Behind an industrial estate, next to a very busy thoroughfare, isn’t the most likely place for a nature reserve but that’s where the spectacular Roundshaw Downs can be found. Straddling the Croydon Sutton border, on the site of what was London’s busiest airport throughout the 1920s and 30s, Roundshaw is now a thriving area of chalk grassland, chock-a-block with wildlife.
I entered from Imperial Way where the remnants of the old runway lay before me and a Small White taxied in to land – I always take it as a good sign when I see a butterfly in the first few moments on a site. Another echo back to the area’s aviator past was the drone of model aeroplanes high above the meadows. A small group had gathered to watch them soar and tumble, but I moved on quickly, far more interested in the aerial antics closer to the ground.
A flurry of Small Heaths spiralled out of the grass and chased each other around a patch of Bulbous Buttercups, their colouring matching well with the bobbing blooms. An early name for these widespread butterflies was ‘Golden Eye’ which seems far more fitting given their saffron hue in flight and the fact that they are found in a variety of habitats, not just heathlands.
Brimstones dipped in and out of the frothy spumes of blossom along the blackthorn hedges and sparrows were chirruping happily as they took dust baths on the path. I continued along the northern edge of the site wanting to explore the outer edges before venturing in to the central, fenced-off paddocks. Several Skylarks were singing their hearts out high above the meadows. Their uplifting song is such a quintessential sound of the countryside that it could have been easy to forget I was still in London. But in the far distance, the Shard and its friends were poking through the horizon, reminding me of how close to the city I was. Skylarks have suffered huge declines in Britain due to habitat loss but sensitive management at Roundshaw has led to a steady breeding population.
Looping around the far west of the site, a Speckled Wood rested near a wooded area populated with wide, bushy oaks and gnarly hawthorns heavy with candy floss blossom. Crane flies (Daddy-longlegs) bounced up and down in the damp grassy margins as if on invisible trampolines. Any time I see them, I’m reminded of being at primary school where some of the crueller boys would catch them and pull all their legs off, dooming them to an airborne eternity.
I headed down one of the southern paths, the views from which were truly breath taking, the meadow foreground teeming with life, flanked in the background by Croydon’s skyscrapers and the IKEA chimneys. The path veered to the right into an area deliberately left thicker with scrub, Holly Blues and Orange-tips flitted along the maze-like pathways and led me out into another area of rough grassland.
Whilst stooping to admire the metallic shimmer on a Small Copper’s wings, I caught a glimpse of movement nearby. Darting rapidly through the grass stems it moved in a moth-like manner but when it briefly settled, I could see it was a species I’d been hoping for – the Dingy Skipper. The drabbest of British butterflies, in flight it is easily confused with the Burnet Companion and Mother Shipton moths which favour similar habitat. Dingy Skippers seem to be having a great year, I had seen loads more than usual on nearby Croydon and Bromley sites and records for Surrey and South-West London show that they are the fourth most recorded species so far this year which is thought could be due to lots of eggs getting laid in the unusually warm April and May last year. Although I hadn’t been able to find any prior records of them on Roundshaw, I had my fingers crossed that they might have crossed the border.
It turned out that my sightings are likely to be the first time the species has been recorded in Sutton so I’m cock-a hoop about that! Hopefully, they will breed on the site and become an established population.
Giddy from my Dingy sightings, I headed into the fenced off paddocks which are grazed intermittently with cattle by the Downlands Partnership. The southern paddock is especially species rich, and I look forward to returning in a few weeks when all the wildflowers are in full bloom. Paths dense with buttercups criss-cross the area creating a yellow brick road effect. Bird’s-foot Trefoil adds to the golden tones as do the fluffy pom poms of Kidney Vetch growing within small ‘scrapes’. These shallow chalky pits have had their fertile topsoil scraped back to allow chalk grassland specialist plants, such as the Kidney Vetch, to thrive. There was no sign yet of the diddy Small Blue butterflies that rely on Kidney Vetch but male and female Common Blues were ten-a-penny and a passing Green Hairstreak briefly joined the mix too.
I headed out of the paddocks past swathes of Cow Parsley giving off the musky scent that’s so synonymous with this time of year. As a final parting gift, a tattered and faded Small Tortoiseshell was basking on a large patch of nettles near the exit, I haven’t seen many of them yet this year so it felt like an extra treat and brought the butterfly species total for the day to a fantastic 14.
Roundshaw has such a superb range of habitats, and it is clear how much thought and work has gone in to creating this well-balanced mosaic. If there hadn’t been an airport here requiring areas of the surrounding farmland to be kept free from development, the Downs may well have been built on years ago – thank goodness they weren’t and now the planes are long gone it’s home to a whole host of different wings.