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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Balsdean & Castle Hill: a Raven, many autumnal wild flowers, and a juvenile Buzzard. 30.08.21

On Monday 30.08.21 I walked from Rottingdean (up the path next to the Whiteway Centre). via Balsdean, Castle Hill, the South Downs Way to Woodingdean (the carpark next to the former Bakery). I walked this route on the same day a year ago (30.08.20), in the other direction (but walking down Balsdean Road rather than the loath to the Whiteway Centre.

A little bit of Balsdean's fascinating history (from Wikipedia)

Bronze Age

The nearby hill known as the Bostle is the site of a Bronze Age cemetery consisting of a group of three large Bronze Barrows, with other barrows located nearby.[1]


Roman occupation of the neighbourhood have been recorded by two notable finds. In 1757 a Roman dagger was found in a tumulus at Balsdean. In 1798 a stoneware urn or jar was unearthed, containing upwards of a thousand Roman copper coins. Some were faintly plated, or washed, with silver, and they were so little injured that their relief remained perfectly sharp. Therefore, they could not have been much, if at all, in circulation. They were of the time of Valerian, who reigned A.D. 225, Gallienus, Claudius, Quintilius, Posthumus, Victorinus, Marius, and Tetricus.[2]


An Anglo-Saxon barrow cemetery consisting of 27 Early Anglo-Saxon barrows have been recorded in the vicinity of the Bronze Age cemetery on The Bostle.[1]


Balsdean was a hamlet, which consisted of two farms, Norton and Sutton, more generally known as Norton and Balsdean. By the twentieth century, Norton Farm became uninhabited. However, Balsdean Manor house and two workers' cottages were inhabited until the Second World War, when the population was evacuated and the buildings were used for target practice by Allied artillery. These buildings, including the medieval chapel by then used as a barn, were never rebuilt and the people never returned. The only standing building in the valley now is a derelict post-war barn complex.[3]

Later history

Norton farm was used as a lunatic asylum (as it was called at the time) in the early nineteenth century.

There is a modern farm named after the original Balsdean Farm on the fringe of Rottingdean, and from there most of the ancient farmlands of Balsdean are still worked. Part of the original sheepdown is now protected by the Castle Hill Site of Special Scientific Interest. Much of the former sheepdown, however, is now the site of the Brighton suburb of Woodingdean, the building of which started around 1918.[3]

Reasons for Notification: This is one of the best examples in East Sussex of the nationally uncommon chalk grassland habitat. The variation of plant and animal communities with aspect and slope is of special ecological interest. Two nationally rare species occur at Castle Hill. The chalk grassland is rich in flowering plants and is of the sheep’s fescue Festuca ovina–upright brome Bromus erectus type. Areas of tall grassland are dominated by tor grass Brachypodium pinnatum and are valuable for orthoptera (grasshoppers and crickets), an invertebrate group for which the site is possibly of national importance. Belts of scrub are present and are locally valuable for breeding birds. As a National Nature Reserve, Castle Hill has important education and research functions. Herbs which occur commonly in the grassland include horseshoe vetch Hippocrepis comosa, kidney vetch Anthyllis vulneraria, yellow rattle Rhinanthus minor, milkwort Polygala calcarea, scabious Scabiosa columbaria, fragrant orchid Gymnadenia conopsea, meadow oat grass Avenula pratensis and crested hair grass Koeleria macrantha. Warm, south facing slopes foster an unusual assemblage of plants with a continental distribution; these include Nottingham catchfly Silene nutans, burnt orchid Orchis ustulata, round headed rampion Phyteuma tenerum, field fleawort Senecio integrifolius, bastard toadflax Thesium humifusum, longstalked cranesbill Geranium columbinum and the nationally rare early spider orchid Ophrys sphegodes. Much of the scrub is dominated by gorse Ulex europaeus but more diverse communities are also present and include hawthorn Crataegus monogyna, wayfaring tree Viburnum lantana and blackthorn Prunus spinosa. The scrub supports downland breeding birds such as yellowhammer, corn bunting, linnet and whitethroat. The rich orthopteran fauna includes the great green bush cricket Tettigonia viridissima and the nationally rare wart-biter grasshopper Decticus verrucivorus. Other invertebrate groups which are well represented include true bugs and butterflies. 1004468 (

Map - Magic Map Application ( - the orange line shows the route I took,

Here is a chronological record of things that I saw; nothing rare; but all interesting or beautiful.

Turnip Sawfly, Athalia rosae, on Wild Carrot; Balsdean. Sawflies are not flies but part of the suborder Symphyta, within the order Hymenoptera; they are a sort of primitive form of Apocrita (ants, bees and wasps) but they don't have "wasp waits" which bees, wasps and ants have. "Real" Flies, like Hoverflies, are in the order Dyptera!

A Carder Bumblebee, probably a Common Carder on Ragwort; I did not have a net and specimen pot with me, which would have been required to examine it to determine whether it is a Common Carder, Brown Banded Carder or Moss Carder. It's abdomen does not look like that of a Moss Carder; and its hairiness suggests Common Crader.

I think this is a Raven not a Carrion Crow

Harebell, Campanula rotundifolia

Poppies and Flax, looking toward Castle Hill from Balsdean

Sheep and wheat. There is a mostly arable farm in the bottoms of the Balsdean and Castle Hill; so much of the historic landscape of sheep grazed short grassland of the chalk South Downs, with its rare wild flowers and insects, has been lost to arable farming

Flax seed heads.

White Campion, Silene latifolia, with flax seed heads and poppies.

The ruined post-war farm buildings of Balsdean Farm; Castle Hill SSSI in the background.

A rabbit running away from a combine harvester

The combine harvester

A Buzzard (a juvenile I think) - flying in and landing on a fence post. Buzzards were extinct in Sussex in my childhood (1960s and 1970s)

How buzzards came to fly over the UK again - BBC News: Buzzards were once almost hunted out of existence but they've made a huge comeback, with numbers soaring in the past few years.


In the early 1900s, killed off by gamekeepers frightened they would destroy their pheasants and grouse, there were as few as 1,000 breeding pairs in the UK. Nowadays there are up to 68,000. Common buzzards - also known as Eurasian buzzards or by their Latin name Buteo buteo


[At breeding time (March-April) "The shows they put on are really quite spectacular," says Jeff Knott, species policy officer for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. "The degree of danger in the aerobatics depends on how easy or difficult the female is to impress. Some of them get really near the ground when they're doing the rollercoaster."

The buzzard is sometimes known as the "tourist eagle" because people commonly mistake it for its larger fellow raptor (or bird of prey).

Its main prey is small mammals, including voles, mice, rats, moles, rabbits and hares, but it can live on worms and insects when these are scarce. Buzzards also search for carrion (dead meat), such as road kill, the reason drivers see them hovering over roads and motorways.

They've been known to take bones from rubbish tips, allowing them to live in or on the outskirts of cities. But, unlike seagulls, who can eat chips, bread and pasties, buzzards need to consume flesh, so are unlikely to be found rummaging in dustbins.

Between March and May, breeding pairs, the displays over, build nests near the edges of woods. "They are striking," says Sean Walls, avian segment manager at the animal-monitoring company Biotrack. "But to many people they don't have the rarity or magnificence of some birds of prey, so they don't get the attention of, say, a golden eagle."

But they have come under threat. Culling by gamekeepers meant that, by 1875, buzzards were only to be found in western parts of Britain, the population reaching a nadir by the start of the 20th Century. Restrictions placed on illegal killing during the two world wars allowed numbers to recover.

Buzzard facts

  • Common buzzards normally live for around 12 years, although the maximum recorded lifespan is 28 years and nine months

  • Wingspans can be as long as 60ins (152cm)

  • In the UK, they are found in greatest numbers in Scotland, Wales, the Lake District and south-west England,

  • They live across all of Europe, excluding Iceland and the northern Scandinavia, large areas of Asia and Africa

  • Females have larger talons and beaks than those of males

But the spread of the myxomatosis virus to the UK in 1953 is estimated to have killed more than 99% of the country's rabbits, removing much of the buzzard's food supply. And the use of organochlorine pesticides in the 1950s and 1960s affected its reproductive capacity. The population is thought to have been about 10,000 breeding pairs by the mid-1960s.

Since then things have improved, with numbers increasing sharply by the 1990s. The Countryside Alliance found there were 68,000 breeding pairs of buzzards in Britain in 2013 - almost double the number in 2006 and more than four times the number in 1997.

Since the year 2000 every county in England is known to have hosted buzzards. When non-breeding birds - those too young to procreate - are added to the breeding pairs, it's estimated there are up to 300,000 in total in the UK.


The buzzard is now at little or no risk of becoming endangered in the UK, in contrast to some other birds of prey, such as the hen harrier and the white-tailed eagle.

"The critical thing is reduced persecution," says Walls. "Buzzards are not as big a threat to pheasants or grouse as some birds, such as the goshawk. They will take a few birds but not as many, and many gamekeepers have come to realise that."

But the Countryside Alliance has raised concerns that the "population is becoming unsustainable, and in some instances is having an adverse impact on other wildlife".

"There's been an incredible reverse in their decline, which is fantastic," says Liam Stokes, the organisation's head of shooting. But there needs to be more flexibility where there are "local issues" involving excessive numbers, he adds.

Gamekeepers have complained that the growth in population has put their livelihoods at risk, with too many pheasants and grouse being killed.

The Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981 makes it illegal to kill, injure or take a wild bird, but people can apply for licences to do so - one possible reason being that there is a serious danger to livestock or crops.

A gamekeeper from Berwick was repeatedly refused a licence to trap and kill buzzards, which he said were taking his baby pheasants.

In November last year, the High Court ruled that Natural England, the body advising the government on preserving the environment, had acted "inconsistently" in not granting any licences for buzzards to be trapped and killed but allowing them for other species.

It had "unlawfully operated an undisclosed policy about how buzzard populations were to be treated", requiring "far higher quality evidence" than other birds. "The substantial reason for the difference in approach was some hostile public opinion."

Natural England said: "Whilst we are disappointed at the outcome, we welcome the court's clarification on the legal framework."

There is still illegal killing of buzzards going on, says Knott, but he estimates the population will increase by about another 10%, growing particularly strongly in the eastern areas where they still have room to breed more freely.

"In the next few years, almost every person in England should be able to see a buzzard near where they live with a minimum of difficulty," he says. "When I was a boy we used to drive on holidays from Kent to Cornwall and we used to think we were nearing our destination when we saw a buzzard over the motorway. Now, not that much later, they're all over the country. That's an incredible story." How buzzards came to fly over the UK again - BBC News, 2016, accessed 02.09.21

I was alerted to this juvenile Buzzard from its continual shrill calling - requesting food from its parents.

One of the parents in flight.

The juvenile

Rosebay Willowherb, Chamerion angustifolium, at the top of Castle Hill, which looked beautiful growing in combination with Hemp Argrimony

A tall plant, Rosebay willowherb is a successful coloniser; it can form dense stands of bright pink flower spikes on disturbed ground, such as woodland clearings, verges and waste ground. pink flower spikes of Rosebay willowherb can often be seen crowding together in thick stands in open spaces, such as woodland clearings, roadside verges, grassland and waste ground. A successful coloniser, Rosebay willowherb has grown in number from a scarce woodland plant to a ubiquitous flower. This expansion occurred as a result of two World Wars clearing huge areas of forest and burning the ground in both town and countryside - just the right conditions for this plant to thrive in. One of its common names in the South East, 'Bombweed', alludes to this takeover. Rosebay willowherb | The Wildlife Trusts

Rosebay Willowherb, Chamerion angustifolium, behind, Hemp Argrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum, in front.

Also known as 'Raspberries and Cream', Hemp-agrimony displays 'frothy' clusters of tiny, pink flowers on top of long, reddish stems. Its leaves look like those of Hemp, although it is not related. Hemp-agrimony is a tall, perennial plant found in damp grassland, marshes, fens and wet woodlands, and along riverbanks. The frothy, pinkish flower clusters appear from July to September and are very attractive to all kinds of insects, including butterflies like the Small Tortoiseshell and Red Admiral. Its common name comes from the resemblance of its leaves to Hemp, although it is not related to it. Hemp-agrimony | The Wildlife Trusts

A Honeybee on Rosebay Willowherb

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