September on Hothfield Heathlands

September on Hothfield Heathlands

Ian Rickards

Margery Thomas explores the beautiful and unique flora and fauna you can look forward to spotting on the Hothfield Heathlands in September.

The heather on the heathland, stunning in August, is now gently fading. Millions of seeds will be shed but the tiny papery flowers will persist until spring. There were dense swathes of ling, Calluna vulgaris, on the dry sandy slopes and in the upper bogs; pleasing to see many juvenile colonies in flower. On the sandy paths through the ling the beewolves, Philanthus triangulum, were busy. These solitary wasps feed on pollen but their larvae, in their few days of life before pupating, eat meat, so the female paralyses then carefully carries honey bees to the burrow in the sand, and lays an egg on them. Each cell has several bees, preserved from mould in the humid warmth by nitric oxide emitted by the bee eggs.

Cross leaved heath, erica tetralix, with pale pink bells and grey-green foliage, favours damper spots but often grows tangled with ling and devils-bit scabious on hummocks of sphagnum moss with other plants or shrubs. These intricate colonies invariably include a dainty perennial that has flowered since May and will only stop with autumn frosts – tormentil, Potentilla erecta. A member of the rose family with miniature strawberry leaves, the flowers of four indented yellow petals look almost square.  In tussocks the slender scrambling stems are supported by other plants but it is just as happy threaded through close-cropped turf, spreading small spangles of gold at the feet of walkers and animals. The flowers are rich in nectar so an important source of energy for insects and butterflies throughout the summer. 

tormentil flower in grass


Another plant that tolerates footfall but is less obvious is the buck’s horn plantain, Plantago coronopus, which occurs at the top of the slope leading to the former football field, where it enjoys thin dry gravelly conditions. The downy leaves are usually divided, resembling stags’ antlers. Coronopus is Greek for crow’s foot. They grow in a low rosette and are edible, crunchy and tasting of spinach. A nice foil for the vinegary leaves of the dwarf sheeps’ sorrel, Rumex acetosella, that covers the nearby slopes with a haze of rusty flowers in early summer.  This plantain produces dense spikes to 7 cm of tiny flowers from May to July, the protruding yellow anthers giving it a fluffy appearance, the whole plant resembling a tiny baroque candelabra. It has also adapted to roadsides where salt accumulates. All plantains are important sources of pollen and/or food plants for caterpillars of butterflies and moths; they make a good addition to wildlife-friendly gardens. Hoary plaintain, Plantago media, has fragrant flowers and plantain leaves are good for nettle stings.

The ling is a food plant for the hairy caterpillars of the oak eggar moth, whose caterpillars then shelter in the leaf litter below through winter. The eggs, caterpillars and pupae of many insects and butterflies and moths are now hidden everywhere, on undersides of leaves, on grass stems, in cracks in bark, in ground litter, here and in gardens. Leaving some areas of the garden untidy will protect the next generations of our endangered insect and butterfly populations. 

Meanwhile, ticks are still active, hanging off grass stems or bracken in those shoulder-high tunnels to catch onto whatever is walking past. So keep to open paths and remember to check dogs and yourselves. The NHS website has information on safe tick removal.

Margery Thomas

Please shut the pedestrian gates that you use. Please keep dogs close to you at all times, let’s give our ground nesting birds a chance, do not let your dog run and play off the paths and through the areas of heather and gorse. Don’t forget to take poo bags to the bins at the entrances.

Ian Rickards, Area Manager