top of page
  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Butterflies at Birling Gap & Friston Forest, wild flowers, and Swallows at Cuckmere Haven. 23.04.22.

My nature journey of Saturday 23.04.22 was of two parts: a walk around Birling Gap and Friston Forest and then a walk in Cuckmere Haven with a friend.

I decided to focus my attention on Butterflies at Birling Gap and Friston Forest. I chose to go to Birling Gap after consulting Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch's site list.

There are two key parts to Beachy Head for butterflies. The first is the strip centred around Birling Gap. From the car park here, head west up the little lane past the bungalows ¼ mile and through a gate towards Seven Sisters. Beyond a little copse, a small area of downland opens up with Green Hairstreak, Dark Green Fritillary, Chalkhill Blue etc. Alternatively head east from Birling Gap on the inland side of the slope parallel with the road to Horseshow Plantation (TV561958). The sheltered eastern side of the plantation is fantastic for Silver-spotted Skipper, Dingy Skipper, Adonis Blue, Brown Argus, Clouded Yellow etc, with White-letter Hairstreak in the plantation itself. There is another Adonis Blue colony up over the top from the plantation in the gully that dips down west from Belle Tout lighthouse. Adrian Thomas Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch - PAGE TITLE (

I got to Birling Gap by bus and walking. I took the 12X bus from Brighton, and got off at Friston Pond, and walked down the footpath that goes to Birling Gap. See: 12X - Eastbourne-Brighton | Brighton & Hove Buses for timetable. This path starts at the Crowlink Car Park, south of Friston Pond: turn left at the carpark, not done the Crowlink Lane. Alternatively you could get off at East Dean and walk down the road to Birling Gap (Gilberts Drive which becomes Birling Gap Road) (approximately 1 miles). On Sundays only there is a13X bus goes that goes to Birling Gap. See: 13X - Eastbourne-Brighton | Brighton & Hove Buses for timetable.

The photographs are in chronological order

All text in italics are quotations, sources given at end of quotes

Friston Pond

Wild flowers around Friston Pond

Ground Ivy

An aromatic creeping herb with funnel-shaped violet flowers, the Saxons used this wildflower to flavour and clarify their ale

This small, common evergreen perennial, belonging to the mint family, spreads rapidly in a carpet-like form due to its creeping stems. Despite its name, it is not closely related to common ivy.

Known as a lung-cleansing herb, it has been used to treat coughs and other respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis.

It has been used a substitute for animal rennet to make cheese.

It is a rich source of vitamin C and can used as a herbal tea.

Common names include Gill-over-the-ground, Creeping Charlie, Alehoof, Tunhoof, Field balm and Run-away Robin.

It was known as "Our Lady's Vine" in Medieval times.

Cuckoo Flower

Often known as 'lady's smock,' the pretty lilac flowers open around the time the cuckoo starts to call.

The flowers are usually veined with darker violet but in some areas pure white forms can be found. It is an important food plant for the caterpillars of the orange-tip and the green-veined white butterfly. In his Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey shows how the first full blooming of the Cuckooflower is a remarkably accurate predictor of the first hearing of the bird itself. Cuckooflower / Lady's Smock (Cardamine pratensis) (

St Mary's Church Friston

The C11 nave is possibly pre-Conquest, though it may have been extended to the west in the C12. The chancel looks C14, but on earlier foundations. In a C19 north chapel are C16-C18 memorials. Friston – St Mary – Sussex Parish Churches

The footpath to Birling Gap

This walk map from the National Trust Birling Gap walk from the Tiger Inn | National Trust shows the oath I took, but I walked from 3 to 5, then cut through to 11, walking to 10, 9 and 8.

Southdown Sheep

Southdown sheep have wool on their faces, ears and legs. Small grey-faced sheep were kept on the chalk uplands of the South Downs since medieval times. From 1780 John Ellman, of Glynde, near Lewes in East Sussex, began selectively breeding them to improve their productive qualities. They were bred for mutton.

For more information on Southdown Sheep see: Southdown Sheep Society

Old water trough

Dog Violet

Dog' refers to its lack of scent, as opposed to ‘sweet' violet. Dog, like horse, is a common English prefix for distinguishing an inferior species from its superior relative.

Local names include blue mice, cuckoo's shoe, shoes and stockings, pig violet, horse violet, and snake violet.

It is one of the violet species which is a crucial larval food for some of Britain's most threatened and declining butterflies: pearl-bordered fritillary, small pearl-bordered fritillary, high brown fritillary, silver-washed fritillary and dark green fritillary.

It is the County Flower of Lincolnshire. Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) (

Chaga fungus

Nonotus obliquus, commonly called chaga (a Latinisation of the Russian word чага), is a fungus in the family Hymenochaetaceae. It is parasitic on birch and other trees. The sterile conk is irregularly formed and resembles burnt charcoal. It is not the fruiting body of the fungus, but a sclerotium or mass of mycelium, mostly black because of a great amount of melanin.[2] Some people consider chaga medicinal.[3] Inonotus obliquus - Wikipedia

The prevailing strong south westerly winds that strike the South Downs where they meet the sea between Seaford Head and Beachy Head shapes the growth of exposed trees

This tree has been blown over

Walk from Birling Gap to Horseshoe Plantation

Early Purple Orchid

There is a dizzying array of local names for the Early Purple Orchid. These include adder's meat, bloody butchers, red butchers, goosey ganders, kecklegs, kettle cases and kite's legs.

The legend that Early Purple Orchid grew under Christ's cross, and the leaves were splattered with the blood of Christ, have resulted in the names Gethesmane and cross flower.

The dried tubers have been used to make a drink called Saloop or Salep by grinding them into flour, and mixing with hot milk or water, honey and spices. This was popular in the nineteenth century among manual workers probably owing to wholesome and strengthening qualities. It probably originated from the similar Middle Eastern drink, sahleb.


n the quote below, the Early Purple Orchid is the "long purple" of Ophelia's garland, as referred to by Gertrude in Shakespeare's Hamlet.

Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepards give a grosser name, but which cold maids do Dead Men's Fingers call. Shakespeare, Hamlet. Early Purple Orchid (Orchis mascula) (


Cowslips are one of the best known spring flowers. The cup-shaped, yellow flowers grow in nodding clusters on tall stalks. The leaves are oval with relatively wrinkled edges similar to the Primrose, but narrowing more abruptly into the stalk.

It is the county flower of Northamptonshire, Worcestershire and Surrey.

In the 'Language of Flowers' it symbolises comeliness and winning grace

Cowslip allegedly means cowpat! Our ancestors noted that they tended to flower where a cow had ‘slupped'.

As an early spring flower, it is closely associated with much English folklore and tradition, including being strewn on church paths for weddings and adorning garlands for May Day.

In addition to The Tempest, the ‘freckled cowslip' also appears in Shakespeare's Henry V as a sign of a well-managed pasture.

Its scent is not dissimilar to that of an apricot. Richard Mabey describes the scent as 'faintly fruity and dill-like.'

Tea made from the flowers is meant to be good for insomnia, headaches and nervous tension. The scented flowers also make delicious wines.

Some of the many enchanting vernacular names include freckled face, golden drops, bunch of keys, fairies' flower, lady's fingers, long legs and milk maidens. Welsh names include dagrau Mair, 'Mary's tears'. Paigle is another name used rather indiscriminately for any wild primula.

The nodding flowers suggests the bunch of keys which were the badge of St. Peter. One legend is that Peter was told that a duplicate key to Heaven had been made and therefore let his keys drop. The Cowslip broke from the ground where the keys fell.

They share their family's tendency to produce a profusion of variations including the variety known to gardeners as 'Devon Red' and orange-flowered forms. Cowslip (Primula veris) (

Male Stonechat

I frequently see Stonechats on shrubs just behind the cliffs (in wind shadow dips) on Seaford Head and Beachy Heaf)

A Meadow Pipit

There were many Skylarks singing as I walked along the path.

Birling Gap

There weren't many butterflies to be seen; partly because it was very windy. To the west of Birling Gap I didn't see any; to the east was much better, and I saw a few on the east (leeward) side of Horseshoe Plantation where it was much less windy. I didn't see anything rare, but seeing any butterfly was good after the initial absence of butterflies!

Horseshoe Plantation

Speckled Wood

The aptly named Speckled Wood flies in partially shaded woodland with dappled sunlight. The male usually perches in a small pool of sunlight, from where it rises rapidly to intercept any intruder. Both sexes feed on honeydew in the treetops and are rarely seen feeding on flowers, except early and late in the year when aphid activity is low.

The range of this butterfly contracted during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries but has spread back since the 1920s. It has continued to spread over the past two decades, recolonizing many areas in eastern and northern England and Scotland. Speckled Wood | Butterfly Conservation (


A very common early butterfly on the South Donws

There is a view that the word 'butterfly' originates from the yellow colour of male Brimstones. The wings of the female are very pale green, almost white, males have yellow-green underwings and yellow upperwings. Brimstone | Butterfly Conservation (

Bluebells in the plantation


The Comma is a fascinating butterfly. The scalloped edges and cryptic colouring of the wings conceal hibernating adults amongst dead leaves, while the larvae, flecked with brown and white markings, bear close resemblance to bird droppings.

The species has a flexible life cycle, which allows it to capitalize on favourable weather conditions. However, the most remarkable feature of the Comma has been its severe decline in the twentieth century and subsequent comeback. It is now widespread in southern Britain and its range is expanding northwards.

Path through the plantation

A Speckled Wood on Lesser Celandine

A caterpillar of the .... [butterfly/moth - will update when I have found out!]

Walking to East Dean from Birling Gap

A Linnet

Southdown Sheep

At East Dean I caught the 12 bus to Gayles Farm between Friston and Exceat (Seven Sisters Country Park - South Downs National Park. I crossed the road and walked into Friston Forest and walked along a path to the Seven Sisters Country Park Victors Centre

Friston Forest

Friston Forest can be a good place to see Butterflies, especially at Butchershole Bottom,

Large open Downland area, surrounded by woodland. Mainly managed by Forest Enterprise.

Access details Well signed car park off road between Friston and Jevington. Open downland is to the West

Key species Adonis Blue, Chalkhill Blue, Marbled White. Good populations of Common Blue, Small Copper, some Dark Green Fritillary. Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral in the adjoining Friston Forest.

Other common species The open Downland area has a huge population of common butterfly species, and wild flowers, including Pyramidal and Common Spotted Orchid. Butterfly Conservation - Sussex Branch - PAGE TITLE (

but the path I walked through, mostly the red mountain bike route, to the south of the forest, is less good, as it is beech woodland with few wildflowers. I didn't have time to walk to Buttershole Bottom today, as I was meeting a friend in the afternoon at the Seven Sisters Country Park visitors centre.

Another Speckled Wood

And a common but very beautiful Red Admiral

A large and strong-flying butterfly and common in gardens. This familiar and distinctive insect may be found anywhere in Britain and Ireland and in all habitat types.

Starting each spring and continuing through the summer there are northward migrations, which are variable in extent and timing, from North Africa and continental Europe. The immigrant females lay eggs and consequently there is an emergence of fresh butterflies, from about July onwards. They continue flying into October or November and are typically seen nectaring on garden buddleias or flowering Ivy and on rotting fruit.

There is an indication that numbers have increased in recent years and that overwintering has occurred in the far south of England. Red Admiral | Butterfly Conservation (

A view of the oxbow lakes (cut of from the canalised river Cuckmere to the right, and not in the photo) from the hill in Friston Forrest directly above the Seven Sisters Country Park visitors centre

My find of the day was a copy of Michael Blencowe and Neil Hulme's book "The Butterflies of Sussex: A Twenty-First Century Atlas" in the newly reopened Seven Sisters County Park Visitors Centre shop. This book is out of print; and it is impossible to find new or second-hand anywhere (I've looked over the past few years on ABEBooks, eBay, Amazon, and online nature books many times). I walked into the visitors centre and there was just one copy on a bookstand. The visitors centre has been closed for three years; and all the stock was packed in boxes; the shop assistant said she had found it in the box and put it out for sale today. What luck.

Cuckmere Haven

I walked down the east path with a friend

There weren't many birds around; but these three Little Egrets showed well at the top of the northerly oxbow lake. The water level of the oxbow lakes (cut off from the main canalised tidal River Cuckmere) and in the scrapes at the bottom of the valley was very low, as a result of the paucity of rain over the last few weeks. This was probably the cause of the lower bird numbers than usual.

Little Egrets

The huge numbers of Little Egrets that can be seen at Cuckmere Haven is a testimony of the success of their colonisation from mainland Europe; but that is probably a result of global warming

The little egret is a small white heron with attractive white plumes on crest, back and chest, black legs and bill and yellow feet. It first appeared in the UK in significant numbers in 1989 and first bred in Dorset in 1996. Its colonization followed naturally from a range expansion into western and northern France in previous decades. It is now at home on numerous south coast sites, both as a breeding species and as a winter visitor. Little Egret Bird Facts | Egretta Garzetta - The RSPB

See: Lock, L., & Cook, K. (1998). The Little Egret in Britain: a successful colonist. Available online at : V91_N07_P273_280_A076.pdf (

It would seem, therefore, that, if egrets are given adequate protection from disturbance, particularly during the breeding season, they are likely to flourish in southern England in coming decades. Whilst the precise effects of climate change are difficult to predict and a number of scenarios have been proposed, mild winters would be likely to encourage further overwintering, and increasingly warm summers would be suitable for breeding. If these occur, there may be even greater range expansion, and the Little Egret may become a familiar breeding species along the South Coast, possibly being joined by other southern European species (e.g. Black-winged Stilt Himantopus himantopus), before too long. Lock, L., & Cook, K. (1998) p.271

In 2022 we can see that Lock and Cook were right, Little Egrets have flourished, and they have been joined by other southern European Species, but not by Black-winged Stilts (although a pair did nest at Rye Harbour last year) but by Cattle Egrets which are becoming increasing common breeders in Sussex, mainly at Pagham Harbour.

Its is possibly that we had Little Egrets in the UK before this (re-)coloniasation.

Numerous people have put this ‘Egret expansion’ simply down to climate change; its march through England being facilitated by warmer temperatures.

But is this really the case?

In September 1465, there was a most extravagant feast held to celebrate the installation of Archbishop Neville of York. Held at Cawood Castle, this truly gargantuan meal consisted of hundreds of thousands of birds and beasts, including more than 1,000 Egrets!

Thomas Bewick, the famed engraver and naturalist, also mentions the Little Egret in his famous, A History of British Birds (1804), and refers to the Archbishop’s feast in which 1,000 of these birds were served up, adding succinctly: “No wonder the species has become nearly extinct in this country!”

But this elegant little bird wasn’t only hunted for its flesh; during the breeding season it develops long, soft plumes on its head and neck and these were once highly sought after to augment ladies’ hats.

Thankfully, more enlightened times may have given the species just the break it deserved and thus allowed it to recolonise past territories. Whatever the reason, it makes a truly delightful addition to our list of bird species. Lee Connor Nature Notes: Little Egret makes spectacular comeback | Torbay Weekly

"The Little Egret" in Thomas Bewick's A History of British Birds, volume II, "Water Birds", 1804

This work is in the public domain in its country of origin and other countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 100 years or fewer. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published (or registered with the U.S. Copyright Office) before January 1, 1927.

Lee Conor maybe correct that Little Egrets were previously common; but whilst Bewick's wood engraving of a Little Egret looks remarkably similar to the Little Egret we see today; Bewick's mentioning of the the extravagant feast, including many "Egrets", held to celebrate the installation of Archbishop Neville of York. Held at Cawood Castle, in September 1465, may not be accurate. Bewick's text in history history of birds is not always a reliable source of fact, and the birds eaten in 1465 may not have been Little Egrets.

Shelducks, Black-Headed Gulls and Canada Geese in the southern-most scrape. I have included this photo to show the very low water level in the scrape. Typically the mud is not exposes and is covered with water

Little Egret and Shelduck

A close up of a Shelduck

I frequently see Shelducks at Cuckmere Haven. The resident Shelducks are joined in the winter by overwintering birds. Shelducks do breed at Cuckmere, see: Matt Eade's Blog: Cuckmere Haven & Rye Harbour NR 24/5/18 (

A Meadow Pipit.

Another Grey Heron - or possible the same Great Heron as above. Grey Herons do well at Cuckmere Haven and there is a heronry in which Grey Herons and their close relations in the heron family, Little Egrets, raise young - in the trees at the bottom of the estuary, on the west side of the river near the cottages


These swallows catching insects in flight over the marshes of Cuckmere Haven. This is probably these Swallows first day in the UK since the Autumn. Swallows arrive across the channel from Africa via Europe in April often making landfall along the south coast; there are often many new arrivals at Beachy Head/Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, Cuckmere Haven - I saw some today in all these locations - before moving on to their favourite nest sites

Swallows are summer visitors to the UK. They start to arrive here from Africa in April. Swallows migrate during daylight, flying quite low and covering about 320 km (200 miles) each day. At night they roost in huge flocks in reed-beds at traditional stopover spots. Since swallows feed entirely on flying insects, they don’t need to fatten up before leaving, but can snap up their food along the way. Nonetheless, many die of starvation. If they survive, they can live for up to sixteen years. Swallow Bird Facts | Hirundo rustica - The RSPB



bottom of page