Herne Bay's own wildlife park, right on our doorstep!
You may have heard of the North or South Downs, but what about Herne Bay's Downs? It may not have the sheer scale of its more well-known neighbours, but it more than makes up for that in terms of its geography, geology, stunning views and wildlife.
The Downs stretches along the eastern end of the coastal park, from the corner of Canterbury Road and Beacon Hill (where you'll also find the Barnes Wallis statue) to Bishopstone Glen and is a perfect spot to enjoy the great outdoors.
The space is a much-valued part of Herne Bay, and is defined as a Landscape Character Area by Canterbury City Council. It is also a Site of Special Scientific Interest, a Ramsar site and a Special Protection Area for Birds.
As the name suggests, The Downs is an area of cliffs sloping down to the beach, with flat grassy areas at the top, natural scrubland with paths on most of the slopes and then the shingle beach below. The scrubland area is a wildlife hotspot, and contains many important plant species too.
The western end of The Downs, near the Kings Hall, is maintained as grass and, depending on the season, you're likely to find children rolling down, running down or sledging down its slopes.
It's also a favourite spot for dog walks, bird watching and cycling all year round.
So what should you look out for on the Downs?
Volunteers from Kent Wildlife Trust surveyed the area, and this is what they found - see how many you can spot...
Grass vetchling, a pink flower on a tall stem that is related to the ever-popular sweet pea.
Spiny restharrow, another pink flower on a shrubby plant that adds colour to the grassland.
Wild carrot, also known as Queen Anne's Lace or Bishop's Lace, this plant attracts wasps and can be eaten, but as it looks remarkably similar to poison hemlock, we wouldn't recommend it.
Alexanders horse parsley, this plant is often seen where there were once medieval monastery gardens so quite why it's prolific along The Downs, we really don't know!
Over 20 species have been recorded on the Downs plus the brown-tailed moth is often spotted. Here are a few of the species you might catch sight of.
Among the reptile species are viviparous lizards and slow worms.
The red shanked carder bee has also been found there - its population is now restricted to southern England and parts of Scotland.
What can you do on the Downs?
Here are some suggestions - we'd love to hear yours!
Sit a while
No matter whether you're walking, running, picnicking, cycling or walking the dog on The Downs take a few moments just to sit and take-in your surroundings and you'll be amazed at the variety of birds and other wildlife you'll discover. Keep your eyes on the skies too and you're almost certain to see one of our birds of prey - mostly sparrow-hawks - stalking their next meal. There's a rich abundance of wildlife on The Downs so do take time to enjoy it.
...saunter or stroll, potter or power-walk. There's no better place to take in the air. It's completely free, it's good for you and you can enjoy some spectacular views at the same time.
Run & jog
If you're feeling more energetic, there are paths and pavements for all abilities.
We can't deny that it's hilly in parts, but if you stick to the top or the bottom paths it is easier on the legs. The Oyster Bay Trail, from Reculver to Whitstable, crosses the Downs so you can easily explore further afield.
Fly a kite
- The Downs one of the highest spots around so you're almost guaranteed a breeze. Just watch out for walkers on the paths below!
Whether you use binoculars to spot over-wintering birds or a magnifying glass to hunt out insects, you won't be disappointed.
Pick your perfect spot, whether it's one of the artist's benches, the sea wall or a simple blanket on the grass, unpack your goodies and enjoy the scenery and the sustenance.
Walk the dog
The Downs is very dog-friendly and both you and your hound will enjoy the open spaces and the fresh air! Why not venture off the main paths and venture out on to the multitude of smaller paths which criss-cross The Downs - many of them are well-trodden dog walking routes! There are plenty of bins around so please do pick up dog poo and don't leave it for others to discover!
Okay, you need snow for this, but when it falls then the whole town heads for the Downs. We've even seen skiers out on those slopes. If you find yourself on the Downs on a warmer day, a go-kart can give the same experience but please watch out for walkers, cyclists, dogs and wildlife.
If you're artistically talented, or even if you're not, it's easy to be inspired by the scenery of the Downs. For those of us who lack talent in that area, a photograph can be an easier way to preserve those stunning views.
High-tech treasure hunting, this is a great way to explore the Downs. The idea is to use GPS to find hidden items, some of which contain items to swap. Find out more at www.geocaching.com
Whether your just using your phone camera, a point & click or giving your DSLR an outing, there are fantastic photo opportunities all along The Downs from the ubiquitous seascapes to sunsets, sunrises, birds, foxes and other wildlife all to be captured in different guises as the light changes throughout the day and throughout the year.
There are no sea-gulls!
We're being picky but really, there is no such thing as what we call a 'sea gull'. Actually gulls are a family of birds comprising many different species and sub-species which is described by the RSPB as "Small to large sea-birds, many of which also live inland for at least part of the year; some are strictly marine. Most are grey, black and white when fully mature, but extensively marked with various shades of brown during from one to four years of immaturity".
Spend just a few moments anywhere along the Coastal Park from Hampton to Reculver and you will see gulls, probably 5 or 6 different species and identifying them can be quite a good game. The clues are in the colour of their beaks, legs and feet and, to make matters more interesting, juveniles (under 4 years of age) are often a different colour and even mature birds can vary in colour depending upon the season!
A guide to the gulls of the Coastal Park
The Black Headed Gull Not really a black-headed bird at all, more chocolate-brown - in fact, for much of the year, it has a white head. It is most definitely not a 'seagull' and is found commonly almost anywhere inland. Black-headed gulls are sociable, quarrelsome, noisy birds, usually seen in small groups or flocks, often gathering into larger parties where there is plenty of food, or when they are roosting.
The Common Gull It looks like a small, gentler version of the herring gull, with greenish legs and a yellow bill. Despite its name, it is not at all common in some inland areas, though often abundant on the coast and in some eastern counties. They are now seen more often in towns and on housing estates in winter.
The Glaucous Gull A large pale gull with white wing tips. Younger birds are creamy white or more biscuit coloured, depending on age. All have pale wing-tips. It is bigger than a herring gull and bulkier, with a fiercer expression, larger beak and squarer head than the smaller but virtually identically-plumaged plumaged Iceland gull. Quite rare.
Great Black-backed Gull A very large, thick-set black-backed gull, with a powerful beak. Adults are blacker than the smaller lesser black-backed gull. It has a heavy flight and can look quite hunched when perched. It will fight off other gulls and chase them to snatch food.
Herring Gull These gulls are large, noisy birds found throughout the year around our coast and inland around rubbish tips, fields, large reservoirs and lakes, especially during winter. Adults have light grey backs, white under parts, and black wing tips with white 'mirrors'. Their legs are pink, with webbed feet and they have heavy, slightly hooked bills marked with a red spot. Young birds are mottled brown. They have suffered moderate declines over the past 25 years and over half of their UK breeding population is confined to fewer than ten sites.
Kittiwake A gentle looking, medium-sized gull with a small yellow bill and a dark eye. It has a grey back and is white underneath. Its legs are short and black. In flight the black wing-tips show no white, unlike other gulls, and look as if they have been 'dipped in ink'. The population is declining in some areas, perhaps due to a shortage of sandeels. After breeding birds move out into the Atlantic where they spend the winter.
Lesser Black-backed Gull Slightly smaller than a herring gull, the lesser black-backed gull has a dark grey to black back and wings, yellow bill and yellow legs. Their world population is found entirely in Europe. After declines in the 19th century due to persecution they increased their range and numbers. This expansion has now halted and there is serious concern about declines in many parts of its range.
Mediterranean gull Resident in and around the Coastal Park these gulls are slightly larger than a black-headed gull, with an all-black head in the breeding season. Adults have white wing-tips and underwings, younger birds have more wing markings. It has a large, slightly drooped beak, bright red when adult. A very rare UK bird until the 1950s, it is widespread in winter and breeding in ever increasing numbers.
Our feathered friends on The Downs
For the casual observer, part-time bird watcher or serious 'twitcher' the seasons bring a huge variety of birds to The Downs from the ubiquitous gulls to the ever-present sparrow hawks through common garden birds such as robins, thrushes and blackbirds to the less-common Corn Buntings and Flycatchers!
See how many of these occasional visitors to The Downs birds you can name?
Here's some to choose from, and a few red herrings!
Turtle Dove Red