Hartslock Nature Reserve is located on the north side of the Thames between Whitchurch and Goring-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. The site is owned by The Wildlife Trust for Berks, Bucks & Oxon (BBOWT) and managed by its staff and volunteers.

The reserve is a beautiful south facing, unimproved chalk downland hill with stunning views over the river Thames and the Goring Gap region. The grassland is surrounded by ancient hedges and mixed Yew woodland and, although it is only small (11-acres or 4.4 hectares), it is home to a very wide variety of plants and animals, some of which are extremely rare. For this reason the government has designated it and the surrounding area a ‘Site of Special Scientific Interest’ (SSSI) and the whole Goring Gap region is an ‘Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty’ (AONB).

The wildlife on Hartslock is typical of unimproved chalk downland but unfortunately, due to modern farming methods and the increasing pressures on land in the south of England, this kind of habitat is becoming increasingly rare.

Tidying up after the storms

Today’s work party really felt like the first proper day of Spring with 17C and glorious sun. Four species of butterfly were seen on the wing (Small Tortoishell, Brimstone, Peacock & Comma) and there were plenty of Bombus terrestris queens out looking for nesting sites.

The first task was to deal with the willow tree by the entrance gate. This is a lovely old tree with a colony of rare Jet ants (Lasius fuliginosus) in the rotted base but the winds had broken one of the limbs off right down to the base. The broken half is hung-up over the lane while the standing half was looking very precarious, as though it might fall across our gate & fence. Obviously, we want to keep the stump with the colony of ants and we will have to deal with the broken half at some point. But we also have to make sure that the standing half doesn’t break away – so we decided to cut off a few of the higher growth to reduce the leverage.

June update

The Monkey orchids are looking great with plenty in flower on the western face of the slope. The southern side is cordoned off to protect the slope from more compaction and erosion – there are only 1 or 2 plants in flower because 2 successively dry Springs in 2011 & 2012 have knocked them back a bit.

The Lady orchids and a few hybrids are starting to go over but many hybrids are still in good flower. As are a few of the White Helleborines in the wood at the top – and the few that have, for the first time, come up on the orchid slope at the top of the hill.

Orchid status update

This weekend at last things seem to be moving! Lady orchids & hybrids are flowering well and the first Monkey orchids are starting to open but they have quite a long way to go. Next weekend should see all of the Monkeys opening but for now there are enough to keep most visitors happy. Pasque Flowers are still flowering in the middle of slope 4, beyond the beech tree.

Dingy Skippers, Small Heaths & Green Hairstreaks are common with Grizzled Skipper, Common Blue, Holly Blue, Brimstone, Orange-Tip, Large White, Peacock, Small Tortoishell, Large White & Small White also seen.

Bombylius discolor – a new species for Hartslock

Today was very busy with lots of visitors choosing to come up and see the hybrids but while showing a party of botanists around I spotted a larger, darker bee-fly pollinating cowslips. On catching it I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was a Bombylius discolor (Spotted bee-fly), quite a rarity this far north and a new species for the site. It was obliging enough to stop for a few photos and even sat on someone’s finger for a while.

Still chilly up there!

Popped up to the reserve on Saturday morning but the cloud soon rolled in and the chilly wind kept my coat buttoned up. The hybrids and the Lady orchids are flowering, but not as many (~30%) as I had thought there would be after seeing them last weekend. The cowslips and chalk milkwort is looking lovely and there are a few good butterflies – Green Hairstreak around the hedges, Dingy skippers on the lower slopes & Small Heath in the grassland.

Some photos from yesterday:

Another orchid update…

I have had lots of queries from people asking when they should come up to see the orchids so I took a day off and went up there to see what the recent showers have done to speed things up. The general impression is that there hasn’t been much of a change – all Monkey orchids are very small and if they have buds they are very tightly wrapped up – to me this means that they are a couple of weeks from beginning to flower. The Lady orchids & hybrids are showing buds and some of them are fairly tall, so they should be in flower next week.

That said, the flowers should only just be starting and they should continue for at least 2 weeks after that so don’t all rush up there at once. We haven’t even put out the marker tapes or unlocked the lower gate yet because there really isn’t anything to see.

A few more insects on the wing

Popped up today to check the progress of the orchids … and the answer to that question is – “very, very late”. I am estimating they have another 2 weeks before many will be in flower – monkey orchids might even be later than that. It all depends on the weather of course and things will accelerate if we have warmth and some rain.

On the plus side, there was my first Grizzled Skipper of the year and quite a few Orange-Tip butterflies. There were also the first Gymnocheta viridis of the year, sunning themselves on the fence posts by the entrance gate and lots of Osmia bicolor bees, investigating old snail shells. Talking of bees, I also saw Bombus terrestris, lapidarius and pascuorum queens.

Cowslips are looking magnificent and the views are spectacular, as usual.

Pasque flowers doing well

A few days ago I popped up to walk around the site and was pleasantly surprised to see that all of the Pasques were flowering brilliantly. Each clump seems to have multiple flower heads and they have even shown signs of spreading a little further away from their original grid formation.

Hairy violets and cowslips are also flowering well but the orchids are showing very few signs of stirring. The leaves are up but are at least 2-3 weeks late when compared to previous years. If we get warm showery weather in the coming weeks they will accellerate but if not then they are likely to only be flowering from about the third weekend in May.


The first day of Summer but it still feels like Winter

I went for a brisk walk today, hoping to see some early-season tachinid flies, but the chilly wind seemed to keep all insects down. The views were lovely though and the very first Hairy Violets were poking through. I also took a few photos of the orchids to show how late a season it is going to be – they are still very small and I would expect them to flower no earlier than mid May.

If you fancy a little game I have uploaded a photo of a patch of ground – just find as many orchids as you can … the next photo will show you the ‘answers’ ;)

“In Pursuit of the Ridiculous” – broadcast

For any of you that didn’t catch our moment of fame on Radio4 you can listen to the program here: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01ntg59