February on Hothfield Heathland

Do you still feel like hibernating through to the end of winter? You would be in good company with many animals and invertebrates on Hothfield Heathland. However, a walk out there at this time of year is exhilarating and you won’t be alone.

Among the birds seen in January were a great white egret, along with all the little egrets, water rail and stonechat. The highland cattle and Herdwick sheep have spent the winter outside and on a warm February day, you might even see a small tortoiseshell butterfly emerging from hibernation in its adult state. It will also be one of the last flying about in late autumn.

Female Stonechat

Hibernation for our resident butterflies and moths means different things for different species. The master of camouflage, the buff-tip moth which feeds in summer on birch, oak, sallow and hazel, all present on the heath, spends winter as a chrysalis underground, emerging only in late spring, to fly in June and July. As a moth, it most closely resembles a birch twig and there is always plenty of birch to lurk in on the heath.

The meadow brown butterfly overwinters as a green caterpillar (larva) hidden head down deep in a clump of grass. On warmer days it will be munching away at the grass, always one of its preferred food species, fattening up for the next moult. The vibration of your footsteps will make it drop to the ground out of danger until you pass and it crawls up to its feeding station again.

The caterpillar of the small copper butterfly feeds on the underside of leaves of sorrel and dock, eating itself into a groove and attaching itself for the winter to a leaf or leaf stem by a pad a silk.

The year’s final brood of the small white butterfly overwinters as a chrysalis (pupa) attached to a tree trunk by a silk girdle. Gardeners won’t want to know that this, one of the cabbage whites, is just waiting to metamorphose and find food plants in the brassica family on which to lay its eggs.

Small Copper butterfy

So even if the grass snake is tucked up under a log pile for a few more months, everything on the heath is not still and calm in winter, there is always something to see or hear or guess at. And the bluebell leaves are already pushing up to the light. Gardeners can help a myriad of wildlife by leaving wild corners untidy until later in the spring, allowing whatever is hibernating in the leaf litter, log piles and long grass to awaken naturally. There is more information about wildlife gardening on the website of the Wildlife Trusts.

Warm clothes and sturdy footwear, or wellies for puddle-lovers, are all you need to enjoy a breath of fresh in this special space on our doorstep, open to all, including dogs that are kept in check. The noticeboards at the entrances give the location of the livestock, the noticeboard down the main slope from the Cade Road car park gives recent wildlife sightings.

For email alerts on the location of the livestock, or to join the volunteers who help maintain the reserve or check the cattle and contact the Warden on ian.rickards@kentwildlife.org.uk, tel 01622 662012.

By Margery Thomas ~ Kent Wildlife Trust volunteer, Ashford