FINDING ORCHIDS IN KENT
Kent is widely known as The Garden of England and during the months of early summer it certainly lives up to that name with its abundance of wild and in many cases rare orchids.
This short article is intended as one to whet the appetite of any birders who would like to venture out in search of orchids. Not only in Kent but maybe even more locally. It is based on 2 day trips to Kent in consecutive summers (2004 & 2005). Both trips were made on Sundays with the long daylight hours and easy run down to Kent making these lengthy but easily do-able days.
In Norfolk we are blessed with our own special orchids with these being mainly marshland species due to the predominance of that habitat. Kent however has an abundance of riches of woodland and downland species.
To see most of what Kent has to offer it’s necessary to make 2 visits, one in mid May for the early flowering species and another in mid June for the later species. These timings also have the advantage of coinciding with the flight times of 2 butterfly species which we can’t see in Norfolk (Duke of Burgundy in May and Heath Fritillary in June) and the sites for these can easily be taken in.
The May Trip
This trip was made on 16 May 2004 starting with a mid morning visit to Denge Wood which is located about 7 miles SW of Canterbury near the village of Sole Street.
Parking at the roadside pull-in at TR099501 and walking NNE along the track into the wood the small reserve of Bonsai Bank was reached on the left-hand side of the track at TR105511. This small scrubby clearing contained good numbers of Duke of Burgundys, 200+ Lady Orchids, 50+ Early Purple Orchids and a single White Helleborine which was unfortunately still in bud. Common Twayblade was also present further into the woods.
Next on the agenda was the small woodland site of Yocklett’s Bank which is only about 3 miles through the lanes going SE from Denge Wood. This narrow strip of woodland on a scarp slope is named on the Ordnance Survey map. We parked (with difficulty) on the narrow road that bisects the wood and followed the obvious path into the northern section. Pretty soon we were enjoying the tiny but enigmatic Fly Orchid with 20+ specimens in full flower right beside the path. Also present on a short walk through the wood were small numbers of Lady Orchid, Common Twayblade and frustratingly 2 Butterfly Orchid sp which were not going to flower for another week or two. You’ll have realised by now that this is an occupational hazzard with wild flowers. Trying to time things to get all species in flower is nigh on impossible!
The third site of the day was probably what is the richest small patch of downland in the North Downs – Park Gate Down. This steeply sloped grassland site consists of 3 meadows separated by fences and can be found at TR168458 about 2 miles E of the village of Stelling Minnis. The main attraction here on this visit was the rare Monkey Orchid which is known from only this site and one in the Chilterns. About 20 of these amazingly beautiful orchids were found relatively easily in the first meadow. The flowers of this species really are aptly named and some were starting to flower nicely. A visit at the end of May would probably have seen many more in full flower. A stroll though the other meadows produced c250 Early Purple Orchids, several Green-winged Orchids and Common Twayblades.
By now the afternoon was getting hot so we felt we’d deserved a rest and a cream tea before a bit of a drive to the last site of the day. Highly recommended tearooms were found right beside the wooden windmill in Stelling Minnis. So good in the sun that we almost decided to stay there for the rest of the day!
The very last visit of the day was to the curious man-made site of Samphire Hoe just off the A20 between Dover and Folkestone. The site is a designated country park below the white cliffs and was created from the spoil dug out of the Channel Tunnel. In the last few years an amazingly large colony of Early Spider Orchids has developed and these could not be easier to see. We ‘counted’ at least 3000 plants but were told that in 2004 there were in fact over 9000!
The June Trip
Our second trip to Kent was made on 19 June 2005 with the aim being similar to the first trip – to clean up on all the orchids in flower at the time. And this we pretty much did!
First port of call was the conveniently located Stockbury Hill Wood. This Kent Wildlife Trust reserve can be found just off the M2/A249 junction between Sittingbourne and Maidstone. Access is by turning off the M2 at junction onto the A249, taking the first exit right (signed to ‘South Street’), following the loop road round to the right and parking in the one space just as the road gets back to the dual carriageway at TQ839605. Then walk back up the wooded hill you’ve just driven down. This is a site for Lesser Butterfly Orchid that is supposed to occur in the first small clearing in the wood as you walk up from the car. We failed to find any though, despite them reportedy having been in flower just days before. We did however find 7 Birdsnest Orchids right beside the road under a yew tree by the obvious right hand bend at the top of the hill. Although they had gone over and died off there were the remains at least 20 Lady Orchids in the woods too meaning the site could be visited on a May trip. Common Twayblades were numerous.
Next we drove on into the North Downs to Wye Downs which is situated approx. 4 miles NE of Ashford. Here we visited 2 different locations. The first was the more westerly of the 2 and a short walk onto the downs north of the Wye to Stowting road revealed c20 Man Orchids, 3 Bee Orchids, and many Pyramidal and Common Spotted Orchids. This site too is the only UK site for the day-flying Black-veined Moth and we saw at least 10 of these in the long grass.
The other location on Wye Downs is further east along the same road and the access is quite hidden so needs some explaining. Between telepgraph poles 10 & 11 (they’re all numbered luckily) on the north side of the road there is a gap in the hedge and a stile over barbed wire. Over this stile is a bowl shaped grassy valley and by venturing halfway up to the left side of the bowl and behind some hawthorne bushes Late Spider Orchids protected by cages can easily be found. We saw some 65 of this highly variable but nonetheless very rare species.
Our next stop was a return visit to Park Gate Down and in the middle of June the meadows there have to be seen to be believed. In under an hour we’d notched up tens of thousands of Fragrant Orchids (including 10+ white specimens), 6 Greater Butterfly Orchids, 21 Musk Orchids, 1 lingering Monkey Orchid and 1 Late Spider Orchid plus Common Spotted Orchids and Common Twayblades. The Musk Orchids here are to be found right beside the middle path in the 3rd meadow from the road but even with detailed directions we took ages to find this tiny and inconspicuous species. Into the bargain we also saw 2 Adonis Blue butterflies (brought to us in the hand!) and a Clouded Yellow.
The second leg of the day involved a drive to east Kent and initially the area around St Margarets where a member of the party was keen to see the rarest of our native broomrapes – Oxtongue Broomrape. Walking north along the clifftops we eventually found 3 pretty dried up specimens but boredom pretty quickly set in and we headed quickly for Sandwich our next orchid site.
Here Lizard Orchids grow in very large numbers on the edge of Royal St Georges Golf Course but also on roadside verges and memorably all over the front lawn of one house! In addition, the member of our party who shall remain unnamed (OK, it was Justin!) wanted to locate yet another broomrape, this time Clove-scented Broomrape. Luckily we found 5 very close to some Lizard Orchids near the toilet block on the edge of the GC. 5 minutes of the rest of us yawning at yet more dried up flowers saw him take the hint and we headed for our last port of call while there was still some strength left in the sun.
This was East Blean Wood between Herne Bay and Canterbury, which is a well known site for Heath Fritillary. These rare butterflies used to occur right around the carpark but the mosiac of coppiced woodland habitat changes over the years so this time we needed to walk further into the wood before we found a sunny clearing and c15 of these beautiful fritillaries.
Back to the car and a burst of song from a Nightingale brought an excellent day to an end.
Late Spider Orchid