A visit to Chappetts Copse and Old Winchester Hill

The village of West Meon lies in the beautiful Meon Valley at the heart of the South Downs about thirty miles east of the Waterside.

The contrast between this area and the New Forest could not be more striking from a natural history point of view so provided an interesting diversion for the Natural History Society.

Chappetts Copse is a woodland reserve to the east of West Meon managed by Hampshire Wildlife Trust and was visited during the morning. White flowers of Cow Parsley lined the narrow lanes but gave way to the white of Woodruff and Sanicle on entering the wood. The Beech wood itself is carefully managed to encourage the growth of Narrow Leaved Helleborine and other members of the orchid family amongst the trees.

These plants cannot thrive without the Beech Trees but neither can they thrive in dense undergrowth. Each year the small saplings of Beech are identified and marked with a stick so that they are not cut down when the undergrowth is trimmed later in the year.

Narrow Leaved Helleborine
Narrow Leaved Helleborine

The result is a carpet of white flowers from this rare Helleborine which fails to establish elsewhere.

Helleborines are members of the orchid family but are distinguished by the flower stalk emerging directly from the ground and not through a rosette of leaves. The Narrow Leaved Helleborine is almost identical to the White Helleborine but on looking down from above has radiating leaves compared to the opposing leaves of the White Helleborine.

There were also a few Fly Orchids in flower. These are small black orchids with petals and sepals in the form of a fly which although of a striking colour are very difficult to spot on the ground and even more difficult to photograph. Fortunately their position was marked with a few sticks which not only indicated their location but prevented them being trodden down. Birds Nest Orchid was also seen in one area. This orchid is saprophytic which means that it lives off dead and decaying organic matter so has no green pigment leaving it entirely honey coloured.

Fly orchid
Fly orchid

Chappetts Copse as its name suggests is a small wood and did not take long to walk round.

A Beech wood in spring is quintessentially English and it was a delight to wander through the trees with sunlight filtering through the fresh green leaves.

Old Winchester Hill was visited during the afternoon which involved a short drive towards Warnford. The reserve is largely open grassland but the big difference from Chappetts Copse is the views. Old Winchester Hill is the site of an Iron Age hill fort with Bronze Age Barrows built on a promontory jutting out from a ridge that is now occupied by Old Winchester Hill road. Spectacular views can be observed on all sides with a scooped valley on one side and the plains on the other looking over to Southampton and the Isle of Wight.

Unfortunately the visit was too early in the year to see the many orchids but the hillsides were painted yellow by a carpet of Cowslips. A meadow of Cowslips is a rare sight these days and brought back many memories of childhood.

Several birds were heard in Chappetts Copse but few were seen because of the dense vegetation. The more open countryside of Old Winchester Hill enabled birds such as Linnet, Yellow Hammer, and Chaffinch to be seen. Warblers such as Whitethroat and Blackcap were also heard. The most amazing sight was provided by Kestrel hunting over the edge of the escarpment on the way back to the car park.

It was first noticed hovering over the path but repositioned itself between the branches of a low shrub growing on the edge of the escarpment. The bird was less than fifty metres away but held a stationary position in mid-air as if held by invisible strings. The impression given was of time standing still until with a flick of its wing feathers it swooped down over the skyline. Although the bird was probably helped by the up draught its ability to stay still without apparently moving a muscle provided an incredible sight.