Butterfly Conservation currently has over 34 Nature Reserves, one of them being Magdalen Down just east of Winchester, the venue for the 2013 Plant Heritage AGM. After a cup of tea, there’s nothing better after a long car journey than an opportunity to stretch your legs and get some air, so the visit to this site was well supported.
Reserve officer Jayne Chapman and volunteers Juliet Bloss and Jenny Mallett led us on a walk through part of the 114 acre site, jointly owned by the Trust, the local authority and the Winchester diocese, but managed by the Trust.
Chalk downland is a unique manmade ecosystem and after periods of neglect or use as arable farmland, this site is being restored by the use of grazing cattle and sheep during the winter. Selective hay cropping reduces the height of the sward in some areas, thereby increasing the potential habitats for butterflies and moths.
We arrived to see the first flush of wild flowers, cowslips as far as the eye can see.
Jayne explained about the careful planting that has taken place over the last couple of decades to provide food for the caterpillars and their associated life forms.
Chalk scrapes are made to create microclimates.
Ant hills break through the hillside and I was fascinated to hear about the relationship between the Brown Argus butterfly (Aricia agestis) and the ant. The Brown Argus caterpillar eats the Common Rock-rose (Helianthemum nummularium) which grows on the anthills. Once the caterpillar has reached a certain size, the ants move it into their hill, where they ‘milk’ it for a sugary secretion and it continues to feed on ant grubs. After metamorphosis the butterfly crawls out of the hill and the cycle starts again.
Although the sun was shining, only one butterfly was sighted, and not by me, but it is somewhere that I will revisit in a month or so’s time to see the wildflowers and hopefully some butterflies. Have a look on their website, there’s bound to be a reserve not too far from you.