Hothfield Heathlands in September

WildNet - Amy Lewis

Kent Wildlife Trust Volunteer Margery Thomas explores what's on display at the stunning Hothfield Heathlands Nature Reserve this September.

As the wonderful ling flower fades, another violet-blue haze flowers on. Devil’s-bit scabious, Succisa pratensis, is an indicator plant that we search for carefully in botanical surveys on the heathland. Since it usually flowers after we finish, we seek ground-hugging lance-shaped hairy leaves, and lightly branched flower stems rising to 100 cm. 

Flowering from August to October it provides valuable nectar and pollen for hoverflies, butterflies and moths. It enjoys damp slightly acidic conditions, where grazing leaves short grass and useful longer tussocks. The hemispherical flower heads comprising up to 50 florets held on slender stems resemble nodding pincushions, with a dainty triple ruff of pointed sepals behind. Each tight bud, like a tiny boxing glove, has a protruding pointed bract. As it opens pinky-purple anthers unfurl from within the floret tube to extend with the stigma beyond the petals and attract pollinators.

Some plants only produce female flowers without the anthers. In the upper bog, it grows with cross-leaved heath and ling or with marsh St John’s wort and contrasts beautifully with the russet seed spikes of bog asphodel. The scabious seeds fall easily from the calyx pad in early autumn. 

Devil's-bit

Devil's-bit scabious, Succisa Pratensis’© Vaugn Matthews

This lovely perennial is in the teazel family, Dipsacaceae. It needs poor soil to flower well, so in a garden does best in a meadow in impoverished soil, where it can drop seed before an autumn cut. There are named varieties, and another scabious, Knautia macedonica, tolerates border conditions better, but still prefers no cossetting.

All the names are from the Latin: Scabious from scabere, to scratch, (hence scabs) as it was used for treating scabies and bubonic plague sores. Succisa means to cut off below, describing the truncated rootstock; John Parkinson in his Theatrum Botanicum of 1640, wrote that the Devil was jealous of the plant’s healing power so bit the end off its root. Pratensis means of the meadows.

Devil’s-bit scabious is the foodplant of the endangered marsh fritillary butterfly, Eurodryas aurinia, now limited to the west of the UK due to major habitat loss. Recent winged sightings here include southern and migrant hawkers (dragonflies) speckled wood, gatekeeper, comma, holly blue, common blue, meadow brown, brimstone, clouded yellow, brown argus and small copper butterflies and parasitic ruby tailed wasps, a favourite of staffer Lucy Carden.

To everyone’s delight, livestock checkers, solo survey and the green team volunteers are back, working within Kent Wildlife Trust guidelines and enabling Kent Wildlife Trust staff to return to other tasks. Soon after restarting, volunteer Les Kennedy said “Sometimes we freeze in the cold and others we bake in the sun. Sometimes we get soaked or snowed on but then we see the end result and it makes everything worthwhile.”

A message from Kent Wildlife Trust

Hothfield Heathland is open to everyone; trails are signposted and marked on entrance maps, along with the location of livestock.  Please keep dogs in check, especially around children and livestock, and keep them away from the heather and undergrowth where they will disturb sensitive wildlife. Please remove dog mess, including in the Triangle compartment. For email alerts on the location of the livestock on Hothfield contact Cristina Juan at cristina.juan@kentwildlife.org.uk. or 01622 662012.