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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

A walk from Holywell to Beachy Head. 25.08.21. Wild Flowers, Butterflies, LandArt and Winchats.

Updated: Aug 27, 2021

On Wednesday 25.08.21, after visiting the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne, I walked to Beachy Head via Holywell (The Kiosk on map below), Whitbread Hollow (Beachy Head Sports Field on map) and Cow Gap. This post records the wild plants and insects that I saw between the start of the path at the Kiosk to Cow Gap. This path is called Foyle Way.

The focus of this post is the wild flowers of chalk grassland and their importance to insects, particularly butterflies.

Wildflower meadows on chalk downland are sometimes called Europe’s tropical rainforest. They're home to an incredibly rich and diverse range of plant and insect life. They're under threat, but our ranger teams are working hard to restore this vital habitat.

Up to 40 species of flowering plants can be found in one square metre of chalk grassland – also called lowland calcareous grassland. Many species grow nowhere else, including many beautiful orchids and wildflowers. In turn, they attract many insects and rare butterflies such as the Adonis Blue and Duke of Burgundy. What's special about chalk grassland? | National Trust

I also wanted to visit Cow Gap, as it is a renowned as a place to spot migrating birds and I had never been there before: Beachy Head is a great place to watch bird migration. You can experience falls of passerines, seabird and raptor migration. Also many scarce and rare birds are seen here. Birds can be found all over the headland. Good areas include Cow Gap, the garden of the Beachy Head pub, a stand of hawthorns on the chicane bends known locally as "the old trapping area", Shooters Bottom and the Belle Tout and Birling Gap areas. Beachy Head |

but I also wanted to visit the "geoglyph"; the third element in a land art project by Mariana Castillo Deball: Walking through the town I followed a pattern...; which starts in the Towner Art Gallery, where I had visited before making this walk

Inspired by local archaeological sites, artist Mariana Castillo Deball has created a public artwork that plays out across the streets of Eastbourne, into Towner Eastbourne’s gallery building, and out to the South Downs. Walking through the town I followed a pattern on the pavement that became the magnified silhouette of a woman’s profile is, explains Castillo Deball, “a work that can be experienced as an image, a walking path or a narrative.”

On this two-hour walking route around the streets of Eastbourne, pedestrians will discover a chalk-stenciled rope that traces an unexpected route through the town, outlining the silhouette of a woman’s profile. Followers of the walking trail will encounter several sculptural objects embedded in the pavement, each relating to objects that were buried with The Frankish Woman, whose ancient remains were discovered in Eastbourne at the Anglo-Saxon cemetery on St Anne’s Hill. The locations for the objects are shown on the map as a loop in the rope.

A third element to the work takes place at Whitbread Hollow on the South Downs where the shape of a giant hairpin, the most magnificent of the funerary objects, will be inscribed in chalk. In contrast to the nearby Celtic hill figure, The Long Man of Wilmington which is cut into the chalk a few miles north-east of Eastbourne, Castillo Deball’s geoglyph will be evanescent, disappearing over time. Mariana Castillo Deball: Walking through the town I followed a pattern... (England’s Creative Coast) | Towner Eastbourne

At the beginning of the path to Beachy Head, above the Kiosk, I saw on a bramble stem a rather faded Red Admiral, Vanessa atalanta, possibly a migrant European/African female:

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. Red Admiral (

And soon after I saw this Speckled Wood butterfly, Pararge aegeria, on Laurel

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. Speckled Wood (

Honeydew has historically been a source of wonderment. For example, the honeydew produced by the coccid Trabutina mannipara on tamarisk trees may have been the “manna from heaven” on which the Israelites fed during their escape from Egypt; honeydew has also been described as “the milk of Paradise” by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, the biological nature of honeydew is more mundane. The phloem sap of plants contains very high concentrations of sugars, usually the disaccharide sucrose or oligosaccharides of the raffinose family. Phloem-feeding insects ingest very large amounts of sugars relative to other essential nutrients, and up to 90% of the ingested sugar may be egested via the anus, and this sugar-rich material is honeydew. Honeydew - an overview | ScienceDirect Topics

I saw on this Common Ragwort this Meadow Brown, Maniola jurtinaa

The Meadow Brown is the most abundant butterfly species in many habitats. Hundreds may be seen together at some sites, flying low over the vegetation. Adults fly even in dull weather when most other butterflies are inactive.

The daisy-like, yellow flower heads of common ragwort may be pretty enough to the casual observer, but they belie the poisonous nature of this plant. Renowned as a weed of paddocks and pastures, where it can be harmful to livestock, it is not usually such an issue in gardens or on waste ground. In fact, it is the foodplant of the black-and-red cinnabar moth: sometimes its black-and yellow-barred caterpillars cover the plant, totally stripping the leaves. Common ragwort is a biennial, flowering in its second year from June to November. ... Common ragwort is one of the most frequently visited flowers by butterflies in the UK and more than 200 species of invertebrate have been recorded on it. Common ragwort | The Wildlife Trusts

Ragwort is one of the most divisive plants in the countryside. It contains chemicals that are toxic to livestock and has been blamed for many deaths of horses and other animals. Yet, conservationists say it’s a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects. ,,, Ragwort contains toxins called pyrrolizidine alkaloids. These, in sufficient quantities, can cause liver poisoning in horses and livestock. It is a cumulative poison that eventually leads to the rapid onset of symptoms before death. However, the symptoms are variable and resemble those of a number of other diseases.

If horses ingest ragwort, they could suffer low-level digestion of the weed for months before they start to show signs of distress. According to invertebrate charity Buglife, the lethal volume of Ragwort is around 7% of body weight for horses; cattle are also prone to poisoning but sheep are thought to be less susceptible. Guide to ragwort: What it is, is it dangerous and where it grows -

A Meadow Darter Dragonfly Sympetrum striolatum on Laurel

Buff Tailed Bumblebees (worker caste) Bombus terrestris; on Knapweed Centaurea sp,; some of many Buff Tails that I saw

One of the ‘Big 7’ widespread and abundant species, found in a wide range of habitats across the UK. Less abundant in Scotland than it is in England, but has been increasing in recent years. At least in cities in the southern UK the species is becoming winter-active, with nest establishment in October-November and workers flying all winter, feeding particularly on Mahonia bushes. A large species with dark yellow bands at the front of the thorax and middle of the abdomen, queens are the only caste which actually have buff-coloured tails: in workers and males the tails are white, although males in particular often have a narrow but distinct yellow-buff band at the front of the tail Buff-tailed bumblebee - Bumblebee Conservation Trust

A view toward Eastbourne town centre.

A Painted Lady, Vanessa cardui on the ground.

The Painted Lady is a long-distance migrant, which causes the most spectacular butterfly migrations observed in Britain and Ireland.

Each year, it spreads northwards from the desert fringes of North Africa, the Middle East, and central Asia, recolonising mainland Europe and reaching Britain and Ireland. In some years it is an abundant butterfly, frequenting gardens and other flowery places in late summer. Painted Lady (

Knapweed seed heads.

Creeping Thistle, Cirsium arvense

Despite being considered a 'weed' of cultivated ground, the seeds of the Creeping thistle provide an important food source for farmland birds, many of which are declining rapidly. Creeping thistle | The Wildlife Trusts

Wild carrot, Daucas carota

Also known as Queen Anne's lace this is a dainty, frothy wildflower with a single red bloom in its centre. Unlike cultivated carrots, the wild carrot's root is tough and stringy and not particularly palatable.

The flower itself is long stalked and shaped like an up-turned umbrella. It is similar in appearance to other members of the Apiacae or 'umbellifer' family - such as the highly poisonous hemlock and the commonly seen cow parsley - with white flowers and feathery leaves. However, the foliage of wild carrot is a mix of 'bipinnate' (leaves where the feathers are feathered themselves) and tripinnate (leaves where the feathers on the feathers are feathered!), a root that smells of carrots, a hairy stem and occasionally a single red flower in the centre. Plantlife :: Wild carrot

A Hoverfly (species not known yet, possible a Chellosia genus species) on Hogweed Heracleum sphondylium.

Hogweed can be found along hedgerows and roadside verges, and on waste ground and rough grassland. It displays umbrella-like clusters of creamy-white flowers. It's native, unlike its relative, giant hogweed. ... Although they might not look especially wildlife-friendly, our roadside verges, railway cuttings and waste grounds can provide valuable habitats for all kinds of plants and animals. Hogweed | The Wildlife Trusts

Yarrow, Achillea millefolium.

The plant is named after the Greek hero Achilles who is supposed to have used the plant to treat wounds on the battle field. Yarrow is used in a host of remedies, from healing wounds to colds and fever, stomach ulcers and rheumatism.

Vernacular names include Yarroway, Staunchweed and Poor man's pepper.

Thou, defying dreariness, wilt come Bidding the loneliest russet paths be gay. John Clare, "The Yarrow" Plantlife :: Yarrow

Common restharrow, Ononis repens

Look for the small, pink, pea-shaped flowers of Common restharrow on chalk and limestone grasslands, and in coastal areas, during summer.

Common restharrow is a low-growing, creeping plant with clusters of small, pink flowers that can be seen from July to September. It can be found on grassland, particularly chalk and limestone grassland, and in coastal areas.

A creeping perennial, Common restharrow has leaves that are greasy to the touch and divided into three oval leaflets. It has hairy stems and clusters of small, pink, pea-like flowers. Common restharrow | The Wildlife Trusts

Common bird's-foot-trefoil, Lotus corniculatus

Known as 'eggs and bacon' because of the yellow and orange hue of the pea-like flowers, this is a food plant for several caterpillar species.

This is a low-creeping, perennial plant with clusters of deep, yellow flowers tinged with red. The leaves have five narrow oval leaflets and the lower two of these are bent back by the stem so that the leaves appear trefoil (3-lobed).

Although disagreeable to humans, bird's-foot trefoil is an important source of food for other creatures. Pollinating insects find it a perfect source of nectar and it is used as a forage plant for livestock. The 'bird's-foot' of its name refers to the shape of its seed pods. Plantlife :: Bird's-foot Trefoil

Honeybee, Apis mellifera, on Common Ragwort

Hoverfly (species not known) on Knapweed

The "geoglyph"; the third element in a land art project by Mariana Castillo Deball: Walking through the town I followed a pattern... "at Whitbread Hollow on the South Downs where the shape of a giant hairpin, the most magnificent of the funerary objects, will be inscribed in chalk."

Another Speckled Wood Butterfly, Pararge aegeriaon, this time on Hemp-agrimony, Eupatorium cannabinum

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

Common Carder Bumblebee Bombus pascuorum (worker caste) on Knapweed

Hemp Agrimony.

Wall Brown, Lasiommata megera on bramble, Rubus fruticosus.

It is found around the coast as far north as southern Scotland. Inland, it is more widespread in northern England and southern Scotland. It is a similar size and colour to the Gatekeeper, but the Wall is much more heavily patterned and sometimes confused with small fritillary butterflies.

The Wall is aptly named after its habit of basking on walls, rocks, and stony places. The delicately patterned light brown undersides provide good camouflage against a stony or sandy surface. In hot weather, males patrol fast and low over the ground, seeking out females. In cooler weather, they will bask in sunny spots and fly up to intercept females, or to drive off other males.

The Wall is widely distributed but rarely occurs in large numbers. Over the last decade, it has declined substantially in many inland areas of central England and Northern Ireland. Wall (

Wood Sage, Teucrium scorodonia

Unlike other sages, Wood sage has very little scent, so has little value as a herb in cooking. It can be found on sand dunes, heaths and coastal cliffs, and along dry woodland rides, preferring acidic soils. Upright spikes of straw-coloured flowers can be seen from July to September and its plentiful seed provides food for many birds.

Bees, wasps, beetles and butterflies all feed from Wood sage; one beetle is even specific to it. Wood sage | The Wildlife Trusts

Another Speckled Wood, Pararge aegeria

A juvenile Jackdaw.

Our smallest crow, the jackdaw is a bird of woodland, parkland, coasts and urban areas. It nests in holes in trees, and on cliffs and buildings; sometimes it will even nest in chimneys! It eats invertebrates, fruit, seeds and carrion, and occasionally takes eggs and nestlings. A sociable bird, the jackdaw can be seen in flocks, often performing aerial acrobatics or repeating its short, loud 'kya' call. Jackdaws mate for life, pairing-up during their first year, but not mating until the year after. The pair will often sit next to each other, preening. Jackdaw | The Wildlife Trusts

Wincats Saxicola rubetra; UK conservation status: Red

Thus my first ever spotting of a Winchat; and I saw a little flock of them.

I have been looking for a Winchat all year with no success; to see a little flock was a real thrill. This is a little juvenile. Someone had told me that Cow Gap was a good place to see migratory birds; presumably this little flock is gathering here preparing themselves to fly out across the Chanel on their journey to sub-Saharan Africa.

"Whinchats were once a very common bird over the whole of Britain, nesting on any available patch of rough ground, even railway embankments.

But now they have disappeared as a breeding bird over huge swathes of southern England apart from isolated breeding colonies on Exmoor and Dartmoor and Salisbury Plain.

They have also left some of their sites in the Pennines and their remaining strongholds are in Wales, North West England and Scotland where they frequent stands of gorse – whin is the Old English name for this plant.

In this country there are no obvious reasons for the continued decline.

The whinchat, like many other birds that migrate to Africa, seems to be experiencing problems either on migration or after its arrival back in Africa.

The stonechat, the whinchat’s closest relative has trebled in numbers since 1995 while the whinchat has declined by 45 per cent.

The difference is that stonechats do not migrate as far. Some spend the winter in this country. Others migrate southwards but only to the Mediterranean, avoiding the hazardous crossing of the Sahara. Birdwatch: Mystery of migrating whinchat numbers | Yorkshire Post

A sailing boat at Beachy Head

Field Scabious, Knautia arvensis.

Field Scabious is a familiar parent of one of our favourite cottage garden plants. It has a very long flowering period and so is a valuable nectar source for bees and butterflies. Each plant can produce up to 50 flowers and blooms are the largest of our native scabious species. Finches and linnets love the seeds of this plant.

Field Scabious has a rough and hairy stem similar in texture to scabby skin. According to the 'Doctrine of Signatures' - where herbalists treated illnesses with plants that resembled the body part associated with illness - this association probably led to it being used as a herb to treat scabies, mange and itches.

The juice of 'scabiosa herba' (from whence its common name derives) was given to alleviate plague sores.

In Belgium a girl would pick Scabious "buttons", give each a lover's name, and then choose her husband by the one that flowered best.

Common names include blackamoor's beauty, pins-and-needles, snake flower, and curl-doddy (i.e. curly head).

The 'pom-pom' like nature of its flower has also given rise to alternative names such as Lady's pincushion, bachelor's buttons and blue bonnets. Plantlife :: Field Scabious

Common Carder Bumblebee, Bombus pascuorum, on Wild Marjoram Origanum vulgare

The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that Aphrodite, the goddess of love, first cultivated marjoram and that her gentle touch had given it its fragrance, so newly married couples were crowned with marjoram wreaths.

he Greeks dressed their hair and eyebrows with a fragrant pomade made from marjoram.

A bunch of sweet marjoram was placed beside milk containers during thundery weather as it was thought that this would prevent the milk going sour.

Made into marjoram tea, wild marjoram was quite a cure-all helping, for example, indigestion, earache, bladder trouble, cough and oedema.

Adding marjoram to the garden not only creates a beautiful atmosphere, but it also helps attract butterflies and other insects that feed on pests and decomposing matter, and can pollinate plants. Plantlife :: Wild marjoram



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