Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Spending Time at His Majesty's Pleasure - Knepp Estate, 23rd June

For those interested in natural history, a visit to Knepp Estate is becoming essential. The story of the Knepp Estate, not far from Gatwick airport, moving from an intensive farm largely devoid of wildlife to a livestock farm offering a haven for all wildlife is well known and is described in detail in the Excellent book 'Wilding' written by landowner and farmer Isabella Tree.

But there's nothing like seeing it for yourself. Still not able to go birding with others I drove down to Knepp, and was delighted when completely by coincidence Mike pulled in next to me. What are the chances of that randomly happening?

We parked at the temporary car park opposite the entrance to the farm (£5) and were given a map (see here) Walked down to the farm and then the fun started. We took the white path round to the SW corner where the UK's first nesting White Storks for years were present in a large tree in a field. Two good size young and an adult on a neighbouring branch and a good crowd. As we walked on we saw a flock of 12 Storks in the air, an amazing spectacle for the UK. We walked on up toward the west side where the white and purple walks meet, and there spent a couple of hours watching Purple Emperors. We eventually settled on a total of 11 individuals, mainly flying round the tops of oaks and then perching. Once a lower trip gave us decent views. We didn't get any on the ground but were very happy with the views we had seeing these magnificent creatures establishing and protecting their territories.

If you are going, I would suggest going to where white path meets purple at the NW corner of the white walk, from there carry on a hundred meters clockwise until there is a branch off left in the path. Take this and you will see the path extending ahead with a long open strip, a mass of sallows on the left and oaks on the right. You can see it on the aerial photo on the map as a vertical strip. Walk up to where two dead trees have fallen over, and there look into the oaks.

The story is that these butterflies suddenly and unexpectedly appeared here. But to my eye, this is a massive area of perfect Emperor habitat. The many enormous oaks are decades old, and I suspect there were sallows here for a while, so my guess its the old story that they were there all the time, but unless someone who knows their stuff goes at the right time of year on the right day and looks in the right place at the right time, no-one sees them.

This general area gave us the best wildlife sightings. In addition to His Majesty we had Silver Washed Fritillary (two distantly), White Admiral (two close up), and a variety of other more common butterflies including many Marbled White. Best for me was a male Beautiful Demoiselle that settled on a bramble - a first for me. A stunning creature, all metallic blues. And a Turtle Dove singing unseen in the distance.

We headed back to the farm, with a few Storks feeding in a field, and then just by the farm stopped at a brook and saw Large Red Damselfly and Mike picked up a slightly odd blue damselfly in flight which when it settled was clearly a White-Legged Damselfly.

The farm-related wildlife is present too - Fallow Deer, Tamworth-like russet piglets, Horses, Cattle, but not everywhere.

All in we spent about 4 hours plus walking round. It is an impressive place, and quite big. Apparently a Red-Backed Shrike spent some weeks there a couple of years ago - well there could be several pairs there and you wouldn't know. The many Turtle Doves were well hidden and of the Nightingales there was unsurprisingly no sign. But nevertheless, it is a fascinating look into the natural environment, what it might have been in centuries past, and what it may become in the future.

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