13th December 2020 – from skylarks to campions on a whale’s back

The landscape of Kipling’s “whale-backed” South Downs causes mixed emotions. On the one hand there’s the relief of rolling green hills after weeks of walking the London suburbs. On the other hand, the vast featureless flinty fields are a depressing reminder of the desperate and precarious state of British farming. A state that’s likely to get worse before it gets better.

On a section of our route from Lewes to Rottingdean, K and I stalk a raptor from post to post which given its size and profile, is probably a sparrowhawk. I kick myself for forgetting my binoculars to confirm that; it’s always difficult deciding what’s worth squeezing into my rucksack on a rainy day. A couple of skylarks obligingly burble over a swooping grassed field so that at least there’s no issue about their identity.

I’m really here to see what might still be in flower in the milder coastal climate rather than birdwatch. I find both a red campion and this white campion. My well-thumbed wildflower guide tells me that the white one was introduced in the Bronze Age. Archaeological evidence suggests the South Downs were cleared of trees around 3000 years ago too, so it’s possible that the ancestors of this plant has been growing in this area ever since then.

Later that day I talk on the phone with my brother, a dairy farmer. He hopes to be cushioned from some of the worst fall out of leaving the EU as he sells to a British cheese company – whose main markets are the UK, US and Australia – and sources his feed in the UK too. Still, input prices are likely to rise. At the moment it’s not clear whether the initiatives he’s already put in place to encourage wildlife on his farm are going to be rewarded in the future.

There’s a whale-sized hump we’re going to need to get over before it’s clear whether the situation for wildlife is going to be better or worse in the near future.


  1. The South Downs are lovely aren’t they. We spent a few days in Bramber in August and walked from Seaford along to Seven Sisters, it was brilliant. Hoping for a really nice day before the winter ends to we can drive over from Southampton for another nice walk there.

    1. Amanda Tuke · · Reply

      The big spaces are such a nice contrast with lockdown London 🙂

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