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17 September 2014
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Woodlands - Bookham Commons

Woodland extravaganza

Purple Emperor c/o Robin Daniels

Bookham Commons, on the North Downs near Surrey, is one of the best recorded sites for wildlife in South East England. From birds and butterflies to flora and fauna, Bookham is a top nature spot.

Rare resident - the Purple Emperor at Bookham Commons.
Photo - Robin Daniels.

The Natural History Society has been surveying Bookham for over 50 years, and with good reason - it's home to hundreds of different species of wildlife, with everything from birds to butterflies.

That's exactly why Bookham Commons, spanning 450 acres of ancient oak woodland, wet meadows and ponds, is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), because of its important role in the conservation of plants, breeding birds and invertebrates.

Oak woodlands

Bookham Commons actually comprises three different areas - Great Bookham, Little Bookham and Banks Common, all of which were given to the National Trust in the 1920s by local residents who wanted to save the Oak woodlands which grew there.

In fact, these Oak trees dominate most of the site, with woodland taking up approximately two thirds of the 1.5km area.

The site comprises mainly woodland with areas of grassland, wetland meadows and scrubland, all of which sit on London clay.

Its name comes from the Saxons, who originally settled there and named it "Bocham", meaning "the village by the beeches".

Visitors can navigate an extensive network of footpaths and bridleways to make their way around the site.

Winged bliss

Purple Emperor on treeThere are also plenty of moths and butterflies fluttering around, particularly the Toadflax Brocade and the Broad-bordered Bee Hawkmoth, which are rare in Britain.

But it's the Purple Emperor butterfly which is the most prized spot of all - in fact the Victorians used to try and catch as many as they could to pin in books and show to their friends.

There's a tree here at the highest point in the wood which the Purple Emperor returns to every year, where dozens of males gather to protect their territory every summer between June and August.

As one of the largest British butterflies, the Purple Emperor will fight off anything, from another butterfly to a Wood Pigeon, just to protect its prized spot!

But they can be difficult to pick out - birdwatchers need powerful binoculars or even a telescope in order to get a close-up.

Butterfly safari

Purple Emperor c/o Robin DanielsA good tip is to find an area where there's something smelly on the ground - rotting fruit or even dog poo will draw the males down to the woodland floor.

The Victorians used to use these things to bait these rare butterflies, believing that the salt in decomposing matter helps keep their strength up during mating season.

But if you do try this approach, be sure to clear up afterwards!

Don't confuse the Purple Emperor with the White Admiral, which is also found at Bookham.

While this smaller butterfly has similar dark wings with striking white bands, the White Admiral has rounder wings and a daintier flight than the more boisterous Purple Emperor.

The White Admiral can also be spotted on the ground, where it sometimes lands on puddles to take in salts and moisture, especially during hot weather.

Other butterflies to spot are the White-letter, the Silver washed Fritillary and Purple Hairstreaks.

Among the tree-tops

Bookham Commons, like many woodland areas, is a great spot for bird-watching.

Common British species found there are Hawfinch, Woodcocks and Lesser Spotted Woodpeckers.

Also to be found are Nightingales and Grasshopper Warblers, which breed in the areas of scrubland on the site.

Fallen trees, particularly dead old Oaks, are a great stomping ground for several types of beetle which are otherwise quite rare in Surrey, including Nemadus colonides and Aridius nodifer.

In fact, the woodlands sprawling across the Commons are especially blessed with a wide variety of insects, including over 1,000 types of flies, 611 types of beetle and around 201 different spiders.

Pond life

Great Crested Newt head c/o Natural England and Peter WakelyWhat's interesting about Bookham Commons is that there are no less than 12 separate ponds within its grounds, five of which were man-made to help propagate fish production in the 17th Century.

Today, many of these ponds, which are served by a tributary of the nearby River Mole, are home to the three main species of British Newts, included the rare Great Crested variety.

You can also see Emperor Dragonflies skimming the surface and landing on the brambles which grow here.

Bramble bushes are an important habitat for insects - their flowers are a great source of nectar so wherever there's a bramble bush, there's often an insect not far behind!

But you'll have to be selective with your visit - Dragonflies typically spend most of their lives underwater emerging only to feed, fly and then mate for just a few short weeks.

The water habitat is also rich in plant life, including Greater and Fat Duckweed and the Thread-leved Water-Crowfoot.

Flora and fauna

Fans of horticulture will enjoy the varied mix of flora and fauna to be found on the grasslands.

On Little Bookham Common, the scrub is dominated by Tufted Hair-grass, while other notable plants include Southern Marsh-Orchid, Pepper-Saxifrage, Spiked Sedge and Adder's-tongue Fern.

It's also possible to see two rare species of rose peeking out from among the scrub - Rose micrantha and Rosa stylose - and two other rare plants which grow here are Orange Foxtail grass and Eared Willow.

Photo credits

Great Crested Newt copyright and permission of Natural England and Peter Wakely.

Image of Purple Emperor courtesy of Robin Daniels.



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