We had just driven off the ferry at Dover after visiting some friends in France and it was just the right time of year for Early spider orchids Ophrys sphegodes, so we followed the brown signs to Samphire Hoe. It is the strangest entrance to a reserve – a single lane concrete tunnel controlled by a traffic light. The board by visitor centre said to look in the back car park for Early Spiders, so I went anticlockwise and The Husband went clockwise round the back car park. I found the first ones at the far end, then a few more and through the gate along the gravel path at the back of the reserve, they were all the way along. They are about 10-15cm tall with 2-6 flowers on each. the flowers are green with a large hairy brown lip and an irridescent ‘H’ across the middle.
The reserve consists of 30 hectares of reclaimed land made from the spoil from the channel tunnel. It was spread at the foot of the chalk cliffs, a seawall prevents it from washing away and the new land was profiled to provide gentle hills and a couple of freshwater pools. The soil is very chalky, low in nutrient and suitable for interesting flora. We were there on a cold blustery, April afternoon so no butterflies and very little in the way of bird life. The Early spider orchids arrived in the 1990’s. Numbers peaked in 2012 at 11,500 and there are now maybe 5000 plants there.
Many orchid species, including this one, are pioneer species and love the bare, rocky ground with virtually no soil and little competition. They were growing happily along the edge of the raised gravel track. As the Hoe matures there is less bare ground available and more competition, which explains why the orchid numbers are declining. The management is sensitive to this and grazing with cattle helps to keep some areas open, with disturbed soil and will ensure that the Early spider doesn’t disappear.
It is one of the insect mimic species and is fertilised by pseudocopulation, when the unsuspecting small male wasp (not a spider) tries to mate with the flower instead of the female wasp. The deception is achieved not just visually, but may use scent and pheromones to attract the pollinator. It is a rare plant in the UK, classified as a Red Data Book species, but where it occurs; Dover, Durleston in Dorset and a few other sites on the South coast, it often occurs in huge numbers and makes a satisfying early orchid hunting trip.
As we walked back via the back car park we started spotting more, they were everywhere including the middle circle of the parking area and all round the edge. We had both walked straight past the first 10 or 15 plants – it’s the first trip of 2019 and I need to get my eye in.