Watership Down – a celebration of a Hampshire Downland
A lark celebrates a new day with its complex territorial song as the world beneath it changes imperceptibly from night to day. Amongst the short grasses of the downland short-tailed voles, with their chestnut-coloured fur, feed on the species-rich vegetation, all the while maintaining an alert vigil for stoat or kestrel. A wren, with its warm-brown plumage flies off in search of insect food amongst the ranker vegetation around an old rabbit warren.
A tranquil start to the day, and perhaps there is even a small ‘band’ of rabbits, relatives of the famous Fiver, Bigwig and Hazel who made this hillside known to the world. For this is early morning on Watership Down made famous in Richard Adam’s *** book of the same name.
The north-facing 100-meter-high chalky slope, of which Watership Down is part, stretches from the A34 to the north of Whitchurch eastwards past the Ladle Hill Fort, on to Cannon Heath Downs and the adjacent White Hill.
This spongy, chalky grassland sward can be windswept in winter yet a delight in the mellower times of the year. Our hillside, which would have been naturally wooded before human interference, has been de-wooded and grazed by sheep for around two thousand years. It is now a rich diversity of mainly herbaceous plants and their dependent animal life. In fact, you could discover up to forty different non-woody plant types in a single square metre, making this plant association one of the most complex in the UK.
While sheep are the principal grazers of this area, the rabbits also help to maintain the short grassland. For without the constant nibbling of seedling shrubs and trees the area would revert to its woodland origins and obliterate the open-grassland plants.
Early in the year yellow dominates the hillside, with cowslips and lime-yellow mosses covering some slopes, and seemingly echoing the colour of the oilseed rape in the fields around. In late spring and high summer the yellows are superseded by blue, purple and mauve hues, with scabious, knapweed, speedwell, ground ivy and rarer flora such as spotted and pyramidal orchids taking centre stage.
One attractive, uncommon plant that grows along the edge of the adjacent Wayfarer’s Way, that straddles the chalk ridge, is the perennial meadow saxifrage. It has attractive small leaves, that appear early in the year, pure-white flowers that seem to demand closer attention and the whole thing vanishes underground before summer. This plant is an ancient meadow indicator species and is lost by ploughing or ‘improvement’. (Look for it also in the Weyhill churchyard.)
The constant herbivorous pressure has largely killed off the coarser grasses leaving their fine-leaved relatives such as sheep’s fescue dominant. Such conditions also encourage horseshoe vetch and the delightful, slender, vibrant-blue chalk milkwort. These live alongside two aromatic bedstraws – the white-flowered hedge and yellow-flowered lady’s bedstraw.
There are yellow rockroses too. These normally prostrate evergreen shrubs, the wild relatives of the garden types, have small hairy leaves and flowers that seem only to open during sunny mornings. Their pollen and nectar is the life-blood for Watership Down’s bumblebees and butterflies.
Diminutive fairy flax has miniscule five-petaled, white flowers and precise paired oval leaves. Tall, and sometimes dominant, deadly nightshade (Atropa bella-donna) has sombre purple-brown flowers, black fruits, with their human heart-stopping powers, but the fruits are acceptable food to most creatures on the hillside.
Aromatic plants such as wild basil and thyme occur, and stemless thistles lie in wait for the tired walker to sit upon them.
All these plants support the animal and fungal food chain. Plant goodness is passed to voles, hares, rabbits and a host of invertebrates and on to the more carnivorous animals. Wasps, hornets, spiders, stoat, weasel and mole all make their living indirectly from the flora.
Butterflies and bumblebees are the insects most noticed in a ‘good’ year, but grasshoppers, spiders, woodlice and long-legged St Mark’s flies are around as well. The butterflies include skippers, blues and larger species such as marbled whites – each fluttering from one nectar source to the next to replenish their energy supplies. Banded snails and big, battleship-grey slugs eat the plants and leave themselves open to being eaten by the increasingly uncommon song thrush.
Above the slopes the avian predators await their chance. Kestrels spot the surreptitious movement of shrews, moles or voles; buzzards keep their eyes open for slowworms, amphibians and rabbits. Meanwhile, the magnificent red kites look to steal what animal material they can, even if it is from the very claws of a buzzard.
For any humans looking down from the chalky heights it is possible to enjoy the landscape’s features. Because the land’s form changes here as the geology* changes abruptly as the chalk meets the greensand at the bottom of the slope. Spot the differences in the shape of the land, the soil’s colour and the distribution of shrub and tree types. Look out for the spread of ash** trees, hawthorn, wayfaring trees, hazel and spindle.
But most folks will be watching out for rabbits – such is the effect of the Watership Down book. The signs of their presence, droppings and rabbit burrows, will be clear if disease has not killed them off locally. The beasts themselves usually maintain a low profile during the day. Best to seek them out early or late in the day.
Watership Down is best reached from the Wayfarer’s Walk. Parking is available on the Overton to Kingsclere road, B3051, at White Hill. The downland is itself private. Beacon Hill, adjacent to the A34, has a similar ecology and is owned and maintained by HCC. Parking available.
*A sensible wildlife enthusiast will always have a geology map available for scrutiny. It is the underlying geology that drives the soil, hence the plant life and the fauna that is associated with them.
** There is a free, and useful, app for a smartphone on tree identification from the Woodland Trust website.
*** Richard Adams lived in Whitchurch.