Flora & Fauna
Thistledown is managed in a way that promotes habitat and biodiversity. We have been a wildlife receptor site since 2006 and in that time we’ve re-homed thousands of slow worms as well as many snakes and newts. Despite being numerous, you aren’t likely to spot slow worms, and you’ll be very lucky if you see a grass snake! You can often find newts by visiting the ponds at night and shining a torch around the shallows. Chances are that you’ll see smooth, palmate or great crested newts, or maybe all three!
We mow parts of the fields to create pitching areas for tents. Around this we leave swathes of long grass and wildflowers, which are excellent habitat and promote biodiversity. You are likely to see numerous butterfly species such as skippers, red admirals, gatekeepers, white letter hairstreaks and many more. If you are fortunate then you may see glow worms in early summer. During adulthood, the females only live for a couple of weeks, and each night they climb up a blade of grass in search of a mate. The males are attracted by the females’ luminescence; they do not glow themselves. The wide range of moths and beetles means that we also have 14 of the 18 species of bats resident in the UK. The most important of these are the greater and lesser horseshoe, which have declined in numbers in recent years due to loss of habitat. Their prey – moths and beetles – prefer old pastureland, the range of which has decreased in recent years due to intensive farming and pesticide use. For our farm animals we use worming products that do not remain active in the dung, so that the fields can support a greater range of invertebrates. Woodchester Mansion (within walking distance) has cameras set up in the roosts so that you can watch the bats.
You are likely to see roe deer, and perhaps muntjac deer. The former are native and often seen along woodland margins in pairs, particularly around dawn and dusk. Deforestation and overhunting led to near extinction around 1800, but populations remained in Scotland and Victorian breeding programmes meant that numbers quickly recovered and they are now widespread. The latter were introduced from China in the early 20th Century and spread very rapidly. They are now one of our most numerous deer species, though due to their size and nature they can be hard to spot. Whilst you might not see them you may well hear them: they make a distinctive barking noise.
Woodchester Park has a very high badger population and has been studied by researchers for over 25 years. We have a couple of large setts on the farm boundary, and you may see badgers from dusk onwards if you sit quietly near woodland edges and the wind is blowing from the trees towards you (rather than carrying your scent towards the badgers). We suggest that you keep foodstuffs off the ground overnight as badgers will find any scraps!
There are lots of birds to look out for onsite. We have pheasants that patrol the camping area, and although they are not tame they will come quite close to humans so do ensure that all dogs are kept on leads. There are many buzzards in the area, which are large brown birds with white markings and black wingtips. They have a short, flatly curved tail and make a distinctive screeching sound. In the last few years we’ve seen increasing numbers of red kites. They have a red-brown body and can be easily identified by their forked tail. Recently we’ve occasionally heard a nightjar, which makes a very distinctive ‘churring’ sound. We have tawny, little and barn owls on the land. Although tawny owls are thought to be the most numerous and very vocal on autumn evenings, you are more likely to spot little owls as they are more active during the day. We usually spot barn owls when driving along Tinkley Lane at night: they can be seen flying low over the road whilst hunting. There are many small bird species and in the lower parts of the pastures, especially the northeastern corner of the 2nd Pasture, you are likely to experience a very loud dawn chorus.
The lower pastures have never been ploughed, even during the World Wars, because of the fuller’s earth which is constantly moving. This means that we have a wide range of well-established flora on the farm – over 150 species in the lower fields alone.
Approximately 10 acres of the farm is woodland. You’ll find ash, beech, oak, hazel, crab apple, blackthorn (sloe), hawthorn, elderflower, willow and larch. We also have wych elm and english elm. The largest english elm on the farm has a trunk circumference of around 50cm. As the trees become larger they are more susceptible to Dutch Elm Disease as the beetles are more attracted to the greater quantities of flowers. Over the last five years we’ve planted approximately 1000 deciduous trees. These are nearly all native species, and recently we’ve started trying to replant with species other than ash – although it does very well on these soils we are trying to mitigate any losses from ash dieback.
In the spring we have a good display of bluebells amongst the beech and larch on the northern edge of the 3rd Pasture, especially in the north east corner. Throughout the woodland you’ll also find wood anemones, celandine and wild garlic. The latter’s leaves and flowers make a nice garlicky addition to salads, and are particularly good when used to make wild garlic pesto with either pine nuts or hazelnuts. In the pastures you’ll find cowslips, spotted orchids and lady’s smock. Also look out for yellow rattle, a parasitic plant whose yellow flowers develop into rattle like seed pods. It is very important in meadows as it restricts grass growth and allows more flower species to take root.
What to look for in the spring
- Bees and bumblebees
- Bluebells and other woodland flowers
- Wild garlic
- Blackthorn blossom in early spring
- Elm blossom
- Find and identify animal tracks
- Listen to the late spring dawn chorus
- Young lambs in the paddocks
What to look out for in the Summer
- Swallows arriving in early summer
- Butterflies and moths
- Young roe deer
- Wildflowers and grasses
- Buzzards soaring on thermals
- Elderflower blossom in early June
- Use a torch to find newts in the ponds
- Slow worms and grass snakes
What to look out for in the Autumn
- Changing leaves
- Blackberries, elderberries and sloes
- Stargazing and meteorite showers
- Hazelnuts, acorns and beechnuts
- Listen for and spot owls