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Identifying bumblebees on a wildlife walk in the Kent Downs

As we launch our Greentraveller's Guide to the Kent Downs, writer Harriet O'Brien encounters bees, butterflies and bluebells on a wildlife tour with the White Cliffs Countryside Partnership and the Kent Wildlife Trust

A garden bumblebee. Photo: Bumblebee Conservation Trust

‘It’s typical - the girls do all the work,’ said our team leader. The males, she explained, laze around drinking nectar while the females busily collect pollen.

I was among a group of six who had gathered at Whinless Down on the very fringes of Dover for an afternoon learning how to identify bumblebees. Sounds effete? Well not really: on this edge of England bumblebees can be regarded as a sort of litmus as to climate change. There are about 24 species of bumblebee in the UK, eight of which are commonly seen. The Bumblebee Conservation Trust is currently orchestrating a countrywide survey to take stock of the numbers of these endearing-looking insects and to establish why there has been a decline in population, and partly to monitor the new arrivals from the south – particularly in Kent where they first set wing in the country.

Short-haired bumblebee. Photo: The Bumblebee Conservation Trust

Gathering relevant data about bumblebees isn’t entirely a simple matter so, to help the public participate, the conservation organisation The White Cliffs Countryside Partnership was running a bumblebee identification field workshop. It was one of a great range of free events and guided walks that this preservation body regularly offers.

We learnt how those lazy males have no sting: that’s a female thing. We attuned ourselves as to differing stripes, from red-tailed bees to white-tailed bees with three yellow bands. We took note of a variety of fake bumblebees ‒ insects cleverly masquerading as bees to discourage potential predators. Then we started out on a bee walk, the idea being that we could then set a route to walk every month, sending our sightings back to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

Bluebells in the Kent Downs. Photo: Diana Jarvis/Greentraveller

The beauty of spending an afternoon with nature conservationists is that you see and learn so much. Quite apart from gathering bee specifications, we took in a particularly interesting downland area which is in the fascinating process of habitat restoration. Covering just 19 or so hectares, Whinless Down is a designated Local Nature Reserve noted for the rare species its dramatic chalkland supports. Containing Bronze Age burial mounds it was grazed for many centuries and is home to a wonderful range of plants including bee orchids and harebells, and butterflies such as the little seen adonis blue and the silver-spotted skipper.

The Adonis Blue butterfly. Photo: Kent Wildlife Trust

In the 1950s grazing here stopped and thorny scrub started to spread, with the result that far less wildlife was able to flourish. Now a scrub clearance programme is re-establishing the open chalkland in which so many species thrive and this is being maintained thanks to grazing by specially introduced konik ponies and Dexter cattle. I came away from my afternoon excursion quite as inspirited by the conservation measures as by my new bee knowledge.

Revival; regeneration: that’s been the remarkable success story in wildlife stewardship in the Kent Downs over the last couple or so decades. The next day I began to appreciate quite what a heartening process this continues to be when I took a walk at the Lydden Temple Ewell Reserve with Paul Hadaway, Living Landscape Team Leader at Kent Wildlife Trust. A 90-hectare National Nature Reserve managed by the trust, this striking stretch of chalk downs just inland from Dover offers a great swathe of open land along with marginal woodland, and it commands stupendous views. It was probably grazed even in pre-Roman times, said Paul, and it looks today much as it would have done many centuries ago. However, it, too, has been through a fairly recent process of reclamation, scrub having been cleared and the open land now maintained through carefully managed grazing by cattle.

We stopped to look at a milkwort flower at our feet: it’s a plant growing close to the ground and an indication, said Paul, of very healthy chalkland. On hands and knees, examining a small patch about 30cm around it, we noted a fabulous natural tapestry of mouse ear hawkweed, wild carrot, wild marjoram, birds foot trefoil and more. With all this burgeoning vegetation insect life has been flourishing, Paul added - and they’ve successfully reintroduced the wart biter cricket here (it’s the largest cricket in the UK). Of course it follows that bird life is rich, too: green woodpeckers, yellowhammers, linnets, skylarks. They’ve also been reintroducing red kites and buzzards. We stood up and gazed across the valley, taking in a distant kestrel circling over prey. As we walked on Paul talked of the great rewards in maintaining ecosystems – both for wildlife and for the enormous benefit of people, too.

From restoration to creation: the other side of Dover, at the foot of the White Cliffs, lies Samphire Hoe. It’s an extraordinary, 30-hectare nature reserve. It isn’t only a relatively new reserve; it is new land, too, for Samphire Hoe was created in the late 1980s and 1990s from chalk marl dug out from under the sea when the Channel Tunnel was being drilled.

📷The rangers' hut under the White Cliffs at Samphire Hoe. Photo: White Cliffs Countryside

Fast forward nearly 20 years and it is now rich in more than 200 species of plants, 10 or more species of dragonflies - and some truly eye-catching copper butterflies on the day I was there. Bumblebees thrive here as well – and some of them have no doubt newly arrived from across the Channel.


Written by Harriet O'Brien


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