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  • Writer's pictureSim Elliott

Old Lodge NR, Ashdown Forest; heathland & woodland habitat: Redstarts & Spotted Flycatchers 29.06.21

Updated: Jul 2, 2021

Old Lodge (Sussex Wildlife Trust Nature Reserve) is in Ashdown Forest, west of Crowborough/

How to get to Old Lodge by public transport:

I took the 29 Brighton and Hove Bus from Old Steine in Brighton to the Crow and Gate stop, south of Crowborough (journey time: 75 minutes; day time frequency: 60 minutes). From Crow and Gate I walked south down the A26 to the junction with New Road; I turned right (west) onto New Road and walked along New Road to the junction of the B2606 where I took the steep right (north) turn onto the B2606. I walked north a little way along the B2606 until I got to the Roman Road car park, where, to the left (west), a path in Ashdown Forest, can be reached, which runs parallel to the B2606 to the Old Lodge car park. When walking through the Forest remember, despite its name, it is mostly heathland (as Forest historically denoted heathland with some woods). It took 50 minutes to walk from the bus stop (Crow and Gate) to Old Lodge car park. Please note: I do not recommend this walking route as there are no pavements on any of the route, and there are only grass verges for part of the route, so much of the route involved walking in busy roads, which is not particularly safe. I think there may be a footpath route from just below the Crow and Gate bus stop, through Ashdown Forest, to King's Standing (a small copse close to the car park for Old Lodge). I will explore this route on another occasion.

All text in italics is quoted from other sources - sources given.

All the photographs are in chronological order of my walk

Ashdown Forest lies between Crowborough, Forest Row and Maresfield on the more northerly of the two major sandstone ridges in the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Rising to an altitude of 732 feet (223 metres) above sea level, its heights provide expansive vistas across the heavily wooded hills of the Weald to the chalk escarpments of the North Downs and South Downs on the horizon. About Ashdown Forest

Google Map - satellite view

History of Ashown Forest

Ashdown Forest is an ancient area of open heathland occupying the highest sandy ridge-top of the High Weald Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.... Ashdown Forest's origins lie as a medieval hunting forest created soon after the Norman conquest of England. By 1283 the forest was fenced in by a 23 miles (37 km) pale enclosing an area of some 20 square miles (52 km2; 13,000 acres; 5,200 ha). Thirty-four gates and hatches in the pale, still remembered in place names such as Chuck Hatch and Chelwood Gate, allowed local people to enter to graze their livestock, collect firewood, and cut heather and bracken for animal bedding. The forest continued to be used by the monarchy and nobility for hunting into Tudor times, including notably Henry VIII, who had a hunting lodge at Bolebroke Castle, Hartfield and who courted Anne Boleyn at nearby Hever Castle.

Ashdown Forest has a rich archaeological heritage. It contains much evidence of prehistoric human activity, with the earliest evidence of human occupation dating back to 50,000 years ago. There are important Bronze Age, Iron Age, and Romano-British remains.

The forest was the centre of a nationally important iron industry on two occasions, during the Roman occupation of Britain and in the Tudor period when, in 1496, England's first blast furnace was built at Newbridge, near Coleman's Hatch, marking the beginning of Britain's modern iron and steel industry. ...

The ecological importance of Ashdown Forest's heathlands is reflected by its designation as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, as a Special Protection Area for birds, and as a Special Area of Conservation for its heathland habitats. It is part of the European Natura 2000 network as it hosts some of Europe's most threatened species and habitats.[1]

Ashdown Forest is famous as the setting for the Winnie-the-Pooh stories written by A. A. Milne, who lived on the northern edge of the forest and took his son, Christopher Robin, walking there. The artist E. H. Shepard drew on the landscapes of Ashdown Forest as inspiration for many of the illustrations he provided for the Pooh books. Ashdown Forest - Wikipedia

The ecology of the Ashdown Forest

Heathland is defined by characteristics such as vegetation dominated by plants of the Ericaceae (heathers) family, dwarf shrub communities, few trees, sandy acidic soils and at altitudes below three hundred metres. Heathland is a rare and threatened habitat, only about 15% of heathland that existed in 1800 remains.

Ashdown Forest's 1,620 hectares of heathland represent some three percent of the UK total. It is extremely important to note that heathland is a "plagioclimax" vegetation type. This simply means that it originated through, and is maintained by some human activity. If that activity should cease then the plagioclimax vegetation will progress towards a true climax vegetation. In the case of most of Great Britain this would be mixed deciduous woodland.

In the case of Ashdown Forest this human intervention has historically taken the form of livestock grazing which is now in decline, especially since World War 2 and is resulting in the encroachment of woodland onto many parts of the heathland. Ecology of Heathland (

Old Lodge lies in the heart of Ashdown Forest, and its character is subtly but noticeably different from ... true lowland heath ... The geology is slightly different, but more importantly it sits about 500 feet higher, and that’s enough to make it markedly cooler. Old Lodge has something of the ‘feel’ of a place one might associate with the north west of Britain. Old Lodge | Sussex Wildlife Trust

The Forest is roughly 40% trees, 60% heathland – particularly because the woodland edge, where it meets the heathland, is an important habitat in itself. Most of the woodland is made up of natives, chiefly oak, birch and beech, and we do our best to remove non-natives, particularly rhododendron.

One species we do tolerate out on the heath is Scots pine. This is tricky one; it is native to the UK, but only in Scotland. Everywhere else it has been planted. But it is such an iconic feature of the Forest – the ‘clumps’, in particular, are Scots pine – that we let it stay. But it does spread; every tree we retain sends down a constant rain of seeds, and new seedlings spring up every year. Trees on the Forest | Ashdown Forest Blog

The Birds of Old Lodge

It is because the uniqueness of the ecology of this habitat in Sussex that results in the presence of birds, such as the Redstart, not seem elsewhere in Sussex.

The year starts early at Old Lodge with the beauti­ful, flutey song of woodlark in January. This will be joined in the spring by tree pipit, cuckoo and redstart – a species that can certainly compete with the resident stonechat for awards in plumage. In winter the lesser redpoll and siskin are more apparent as are the occasional, marauding gangs of common crossbills. Old Lodge | Sussex Wildlife Trust

I got nice views of a number of species scarce in this part of the UK including Spotted Flycatcher, Common Redstart, Crossbill, Tree Pipit, Woodlark, Common Cuckoo and Willow Warbler. Quite sobering to think that many of these were common when I was younger. Nick Upton. Old Lodge Nature Reserve, Ashdown Forest – British Birding | Dartford Waffler (17.05.2017)

The birds that I saw in my trip to Old Lodge were: Stonechats, Redstarts, Spotted Flycatchers, Log-tailed Tits, Blackbirds, Linnets, Carrion Crows, Magpies and possibly Woodlark and Tree Pipets. I heard a Cuckoo calling very loudly; it is only male Cuckoos who call (to attract a mate). This was rather surprising, as most Cuckoos have mated by now, and many Cuckoos have already started they return migration to Africa, as they do not need to raise their own chicks.

As brood parasites, cuckoos do not raise their own young, instead laying eggs in the nests of other birds, which raise the chick thinking it is one of their own. The nests of dunnocks, meadow pipits and reed warblers are favourites. Females wait until the host has left the nest, sometimes spooking the bird away, then swoop in to lay a single egg.

The chick hatches after around 11 days. It will push any other eggs or chicks out of the nest, ensuring it receives the sole attention of its adoptive parents. They will continue to feed the young cuckoo, even though it may grow to two or three times their size. Cuckoos leave the nest after around 20 days but continue to be fed by their host for a few more weeks. They reach sexual maturity at two years old.

Cuckoos overwinter in Africa, migrating to the UK in the spring and leaving by late June. Fledglings fly to Africa a few weeks after their parents. Cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) - British Birds - Woodland Trust

The Cuckoo I heard was way out of time in terms of their typical breeding cycle. The fact that juvenile Cuckoos fly to Sub-Saharan Africa without ever having been there, and with no adult Cuckoos to follow, is one of the marvels of bird migration. If you are interested in Cuckoo migration the British Trust for Ornithology has a Cuckoo tracking project where you can follow the location of a number if individual Cuckoos throughout the year. Cuckoo migration is a truly amazing phenomenon. Click on Cuckoo Tracking Project | BTO - British Trust for Ornithology to follow the BTO's Cuckoos.

For a picture of a Cuckoos I have seen this year, see my post of 12th May, RSPB Medmerry 12.05.21: A Cattle Egrets' a Yellow Hammer and a Cuckoo


There are still deer roaming freely through the forest. As I approached the Old Lodge car park, this sign reminded me that whilst Ashdown Forest was formerly a royal hunting ground, the greatest threat to its deer from humans now is speeding.

View from the path to Old Lodge, after a heavy rain shower.

Map of the Nature Reserve

Photographs of the flora and fauna of the Old Lodge Nature Reserve

From the entrance I walked the perimeter path, in a clockwise direction initially, and came back to the entrance via the middle path, without walking all the perimeter path; then I walked most of the remainder of the perimeter path counter-clockwise, returning to the entrance via a path through the pools. My walk took about 4 hours - but I walked slowly and had lots of stops to take photos.

Many of the trees displayed their age by the amount of lichen on them

The woodland in the forest is actively managed, as it always has been.

On the perimeter fence I saw this beautiful male Stonechat.

A Red Admiral butterfly.

A saw a small group of Spotted Flycatchers; I did not recognise them immediately, and needed to post a photo on the Shoreham and District Ornithology Society (of which I am a member) Facebook Group to clarify my hunch.

The spotted flycatcher is a somewhat ordinary-looking bird, mostly grey-brown in colour with paler streaks, particularly on the head and wings. It has a creamy white breast which is streaked with pale brown. It is a small bird, measuring just 14cm in length and weighing in at a maximum of 19g. Juveniles are very similar in appearance however they are a darker brown and heavily spotted with pale markings. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - Woodland Trust

As the name suggests, spotted flycatchers enjoy feasting on flying insects, which they catch mid-flight. Butterflies, moths, damselflies and craneflies make up this bird’s diet. Wasps and bees also feature, which it makes safe to eat by rubbing the sting end on its perch, removing it. Spotted flycatchers hunt by sitting on a perch, waiting for their prey to fly by before darting to catch it. When flying insects are scarce it will also forage for insects among vegetation. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - Woodland Trust

Spotted flycatchers are migratory birds, spending the winter in Africa. They arrive in the UK to breed from late April to early May, building a nest out of grass, lichens and twigs, usually in a sheltered crevice. A clutch of four to five eggs is laid and hatches after around 12-14 days. 13-16 days after hatching the chicks are ready to fledge. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - Woodland Trust

This species favours woodland edges and clearings, as well as parks and gardens. They are found across the UK; however they are less abundant in the far north and west. Spotted Flycatcher (Muscicapa striata) - Woodland Trust

The Scots Pines in which I saw the Spotted Flycatchers perched.

A fugus nodule on one of the Scots Pines

A bird high up in the Scots Pine; possible a Woodlark or a Tree Pipet - I am not sure. I saw a small flock of what looked liked Woodlarks foraging on the ground close to these Scots Pines, but which flew off into these trees; this could be one of the birds that flew up

A bent trunk with bracket fungus.

Heathland, with intrusive Scots Pine saplings. Scots pines were introduced into Ashdown Forest in the 19th century and whilst not native to Sussex provide a habitat for Crossbills, which are rare in Sussex.

A Redstart (the following photos are of the same bird)

Redstarts are summer migrants from Africa. Redstarts are not common in the South East of the UK; Ashdown Forest is one of the few places where they can be seen; and Old Lodge is considered the best site to see them in Ashdown Forest.

This is the RSPB's distribution map if Redstarts Redstart Bird Facts | Phoenicurus Phoenicurus - The RSPB

Redstarts are immediately identifiable by their bright orange-red tails, which they often quiver. Breeding males look smart, with slate grey upper parts, black faces and wings and an orange rump and chest. Females and young are duller. Redstarts 'bob' in a very robin-like manner, but spend little time at ground level. It is included on the Amber List of species with unfavourable conservation status in Europe where it is declining. Redstart Bird Facts | Phoenicurus Phoenicurus - The RSPB

When I saw this male Restart from a distance I though at first it was a Stonechat, as fences and fence posts are favourite perching sites of Stonechats, but as I got closer, it was clearly a Restart

Spring migrants include the striking common redstart – another bird with a distinctive song. These birds need trees with holes or fractured branches in which to nest and rear young; the bottom of the old Airstrip is a good place to see them. Birds on Ashdown Forest

An elegant, robin-sized chat, the redstart is a summer visitor, arriving here in April and leaving in September. It feeds on insects, especially butterfly and beetle larvae, and can be seen foraging in woodlands, hedgerows, parks and beside streams. Redstarts have an upright stance and can be seen 'bobbing': moving in a similar fashion to Robins. They spend most of their time in the trees. Redstart | The Wildlife Trusts

Sterile conk trunk rot fungus

A Long-tailed Tit

Another male Redstart

A Linnet

A female Redstart; female Redstarts have predominantly brown plumage, and look very different from male Redstarts

A Carrion Crow atop a blasted oak; very Edgar Alan Poe!

An insect (yet to identify)

Bracket fungus

A Pond Skater and its refection on one of the pools at Old Lodge

Probably an Azure Damselfly on the same pool.

A Great Spotted Woodpecker

A female Blackbird

Another of Old Lodge's Pools

Belted Galloway Cattle grazing for conservation.

On the walk back to the bus stop

A Carrion Crow; in the background is the South Downs

A juvenile Magpie


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