School holidays can be a nightmare for parents. Children can nag incessantly for things to do and days out that will inevitably put strain on the family purse. For a day out with a difference, that doesn’t involve entrance fees and souvenir shops and is educational into the bargain, an urban wildlife safari could prove to be just the ticket. Portsmouth is probably best known for being a seaside city with a naval heritage second to none but it also harbours a wealth of wildlife. A trip to the top of Portsdown Hill will take in magnificent views of the Solent coastline while exploring the areas of chalk grassland between Fort Southwick and the Churchillian pub. The grassland is home to a mass of wild plants and flowers and over 600 species of beetles, insects, moths and butterflies and Britain’s largest fly, the robber-fly. Herds of cattle and goats graze the area to help keep the growth of scrub under control allowing the grassland species to survive. Situated off the A27 on the eastern side of the City are Farlington Marshes, 121 hectares of internationally renowned coastal grazing marsh and haven to many species of British wildlife and some from further afield. Lapwing and dunlin are just two of the species Portsmouth plays host to during summer migration. Short-eared owls can be seen hunting above the marshes and in winter large flocks of brent geese cover the marsh to graze. Over 350 types of flowering plant and grasses grow on the marshes, many of which are rare and unique to this type of coastal area. Keep eyes peeled for the mini-beasts that live here too; red admiral butterflies flock around the thistles and ragwort. Five types of rare horse fly and the very rare soldier fly keep company around the anthills. On the north side of the A27 (accessible only through the pedestrian under
pass) are ponds that are not only home to a host of dragonflies and other pond life but also an established population of water vole, nearly extinct in many parts of the country. Further along the Eastern Road, approaching the city, is Milton Common, a 46-hectare area of former waste tip that now comprises of grassland, reed beds and three lakes named Swan, Duck and Frog. Despite past problems with contamination from the rubbish used to fill the site wildlife thrives abundantly here. Dragonfly and damselfly hover around the lakes that provide the ideal habitat for smooth newts. Try lifting a stone and you may be lucky enough to find a common lizard or slowworm lazing underneath. 256 species of butterflies and moths have made their home on the common along with various mammals including foxes, voles and mice. Pipestrelle and Daubenton’s bats spend summer evenings catching insects over the lakes, accompanied by the sound of the great bush cricket, the loudest in the country. The Common is also a breeding ground for many species of bird. Cuckoos, coots, warblers and bunting chose to raise their families here. The rare bee orchid is just one of over 200 species of plant life that have established themselves atop the rubbish. Milton village has two very contrasting areas to explore. At the end Locksway Road around Milton Locks is a small area of natural coastline that boasts an abundant display of coastal plants, sea spurrey, sea aster and sea lavender can all be found at the high water mark. Listen to the great green bush cricket and watch the butterflies. Kestrels can often be seen keeping an eye out for small mammals in the grass shoreline. For an altogether different place to explore visit the grounds of St James’s Hospital on Locksway Road for a cool and shady walk through woodland park where you ma
y be lucky and catch a glimpse of the muntjac deer reputed to live amongst the trees. The grounds contain over 1600 mature and native and exotic trees including cypress and redwood that are all protected by tree preservation orders. Baffins Pond nestled between Tangiers Road and Hayling Avenue is a popular with families, human and feathered alike. Barnacle geese, moorhen, muscovy duck, grebe and cormorant are quite content to mingle with children at play. Baffins attracts quite large numbers of people, but don’t be put off by that as it somehow manages to retain a tranquillity so often lacking in a city. Other wildlife habitats amongst the urban sprawl are Hilsea Lines, Tipner Lake, Fort Cumberland and Great Salterns and of course the beaches.