Secret Wildlife Festival: Glow-sticks, horntails and a sockful of gorgonzola

, 15 July 2014

Dante and a privet hawk-mothAuthor Michael Blencowe

People and Wildlife Officer

Last year Tim Bullen from The Secret Campsite at Barcombe arranged a one night / one day event at the campsite focusing on all the great wildlife that can be found there. We all enjoyed it so much we thought we’d make it a bigger three day / two night event this year and created The Secret Wildlife Festival . We put together a packed programme of events over the weekend aimed at wildlife-lovers of all ages.

On the Friday morning I turned up with a car load of nets, traps, books, magnifying glasses and a sleeping bag.We pinned big sheets of paper in the  barn (now the Festival HQ) and encouraged everyone to add their sightings over the weekend. The weekend event was fully booked and, on Friday afternoon,  over 50 campers arrived and settled in.


The first evening started in the barn with a festival welcome and an illustrated talk about nocturnal wildlife and was followed by Tim leading us on an early evening tour around the wildlife habitats he has created at the Secret Campsite.

Friday evening tour of the campsite

Everyone then gathered back at the barn for a longer tour; astronomer Neil Phillipson of ViewPoint Optics took us on a tour of the universe. Neil’s knowledge and enthusiasm carried us on a journey across the galaxy and beyond. Neil answered some pretty probing questions from some of our younger space explorers. It seems there were a lot of fans of the planet Jupiter in the front of the audience and some folk who were rather obsessed about the destruction of the universe.

Neil assures us we're not going to collide with the sun over the weekend.

After the astronomy we gathered for a walk around the campsite armed with bat detectors and tuned in to the hunting claps and clicks of common pipistrelle and serotine bats.


An early start this morning (does 06:30 still count as early?) for a group of campers who joined Derrick from ViewPoint Optics and headed out for an early morning birdwatch recording birds along the wildlife-rich disused railway line alongside the campsite.

Birds on a branch line

The scrubby habitat here is perfect for common whitethroat, yellowhammer andnightingale. Afterwards Tim filled us all with bacon butties and we headed down to see what Ryan and Rachel had been captured during the night in our small mammal survey.

Opening the mammal traps

Some of the traps had been sprung by slugs but others contained wood mice which, it would seem, are more popular than slugs.

Wood mouse released from the trap / Ryan Greaves

With the sun starting to shine it was the perfect time to start our quest for the legendarypurple emperor. This amazing butterfly lives in the woods around the campsite. His Majesty has some rather dirty habits and can famously be lured from his tree-top throne by anything disgusting and smelly. Last year I tried to tempt him down with some rotting ox liver. It didn’t work. So this year I decided to up my game with a row of my socks filled with some rather nasty, stinking stuff.  Gorgonzola was Option 1 – it stinks but isn’t that offensive – in fact I had some the night before. Option 2 was a foul-smelling Malaysian shrimp paste. I certainly wasn’t going to spreading the disgusting Option 3 onto my crackers. As this was a scientific experiment I had to add just a sock as Option 4 in case anyone suggested it was just the smell of my socks that was attracting the emperor.

A meal fit for an Emperor

With the Emperor’s breakfast sorted out we headed over to the moth trap which had been running all evening. It was full of hundreds of moths! We opened the trap and were entertained by the camouflaged buff-tip, the beautiful swallow-tailed moth and the extravagant elephant hawk-moth. There was a long list of other species too and I was pleased to see the bright green scarce silver-lines a moth I hadn’t seen in a while.

Scarce silver-lines

The moth list soon took up most of the sightings sheet.

The moth list

After the moth trap we gathered around the campsite’s pond and Ryan and Rachel taught everyone the art of pond dipping. Children (and adults) were thrilled with what we found –young newts, water fleas, freshwater shrimps, damselfly and dragonfly larvae andTHE WORLDS BIGGEST FROG.

Big (and little) dippers

After pond dipping we had a bug hunt across the campsite finding caterpillars, butterflies, grasshoppers, crickets, ladybirds, shieldbugs and beetles. Amy and Izzy became quite attached to a rove beetle they found.

Jake, Amy and Izzy and their rove beetle / Rosie Taylor

Young entomologist Archie was determined to fill up his I-Spy Creepy Crawlies book. Soon Archie was racking up the points – I still can’t believe you get a whopping 15 points for a woodlouse!

15 points for a woodlouse!Archie racks up the points in his I-Spy book


In the afternoon some people stayed and enjoyed the sun on the campsite and other joined Ryan and Rachel to do some woodworking; making wooden snails out of wood from around the campsite.

808 SnailsSawing a snail

Other people joined in on a long wildlife walk exploring the neighbouring woodland. The landowner kindly allowed us permission to visit the wood and (aside from some cool deer skulls) we also found plenty of silver-washed fritillary cruising along the sunny woodland rides. Some people also saw a white admiral (and found it highly entertaining that I didn’t see it).

Taking a break at the Hunter's Hut

OK, don't rub it in.

Later in the afternoon local herbalist Therri took some campers on a tour of the campsite and her herb garden discussing the various uses of our herbs for health and food. After the evening barbecue there was an tale of high adventure for the Saturday night illustrated talk ‘Dancing with Dodos’. Late in the evening a big crowd armed with torches and glow-sticks headed out for a late night walk along the old railway line listening for owls, bats and finding lots of glow-worms.


The day started with the children gathering in the mammal traps they had set the night before and opening them and finding a cool devil’s coach horse (15 points). Then we headed over to open up the moth trap.

Opening up the moth trap

There were a different range of moths from the night before and, just as I said “It looks like we have a lot of rather small moths” I turned over an egg box and found our biggest – the privet hawk-moth.

Mia and an elephant hawk-moth

Sara and a poplar hawk-moth

There’s no two ways about it – people love hawk-moths and soon the privet and (poplar and elephant) were being passed around so everyone could get really close to nature.

Archie was thrilled too – the privet hawk-moth is worth 20 points in the I-Spy Creepy Crawlies book.

808 Privet

It was great to see so many children really getting into the wildlife at the campsite. All over the weekend the sightings sheets in the barn were filled in and I was really impressed by the knowledge and enthusiasm of the children. I thought to myself it would be great to be a young kid again seeing all this wonderful wildlife for the first time. A few minutes later my wish came true!

While clearing away the moth trap some children rushed over to tell me that there was something BIG flying around inside the barn. We ran over and I was amazed to see a wood wasp (or horntail) buzzing around inside. I had always wanted to see one of these amazing insects since I was a little boy – and it was worth the wait! It was huge. Despite seeing photos of it in my insect books I didn’t expect it to be so big. It looks pretty vicious too but it is harmless (that’s not a sting it’s an egg-laying ovipositor). Still, I wan’t taking any chances. We all got out of the barn and secured the doors.  Then I bravely grabbed a net and entered – telling the children to send for back-up if I didn’t return in 5 minutes. As everyone crowded around the windows and watched I managed to catch the wood wasp and put it in a big pot.

Wood wasp

After the excitement of the wood wasp we headed off into the woods looking for the purple emperor. We saw some purple hairstreaks but the emperor was nowhere to be seen. Someone suggested the smell of my socks may have scared him away. After lunch we had another wildlife walk and added more species including some fresh brimstonessix-spot burnets and a peregrine to our lists.

The Butterfly ListThe Bird List

The Other Stuff List

And then it was time to pack up the tents and head back. It was a fantastic weekend. Thanks to Tim, Lisa, Amelia, Maddy, Therri, Nick, Clare, Ryan, Rachel, Bob, Derrick and Neil for all their help in arranging the weekend and making it so enjoyable for everyone who came along. And a big thank you to all the campers who came along and made it so enjoyable for us.

Leave a comment


  • Andrew Skinner:

    Hi Michael,

    Thank you again for a brilliant weekend, we have already registered our interest with Tim for a 2015 event.

    Best wishes
    Andrew, Lucie, Amy and Jake
    (the Skinners)

    16 Jul 2014 11:08:12

  • Henri Brocklebank:

    What a fantastic and full weekend. I wish me and Jacky had come along. Please do it again next year.

    16 Jul 2014 14:05:41