By Glenn Norris
Every year, I go to one of our nature reserves to look for and count orchids. Even better, these reserves are typically the ones with either a great diversity of orchid species or particular rarities. Every count is exciting for those reasons, but add the fact that some orchids can appear some years but be hidden away others (leading to some species not being seen on reserves for over 20 years) - gives these surveys a bit of extra spice.
Yesterday I went to Leythorne Meadow, one of our smallest reserves on the outskirts of Chichester, and home to one of the only patches of calcareous fen-meadow in Sussex. What it lacks in size however, it makes up for in botanical interest, epitomised by the seven species of orchid that have been recorded there. One of the regulars is the Marsh Fragrant-orchid, which is a Red-listed species and forms part of the purple-pink wave that swathes the reserve in June and July following the earlier flowering Southern Marsh Orchid.
The Marsh Fragrant-orchid isn’t only found in wetland habitats, but on north-facing chalk slopes, of which the South Downs has plenty. One of the best is Ditchling Beacon and unsurprisingly the Marsh Fragrant-orchid is commonplace amongst considerably more widespread species. Ditchling Beacon is our most orchid-rich reserve with 10 species and the site of purple flower rockets covering the slopes is a sight to behold.
There are about 56 species of orchid native to the UK and 23 of those can be found across Sussex Wildlife Trust’s reserves. The most frequent species is, naturally, the Common Spotted-orchid. There are two species however, that are only found only rarely and they are the White Helleborine, found amongst the hazel coppice, and the diminutive, Nationally Scarce, Red Listed, Burnt Orchid on the south-facing chalk slopes.
If you’re interested in finding a Nationally Scarce orchid of your own though, now is the time to look for the delicate and unexpectedly difficult to find Musk Orchid. This Red Listed plant is in flower now and can be found on Ditchling Beacon and Malling Down, but searching for these is not for the faint of heart, requiring both physical and mental fortitude. Firstly they are small and difficult to see even amongst the short sward of chalk grassland; secondly, they are mostly found on the steepest slopes; and lastly, after thinking you’ve finally found one after a day of walking around with your nose to the ground, the thrill that begins to erupt out of you when you think you’ve found one will sink so suddenly to your boots that every step becomes more arduous when you realise it was just a bit of flowering Lady’s Bedstraw.
My predecessor Graeme Lyons treated me to this pleasant outing on my first day at the Trust almost a year ago, and despite the mental torture, it remains one of my favourite days when I found my first Musk Orchid (seconds before Graeme almost trod on it).