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The Luccombe valley

Colin Varndell celebrates a classic example of the West Dorset landscape

The Luccombe valley runs from North Bowood through Luccombe Farm and down to the derelict hamlet of Clenham, which is north-east of Netherbury in West Dorset. This steep, wooded valley lies roughly parallel to the hamlet of Whitecross on the edge of the village. Several public footpaths run through and across the valley, but humans are seldom encountered here save for local dog-walkers and the occasional enthusiastic rambler. The bottom of the valley is wooded where the banks are too steep for cultivation, and the trees here are directly linked genetically to the ancient wildwood which once covered England. The Forestry Commission has designated these woods as a site of ancient woodland; this does not mean that the actual trees there today are ancient, but simply that there has been a continuity of woodland on this site since after the last Ice Age. The wood is made up principally of hazel stools interspersed with mature oak, wild cherry, alder and the occasional sweet chestnut tree.

Badgers have formed huge labyrinths of tunnels and earths with many entrances throughout the steep copses

The woodmouse is the staple diet of the tawny owl in these woods

The lesser spotter woodpecker is the smallest and rarest of the woodpecker family to be seen in Dorset

The number of mammals in these copses is impressive, ranging from the tiny common shrew to roe deer and even wild boar, although the latter are not of native descent. The steep banks of clay soil are ideal for burrowing mammals. Badgers occur here in huge numbers, as well as foxes and rabbits. Evidence of these animals can be seen throughout the valley in the form of digging and burrowing. The rabbit population is extensive and in turn attracts a wide range of predators. Stoats are frequently seen and foxes rear their young on rabbit meat during the springtime.

Once I was photographing these rabbits and had sat in my hide under a hedge all day. By late afternoon there were over a hundred rabbits out feeding in the field. Suddenly, I noticed that the rabbit closest to me was standing up in the alert posture. I peered out from the hide and could see all of the rabbits in the field standing motionless on their hindquarters. Then I saw the fox, crouching behind some bracken at the lower end of the field. When the fox took flight, a single rabbit ran. The fox knew from experience that it could outrun the rabbit over a large distance, and about five yards from the hedge the young rabbit screamed as the fox caught it. On another occasion, a small young rabbit ran into my hide and sat trembling beneath my seat as the fox cub which had chased it stopped and stared at me in dismay.

Tawny owls become vocal at dusk in late winter as they establish their breeding territories

I once asked one of the local farmers if there were many rabbits in that particular season and he replied: ‘Any ‘mount o’ ‘em’, which translated from the West Dorset dialect means ‘Any amount of them’, which in turn means ‘Yes – lots’!

In order to mark their territories, badgers dig latrines on the extreme edge of their home range where they meet the domain of others. Latrines occur at regular intervals throughout the length of the woodland, signifying that several different families of badgers are present. The old boar badgers visit these latrines nightly to leave their calling cards.

A mix of bluebells and ramsons in Lower Woods Coppice

Woodmice and dormice thrive here, although the latter are not so numerous as they lead solitary lives and occupy quite large territories for such small creatures.

Walking the footpath along the edge of the wood, it is not unusual to hear the scolding rasp of a jay or the sharp alarm notes of a marsh tit. Five species of tit are present, as well as three different woodpeckers and woodland specialists like treecreeper and nuthatch. In the summer months, the ranks of birds are swelled by leaf warblers arriving from the south. Chiff-chaff, blackcap, willow and wood warblers all nest in the undergrowth at the edge of the wood. Avian predators are represented by buzzard and sparrowhawk and several pairs of tawny owls. At dusk during late winter and spring, the tawny owls are extremely vocal as they argue over territory boundaries.

The southern marsh orchids here are spectacular, often standing half a metre tall

As far as wild flowers are concerned, the casual observer may only notice the ramsons (incorrectly refered to by locals as wild garlic) smothering the woodland floor in spring. But there are many other native plants to be found here too. Yellow pimpernel and moschatel, both indicative of ancient woodland, occur here in abundance. There are also vibrant displays of bluebell, lady’s smock, red campion, yellow archangel and wood anemone in spring. The delicate wood sorrel grows in mossy crevices on the stumps of dead trees. Pink purslane is an annual wild flower more usually associated with Devon and especially Dartmoor; it is on the very edge of its range here in West Dorset but in these copses it is fairly common. This flower can only be seen around the middle of the day, though, as it closes its petals in the afternoons and early mornings.

Pink purslane is an unusual annual which can be found in these woods

The gem of this valley is an unimproved meadow bordering the woodland which supports a huge variety of wild flowers. Yellow rattle, knapweed, birdsfoot trefoil, bugle, goatsbeard, field scabious and lousewort are some of the many species which bloom here in summer. The orchids in this meadow include twayblade, common spotted, early purple and what must be the most fantastic stand of southern marsh orchids to be seen in Dorset.

A colony of marbled white butterflies is well established in this meadow and they can be seen on the wing from late June as they flit tirelessly on papery wings amongst the knapweeds and thistles. Other insects of note which can be seen here in abundance include common blue butterfly, six-spot burnet moth and hornet. The latter nests annually in the woods, usually in the hollow of a tree.

This particular secluded valley is a favourite local dog-walking route for my family. Each time we walk there, we always stop to remind each other how lucky we are to live close to one of Dorset’s best-kept secrets.

A six-spot burnet moth on tufted vetch

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