“…like the neighbouring part of Binsted, Tortington common felt surprisingly remote, considering its nearness to Arundel and to the Chichester-Arundel road.”
Victoria County History, Sussex, Vol.5, pt.1 (1997)
With around one-third of our parish designated ancient woodland it is here in the depths of the woods that we find some of the rarer, even endangered, species. But we have such a variety of habitat – woodland, open farmland, water meadows, river banks, ponds, rifes – all manner of wildlife will be discovered by the patient but alert explorer.
Before the 15th century Tortington Common was an area of heathland which was then planted with mainly broad-leaved deciduous trees – oak, beech, elm, ash, and later with some conifers in the northern woods. By the 16th century it had become part of Arundel Great Park, a vast enclosed deer park, the southern gate of which existed where Knowle’s Barn now is.
To the keen eye the woodland understorey might reveal a variety of smaller floral gems – primrose, bluebell, wood anemones, wood sorrel, and even the delicate snakeshead fritillaries. Many of Tortington’s beautiful bluebell woods are right beside public footpaths so please visit them and enjoy them at their best in April and May. A protected species, the common bluebell, is also an indicator of ancient woodland.
Further investigation – but please keep to the public footpaths, the woods are privately owned – might reveal early-purple and common spotted orchids and you might even smell great clumps of wild garlic before you see them. Other orchids can be found in the woods as well – but please do not pick them!
In the woods of Tortington and in neighbouring Binsted – the animals don’t know where the parish boundary lies! – the hazel dormouse population is being monitored by the Mid Arun Valley Environmental Survey (MAVES) who are also monitoring owls and bats in the area.
It is on the woodland fringes that yet more spicies can be seen. Residents returning home at dusk down Tortington Lane need to drive with care as many deer emerge from the woodland and can be seen standing shoulder high in crops, or even in the middle of the lane, before bounding back to the safety of the woods. Bats such as the common pipistrelle and the noctule also emerge to feed soon after dusk and later tawny owls, eerily calling one another – they don’t actually “twit-twooo” – can be heard. One may even be taken by surprise as the ghostly flash of a barn owl swoops above a field before dropping on its prey – hopefully not a dormouse!
Over the farmland and the meadows down by the river a huge variety of birdlife can be watched. Buzzards can often be see soaring above, kestrels hovering above the hedgerows, you may not see the skylarks but in the still summer air you will hear them. But look closer to the ground and you might see little egrets in the water meadows by the river, swans, Canada geese, Brent geese, lapwings, pochards or shelducks. Fieldfares may be seen on farmland in winter, returning swallows in summer, and of course the sound of the cuckoo in spring. Add to this all those ‘common’ residents like blackcaps, nuthatches, green as well as great spotted woodpeckers, goldfinches – the list goes on! We are blessed with such a variety of habitat in such a small area that you must go out and look for yourself, the variety of species is almost endless.
MAVES is urging us to look out for and report sightings of the following species – the nightingale makes but rare visits to our woods, the lesser redpoll, the yellowhammer, the bee fly and the brimstone butterfly.
For butterfly lovers I would add rare sightings in rides and woodland clearings of the white admiral or the (even rarer and less accessible) purple emperor – it inhabits the treetops in old woodland and only rarely flies in the human domain.
Give the kids a project this spring and summer – get them to explore the wildlife on their doorstep!