Fire, thunder and ice – real life drama up on Roundshaw Downs

On a clear day, you can see the pollution: the Sussex cattle at Roundshaw struggle on this week, four days after last Sunday’s snowfall. The Croydon skyline, from blue to dirty smoggy brown, visibly demonstrates the toxic air hanging over the town

NATURE NOTES: A year-long photo-diary of an area of exceptionally important wildlife habitat on our doorsteps is coming to a close, with nature so far resilient against the impact of the global climate crisis. But for how long? By STEVEN DOWNES

Back where we started: this single tree, close to the start of my walks, offers a constantly changing indicator of the seasons on the Downs

It was four days since the modest snowfall we’d had last Sunday, and the conditions underfoot at Roundshaw were, let’s say, crunchy. The first significant snowfall we’ve had hereabouts for a couple of years had stuck around, thanks to some below-zero temperatures during the daytime as well as at night.

The Sussex cattle, brought in each year to chomp down on the pasture in the paddocks to create the optimal environment for skylarks and small blue butterflies, were making the best of a bad job. With their brown, woolly coats, from a distance, if you screw up your eyes, you can half-imagine that they are American bison on the plains.

They’d been transferred into the second, smaller of the paddocks a week or so earlier. Not so much to offer them fresh grazing – the mild autumn had seen the grass growing well into November – but more to offer them the protection from the worst of the winter weather in the little spinney in the south-western corner, a natural corral that shields them from the wind as it blows in from over the Purley Way.

When I started this log of a year on Roundshaw Downs back in January, it had been as bleak as it gets. The spectrum of colours, from bright blue to smoggy brown, was a clear indicator then of the man-made, car-generated air pollution sitting over our town, slowly poisoning the lungs of its inhabitants.

And here this week you could see it once more, if anything more vividly.

Burning planet: the grass fire in late August might have put the livestock in peril, had it not been for the prompt attendance of the Fire Brigade

Looking eastwards, and the twin chimneys of the Beddington incinerator, south London’s Mordor, were busily puffing out dark grey clouds of smoke, the kind of self-inflicted harm on humanity that only idiots would allow or defend.

I had hoped over the course of the year to jot down some observations and anecdotes which somehow capture how the climate crisis is having an impact even so close at hand.

Making hay: the tractors were out in late August

What I’ve witnessed has endorsed the sense that we are hurtling towards a global disaster – from the all-too-mild winters, the accelerated pace of spring, the near-total absence of some of the insects and butterflies essential to the local eco-system, right through to the wildfires after a scorching three-month drought.

We organised a series of guided walks around the Downs and the neighbouring woodlands through the course of the year, with Sutton Council’s biodiversity officer, Dave Warburton, as our knowledgeable and enthusiastic leader. The generosity of Inside Croydon’s loyal readers had seen our walks raise £100 towards the local nature conservation group that helps maintain the Downs.

Scorched earth: the day after the blaze. Prompt action, and some long-needed rain, had prevented worse damage

What we provided our dedicated band of walkers on our last guide tour went way beyond what might reasonably have been expected, with full-on action and adventure so close you could actually smell it.

You must remember the three months of drought we had over the course of June, July and into August? We’d paused our walk programme because it was just too darn hot. All around south London, grass fires were causing the Fire Brigade no end of problems. Roundshaw was tinder dry. Fingers were firmly crossed.

We had hoped to have a midweek evening walk seven days earlier, but weather forecasts predicted fierce thunderstorms around the time we were due to be setting off. I decided it wasn’t worth the risk. A week later we set off up the Purley Way, and one of the group noticed a pall of smoke rising up from the direction we were heading…

As we rounded the corner by the RAF Croydon war memorial, we could see our worst fears realised. In the distance, Dave was standing, hands on hips. When we got closer, it was clear he was very upset by the wretched possibilities of destruction, and death, that such a fire posed.

Resilient nature: two weeks after the hay-making, and looking north from the paddocks the grass was re-growing and some plants were in flower for a second or third time this year

When we got there, two firefighters were in attendance, one hosing down part of the area, the other wielding one of those old-fashioned fire beater things. “Shall we try to help?” Paul, one of our walking group, asked.

“Not sure they work,” the fireman said. “They only seem to fan the flames.” Inside Croydon fanning flames? We decided it was probably best not to make things worse…

Dave was walking around the edges of the low-burning grass fire, trying to stamp it down in his shorts and Nike trainers. It just seemed to flare up somewhere else.

Fortunately, the wind was blowing away from the paddocks, so the nine cattle who’d taken up residence a couple of weeks earlier continued to much their way through their straw-like grass, completely unconcerned by the potential for danger nearby.

Dave led us away to leave the firefighters to their task, and to see whether we could find any butterflies in the warm evening. But he was clearly distracted by the fire, and the risks it presented. No one will ever know how it started with any certainty – a cigarette butt, a glass bottle magnifying the sun’s powerful rays. It could have just been a bit of tinder-dry straw catching light in the summer heat.

Roaming free: the dog relishes the freedom she has trotting across the Downs

A couple of days earlier, the annual hay-making process had begun on the Downs, a tractor mowing down the tall grasses outside the paddocks, leaving long piles of hay to dry in the sun. They expected to return to bale them all up a day or so later.

It was in one of these piles of hay that the fire had begun, and spread.

Our walk that evening lasted a little more than an hour, and the sun was setting by the time we decided to head back. By then, the single fire engine had been joined by a companion, and the now four firefighters seemed to have the fire pretty much under control. But it was a harsh warning of just what awaits us with hotter, drier summers to come.

Bumper crops: some trees and bushes had plenty of berries this year, though the brambles’ blackberries were shrivelled, small and dry

A week later, the blackened, scorched area had already started to green up, as fresh shoots came through the thin soil. Within a fortnight, after the first heavy rains we had had since late May, and the whole of the Downs – having already been cut for hay – was looking vividly green again.

Some of the more common flowers – like dandelions – were in flower for the third or fourth time this year. Gardeners around south London may have noticed their crocuses poking through and in flower in November – perhaps three months sooner than is supposed to happen. The topsy-turvy nature of the 2022 weather had fooled the plants into reacting as if the annual cycle lasted only four months, not 12.

While the early part of the year had been good for the skylarks that ground-nest in one of the few areas of “pasture” that’s available for them in this part of southern England these days, the long, dry spells proved to be less favourable for another red-list endangered species that Warburton and his wardens work so hard to help encourage – the small blue butterfly.

Banking on new habitat: the wardens’ work hopes to encourage more small blue butterflies

The small blue has struggled to find suitable habitat, and when it does, its too-small colonies are isolated from others, so there’s no inter-connectivity (one of Ranger Dave’s favourite words).

So come the autumn, he and his team were back with their mini-JCB to grub out a patch of brambles and underground just outside the southern-edge of the paddocks, and to dig out a bigger than usual chalky mound, somewhere that the small blues will relish for their lifecycle in 2023.

You might have noticed that this set of Nature Notes is some months since the previous episode. Apologies. It’s not often that you get the death of a monarch, three government changes, the local MP being given three (or is it four?) different ministerial jobs, feature in a TV documentary, receive a massive data dump of leaked council documents and a High Court injunction all to contend with. Hence the delay.

Sturdy oak: it seemed to be a good year for acorns

We abandoned plans for a walk in late October, so much was going on with the political wildlife.

Suffice to say that the 2022 bramble harvest was dreadful: so many berries that were under-sized and shrivelled, all for the lack of water during the late summer when they were forming. Even the birds didn’t seem to fancy them much.

There was an abundance of other berries and fruits around the edges of the Downs, though. The hawthorns were shimmering blue with sloes by late September, and the oaks had a good number of acorns.

In some respect, you could hear autumn before you could confirm it with your eyes. Not just the sound of referees’ whistles and schoolboys playing rugby on the John Fisher playing fields the other side of the hedgerow, but with the call of the pheasant. For such a colourful bird, they are remarkably well-camouflaged, though their red wattle often gives them away when they are feeding in the tall grass.

Not the most elegant of fliers: the cock pheasant had a lucky escape from a fox

We’ve been walking up on Roundshaw Downs regularly now, three or four times a week, for six years. With its fenced-off paddocks, it provided an ideal place to let our rescue greyhound off the lead to have a runaround, without risk of her disappearing over the horizon at a rate of knots in pursuit of a taunting squirrel.

Suffice to say, Katie is immaculately well-behaved in her old age, but we still enjoy going to “The Paddock”, exactly because of the multi-faceted nature we regularly encounter up there.

This summer, we witnessed our first sparrowhawk. There was a buzzard in one of the trees recently, too. We’d seen a small flock of dumpy partridges pecking away in the tall grass one year. And in October this year, we heard the pheasant before we ever saw one, its call a distinctive and evocative sound.

Left bare: the hogweed after its flowers had dried in the sun

Strolling around the paddock by the apple tree in the spinney one day, Katie had dropped off my slow walking pace to sniff something or other. And then, without a bark, she was chasing something – bushy and red. The last time she chased a fox in the paddock, she’d broken four bones in her foot and nearly lost her leg.

This time, she was less harum-scarum, the tall grass slowing her.

The fox veered left into the safety of the undergrowth – there are at least two long-established foxes’ dens on the Downs, about half a mile apart.

As the fox changed direction, so the pheasant it had been stalking for its Sunday lunch was flushed up.

It flew directly overhead, a big, dumpy, ornately long feathery thing which looked ill-suited to flight, but defied gravity long enough to make it into the safety of a nearby tree. Katie trotted over, as if seeking a reward for saving the pheasant…

This isn’t natural: June temperatures in late October are another sign of climate change

All in all, the autumn represented a welcome return to near-normality, without what seemed to be any extremes of weather associated with climate change.

But as some noted, the average temperatures across the country in October were more summer-like than is normal, warmer than it has ever been in this month for 100 years.

So the snow last week was quite welcome. Cold winters are what are needed to provide the balance that nature prefers.

Another summer like 2022 and who knows what fate awaits the small blue in this part of south London – a local extinction event which should be a warning to us all about the unwitting impact we are having on the planet as a whole.

But the cycle is starting all over again… the signs are already there.

It’s not Christmas yet, the trees have been shorn of their leaves for barely a couple of weeks, it seems, but the big, mature beeches already have those waxy buds, full to bursting, ready to open up some time very soon, another year’s leaves, another season ready to shift and change.

We’ll be back on Roundshaw Downs very soon – watching and hoping that nature can look after itself better than mankind can.

Ready for another year of wildlife wonders: Roundshaw Downs, after 60 years of ‘re-wilding’ after being used as Croydon Airport

Previous Nature Notes:
July: Long dry summer has transformed the downs to straw-yellow
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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1 Response to Fire, thunder and ice – real life drama up on Roundshaw Downs

  1. Lewis White says:

    Thanks for a very uplifting and informative article.

    Amazing that the area was formerly a mainly close-mown grass airfield some 100 years ago , and probably was mown for many years after.

    I don’t know this site, but I do recall that a large area of another chalk grassland downsland site–Farthing Downs near Coulsdon— was, for many years in the 20th century, likewise mown very frequently. It was pretty boring, as a result, judging by some photos I have seen.

    The cessation of monthly mowing, and reintroduction of grazing, and hay-making, has certainly allowed the chalk -loving wildflowers and native grasses –and skylarks– to come back.

    It is easy to see the past with rose tinted spectacles.
    I hope that the resources can continue to be found to manage these landscape treasures well, in these post covid days of new austerity.

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