Posted on Friday, May 28th, 2010
To celebrate the UN-designated International Year of Biodiversity, the GBG ran two special trips onto the eastern section of Salisbury Plain in mid-May (on the 18th and the 21st). The aim of the visits was twofold: to explore the biodiversity of these hugely important rich chalk grasslands (the largest area of calcareous grassland in northern Europe), and for participants to get a much better understanding of why they are so suitable for our Great Bustard re-introduction project.
Led by GBG staff Al Dawes, Lynne Derry, and myself (Charlie Moores), we were fortunate enough to be joined by two notable Salisbury Plain experts - Dr Bill Jordan who accompanied us on the 18th, and Paul Toynton (the first ecologist to be employed by the Ministry of Defence, and the man who devised the regimes that restored so much of the grasslands after decades of unmanaged grazing) who came with us on both days. Both trips started and finished at Enford Village Hall (our thanks go to the management committee for their permission to use the hall), and included a visit to the release-site to view our bustards, a tour of the eastern Plain looking for birds, butterflies and plants, and a look at the haul from two moth-traps set up the night before.
With the weather looking good (dry!) for the entire week, and our expert team split between the two vehicles we were using, we had high hopes that - despite the Plain's reputation for seemingly being packed with wildlife one day and empty the next - we'd be able to show our guests an exciting range of birds, insects, and plants. Which is how it turned out...
While mid-May is not perhaps the most exciting time for viewing Great Bustards (females are nesting and the males are mostly loafing around wondering where the females have hidden themselves), we did nevertheless obtain prolonged views of two males at the release-site (and participants were thankfully very understanding why we didn't drive around looking for the females).
We also found plenty of Corn Buntings and Skylarks, and - split across the two days - recorded typical local species including Stone Curlew, Eurasian Curlew, Northern Lapwing, Wheatear, Whinchat, Linnet, Meadow Pipit, Yellow Wagtail, Red-legged Partridge, Common Whitethroat, Blackcap, Buzzard, and Hobby.
Flowering plants and grasses:
With many of the Plain's invertebrates feeding as larvae only on specific chalk grassland plants (and its vertebrates dependent on a wide range of insects and seeds), flowering plants and grasses are the foundation upon which all other wildlife communities are built.
With expert and fascinating input from Paul Toynton, who brought to life the ecology of the Plain and the strategies employed to maintain the grasslands, we recorded a host of interesting (and often ecologically critical) plants, including Green-winged Orchid, Sainfoin, Chalk Milkwort, Dyer's Greenweed, Lady's Bedstraw, Horseshoe and Common Vetch, Field Madder, Rock Rose, Dropwort, and Mignonette.
Paul also gave a masterclass in the identification of the Plain's grasses, which I'm ashamed to admit your correspondent missed while searching for butterflies...
Salisbury Plain is renowned for its populations of chalk grassland butterflies (which peak in July, so we were unfortunately too early for some skippers and Chalkhill Blue), and while the weather on the 18th was more overcast than we'd have liked, all participants in the GBG Safaris saw an excellent range of butterflies, including good views of all our target species - Adonis Blue, Small Blue, Dingy Skipper, Brown Argus, Green Hairstreak, and the beautiful and rapidly declining Marsh Fritillary.
We also recorded Small Heath, Orange-tip, Green-veined White, Peacock, and Small Tortoiseshell.
Sadly though we failed to record the Wall in suitable habitat, reflecting the 65% decline the species has undergone in the last thirty years or so.
Moths are an often-overlooked but fascinating part of a site's biodiversity - being nocturnal and small doesn't help their cause! However, they are a hugely important both as environmental indicators (like butterflies they are extremely sensitive to change) and as a major part of the diet of bats and many birds (the decline in Cuckoos for instance has been linked to the decline in the caterpillars of certain moths).
For the first time the GBG set up two moth-traps - one at our release-site and one in a tree-lined hollow at Enford Farm (we're grateful for permission to do so of course) - and over the two nights some extremely interesting macro-moth species were recorded and shown to the Safari participants. These included a pristine Emperor Moth, Privet and Small Elephant Hawk-moths, Fox Moth, Broom Moth, Streamer, Pale-shouldered Brocade, The Shears, Scorched Carpet, Cinnabar, and White Ermine.
Additionally a remarkable total of 152 Rustic Shoulder-knots were found in just one trap on the 18th (a particularly muggy, overcast night). As a side-note all the moths were released unharmed in the evening.
In addition to the above we also noted a few mammals (the Plain still holds good numbers of Brown Hare for example, Roe Deer are often seen, and more disconcertingly a Stoat was spotted inside the pen at the release-site), but it was too dry to find the elusive and fascinating (and apocryphal as far as some of the participants were concerned) Fairy Shrimp, a crustacean that lives an extraordinary lifestyle with the adults breeding in ephemeral shallow pools created (on the Plain anyway) by the movement of tanks and its eggs able to lie dormant for up to fifteen years while they wait for rainfall.
These were quite long (and often bumpy) days, but from the feedback we received at the end of each day they were also extremely enjoyable. Explaining what makes the Plain so special by examining the various wildlife communities that contribute to its unique unique character certainly helped put the Great Bustard reintroduction project into context, and was extremely valuable for this fact if nothing else!
Having said that, of course, the two days would have been damp squibs if the participants hadn't thrown themselves into them wholeheartedly and the GBG would like to thank everyone who came along for the spirit of adventure and exploration they brought with them.
As a last thought, we will be writing up an account of the two days for Otis magazine and are on the lookout for good photographs (as this was a 'working day' I took far fewer photos than I would have done normally). If anyone who took part also took some photographs they'd be willing to let us use could you please email firstname.lastname@example.org - thankyou.
All photos copyright Charlie Moores/GBG 2010