Scrub is usually a serious problem on downland sites, but at Levin it has formed an important part of the ecology of the reserve, and is carefully managed to achieve the right balance between scrub, grassland, and landscape. The bottom edge is ringed with woodland which includes lots of hazel, no doubt one reason why dormice do so well here; they even make forays into the mixed scrub in the middle of the reserve. There are some tall ash trees, where brown hairstreak butterflies gather on the topmost leaves, spiralling round in a giddy courtship frenzy, before diving down to the blackthorn to lay their eggs one at a time under twigs.
The soil on the grassy glades of the lower slopes is richer and, slightly shaded by the intimate mix of bushes, is cooler too. Wild marjoram grows here, the fluffy pink blooms providing nectar for butterflies such as the marbled white, and in late summer the clustered bellflower displays a huddle of violet flowers on top of leafy stems.
Further up the slopes the grass is shorter, kept that way by the regular attentions of rabbits, our Herdwick sheep, and our Exmoor ponies. Grazing greatly increases the diversity of plant species – fairy flax, wild thyme, salad burnet, carline thistle, common milkwort, quaking-grass and autumn gentian all squeeze in together to create an incredibly rich sward. Sometimes the effect is punctured by the shocking pink spike of a pyramidal orchid, but it takes a practised eye to pick out the diminutive autumn lady’s-tresses orchid, just five centimetres high with a spiral of tiny white flowers.
In places it is possible to distinguish the areas that have been cleared of scrub; here the chalk grassland plants are gradually reinstating themselves. Small belts of hawthorn, buckthorn, spindle and other scrubby plants have been left in place providing an intricate network of wind-sheltered glades – perfect for butterflies like the dingy and grizzled skippers, the brown argus and the small blue. This provides good nesting opportunities too and yellowhammers, whitethroats and garden warblers sing from the bush-tops throughout the summer.
On the eastern slope is an area of chalk heath, where plants preferring acid soils such as heather, tormentil and wood sage grow alongside the chalk-lovers. This habitat, caused by wind-blown acid soils mixing with the chalk during the last Ice Age, is becoming increasingly rare, especially where there has been ploughing and the acidic component has become diluted. But at Levin, the purple flowers of heather can be seen growing right next to the purple flowers of wild thyme – something of an ecological anomaly.At the top of the southern slope, there are scattered clumps of a downland speciality that is becoming increasingly scarce in England – juniper. This extremely prickly native conifer has suffered in the past by being overcrowded by yew, which casts a gloomy shade throughout the year. Although the juniper has been released from that particular burden, rabbits now conspire to prevent any new young plants from becoming established, so when possible we protect new seedlings until they are big enough and tough enough to fend off the rabbits!