RICHARD WILLIAMSON: A record number of orchids spotted at Kingley Vale

A half- acre plot of old down-land turf at Kingley Vale has again yielded a record number of spotted orchids.

I have been monitoring this plot for 51 years and have seen a gradual increase of Dactylorchis fuchsii since my records began in June 1964, when I counted 25.

This year 2,500 spotted orchids have flowered, a hundred-fold increase. Exactly why is a mystery.

At other places where I have watched the spotted orchids grow, they have decreased.

The plot is on the western slopes of the national nature reserve, along the footpath leading uphill from the entrance.

Between 1963 and 1983 the colony increased to almost 300, and then for the next 20 years it seemed to have peaked at that number.

Suddenly in 2009 it shot up to 700, and in the next summer topped the thousand mark.

After that these lovely pale mauve flowers stood up each June like hairs on a dog’s back in ever increasing number.

A few are pure white; some are darker than others. Some have long stems up to a foot in height (30cms) and some are but four inches tall.

It is tempting to say that the incline follows the increase in global temperature. These orchids also grow handsomely along roadside verges in some parts of the county, notably along the A272 near Iping Common There are always strong colonies on Bignor Hill, Harting Downs, and Didling Downs.

They can be confused with D. maculata, the heath spotted orchid.

To tell them apart look at the lip of the flower, which is the lower part which hangs down like a tongue. The spotted has a three forked tongue. The heath has an almost round blunt tongue.

Wild orchids can have quite wild population swings I have observed over half a century.

For a year or two in the 1980s Kingley Vale grew three thousand frog orchids over the hilltop plateau around those four tumuli. Then they all but disappeared completely. I am hard pressed to find a single one.

The bee orchids have all but vanished too. They were prolific during and after WW2 when the army drove tanks all over the place and made chalk scars.

Many orchids are pioneer colonisers on fresh ground.

A good example in recent years was in the Chilgrove valley when old potato fields were suddenly let go to meadowland for a few years.

Hundreds of bee, spotted, and pyramid orchids invaded the fields together with millions of yellow hawkbit flowers. It was a truly wonderful sight for three years, but has now been ploughed up and grows corn.

So whether the spectacular increase of spotted orchids at Kingley Vale continues into the future is very doubtful.

Every dog has its day, and my records will vanish into thin air like everything else.