July on Hothfield Heathlands

Southern marsh orchid - Hothfield Heathlands. Photo by Ian Rickards

Kent Wildlife Trust Volunteer Margery Thomas explains the nature of heathland habitat at our stunning Hothfield Heathlands Nature Reserve and takes a look at the wonderful flowers on display.

So many people have enjoyed getting back to the delights of a walk on the Heathlands, and may have seen the new residents, the longhorn cattle. Sadly the botanical survey scheduled for June and July, the fifth and final in the series to set a data baseline, has had to be postponed. But the flowers are there for all to see, from the simple golden tormentil that spangles on the ground all summer, to the elaborate flower structure of the two orchid species that are the stars of May and June.

The pale pink or white spires of the Heath spotted orchid, Dactylorhiza maculata, are scattered over the open areas of the slope, west of the upper bog and on the bog margins. It likes the same acidic habitat as the cross-leaved heath, Erica tetralix, and bog asphodel, Narthecium ossifragum, also now in flower. Dactylorhiza is from the Greek daktylos, finger, and rhiza¸ root, describing the divided tubers. Maculata means spotted, although the lightly scented flowers, resembling a dense cluster of frilly skirts, often have dark reddish dashes as well as dots. This is a plant of western Britain and Ireland, now very uncommon in the Southeast. In Europe it ranges from Iceland to Russia to Italy, where some experts regard it as a variation of the Common spotted orchid. It is pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, but provides no nectar in return. Seedlings may take two years to appear above ground and another three years to flower.

Heath spotted orchid

Heath spotted orchid - Photo by Philip Precey

The Southern marsh orchid, Dactylorhiza praetermissa, grows in the lower bog where conditions are slightly less acid. Here it can grow to 50cm, a sturdy plant with the bright purplish-pink boldly marked flowers crowded in a spike on the top fifth of the stem. Like many orchids it can vary in colour intensity and flower markings and shape. It hybridizes easily with the spotted orchids, leading to even more variations. It occurs south of the Ribble/Humber and from Northern France to Norway, and was only recognised as a separate species in 1914, hence praetermissa, meaning overlooked. It is pollinated by insects and butterflies. Both species survive in poor soil thanks to a highly specialised parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi which supply nutrients but receive nothing from the orchid. Both produce large quantities of dust-like seed which is scattered on the wind and able to float on water. The fungi are essential to feed the minute seed as it germinates and develops underground.

These orchids are locally common, but dwindling as habitats are enriched by fertiliser, car emissions etc. or lost to development. Several orchid species occur in the Hothfield/Westwell area, often in unexpected places, including former industrial sites and the verges of busy roads. Leaving wild areas in gardens and clearing overgrown scrub without increasing soil nutrient levels can encourage seed to germinate or dormant plants to emerge, along with other treasures, such as cowslips. The orchids close to Down House in Cudham Valley led Charles Darwin to exhaustively investigate ‘the many beautiful contrivances’ of complex orchid flowers to enable cross-pollination to increase the gene pool and thereby ensure the adaptability and flexibility necessary for the survival of each species.

Southern marsh orchid - Hothfield Heathlands

Southern marsh orchid - Hothfield Heathlands. Photo by Ian Rickards

Everyone is welcome to visit Hothfield Heathlands. Most catches have been removed from the gates so that you can open them without using your hands, but please do remember to keep them closed to protect the livestock on site. Trails are signposted and marked on entrance maps, as is the location of livestock. The noticeboard down the main slope from the Cades Road car park gives details of recent wildlife sightings. Dogs should be kept in check, especially around children and livestock, and away from the scrub, heather and undergrowth to avoid disturbing the sensitive wildlife here. Please do help us to protect the wildlife and ensure that everyone can enjoy their visit, by removing dog mess and taking your litter home. Be aware of ticks for dogs and humans throughout the summer; guidance is available here. Fire is a big risk on heathland at this time of year, so please help ensure that no fires are ever lit on site.

Enjoy!