Long dry summer has transformed the downs to straw-yellow

Hay fields: Roundshaw Downs, looking eastwards towards the Purley Way, one morning last week. With some grasses up to five feet high, the lush greenness of early summer has now all but gone

NATURE NOTES/JULY 2022: We seem to be racing through summer at speed, with Roundshaw Downs feeling the heat. By STEVEN DOWNES

We’d been walking for almost two hours. Dave Warburton, the Sutton biodiversity officer, had been enthusiastically regaling us with his account of the work his team and volunteers continue to do to enhance and encourage the ecosystems around Roundshaw Downs.

Most of our walk had been under the thick canopy of trees to the west of the downland, but now “Ranger Dave” led us around one last corner.

This was the “big reveal”.

Oak, ash and elm: Dave Warburton’s guided walk took Inside Croydon readers into the woods

On this clear, early summer day, we were now, literally, out of the woods, with the downs laid out before us, the hills of Croydon rising in the far distance, a church spire just visible at the crest of the ridge.

The gasps from some members of our guided walk group were quite audible.

“You wouldn’t believe we were in London, so close to Croydon,” one said, their gaze shifting leftwards a little, towards the tower blocks of the town centre.

Just a step or two before,  the Croydon skyline had been entirely obscured by trees and hedgerow. Otherwise, we might have been deep in the countryside of the North Downs.

I guess that is part of the enduring wonder that I feel on the visits to Roundshaw, where within a few hundred yards of the Purley Way urban motorway you can spend hours lost with nature, the only sounds audible being the songs of skylarks.

Of course, it would be banal to express surprise that the process of logging a year on the downs is recording how things are changing by the week.

Vivid lushness: Mid-May at Roundshaw, and before the ox-eye daisies have bloomed, the laburnum – perhaps left over from Croydon Airport gardens – is in blossom

But what I am noticing this year, more so than in the past, is how rapid is the pace of the changes on the downs, where it feels as if Mother Nature has her foot on the accelerator in 2022, speeding through the seasons as if in a rush to return to the bleaker months of winter, with barely a pause for breath or to sniff the dog roses…

These past few weeks really have been the best of times.

That first flush of summer freshness did manage to last through May and into June, when the vivid greens of the grasses that sway in the gentle breezes across Roundshaw Downs gently morphed into a purple hew.

Purple haze: by late May and into June, with the tower blocks of Croydon in the distance, the grasses were taking on a slight change of colour

But now, with much of the grass three, four or even five feet tall, all seems to have been bleached sand-coloured, scorched as the sun beats down daily and we face a mid-summer heat wave. Is it the hotter summers of climate change that are accelerating the life cycles of the plant life on the downs?

The ox-eye daisies were there, a dapple of white across the grazing paddocks. But then within less than a couple of weeks in June, they were gone as quickly as they’d emerged.

The yellow rattle seemed to be enjoying an especially abundant year inside the paddocks, which were carpeted in yellow for an all-too-brief time. They, too, like the ox-eyes, have finished flowering and now the flower heads have browned and gently rattle in any passing breeze, to live up to their name.

Yellow carpet: this was inside the paddocks just two weeks ago, an abundant year for yellow rattle

The birds don’t seem to mind.

Generally, I access Roundshaw from a little cul de sac off Plough Lane. The path takes you into some woods, where the woodpecker was so noisy in the spring, before you quickly emerge to the expanse of the downs. The trees play tricks on the acoustics, but it seems that every time this summer I have stepped out from the shade of the woods, I emerge to the life-affirming sound of the skylarks.

Colour splash: dotted around the meadows are little surprises, such as meadow crane’s bill

It’s impossible to say with any certainty what the birds’ numbers are like (I’ll leave that important work to Ranger Dave and the real ornithologists), but my anecdotal observations this year are that there appears to be more than I’ve ever noticed before – on one walk, I observed four, maybe even five, birds all in song at the same time.

Their nests seem to be spread far and wide, scattered among the tall grasses well beyond the protections of the paddock enclosures. For a red-list endangered species, if my suspicions are confirmed, this would be encouraging.

The larks have, in the past couple of weeks, stopped performing their breath-taking aerial displays of the spring time, when they would soar hundreds of feet into the sky. Now, for them, it’s all about camouflage and survival, mainly from the crows and the magpies, though as I observed last week, sparrowhawks also present a threat.

On this particular attack, my attention was drawn by the sudden flutter of a dozen sparrows flushed out of a bush. A hawk-like bird had dived in among them, but emerged empty-clawed.

Pause to smell the dog roses: this wild rose had flowers of two or three different colours

Thwarted, the predator flapped up into the upper branches of a nearby tree, where it paused for a few moments before it was off, flap-flap glide, flap-flap-glide, enough to confirm to me that this was no kestrel, but the bigger sparrowhawk.

It was just the second time I have seen one at Roundshaw.

Yet even that is a small signal of success for conservation: a few decades ago the sparrowhawk was more or less extinct in this part of the country, persecuted by humans, its numbers also affected by the use of pesticides in farming.

The key word used by Dave Warburton during our last walk was “connectivity”: the ability to connect up these wildlife sanctuaries like Roundshaw, to provide the right habitat for the birds, the bees and the butterflies with corridors linking them all up, so that they can extend their scope, and improve their chances of thriving.

So the woods, full of oaks and carefully coppiced hazel to create sun-dappled areas, perform an important part of Warburton’s team’s work, each species of tree offering something different in terms of a home or food for a different insect or animal.

Long lost lushness: This was Roundshaw on May 12 – two months before the photograph at the top of this page. Some grasses are now 5ft tall, and most are the colour of straw now

There are even foods for us humans, too, if we are careful: nettles are probably past their best for the year, but there’s wild garlic and sorrel to be found. There’s cherry trees, too, and the thousands of flowers that were to be found just a fortnight ago on the abundant brambles in and around the downs are already turning into fruit – the blackberries ripening in the hot sun perhaps a month earlier than I remember from my childhood.

Flap-flap-glide: the sparrowhawk has a distinctive flying style

The woods around Roundshaw include some elms, which are rare now in this country since Dutch elm disease, and there’s ash trees, too, that show distress from die-back, all of which Warburton is careful to monitor.

But as he said during our walk, “The average oak might grow and live for a couple of hundred years, but even if it dies, it has at least another hundred years as it rots down where it is providing vital food and habitat for thousands of beetles and birds and other wildlife.”

On days like today, the importance of the wooded areas cannot be understated: step under the trees’ canopy, and the temperature drops immediately by two or three degrees. Even by 8am today, out in the open, the temperature was rising through the high 20s.

Unusual, extreme weather conditions, as we are told to expect over the coming few days, put the flora and fauna of Roundshaw Downs under special, extra stress. This morning, before eight, the sun was already beating down on the acres of straw-coloured grass. We will be observing carefully what emerges from the forecasted record temperatures.

Scorched earth: Roundshaw Downs just after 7am today. How will it cope with this week’s forecasted record temperatures?

Sutton Council’s biodiversity officer Dave Warburton continues to arrange volunteering days and other events at Roundshaw and elsewhere.

Email biodiversity@sutton.gov.uk for more information and to get involved with undertaking habitat management (lots of cutting back the brambles) on site. All training and tools provided.

Otherwise, the Biodiversity Team provides volunteering opportunities on Tuesdays through Thursdays every week of the year, undertaking practical habitat management, including botanical surveying during the summer months. More info here.

Previous Nature Notes:
May: Walk in the Roundshaw woods and revel in splashes of colour
March: Bumps and ‘bunkers’ to provide new homes for the small blue
February: Heard before they’re seen, skylarks soar back over Roundshaw
January: Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter

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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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