Things to do
Nature and wildlife
Encompassing river estuaries, shingle beaches, chalk rockpools and rolling green downlands, The Living Coast is home to thousands of species of plant and wildlife. Discover extraordinary rarities and common beauties within our boundaries.
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1. Go butterfly spotting
Butterflies love the diversity of plants on the grassy chalk of the biosphere. We have over 30 species of butterfly in The Living Coast, including the brilliant and rare Adonis Blue. You can see butterflies across the Downs in the spring and summer, but you don’t even have to leave the city or towns to spot them. Butterfly banks sprouting wildflowers can be found in many local parks. Take a trip to one of our top butterfly spots to see what’s fluttering about:
- Look out for the elusive White-letter Hairstreak in Brighton’s Pavilion Gardens.
- Head to Whitehawk Hill home to all our butterflies, despite its urban location.
- Spot Skippers in spring and different Blues in the summer at Mill Hill near Shoreham.
- Scan the flowers at Malling Down for Silver-spotted skippers and Adonis Blue.
- Keep your eyes peeled for Silver-washed Fritillaries in Stanmer Park’s woods.
- Count the dozens of species at The Liz Williams Butterfly Haven at Dorothy Stringer School in Brighton, the city’s first butterfly bank.
2. Discover low tide’s rockpool treasures
Within The Living Coast, the chalk of the South Downs drops down in a sheet of cliffs to meet the sea east of Brighton. It runs out into the English Channel, but not before it forms a shelf of tidal rockpools. The best place in The Living Coast to explore these is between Brighton Marina and Rottingdean, and at West Beach at Newhaven. Search for starfish, anemones and crabs skulking beneath the seaweed.
3. Search for delightfully delicate orchids
To appreciate the splendour of downland orchids like the burnt-tip or bee-imitating spider orchid, pack a magnifying glass. Spires of orchids poke through the sheep-cropped grass on sunny south-facing chalk slopes in June and July. Besides rare species, there are plenty of common purple-and-pink varieties.
Prime orchid hunting grounds in The Living Coast
A famous colony of white cerise-topped burnt-tip orchids.
Malling Down Nature Reserve
A 2-mile walk from Lewes town centre. The burnt-tip orchid and bright pinky-purple spikes of pyramidal orchid share the downlands with many other wildflowers, making this a great place for butterflies too.
Home to 2 rare orchid species in July: the tall pink Marsh Fragrant Orchid, which can stand over half-a metre high, and the much-harder-to-spot, honey-scented, yellowy-green Musk Orchid which grows just 7.5cm above the chalky soil.
Near Woodingdean is a national nature reserve, its slopes harbouring one of the UK’s largest colony of Early Spider Orchids, which you can see in April to May.
4. Roam a rare, rich habitat in the spring
Walk or cycle one of the many paths that crisscross the biodiverse grassy hills and bottoms of the Downs in spring and summer and enjoy the free wildflower show. The peak blooming time is between June and August, although earlier beauties include cowslips and oxslips. The Living Coast and South Downs National Park are known for the biodiversity of their chalk grassland – one of the rarest habitats on the planet. Across the country we’ve lost 80% of it since the Second World War.
Within a square metre you can find up to 40 different plant species that thrive in the chalky soil, each one supporting different insects and other invertebrates. Thousands of years of grazing have enabled smaller, less vigorous plants to thrive here, and even today grazing sheep, ponies and cows are part of the programme to manage and preserve these chalk downlands.
Particularly good places to visit for downland wildflowers in the spring are:
- East Brighton Park
- Mill Hill (Adur)
- Malling Down
- Castle Hill (Woodingdean)
- Marquee Brow at Stanmer Park – just to the west of the Lower
- Lodges entrance.
5. Marvel at swirling starling murmurations in autumn and winter
You can enjoy one of the most mesmerising natural sights on The Living Coast on a chilly autumn or winters’ afternoon on the Brighton & Hove seafront. As dusk approaches, immense flocks of starlings fly in over the city, headed for Brighton Palace Pier or the West Pier. Before settling down to roost for the night they swoop in formation over the water, twisting and turning to create wonderful patterns in front of the sunset sky. On a calm winter’s evening, walk along the Brighton Palace Pier and you can hear them chirping beneath your feet as they settle down for the night.
6. Enjoy the unexpectedly lively shingle of Shoreham Beach
Head down to Shoreham Beach to enjoy the wide-open shingle and intriguing plant life that flourishes on the salty, windswept shore. The beach is a local nature reserve on the spit of land between the River Adur and the sea.
A wooden boardwalk winds the length of the beach and is fringed by the hardy plants that characterise vegetated shingle, another rare habitat found within The Living Coast. Sea kale, yellow horned-poppies, sea thrift, red valerian, sea campion and silver ragwort are among the plants that colour the shore and provide a home to many species of insects and other invertebrates.
7. Go birdwatching
Have a pair of binoculars handy for any trip within The Living Coast. In spring and autumn, the Downlands attract migrant birds, such as the wheatear, whinchat, redstart and many species of warbler. In summer, breeding birds include the skylark, yellowhammer, meadow pipit, linnet and the scarce corn bunting. Expect to see ravens, buzzards and increasingly red kites gliding overhead at any time of year.
For waterbirds, take a walk along either the Adur or Ouse rivers, where you’re likely to spot lapwing, redshank, common sandpiper, kingfisher, Cetti’s warbler and little egret. There’s also the chance of seeing rarer visitors such as osprey. The RSPB Adur Estuary Nature Reserve where the saltmarsh meets the mudflats is the perfect feeding and roosting site for waders and wildfowl such as dunlin, oystercatcher and ringed plover.
In the urban areas, scan the rooftops for grey wagtails in autumn and winter. These are replaced by swifts racing around in the summer. House sparrows can be heard, if not seen, chattering away in gardens, parks and on roofs year round, despite becoming increasingly rare in the UK. For a glimpse of a spectacular predator, look for peregrine falcon around Shoreham Power Station, the Lewes quarries or above the central Brighton apartment block, where they have a nesting site.
Along the coast, seabirds such as gannets, Sandwich terns and kittiwakes pass by offshore. From February, fulmars nest along the cliffs between Brighton and Newhaven, which is also home to a few black redstarts and rock pipits.
The Sussex Ornithological Society’s recent sightings page often includes records from The Living Coast.
8. Hunt for trees
We are fortunate to have a number of incredible trees in The Living Coast. In Brighton & Hove, there are still a significant number of elm trees, and in 1998 Plant Heritage awarded the city National Elm Collection status. Places to see elm trees include The Level in central Brighton, the Pavilion Gardens and Preston Park as well as in many residential streets in the city such as Crespin Way, Stanford Avenue and Happy Valley in Woodingdean. Multiple elm species shade the fringes of the Pavilion Gardens, while Preston Park has many other tree species besides its elms, including an impressive paperbark maple and a large black mulberry tree.
Stop at the church yard at Stanmer Park to gaze up at an ancient yew tree, believed to have been there since Saxon times. For striking shapes and unusual flowers, the arboretum on the lower slopes of Stanmer’s Great Wood are a treat, especially in the spring and autumn.
9. Enjoy amazing views
Head to the hills for some spectacular views of The Living Coast. There are countless places from which you can appreciate the Downs and coast, such as the excellent vistas from:
- Ditchling Beacon, the highest point of The Living Coast. (Accessible by bus.)
- Truleigh Hill, near the radio towers north of Shoreham-by-Sea.
- Devil’s Dyke, which was painted by Constable, who referred to it as the world’s ‘finest view’. (Accessible by bus.)
- Southwick Hill
- Mount Caburn, a national nature reserve near Lewes.
- Castle Hill, a local nature reserve west of Newhaven.
If you’re on the Brighton & Hove seafront, the i360 is an alternative view point across the towns, downs and coast.
In 2016, the South Downs National Park became an International Dark Sky Reserve, making it one of only 16 in the whole world.
Wrap up warmly, take something to lie on and check what phase the moon is in (it’s best to go before a full moon) and head out of town to appreciate the splendour of the night skies. The Ouse Valley at Rodmell (near the YHA) is a good spot for stargazing, and so are Devil’s Dyke and Ditchling Beacon.