If you have ever visited Midhurst in the north west corner of Sussex, you may well have noticed the distinctive egg-yolk yellow painted window frames on some of the brick and flint cottages and heard mention of ‘Cowdray’ in reference to these properties, and of course the famous ruins just a short stroll from the centre of the town. However, you may not be aware that these features are one facet of a much larger entity, the Cowdray Estate. Owned by the Pearson family since 1909 and covering 16500 acres, this large country estate is the principal landowner in the Midhurst area, stretching from the north face of the Downs, including farmland and heathland, and into the wooded weald, with Midhurst at it’s historical heart. The River Rother snakes through the estate, from Wealden greensand to Downland chalk, its banks lined by alder and willow trees. Fly-fishers seek the brown trout in its clean waters; waters which after heavy rains can be tinted by sand, and turbulent under stone bridges. Veteran trees grace hedgerows between farmland fields and polo lawns, their ancient limbs pointing to the route of historic walks and rides which once saw the passing of royal hunts. On the face of the Downs a seemingly forgotten chalk quarry and lime-works, like a bright white eye, gazes northwards whilst below the edge of the woodland hangers, pheasants are reared. Songbirds and farmland birds flock to these field margins in the cold depths of winter, to take advantage of any grain the game birds can spare. From the roads and lanes, you may catch a glimpse of carpets of bluebells in May, seas of tawny bracken in September, drifts of snowdrops in January.
5.30 pm on Wednesday 20th May 2015. A small group of four people are meeting beside a Landrover in front of the Cowdray Golf Club, they have just finished a pot of tea and are eager to take their seats in the vehicle, full of anticipation for the evening ahead. One of the four is Barry Martin, the Cowdray Estate’s Wildlife Outings Guide. Another is me.
As we set off there is much chatter about what we would each like to see. Crepuscular and nocturnal wildlife, the secretive inhabitants of the estate, featured heavily on the list; badgers topped the billing, with wild deer and brown hares hoped for. However, travelling along lanes bordered by wildflowers, over humpback bridges across the Rother, though pretty clusters of cottages and climbing up onto the Downs, the landscape of West Sussex charms us. By the time we are once again standing in a group beside the Landrover, this time gazing out across a beautiful view highlighted by the low sun, we almost feel as though it wouldn’t matter if we saw no wildlife at all.
The field, in which we have stopped, is an oasis of unimproved grassland rich in a bewildering variety of wildflowers. The cowslips are just fading, but the buds of oxeye daisies nod in the breeze. Barry intrigues our imagination with mention of the orchids that will bloom here in the months to come.
A little way from the edge of this field, just where its neighbour meets the single-track lane, a solid stone barn holds the promise of a barn owl in its dark cavity. Sadly the owl is not present tonight. I look back at the view, and find that missing out on a sighting of this silent hunter doesn’t matter any more.
Away to our right, the pale stone of Petworth House glows in the soft evening light. In the far distance the horizon is broken by the whaleback hump of Blackdown, the highest point in Sussex. To our left the patchwork of farmland and woodland stretches into a blue shadowy unknown beneath a breeze-tousled cloud base. Even with my binoculars, I can’t quite pick out my house.
Barry has brought us to this location in search of hares. His knowledge of the estate, obvious through his quiet and patient explanations of the working of the home farms and the extent of the estate’s operations during the drive, is confirmed by the ease with which he leads us to the perfect place for us to lift our binoculars and enter the world of the mysterious Lepus europaeus, the brown hare. There was a scattering of hares across the opposite corner of the field, a group of three together and another further to the left where the green sward met the chalk-pale plough. As the day cooled they were rising from their forms (a shallow scrape in the ground where the hare hunkers down and relies on camouflage as it rests during the day) to graze the spring growth. They were developing their characteristic russet-red coat colour of summer. I drew Barry and our companion’s attention to another animal close to one of the hares. Closer inspection through our binoculars revealed that this too was indeed a hare, but one of such a pale colour that it appeared sandy and white, something Barry had never come across before. It just proves that with wildlife, you can never know what you will see. Hares are of course most famous for their speed, and we had an armed forces Chinook, practising their low flying operations to thank for our opportunity to see the hares stretch into this characteristic long-legged stride.
|A slightly blurry record shot of of the pale hare with a another hare of the usual brown colour to the left.|
The sun is sinking lower in the sky. Time to go in search of badgers. A buzzard hangs, silhouetted on broad wings catching the dying thermal of the hillside as we leave the field. Swifts cut through the air and swallows and martins swoop low over the hedge-lined track ahead of us. Traditional cottages, some the homes of Cowdray employees, stand unimposingly here and there, increasingly frequent as we reach the approaches of the village of Cocking, passing the ancient church and the war memorial which eternally gaze at the South Downs.
The roe doe stares unblinking at us, unsure but not quite disturbed. Barry has stopped the car part way along a rough track a short way after turning off the main road north of Midhurst, almost a footpath at a woodland edge, and was quietly explaining about the different deer species found on the estate and what the Roe deer might be up to at this time of year. The young bucks will be independent now, after almost a year of their mother’s nurture and company, as the does will be expecting to give birth to this year’s kids in the next month. (Roe deer females are called ‘does’, males are ‘bucks’ and the young are ‘kids’.)
We leave the doe to her peace and quiet, and continued some way further along the track until Barry pulled the car up beside an oak tree. He explains the need to talk in whispers from here and gently shuts the car doors with a soft click behind us. We follow him across a field of long grass, dandelion clocks and buttercups, heading towards a line of trees that grow from an old boundary ridge, where we can see a small wooden hide nestled between two oaks. I find I am holding my breath.
The badgers have clearly been out for a while, the tempting treat of peanuts scattered by Barry earlier that afternoon before we all met at the golf club, had mostly all been snuffled up already. It is still daylight, and the hollow the hide overlooks glows softly with green birch and a tapestry of bluebells and bracken shoots. One of the badgers is foraging around a tree stump; another sits down for a scratch.
They bumble off onto the trees, in the direction of their set hidden beyond the ridge, but soon return to check for any peanuts, worms, beetles or bluebell bulbs they may have missed. One trots off determinedly on a well worn track that disappears to our right, and Barry explains with a chuckle the fastidiously tidy nature of badgers, and how they prefer to use a set latrine location which was probably where that individual was headed.
A black and white striped head pops up in the bluebells to our left, following a path worn clear by countless journeys of broad, thick clawed, five-toed paws over the many generations of badgers at this set.
A Jay flies through the branches, having stolen a peanut or two. From a hidden perch somewhere above out left shoulders, a familiar two-note call reverberates. My first Cuckoo of the year. Other birds are singing too; black bird and wren, and the air is filled with the heady scent of the bluebells. The peace is suddenly disturbed by a loud bark, and a roe buck bounces into view. He has picked up our scent, or perhaps caught sight of a movement, and springs across the dell barking his harsh alarm call. The badgers take this as their cue to head off on their nights adventures, and us in turn as our signal to leave. Even as we reach the car we can still hear the cuckoo’s strange repetitive song.
The sun is setting but none of us are quite ready to head back to the real world just yet. We spend the twilight marvelling at the size and age of the locally famous Queen Elizabeth Oak, a hollow pollard sessile oak in the old deer park near Benbow Pond, and musing over the evening’s experience.
Whilst putting my camera away in the boot of my car after parting with the group back at the Golf Club, I noticed a green caterpillar climbing up the leg of my trousers and carefully transfered it to a nearby bush. As I opened the car door I instinctively paused and glanced upwards to take a last deep breath of the evening air and the flickering flight of a bat crossed the pale gap of sky between the trees. Blackbird song serenaded the thin crescent of the new moon that hung in the sky above Midhurst as I made the short drive through the town to home.
To find out more about Cowdray Estate and the wildlife tours visit:http://www.cowdray.co.uk/the-estate/