A summer evening stroll and close encounter with a triffid

NATURE NOTES: Our latest ambling ramble for readers took place last month on what for many would be the familiar territory of Roundshaw Downs.
Yet with expert guidance, we were still able to discover one of nature’s more bizarre plants.
Photographs (unless stated) by ANNABEL SMITH

It had been a while.

In 2022, our loyal reader will recall, we had run a photo diary through the year based around the nature reserve that is Roundshaw Downs, an area of vibrant wildlife where Croydon Airport once sat.

The last time we encountered David Warburton on the Downs, he was literally fire-fighting, trying to put out a smouldering blaze that had started in recently mown hay, after one of the hottest and driest summers on record. Our efforts to record the impact of the climate crisis had unwittingly found a rich source of material.

Quite a sight: from Roundshaw Downs you can often – depending on air quality – see Wembley Stadium and the Shard, and you can always see Croydon’s tower blocks

“It’s been a while,” Warburton, Sutton Council’s senior biodiversity officer, said when he was phoned to ask about a suitable date for another evening amble through the nature reserve.

By midsummer, the ever-changing Roundshaw Downs are possibly at their peak of vibrancy. Everything appears to be just blooming.

The ox-eye daisies carpet the meadows.

The sky larks are in constant flight, their distinctive song more audible than the noise of heavy traffic on the nearby Purley Way.

The varied and vivid grasses are now three or four feet tall across this rich sward, providing habitat and food sources of all sorts of other wildlife.

We agreed that, given the heat of the June weather, another evening walk would make best sense. Warburton gave us a date, and we said we would meet him with our merry band at the usual spot, the earthworks bund that might at one point have been a Roman road, but which now marks the divide between Croydon and Sutton.

A good number of Inside Croydon loyal readers had joined us for this. A few veterans of our previous Roundshaw rambles, and many who had never been this way before.

Like a garden at the Chelsea Flower Show: food plants had been carefully chosen for this special sanctuary

Between us, with donations extracted by Eventbrite, the walk had raised £50 to go towards the work of the Sutton Nature Conservation Volunteers, who do so much work to keep Roundshaw in the best condition possible, as nature intended.

For almost two hours, Warburton led our merry band around the pasture, highlighting this piece of grass or that flower.

He led us off on a path we, as a group, had never visited before, to a quiet corner behind a break of trees, with the John Fisher school playing fields just the other side of the wire fence, a cultivated, immaculate cricket field of short grass.

Here, Warburton revealed the latest efforts to provide habitat and connectivity for insects and pollinators.

Biodiversity needs a little help: more special planting at Roundshaw

It looked like it was an exhibition garden at the Chelsea Flower Show. A patch of grass had been cleared by a JCB, and the bare earth covered with a hard, chalky top. Here and there, wild plants – probably regarded as weeds to some gardeners – were positioned strategically.

Most were in full flower, beautiful in their otherworldliness. One small shrub was completely covered in bees – this in a year where the number of bees and pollinators had been notably low.

Warburton explained how the English weather had become even less dependable than ever. Last year’s drought had affected, reduced, numbers of butterflies and other insects that would usually emerge in July and August. This year’s cold and drenched spring had set back another generation of plants and insects.

And now we were in another rain-less, unseasonably hot spell.

Hard at work: David Warburton explains to Inside Croydon loyal readers some aspects of the conservation work being conducted at Roundshaw and nearby

Two weeks into June, and temperatures of more than 30 degrees were already being recorded. The day after our ramble, water companies in Kent and Sussex imposed a hosepipe ban. A summer drought was on the cards again.

Roundshaw is a natural oasis amid the urban sprawl of south London – Wallington on one side, Waddon on the other side of the Purley Way playing fields. What Warburton’s wilflower garden is attempting to provide is a staging post so that the bees and butterflies can go from one to another.

Rare plant: greater yellow rattle was plentiful on Roundshaw

The plants used have specific roles, providing food and egg-laying sites for certain species, where some caterpillars are very particular where they set themselves up to metamorphise into their next stage. If they don’t get just the right food source, they simply won’t exist.

Along the way that evening, we saw meadow brown butterflies, large skipper and common blue.

In the grasses, there were bee orchids and grass vetchling, relative rarities these days, since we have abandoned older, less-intensive farming methods.

Mention the greater yellow rattle to a botanist, and they will frown, maybe shake their heads, and mumble about how it used to be found all across southern England before pesticides began to be used widely, or when fields were used for pasture rather than for cash crops.

On Roundshaw last month, there was greater yellow rattle almost everywhere.

Warburton explained the plant’s lifecycle, and how it is, in fact, a root-parasite, living off the roots of other grasses.

And then, it was as if there was a lightbulb moment. A botanical poker player upped the ante as far as parasitical plants were concerned.

Phwoar!: Moira O’Donnell’s photo of the prize find on our ramble, knapweed broomrape

Warburton led us through the tall grass, carefully avoiding any sky lark nests.

Until there, standing before us was this two-foot-high brown spike rising up from the soil. It was as if the triffids had landed.

This, Warburton declared with evident pride, was the very rare knapweed broomrape, or orobanche elatior. The plant grows on greater knapweed, and therefore has no need of its own chlorophyll. It contains no green matter, gaining its nutrients from host plants.

Or “Phwoaar!” as keen amateur botanist Moira O’Donnell declared on social media when she shared her photograph of it.

Quite the highlight.

We’ll be back to Roundshaw at some stage. Look out on this site for details of when. Or go along and explore the place for yourself. Though without Warden Dave as your guide, you might struggle to find quite as many of the natural gems as we witnesses on our Roundshaw Ramble.

    • 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.

Last year’s photo diary from Roundshaw:

January: Up on the Downs, watching for the missing signs of winter
February: Heard before they’re seen, skylarks soar back over Roundshaw
March: Bumps and ‘bunkers’ to provide new homes for the small blue
May: Walk in the Roundshaw woods and revel in splashes of colour
July: Long dry summer has transformed the downs to straw-yellow
December: Fire, thunder and ice – real life drama up on Roundshaw Downs

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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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