Like Southern England 200 years ago

David Beeson

31st May 2020

Salisbury Plain

To the west of Andover, the north of Salisbury and south of the M4 is Salisbury Plain. Worldwide this region is known for the enigmatic Stonehenge, Woodhenge and the other world-quality archaeological sites. They themselves merit a long journey, especially if you take the area seriously i.e. understand the area and not just have a quick look.

Thin downland soil, with rockroses and salad burnet plants.

One cold but sunny winter’s morning I walked from Durrington Walls / Woodhenge up The Avenue and all the way to Stonehenge. It was magical. I wandered the ancient burial mounds and the other features ignored by almost everyone. It is a time I will not forget … and I didn’t have to pay entry fees.

While Stonehenge is magical, henges are not uncommon in Britain and I passed another today. (Bet you do not know what a henge is! Almost no person gets it correct. Go on, look it up.) It was just near where I parked the Mazda 6.

Salisbury Plain is a chalky upland that is principally used as an army training zone. Today it was quiet, yet at other times you can encounter what’s left of the UK’s army’s might – tanks, parachutists and armoured gunships. It can be exciting.

Amazing butterflies around this Iron Age burial mound.
No tanks here, please.

Just south of Everleigh a roads leads due south and one can access The Old Marlborough Road and suitable parking locations.

Towards Sidbury Hill

This is a countryside that looks medieval; open, rolling grasslands with, perhaps, a few cattle. Often no people, no habitations, but a world full of singing skylarks and soaring raptors. Magnificent.

The walk was towards Sidbury Hill, an ancient pre-Iron Age hill fortification dating back over 3000 years, but most of the time was spent on the open grassland.

Open grassland with plantation trees in the distance

From afar the square miles (Kilometres) of open vistas look alike – until one wanders slowly across them. The ecology, distribution of plants and associated animal life, varies. In one location sainfoin (Onobrychis viciifolia) is dominant, in another none can be spotted.

Sainfoin can be grown as a commercial crop. It is often a darker red. This is the wild relative in its natural environment.

(Sainfoin flowers are rich in pollen and nectar; the nectar can attract ten times more bees than clover species. What’s more, Dr John Moon informs me that Salisbury Plain hosts the only known location of the very rare sainfoin bee.)

Meadowsweet

The grassland holds populations of pyramidal orchids (just coming into flower), yellow-flowered horseshoe and kidney vetch, small scabious, knapweeds, silver weed, rockroses and the most unplant-like broomrape.

Greater knapweed , Centaurea scabiosa with burnet moths taking nectar

Most plants use photosynthesis for energy capture. (But, did you know that there are several different photosynthetic processes? The one used by tropical species – called C4 photosynthesis – and that used by UK plants – C3 photosynthesis- are quite different. There are other types too, e.g. CAM photosynthesis. In fact, if UK plants are grown in tropical countries they can be killed by the oxygen they release in their C3 photosynthesis. Yes, oxygen can be toxic!) Broomrapes, and several other species, take their food by parasitism or by eating decaying plant material.

Broomrapes in flower. No green stem or leaves.
A similar-looking plant, yellow birds nest, occurs elsewhere on this extensive site
(Yellow birdsnest is not the same as the orchid with a similar name.)

Wikipedia says: As broomrapes have no chlorophyll, they are totally dependent on other plants for nutrients. Broomrape seeds remain dormant in the soil, often for many years, until stimulated to germinate by certain compounds produced by living plant roots. Broomrape seedlings put out a root-like growth, which attaches to the roots of nearby hosts. Once attached to a host, the broomrape robs its host of water and nutrients.

Horseshoe vetch
Spotted orchid

Nearby I also spot flowering yellow rattle. This is a semi-parasite, especially on grasses, which I employ to control my own mini-Salisbury Plain at Forest Edge. It has green leaves yet its roots join with and steal nutrients from nearby vegetation. Isn’t botany wonderful! Not as boring as non-thinkers suggest!

Holly blue
Small blue

This grassland is not as full with bees as I had anticipated. To compensate it is alive with butterflies and some moths. Small heaths and Adonis blues abound, although only a single marsh fritillary was spotted – last time here I could have counted thousands. Small blues and holly blues occur in patches, especially around the more rank vegetation that surrounds old badger diggings.

Different vegetation around an old badger sett.
Viper’s-bugloss occurs on disturbed land … and with tracks and tanks there is plenty here.

What else was of note? Dark-green fritillary butterflies and meadow browns are the harbingers of the future. A pair of common lizards were resting beneath a piece of discarded plastic, and on the slopes of Sidbury were common blue butterflies. Apart from joyous skylarks and an occasional predator I spotted few birds – understandable as my attention today was towards my feet.

Adonis blue
Protective ditches of the hill fort. Note dead ash tree – from ash dieback disease
Common blue

If you live within driving distance, this is an area to explore. You’ll find many more treasures: acres of green-winged orchids, colonies of bee orchids, bird’s nest orchids and burnt-tip orchids to name but a few. Sure, watch out for tanks and low-flying bullets … but, hey, you need a sense of adventure sometimes.

Bid song identification? I use birdNET – free and seems reliable. Worth a try?

The site is remote. Take a phone and drink. Take nothing but photographs and leave not even a footprint!

If you enjoy this website – please share it. John and I wish to export our knowledge to the next generation. Thank you, David.

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