Duration: Allow 3 hours (2 if you don’t stop for birds).
A walk on the Downs in winter isn’t always a first choice for a bird-filled experience.
But choose the right stretch and you can at least be guaranteed some great views and fine pubs along the way. And maybe – just maybe – the odd good bird.
Begin at the Ram Inn in Firle village. Head up the street, past the Church until the road crumbles into a track – the Old Coach Road, formerly an important trade route along the Downs all the way to Alfriston.
Scan the paddocks here for winter thrushes and finches, and Grey Wagtail, then follow the track as it bends to the left and you begin to climb towards Firle Beacon. The wood on the right (Firle Plantation) is home to Buzzards, and offers the first good chance of Raven, Peregrine and Red Kite, any of which might be encountered anywhere along the escarpment.
At the next junction (centred on an old beech tree) take a right and head directly up towards the escarpment. As you get closer to the Plantation, listen out for woodpeckers, Treecreeper, Nuthatch, Jay and small passerines which use the wood as a roost site – at dawn, you may hear Bramblings and buntings as they emerge. The locally scarce Marsh Tit sometimes joins mixed flocks here.
Check the game cover on the left for buntings and finches, then carry on through the gate onto an old path, which winds left through the access land to the top of the hill. Views out over the hillside here are good for raptors, thrushes, Stock Dove and Green Woodpecker. On the top you meet the South Downs Way, and get views that stretch down towards Newhaven and Seaford Head. The pasture in between is generally dotted with little but Rooks and Herring Gulls, although an occasional scan for raptors may pay off.
west East to the trig point at Firle Beacon for great 360-degree views, then carry on for another half mile. Check flinty stretches of the path for Snow Bunting, which has occasionally wintered in the vicinity. Just before you reach an area of gorse, bear left to reveal a gate and footpath back down the escarpment.
The scrub either side of the path is most productive in other seasons – Grasshopper Warblers have summered here – but may still hold a few passerines if the weather’s not harsh, and the path here is another good vantage point to scan for raptors. Hen Harrier, Short-eared Owl and Corn Bunting all sometimes occur nearby at Bo-Peep, and may fly though. A Buzzard often sits in the single dead tree on the edge of the wood below.
Descend to the bottom of the sheep pasture, and then head east along the edge of the rough pasture. The area immediately the other side of the first gate (where the Exmoor ponies can often be found) has a number of old fence posts, sometimes used by the local Little Owl. Keep going along the line of the hedge, no doubt disturbing Red-legged Partridges and Pheasants as you go, until you come to a line of trees. Here you can drop back onto the Old Coach Road, through a gate on your right through the trees.
The fields either side here usually include some stubble and game crops, and with luck a mixed flock of passerines – typically including Linnets, Yellowhammers, Skylarks and Reed Buntings, perhaps with a outlying Stonechat.
Walk east to Beanstalk Cottage; bear right, giving you views of Firle Tower on the hill, and keep on the track until you reach the corner of Firle Park. Strike out across the Park from here – if it’s late in the afternoon, flocks of Starlings and gulls may be streaming overhead. Head for the thickest trees and you’ll soon find yourself back in the village, ready for a pint of Harveys.
[Thanks to Mattahan (Paul Davey) for use of his binoculars icon under Creative Commons licence]
This page last updated: 22/12/2010