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Weekend Walk: Harting Down Wildlife Walk

On Harting Downs. The South Downs Way climbing over rising ground on the escarpment above South Harting. © Copyright Chris Heaton


One of the largest areas of ancient chalk downland in the National Trust’s care, Harting Down in West Sussex is a renowned nature reserve and Site of Special Scientific Interest. This walk offers panoramic views over the Weald to the North Downs, before descending into secluded valleys of natural and historic interest. It is on grassy paths with several hills and rather steep ascents and descents. It can be muddy in places after wet weather and in winter. This walk is dog friendly and is reproduced courtesy of the National Trust.

1.Start in Harting Down National Trust car park, with a fantastic view across the flat plain of the Weald towards the Hog’s Back ridge and North Downs. Walk through a gate and cross Harting Hill.

2. Go over the undulating cross ridge dykes. These parallel mounds date back to the Iron Age, and may have been boundary markers or a checkpoint across the ridgeway.

The hillsides are strewn with countless yellow meadow anthills. The mounds retain heat from the sun which keeps the colonies warm. Strangely, the ants help care for the caterpillars of the common blue butterfly, in return for a sugary secretion that they produce. Lots of other invertebrates enjoy the downland including the Duke of Burgundy fritillary and grizzled skipper butterflies, blue carpenter bee and the rare cheese snail. On dark summer nights, take a look on Round Down for glow worms.

3. Follow the right-hand track up Round Down hill, keeping a hedge on your left. You’ll see a huge variety of plants here all year round. Just over the top of the hill, turn left and go through a gate, before walking down into the next valley. After another gate at the bottom, walk across to the base of Beacon Hill.

Catch a whiff of the fragrant black berries which grow on the female juniper bush and are used in gin-making; Harting Down is one of the best places to find them. In springtime, enjoy a buttery-yellow carpet of cowslips, often used to make potent local wine. Birds-foot trefoil, with its yellow flowers, is food for the caterpillars of the common blue butterfly.

4. Here is the ridge of an Iron Age Hill Fort, probably created as an animal enclosure and symbol of status, rather than a defensive stronghold. Either climb up to the summit of Beacon Hill or turn right and skirt across its lower slopes.

5. If you do walk over the top, turn right at a cross-roads of paths on the other side and skirt back round the lower slopes of Beacon Hill until you meet the short cut route again.

6. At a signpost turn away from Beacon Hill on a path down to a dew pond and a little hill, ‘Granny’s Bottom’, on your right.

If you are really lucky, you may see the rare sight of male adders ‘dancing’ (wrestling) for territory. However, there is more chance of seeing fallow deer bucks putting on a show in the October rut when they call loudly and lock antlers in attempt to secure access to the does. Also, listen for nightingales on summer afternoons and evenings.

7. Pass the pond and cross into a yew wood, known as the darkest place on the downs. It’s cold in here, even on a hot day! Yew trees are home to birds like wren, thrush and finch.
The dew pond in the valley bottom was recreated in the 1990s on the site of a 17th-century pond. There are several across Harting Down that originally used to supply water to grazing animals. Now they are inhabited by frogs, dragonflies and butterflies.

8. Climb up through the shade back onto Harting Hill. Follow the path until you emerge through an opening (not gate) on the right. Stay on a grassy path back to the car park.

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