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     At 10:50 on Sunday 31st May I heard my first cuckoo of 2015, the sound that is traditionally recognised as the first sign of spring. These unique birds visit our shores from Africa during April/May and stay for around three months to breed. They do this parasitically by discarding the eggs from the nests of our native meadow pipit, dunnock, pied wagtail and even the visiting reed warbler and then lay their own eggs in the empty nest. The deed done, mother then flies off leaving the duped parents to rear what soon grows into a dirty great big chick. It's a strange quirk of nature but I do wonder how these deceived birds don’t question just why it is their cute little hatchling grows into something nearly three times their size in next to no time. It must cause a lot of domestic arguments, so how come reed warblers never appear on the Jeremy Kyle Show? In recent years cuckoo numbers have declined in the UK by as much as 65% since the early 1980’s. Exactly why is unclear but a drop in the availability of nests could be one reason. Perhaps the unsuspecting hosts have wised-up and cuckoos have trouble finding readily available avian crèches these days. Either way, we will continue to listen out for their haunting calls in the early days of spring for a few more years yet awhile I suspect.

     The purpose of the outing was to incorporate a walk from Rowland’s Castle to Butser Hill. At 889 feet it is not the tallest hill in Hampshire but its position in almost total isolation and inclined approaches have long made it a popular challenge for walkers and a fine backdrop for photographers. Butser is distinctive in that it can be recognised easily for many miles in all directions because of the radio mast that tops its summit plateau. It has stood there since the mid 1960’s around the same time the hill came into the ownership of Hampshire County Council. Since that time I have visited on numerous occasions as a child, teenager, parent and these days as a lone walker. In the early 1990’s it became part of the South Downs Way and at the turn of the century Butser Hill became the second highest peak of the South Downs National Park.

     In particular I wanted to walk around my favourite part of the Butser Hill site, a huge and deep dry valley to the west with steep slopes that open up a gorge of chalk and grass. Officially the slopes are those of Ramsdean Down and the map will tell you the valley floor is called Rake Bottom, but locally it is known as Grandfather’s Bottom. My dad always called it that but where he got the name from I never knew. I simply assumed it was something he’d invented. However, it appears to have been a popular moniker for ages and one even used more recently by the local Wildlife Trust. This final day of May was a pretty foul one to be honest and a lot of it was lost hiding from the deluges within the shelters of Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Luckily the rain had stopped by the time I made the long grassy haul up Butser Hill. Indeed, by the time I strangled back to Rowland’s Castle a few hours later, the late afternoon sunshine seemed to make the whole effort worthwhile.

 
 

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