The Isle of Wight, Part 2

My first view of the Needles, at the western tip of the Isle of Wight, was a long time ago when I flew round them in a light aircraft. The weather was much like it is below and it was quite a spectacle!

The Needles looking across to the Isle of Purbeck. Old Harry Rocks are the thin sliver of white chalk in the distance at 11 o’clock from the lighthouse

I’d heard it said that the Needles were at one time joined to the Old Harry Rocks at the southern end of Studland Bay, around 15 miles away on the Isle of Purbeck. I’d thought it entirely possible but never had it confirmed. And then just after I took this photograph I overheard a very knowledgeable old gentleman telling his companion all about the local geology, so I stood close by and earwigged the conservation.

As you can see, the Needles are made of limestone and apparently they were once a single strip of rock with a gap in the middle from which a single calcareous stack protruded, known as ‘The Needle‘. And then in the 18th century a storm caused a collapse which resulted in the Needles of today.

But before that, Old Harry and the Needles were a single limestone structure and the Isle of Wight wasn’t an Isle, and the Solent – the stretch of sea which separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland – was the River Solent. But around 4-5000 years ago a storm breached the limestone wall and the River Solent became a seaway overnight and the inhabitants of the Isle of Wight were cast adrift on a new island. And interestingly, all the rivers on the mainland from Poole Harbour in the west eastwards to Portsmouth: the Meon, Itchen, Test, Avon, Frome and Piddle all flow southward, and those on the Isle of Wight: the Eastern Yar, Western Yar, Newtown, Wootton Creek and Medina all flow northward, and they all drained into the River Solent.

Pyramidal orchid – Anacamptis pyramidalis

The terrain all around the Needles is chalk downland which has very characteristic flora and fauna, amongst which is the pyramidal orchid and this lone flower was lurking at the edge of The Needles carpark. It thrives on the chalk downs to such a degree that it has been chosen as the county flower of the Isle of Wight. In the air high over the car park was a peregrine falcon (Falco peregrinus, Dansk: vandrefalk) but I didn’t have a telephoto lens with me on this trip, so alas, no pictures. From the car park it’s about a mile to walk to The Needles themselves and on a sunny day it’s a terrific walk, the views are magnificent.

To the east, north and west the air was full of falcons, songbirds, bees and butterflies, and when we got to the very end there was a historic naval gun emplacement. In WWII the gun guarded the Solent and the strategically important ports of Poole, Southampton and Portsmouth against enemy shipping, and just over the top of the cliff from the gun emplacement was a test site for missile engines which had been hewn from the rock – a hangover from the Cold War. The whole thing was fascinating, geologically, biologically and historically!

Teasels – Dipsacus fullonum

Whilst trying to photograph a stonechat which was darting around next to the path I noticed these teasels which were still sporting their downy purple flowers. I have lots of photographs of the dried out brown seedheads of teasels after they’ve flowered but but I’ve been after a good one of the flowers themselves. And I think this is the best backdrop I could have found, looking out across the Solent towards the New Forest on a sunny day.

Also flitting around in the chalky grassland were hundreds of chalkhill blue butterflies. It was a very windy day and I think the butterflies may have been staying down low becausse of the wind, preferring to be stationary rather than risk being blown away. Consequently they were fairly easy to get close to:

Chalkhill blue male (Lysandra coridon)

I absolutely love blue butterflies. In fact anything living and blue – insects, flowers, fish reptiles – blue seems to convey a unique beauty on a creature, so to see so many of these blues was a real pleasure. And the chalkhill blue is a big butterfly too, with a wingspan of 33-40mm.

One of the curious facts about blue butterflies is that some of them are actually brown, and with chalkhills as with common blues, the females are brown:

The female chalkhill blue. She’s brown, not blue, but still a beauty!

Chalkhill blues mating, the brown female is on the left

Apparently this year was a particularly good one for the chalkhill blue. Despite being a devastating one for most other butterfly species in the UK, there were huge numbers of breeding chalkhills recorded in their traditional territories, and in my humble opinion that’s very good news indeed.

The view along the north of the island looking east towards Southampton, with yachts racing toward us

The geology of this part of the south coast is remarkable too. Limestone was formed at the bottom of oceans by the compaction of dead shellfish over millions of years, so it may seem odd to find it at the top of the cliffs. Or indeed whole cliffs made of it. There is a clue to how this happened in the cliff below, which is looking round to the southeast from The Needles, in which there are clearly delineated strata in the rock running upwards from left to right at around 45 degrees. The reason for angled strata is that in this part of the world tectonic shifts have concertinad the rock strata all the way from the east of England along the south coast as far as Dorset to the west forcing them upwards.

This folding of the rock means that in the east the rock is relatively young but the deepest, oldest, layers have been exposed in Dorset around the town of Lyme Regis. So the region around Lyme is referred to as the ‘Jurassic Coast’. Of which more in a subsequent post.

43 responses to “The Isle of Wight, Part 2

  1. Hello Finn,

    The Forestry Commission have clarified a misleading impression that they may have given about the Isle of Wight’s deer free status.

    To quote Simon Hodgson, CEO, Forest Enterprise England :-

    ” This is of course a relative term which compares the minimal deer numbers on the Isle of Wight with significant populations on the mainland”.

    It also appears that they have not done a deer census for the island, deer impact assessments or a proper management plan, perhaps they ought to read there own guidance notes OGB5 Deer Management, or consult the relevant pages of the Deer Initiative’s Best Practice Guides.

    Best Wishes,


    • Hello Tim,

      Ha! That sounds like corporate bollockspeak if ever I heard it. Since when has ‘free‘ been a relative term in that context? It’s either deer-free or it isn’t.

      It sounds like they’re winging it, hoping that there is no one more knowledgeable than them who may object. I encountered a similar situation here with some land the council wanted to develop. They said there was no significant wildlife on the land but I pointed out to them that there were 11 red listed bird species there annually, which I could back up with numbers from my own observations. These chancers with their vested interests are dangerous people and we need to be vigilant and contest their claims wherever it’s needed. Which seems to be everywhere.

      Keep up the good work – the deer and the IoW need you!

      All the best


  2. One of the Isle of Wight’s best kept secrets is that we have a small number of Red Deer living and breeding in the wild. They are very shy and secretive and far more difficult to spot than any farmed deer. Scientific studies have shown that when deer are at low numbers such as we have on the island their browsing and grazing can enhance biodiversity by creating valuable woodland edge mosaics of grassy and shrubby understorey favourable to some of the other rare mammals that we have here including red squirrels, hazel dormouse and woodland bats

    • Hello TIm,

      Thanks for getting in touch with such an interesting comment. I had no idea about your red deer, how many are there? Interesting too that in the numbers you have they actually enhance biodiversity by maintaining the mosaics, all we hear on the mainland is how destructive they are and how they need to be culled.

      • Hello Finn,
        Thanks for your interest in the Isle of Wight’s wild deer.

        Red deer are native to the island and were present both before and after the last ice age. It is difficult to be certain quite how many wild Red deer there are here now, my observations are usually made from public rights of way and often at great distance but I would guess that they are probably our rarest land mammal.

        So In terms of the Isle of Wight how many deer would be beneficial and how many would be too many?

        Research shows that deer at a density of 100/km2 does the damage that you see on the mainland, but that would mean in excess of 4000 deer on the island, in fact the threshold for damage would be at around 600 deer with an optimum size of 150 – 300 deer dispersed across the island, I would estimate that we have far fewer deer than even 150.

        Deer numbers do of course need managing so that they do not get out of hand like some mainland areas , but I think that the current policy of the public authorities of trying to turn the island into a totally deer free zone is extreme, disproportionate and unnecessary

      • Hello Tim, I couldn’t agree more. If the actual numbers of red deer on the IoW are so small it would definitely be worse off for having no deer at all!

      • Hello Finn,

        Yesterday I got this statement from Ian Gambles, Head of Forestry Commission England

        “The absence of deer browsing on the Isle of Wight provides a unique control against which the conservation and sustainable land management community can compare and contrast the variable vegetation conditions within the forests and woodlands on the mainland.”

        So without consulting the general public it appears that the Forestry Commission want to wipe out all our deer, but surely any scientific data that they generate will be compromised by the fact that irrespective of their origins deer have been out and about in the wild on the Isle of Wight for over 20 years.

        It fact it would be more accurate to observe that deer at low density don’t cause the damage that deer at high density do on the mainland, but Forest Research have already made that observation anyway so what is the point of the continuing with this project?

      • Hello Tim,

        May be I’m being cynical but that sounds like a decision has been made, or is being discussed, to exterminate your deer, but the justification seems utterly disingenuous. There are plenty of areas on the mainland which are free of red deer which could act as controls for such investigations. I’d be very interested to know their real motive if it ever comes to light.

      • Hello Finn,
        At present I have been taking what they say at face value but you are not alone in casting doubt on what the FC have said there is clearly much more to be discovered on this topic. My enquiries are continuing and I am most grateful for the support that I have received from people such as yourself.

      • Hello Tim, I’ll be very interested to hear the results of your research. It’s difficult to understand why the FC has adopted this stance when they could be using the presence of the deer as a tourist hook and money spinner. Please keep me abreast of developments.

      • Hello Finn,
        This is the latest offering from the head of Forest research:-

        Dear Mr Brayford,

        Thank you for your e-mail of 19 September enclosing a copy of the letter you received from Ian Gambles, Director England and asking if I endorse his comments on the Commission’s approach to the management of deer on the Isle of Wight.

        Decisions on the management of the public forest estate and co-operation with neighbouring landowners to address issues like deer, grey squirrels, feral wild boar or anything else that is not restricted to a single ownership is an operational issue for Forest Enterprise, an Agency of the Forestry Commission. These decisions often have to be taken after weighing up a wide range of arguments and very rarely come down to a single issue and I am not aware of all the issues that have had to be taken into consideration in this case.

        Nevertheless, I do endorse Ian’s letter and the fact that deer control, supported by Natural England and other major landowners, needs to be undertaken to preserve the unique ecology of the Isle of Wight that has developed in the absence of deer, or with a very low or sporadic population as a result of escapes from captivity. Notwithstanding the mixed evidence about the ecological benefits derived from deer in lowland landscapes we believe the risk of deer establishment and its negative impact on the Isle of Wight’s unique flora and fauna outweigh any potential benefits.

        Yours sincerely,


        Dr James Pendlebury
        Chief Executive, Forest Research

      • Hello Tim,

        Thanks for forwarding this. Is it the case that there are no indigenous deer on the IoW? If so, I guess he has a point, and the deer would need to be carefully controlled to maintain the ecology of the region. But I think tight management of numbers rather than eradication would be a more agreeable solution. He said ‘deer establishment’ is the main concern, I don’t know what that means in terms of numbers in the context of the IoW, but maybe the deer can be kept below the level that constitutes ‘establishment’? What do you think?

      • Hello Finn,

        Firstly what do we mean by “indigenous”? Using the simple definition in the online dictionary of “Originating and living or occurring naturally in an area or environment.” I have to say that our Red deer population reflects what has happened elsewhere in southern England. This species occurred here naturally after the end of the Ice Age and either died out or became very scarce in the post medieval period. Since the 1980’s there have been various local deer farms and parks that have had their share of escapes and deer are reported swimming in the Solent. With the New Forest on the far shore with its’ over population of deer it is no surprise to see wandering stags and bucks over here. Having witnessed very young deer in the wild I have no doubt at all that they are breeding and most likely have been doing so for some years – so they must be considered to have the same status as other feral/wild populations of Red deer in southern England.

        Regarding the “unique” assemblage of flora and fauna to which the Forestry Commission refers.

        Pulmonaria longifolia- the only plant which they mention, but does this not grow elsewhere where there are deer such as in the New Forest?
        And is it that palatable to Red deer anyway, typically Pulmonarias are used in landscaping as a plant that is unattractive to herbivores.

        Red Squirrels – the main threats to these are unfavourable woodland management practices, Squirrel parapox and niche displacement by the more competitive alien Grey squirrels. I have yet to find any serious scientific work that mentions low density native deer populations as being implicated as a threat to Red Squirrels.

        Hazel Dormice – Again much as with the Red Squirrel woodland management and Grey squirrels are implicated and southern England is at the North Western edge of its’ natural European distribution, and again no real implications for low density deer populations.

        Bechsteins Bat (and other woodland Bats) – The Isle of Wight is a very important area for these and our relatively mild winters must have much to do with this, again many are towards their North Western limits here. The Greater Horseshoe in particular benefits from the invertebrates that feed on deer dung, no wonder like the deer these are scarce here.

        Ultimately we have had low density wild deer populations on the Isle of Wight for in excess of 20 years now and no environmental catastrophe has occurred as a result.

        On what grounds can the Forestry Commission now justify creating this “Deer Free Island Status” to which they refer? The environmental ones that they state are unsound and self-evidently disproven.

        But there is also a wider human issue here:-

        Should not the people on the Isle of Wight be consulted on this eradication campaign? Are we not entitled to enjoy the presence of wild deer on the public land on the Isle of Wight that our taxes support?

        After all, it is no more than our mainland neighbours expect, and their views are taken into consideration.

      • You’re absolutely right, that kind of decision can’t be taken in isolation with no wider consultation. And then it would need to justified in the context of rigorous scientific arguments. But then the UK has a pretty shabby track record for that – look at the current badger cull in the south west.

        Regarding what constitutes an ‘indigenous’ species: it’s a good question. Particularly as deer can make the crossing from the New Forest to the IoW under their own steam. And if they do, I feel they have the right to remain there. To exterminate them on the basis they upset the local biodiversity is shaky ground, I can’t recall many locations where the arrival of humans has benefitted the local wildlife.

        What’s the situtation now? Are deer being actively eliminated on the island?

      • Hello Finn,

        Last Spring there was a campaign by the Forestry Commission to kill all the deer. 3 FC New Forest Keepers were present through much of February. I did a couple of FOI requests. The first revealed that they had killed just 1 mature Red deer stag at Kingston Copse on the Isle of Wight, the second revealed that this took 2 men 6 days to achieve at a cost to the taxpayer of £ 2450.00 . It is not clear at this stage why their supervisors costs & time was not included, nor those of the Natural England representative who apparently put some effort into persuading various landowners to agree to participating in the cull. Fortunately not everyone buckled under the pressure!
        With the season for hinds & does opening again in November and the apparent continued determination of the Forestry Commission to establish the Isle of Wight as an experimental deer free area we can expect more of our taxes to be wasted in this manner.

        What a pity as there is so much else to be gained.

        Previous research has established that in the absence of large herbivore grazing and browsing woodland edge and wood pasture habitats progress to scrub and in due course high wood, so there may be little else of benefit to be discovered.

        However, what is evident from Dr Pendlebury’s comments is there is much more to be learnt about low density deer populations and their relationship to other species and is particularly relevant to the rare species that we have on the Isle of Wight.

        Once you accept the presence of both deer and Squirrels, Bats and Dormice on the Isle of Wight the very valuable data that can be determined is at what levels these species can co-exist as they did in the post Ice Age “Wild Wood”.

        The Isle of Wight is in a unique position to assist with this sort of study given its’ relative geographical isolation, we may indeed have the odd deer swim from the mainland but what we do not have is the mass movement of herding deer that can occur in areas such as the New Forest.

        Any such research done on low density deer populations on the Isle of Wight might be particularly useful on the mainland by indicating the optimum levels to reduce deer populations, to achieve optimum levels for enhancing biodiversity.

        I would hope that the Forestry Commission would be wise enough to consider this.

      • Hello Tim, it does seem as though a trick is being missed here. It appears a decision has been made at the FC and it is now policy to remove the deer, but I’d like to know if maintaining the deer at a low and sustainable level in order to research the effects on the whole ecosystem was ever considered, and if it wasn’t, why it wasn’t. Spending £2.5k to cull one animal doesn’t seem like a sensible use of resources but decisions based on dogma rarely involve common sense!

        BTW it’s good to know that there was at least some resistance amongst the landowners to a cull.

      • Thanks for your comments and support Finn.

        I have since heard from a reliable source that Roe deer tracks have been seen on the island.

        Roe are occasionally seen swimming in the Solent and across Southampton water so it is highly likely that they have made it across here.

        As you are probably aware with the herding deer it is usually the males that wander around rutting time and the females stay hefted to their home range, however with the Roe the females will also travel in search of unoccupied territory.

        My enquiries are ongoing and I will let you know of anything significant that arises.


      • Hello Tim,

        Please do keep me updated on the status of your resident deer. Viable populations of roe and red deer would greatly enhance the appeal of the IoW… in my humble opinion!

      • Hello Finn,

        It is a little while since I last updated everyone about what is happening with the Isle of Wight’s wild deer population.

        Over the summer and during the autumn both myself and the Isle of Wight’s M.P. Andrew Turner have been in contact with the Forestry Commission regarding their “Deer Free Zone” or “Deer Free Status” policy.

        They have stated that ” by keeping the Isle of Wight with its deer free status we and others can be assured of at least some areas with no deer impacts to compare and contrast with the biodiversity on the mainland”

        This Forestry Commission “Deer Free” policy not been without significant public expense.

        In the Spring of 2013 alone £ 2450.00 of taxpayers money was expended by the Forestry Commission to kill just one Red deer stag on the Isle of Wight

        The Isle of Wight AONB Draft Management Plan 2014 -2019 has just gone out for public consultation.
        Download Full Draft Management Plan 2014 – 2019

        Download Consultation Questionnaire for Draft Management Plan 2014 – 2019

        Under section 8 wildlife it erroneously describes deer as an introduced species.

        This is untrue, both Red and Roe deer are native to England including the Isle of Wight.

        Under section 10 it claims that the Isle of Wight’s woodlands have benefited from the absence of deer.

        Although this may be true of the invasive alien Muntjac deer when it comes to the native species such as Red and Roe these may actually beneficial at low density e.g. 3- 7 deer per km/2 of woodland with the threshold for impacting on regeneration at 14 deer km/2 woodland.

        In terms of the Isle of Wight this suggests that 140 – 320 deer would increase biodiversity whilst 640 are the level at which a management cull would need to commence.

        Please use the above links if you wish to comment on the AONB Draft management plan.

        And now for the good news:-

        Dr Colin Pope, the IWC Ecologist has suggested the possibility of round table discussions with interested parties regarding the deer in the New Year. I hope to attend this and present the case for the Red and Roe which hitherto has not happened.

        And the even better news:-

        I understand that some Roe deer tracks have recently been seen on the island by someone very familiar with these deer.

        Hopefully these and the family group of Reds that I saw during the summer will successfully escape the attention of the Forestry Commission & Natural England and their supporters.

        Best wishes,


      • Hello Tim, thanks for the update. It sounds as though there are lots of positives here, noy least of which is yourself attending the consultation meeting and making the case for the native deer species. It’s also good that you have your local MP involved, it will make it more difficult for the FC to keep their activities under the radar.

        It sounds like the current numbers of deer on the island are well below the level where a cull may be necesssary, and if a cull hasn’t happened in the recent past maybe the deer population has already reached its own, unassisted, equilibrium?

        Let me know what happens at the round table discussion. Good luck!


      • Hello Finn

        There has been quite a lot of interest in our local deer so I am assembling an album on flickr of photos of deer that I have taken on the Isle of Wight, please feel free to view, comment and share.


        Best wishes,


      • Hello Tim,

        Thanks for the link, I’ll definitely share, and it’s great that there is so much interest!

        All the best


  3. Would be very interesting to visit. And very interesting orchid, unknown for me.

    • Hello Bente, if you ever find yourself in the south of England I can recommend a visit to the IoW. And if you visit the chalky part at the right time of year you’re guaranteed to see lots of pyramidal orchids. Do you have any orchids growing in Norway?

  4. That butterfly is stunning, Finn! I saw a blue butterfly in Costa Rica once…

    • I get a little thrill every time I see blues. They’re beautiful and iconic.

      Did you get a picture of your Costa Rican blue? Those rain forest butterflies are unreal, like childrens drawings 🙂

  5. Hi Finn Holding,

    Good news! I have nominated your blog for the Blog of the Year 2012 award.

    The rules of the award are at


    • Thanks Kitty! That’s awesome. ‘argylesock’ also recommended The Naturephile for the BoTY and I’ll respond to you both soon.

      Suffice to say I’m very pleased to be recognised by you because I think your ‘Dear Kitty’ blog is excellent. In fact after being recommended by argylesock I compiled a short list of blogs I would recommend and yours was on there!

  6. Agree completelyy–I love your chalkhill blue! He helped to make an already special outing even more so. Must get there some day!

  7. How bizare! I was only just revelling about discovering Bory’s Anacamptis on our property the other day and here you are sharing a fellow Bory’s Anacamptis on the other side of the world! I hope our little fellow doesn’t starve to death because our local conditions are more adicic than chalky alkaline but it seems quite happy to be growing in the bushland on our back block. As I previously commented on another one of your wonderful posts, I love teasels and am going to collect some seed to spread them over our property. Serendipity Farm is part of a 10 acre churchgrounds that was broken up years ago when the manse was sold off to raise funds for the upkeep of the convict built church. The elderly lady who bought the property next door to us sold off 4 acres of it to a friend who sold it to my father when she was unable to manage it on her own. My father let it run to seed for 20 years and we have been turning it over to permaculture and the local native wildlife ever since we inherited it 2 years ago when he died. It’s been a hard slog but more of a privilage to allow the native wildlife and wildflowers to reinhabit the property. I love reading about other peoples wild life watching habits. I can see that this blog is going to become a firm favourite over my 5am rss feed reading marathons 🙂

    • Your self sufficiency project is awesome. I’m really looking forward to following how you get on with that and keeping up with your local flora and fauna. I think your decision to up sticks and live sustainably is extremely brave and at the same time extremely imporatant. We can all learn lessons from your experiences and it’s great that the internet is there so you can publicise your adventures around the globe! I’ll keep you updated from Cambridge and I hope youe crack-of-dawn rss explorations are worthwhile 😉

      • I am a natural night person and my decision to get up at 5am was a most important and enlightening one for me. It showed me that there is a whole different world out there in my 2 hours of intense contemplation before the rest of my household starts to wake up (including the dogs 😉 ). It was SO worth learning to wake up earlier and there is a lot of truth in that old “Early to bed…early to rise” saying! I found 2 really wonderful blogs in Argyle socks (must ask her what her name is! 😉 ) recommended science blogs, yours being one and cowgirls being the other. I feel like I have just settled down with one of those “can’t put it down…must read!” books that you sometimes get hold of and it is an incredible privilage and luxury to read when I started to read both of your posts. You are both credits to the U.K. and you both deserve incredible kudos for your ability to share your own little neck of the woods with the rest of us. You are both natural writers and very good at your craft and I will be sharing your wonderful blogs with as many people as I possibly can because good blogs need to be shared 🙂

  8. I LOVE the picture of the male Chalkhill butterfly! Like you I have a bit of a blue obsession. I have taken this very walk a few years ago and it is as stunning as you describe. Did you go to Newtown? as well, there were some lovely meadows there. Lovely post.

    • Isn’t he a beauty? I don’t know what it is about blue, maybe it’s the colour contrast, but watching a blue butterfly flutter over a green meadow with lots of wildflowers in is magical. We didn’t get to the meadows at Newtown, but I’ll bear them in mind next time we go. Thanks for the tip.

  9. This is a very enjoyable post, with great photos and very interesting descriptions of the history and geology of the place. I would love to see it!

    • It’s a lovely place and I’m pleased you found the post interesting, there’s a little more geology in the next post too

      I think the geology in that part of the world is what makes it so interesting by giving it a diverse range of habitats. Also the folding of the rock means that it’s youngest in the east in Kent and gets older in the west where the deepest and most ancient rock strata have been forced up to the surface. And they’re the ones that contain the oldest fossils too.

  10. Completely fascinating… I love the bits about the area’s geological history. And SO very beautiful. Put a cottage on that cliff, and I’ll never leave.

  11. Magnificent! Your photos are, as ever, an utter delight, and you have well and truly sold the Isle of Wight to me. That photo of the teasels is wonderful and, as you say, what a backdrop! I love blue creatures too and it is possibly my greatest ambition to see a blue whale. If I’d seen the last picture on this post in isolation I might have suspected it to be in the Mediterranean, what wonderful lighting. Any chance of a part 3? 🙂

    • Thanks Lorna, I hope you get to see a blue whale! I think seeing any type of whale is a wonderful experience – not that I’ve seen that many. But a blue would be very, very special.

      The cliffs in that last shot were tricky, the light was really bright with stark congtrast and I wanted to show the layers in the rock. I just about managed it, but it is a lovely view on a sunny day, I guess it could be mistaken for the Med.

      Every chance of Part 3, but I’ll need to go back and visit again. Woo hoo!

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