months chomping away at the uncut dried, long grasses from the summer, the bullocks have pretty much cleared both enclosures of anything resembling cattle food, and this week the herd –  there were 10 of them this year – has been trucked off for some richer spring grazing.

The conservationists say, “By only allowing the cattle to graze a certain area of grassland, this ensures that the grass is of different ages and heights, providing more shelter and food for invertebrates, as well as ground-nesting birds.”

SO WHAT was going to be a photo record of the changing seasons on the Downs may have changed, slightly, in that it might become an account of the impact of climate change here, on our doorstep.

It has just been so very warm… The crisp crack of frost under your walking boots is strangely reassuring when you haven’t felt it for some time. Yet I have experienced that sensation on only one or two brisker days this month. January. Midwinter.

Out of step: nettles were in flower in the first week of the year

Instead, I have been observing the orange-brown smear across the blue horizon as I look north, towards Croydon, the Ikea chimneys and the Beddington incinerator. Meanwhile, the Met Office has been issuing air quality warnings, advising those with breathing problems not to go outside.

I might be talking too soon, but we’ve hardly had any winter at all.

There were leaf buds on some of the trees in the woods around the Downs in the week before Christmas, and there’s fresh growth and even flowers on some of the clumps of nettles around the cattle enclosures.

This winter, the Sussexes (the cattle, not the headline-generating ex-royals) were first placed in Roundshaw’s larger, northern pen. Once they had chewed their way through the grass in there, leaving the place virtually cleared of edible vegetation, they were transferred next door to start the process all over again. Yet the midwinter has been so mild, by a fortnight ago there were clear signs in the north pen of fresh shoots of grass coming through. As a rule, grass will only grow if the temperature is 9 degrees or more.

Although it has been mild, there’s still a sense of seasonality about the wildlife that has been observed during the shortest days of the year. Foxes have been out and about in broad daylight. The kestrel, which I think nests somewhere over by the houses that back on to the Downs, has been hovering 100 feet up over the scrub most days. There was a cock pheasant strutting around the undergrowth by the spinney in the paddock not so long ago – his bright colours bizarrely providing camouflage.

And there’s healthy-looking flocks of 30 or so dunnock and sparrows, while the occasional goldfinch has been sighted, flitting from branch to branch on the bushes between the bullocks, picking at what’s left of rosehips and other berries from last year.

There’s another reason the chomping, clomping cattle have had to be removed from the paddocks now. The enclosures, and some grassy areas outside them, will soon be the nesting grounds for one of this country’s rarest and most spectacular birds, the skylark.

Kestrel’s platform: this second tree, inside the smaller paddock, is sometimes used by the local hawk as a look-out point. Notice how low to the ground the grass has been grazed: by midsummer, this area will be waist-high once again

The larks have a tough enough time of things as it is, with flocks of opportunistic magpies and crows ready to take eggs or chicks. These small, precious birds are ground-nesting, and really don’t need cattle wandering through their nests as well.

Roundshaw has been really successful at providing a home for skylarks to thrive, and Inside Croydon hopes – covid permitting – to stage our first guided walk for nearly three years later in February, when perhaps our loyal reader can be persuaded to join with us to help chart the changes through the year.

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About insidecroydon

News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email inside.croydon@btinternet.com
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1 Response to Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter

  1. Nice article; this is a special, rare chalk grassland gem nestled in the urban fringe. The Sussex cattle mentioned that seasonally graze Roundshaw Downs are provided by the Downlands Partnership: Grazing team @DownyGrazers, working for their partner the London Borough of Sutton. The Downlands Partnership countryside management service works across NE Surrey, Croydon and Sutton and runs weekly, enjoyable, conservation volunteering task sessions across their partnership area, as well as providing their busy conservation grazing service, which is supported by around 100 voluntary livestock checkers. Find out more about the local countryside work of the Downlands Partnership crew, their current volunteering opportunities and all their grazing animals at: https://www.surreycc.gov.uk/land-planning-and-development/countryside/partnerships/downlands. Downlands Partnership, one of the three Surrey Countryside Partnerships, maintains and restores beautiful countryside areas and their habitats for biodiversity, wildlife, public access and enjoyment by all.

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