Daniel Greenwood

I am living with the animals

Posts by D. Greenwood

Bexley oaks - March 2017 djg-4

This is an update on my Oaks of London photography series. The photos have been taken with DSLRs, compact cameras and my phone camera. Rather than trying to put together a glossy array of ancient oak photos, I want to draw attention to the unseen trees fighting it out with modern London, many of which are teetering on the margins. Lack of funding to protect and manage London’s oaks is biting, as is a lack of understanding and appreciation of their heritage and wildlife value. These trees have stories to tell.

Photographing the oaks of London is a fairly impossible but very slow and enjoyable project. South-east London is, quite literally, a walk in the park. Such is the extent of green space south of the river that there are many oaks to be found and some very closely concentrated, especially in Dulwich or Honor Oak, which I covered last year. But moving into new areas can be tricky, London’s oaks are on the margins now, they no longer form the central, spiritual role of Celtic or event recent times, when gospel oaks held prominence in settlements or when the Druids (the knowers of oak) made sacrifices before them, something I am not suggesting we bring back in 2017. One of the things I’ve learned this year, also after having read some of Aljos Farjon’s new book Ancient Oaks in the English Landscape, is that old parks and estates are key to the survival of oaks.

In March 2017 as part of a walk with London Wildlife Trust, we were led by Mathew Frith around Danson Park and Bexley Woods. Two oaks stood out in this walk, an area I would not have known about without the connections I have with the Trust and exposure to knowledge of people like Mathew. One oak, the Bexley Charter Oak, can be found in TimeOut’s The Great Trees of London, and it has a lovely fence around it protecting its root plate. The tree is some 200 years old and reflects the treatment that all these oaks deserve to have, if they stand in similar surroundings.

Bexley oaks - March 2017 djg-1

Another oak is not faring so well and is not treated with the same level of affection, or perhaps simply a different kind. Walking through Bexley Woods and following the river Shuttle east brings you to an oak quite unlike one I’ve seen.

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The oak is entirely hollowed out until about human waist-height, with charred sapwood that shows it has had fires lit inside. It is a stunning tree, wild and exposed on the edge of the river and a footpath. It is a symbol of London’s oaks on the edge: unprotected, vandalised but fighting on. The tree still lives. In many ways the actions here of what you can only expect to have been children or ‘wayward’ teens, is a process of veteranisation. The only difference is that rather than being undertaken by arboriculturalists, it’s the unintended work of the public.

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Shifting south-west to the boundary of Lewisham and Bromley is Beckenham Place Park. This old country estate, fit with a mansion house very similar in style to that of Danson Park, has open parkland and many fine veteran trees. On the hill is a remnant of the Great North Wood, the typical oak-hornbeam and hazel mixture that can be found in chunks all the way up to Dulwich. Thanks to Lucy Mitchell for showing me round.

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The oak featured here is a lapsed pollard, meaning that it was likely once cut back higher up but has, like many old oak and beech trees across London, been left to restructure itself. This oak is somewhere between the two Bexley oaks mentioned above. It needs the care of the Bexley Charter Oak as it is experiencing stress and strain from its exposure to footfall. Looking closely at the buttresses you could see that dogs had been digging holes, pooing on the roots, and that the collective trampling was exposing roots in some places. It’s a tree you just want to hug and climb, but its spot right there in front of the house leaves it open to quiet, unintended harm.

Oaks of London archive
Oaks of London Flickr photos
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New Forest - 23-10-17 -1 djg (1)

The New Forest, October 2017

In Roydon Woods the sycamore leaves are falling. Though they won’t lie for anywhere near as long as beech leaves, they are something of a sheet across the ground, like papers dropped and never collected. One leaf is caught on the barbed wire of the neighbouring fenceline, and I never can tell whether it’s the work of the wind or someone trying to make a point.

Over the past few days rain has returned to southern England. But if you put a spade in the ground the dampness is only a few millimetres thick. It doesn’t bode well for a mushroom search.

Earthballs sit as their name suggests, as scaly mainstays. Clouded funnels, their caps like an Americano dusted with air pollution, have fruited and now teeter on crumbling stipes.

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A low roar carries across the open wood, where deer have established a browsing-line removing the thicket layer. It’s not the sound of a machine but a rutting stag. It is their time. Content that its voice is distant I carry on along the path, drifting off on occasion to find softer layers of leaf litter.

The stag roars again.

In amongst stumps and mosses are miniscule bonnets, perhaps. They fruit so quickly and root only lightly. In another spot a patch of orange waxcap-like mushrooms bulge, beside them a row of coral fungi that are only seen after the long pause of wondering what the orange ones might be.

Crouched down with the coral a grey blur passes in the corner of my eye. I look up – nothing. The sound of galloping hoofs and a female deer is chased by a stag with a small set of antlers. Remaining still, not twenty-feet away I look back to the path, and join it again. The deer, with its white tush and black-edged buttocks, watches me with its head turned, I walk on so as not to become part of this conflict, the stags still roaring in the distance.

I stop for lunch and to write this under a favourite beech tree. There are lots of animals moving around where I sit. A flock of blue and great tits hop around the leaves of fallen branches, a frog leaps out from the remnants of a children’s weekend den. It gave me a fright, a wood sprite bursting into life.

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The rule is simple: sit, wait, be still, be silent, and you will see things.

From the field at the edge of Roydon Woods the horses are startled and begin to gallop. I stand to look and along the adjacent path a stag trots, horse-like, too. He, again, is twenty-feet away. He sees me, stops and heads off into the dead bracken and birch trees that surround the beech tree I stand under.

I think it’s gone, but looking again I see a pair of antlers facing me in the bracken. Then I see its eyes, it watches me, head on. Then it runs away, crashing through thick, hard bracken and birch twigs.

Worried by its closeness and size, I get moving again back towards the path. What I think is a false deathcap mushroom sits under leaves at the edge of the bank.

A gun shot is fired, one more, and another.

It rings out, fading into the open woodland like a vapour. The stag – the shots came from the direction it had headed into. I recall its face, perhaps that first gallop, was it running for its life?

New Forest archive

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The Pálava Hills

In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.

I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.

Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.

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The Venus of Moravia (copy)

The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?

Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.

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The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.

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Tools including primitive saws made from flints and shards of rock

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A necklace made from mammoth bones

The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.

Into the woods

The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.

Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.

Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.

The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.

 

These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.

Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?

Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.

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Mikulov castle with Austria on the horizon

Memories of sunnier times

In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.

On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.

I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.

At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.

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Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.

The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.

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Of castles and campfires

Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.

Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.

The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.

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Malham Cove-1



The falcon etched



Wait with the falcon etched
into cove rock at Malham,
meadowsweet aglow
in the fields below.


Wait for the falcon etched,
with those cheeks streaked,
drawn like the scars
on the limestone it enlivens.


Does it ever move,
bird or fossil.


This dale holds great riches
for those talons and talents
to savour.




© Daniel James Greenwood 2017

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ND - Rochester to Thurnam - 28-7-17 djg-9

North Downs Diary, Detling, Kent, July 2017

Standing outside the Cock Horse pub in Detling, a man smoking a cigarette approaches me. He points to the Pilgrims Way across the road:

‘When you do all this walking,’ he says, ‘where do you sleep?’ His step is a little unsteady, speech a little slow.

‘Don’t worry,’ I say. ‘We don’t have to sleep in the woods.’ These walks have been mostly in one day, bar the odd night in a B&B.

He’s interested that I’m trying to walk the North Downs over a longer period – ‘that’s commitment,’ he says, launching into tales of life in the village. He points again towards the Pilgrims Way and a Tudor gate on the corner.

‘That’s the oldest structure in Detling,’ he says.

Reading the plaque in front of it, the gate once led to a resting house for pilgrims making their way to Canterbury, perhaps as far back as 1200. But he has more to tell:

‘Two peacocks used to walk around the streets. They were so noisy I would throw out any food I could just to shut them up.’

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Now there are no peacocks in the street. Where did they go? He points again across the road, cigarette stub between his fingers.

‘One of them jumped off the wall and into the road. She was run over by someone who works in the pub – she’s not working tonight. It was just a little car but the bird was totally obliterated.’

What happened to the male bird, I ask.

‘He kept on walking around, making this terrible racket because he was on his own.’

We thank him for his stories and cross to re-join the Pilgrims Way.

This morning we began our walk at Rochester station. Stepping off the platform it was not only the river Medway that cut the downs. For nearly an hour our nostrils filtered the stench of muck. Nowhere was safe: Rochester Cathedral with its sprawling Catalpa tree, the river itself and adjacent Dickensian suburbs (Oliver Twist Way). Perhaps only the forlorn sight of a magpie searching for food on plastic grass in a front garden drew our attention away from that invasive agricultural funk.

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The escape from the smell only came upon gaining the heights of Nashenden Down, where Kent Wildlife Trust are returning arable monoculture to chalk grassland richness. The work had already made a difference as Peter, my Kentish companion for the day, had found a wall butterfly basking in amongst flowers protected by a shelterbelt of trees. Overhead swifts, house martins and swallows fed on an aerial sea of insects as they migrated south away from our troubled isles.

From Nashenden Down we looked across the Medway to the point where, ten months ago, we had stumbled out of the endless and overgrown chestnut coppices to be met by the bolt of high speed rail and the meandering Medway. At Nashenden Down the fields of wheat were bordered by red poppies with petals torn away by the same winds that earlier had brought the foul smell to Rochester. I pulled out my phone and streamed Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending, revelling in the pastoral glory of Albion.

Beyond Nashenden Down, the North Downs Way then turned to the woody ridge with small breaks of chalk downland and random litter and fly-tipping. On knapweed stems Peter demonstrated an unerring ability to find brown argus butterflies, a member of the blue family. This is a skill he has perfected after months of working in Cambridgeshire meadows. At Bluebell Hill the wind whipped the sloe-heavy scrub and flattened the fields of marjoram. It was no land for the comb-over.

The route slips away beneath the A229 and then slaloms to one of several holloways haloed by overgrown hedges of hawthorn and field maple. A right-hand turn in the hedge arrives in a field marked by Kit’s Coty, the remnants of a Neolithic burial chamber, erected some 5000 years ago. The trail rises again after crossing the route of the Channel Tunnel Rail Link at Boxley into Westfield Wood, a steep ascent through brown yew woods. The creation of the tunnel resulted in the discovery of Britain’s earliest well-dated Neolithic longhouse, some 6000-years-old. That fact added a further layer of magic and mystery to the deep shade of the yew trees that followed it. That mystery evaporated in the gruelling ascent to the ridgetop of yews, breaking again into the lighter landscape of silver birch and field maple. At the track side stood an old oak with a hollow heart.

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To get to this side of Detling, where we met the local man with many stories to tell, we had to cross the A249 on a footbridge named ‘Jade’s Crossing’. It was constructed in memory of an eight-year-old girl and her grandmother who were hit by a car trying to cross the road in December 2000 when no such crossing existed.

‘I knew her family,’ the man outside the pub said. ‘Her grandmother died with her. Jade ran out into the road and her grandmother tried to grab her.’

To know that we could only safely cross the road because a girl and her grandmother died trying to do so, along with two other people before them, is terrible. They brought the A249 to Detling, cut the village in half, and it took 40 years for government to make it safe.

Back on the North Downs, the pub and its tales behind us, we step to the side of the Pilgrims Way as cars pass. We turn off into fields and head back up onto the chalk ridge of the North Downs Way. The light is fading, specks of rain touch our cheeks, clouds loom. In the scrub red and black berries offer warnings, chalk flowers form a mat at the path’s edge: the ever-present marjoram, enjoying a bountiful year, broken by spikes of agrimony, vervain and the fading leaves of yellow-wort. We stop to take in the folds of the downs, creases formed over millennia by water running down into the Medway valley.

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In the grey, rain-flecked sky, swallows and swifts feed in the last of the light. To them, it is autumn, they are returning south to Africa. We, too, are moving into the autumn and heading south, but only as far as Bearsted station. Whoever we are, wherever we’re going, we all seek safe passage.

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Gasteruption assectator, a parasitic wasp

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, June 2017

The last day of June but still flowers are yet to bloom. The meadow’s time has not been missed. On Farthing Downs the gate’s latch clicks and ringlet butterflies jig between grasses. Lady’s and hedge bedstraw cover patches in a lemon meringue mattress form, a reminder of the microcosms of grasslands:  dampness, the presence of certain rock or regular disturbance – it all leads to diversify the plants that appear now, and where others want to be. Skylarks still have songs to sing, as do yellowhammers, a song thrush down in the woody field edge. Crows half-heartedly mob a sparrowhawk with prey clasped between its talons.

On the lower slopes hundreds of meadow browns, ringlets and skippers cross the path sheltered by trees and the adjacent slope. It is that sense of abundance that so many lament losing. These chalk grasslands, managed with the long-view in mind, are the exception here on the edge of London. For centuries the North Downs have felt like an escape route from the city. Don’t forget that for thousands of years people have tramped the Pilgrims’ Way to the sacred site of Canterbury. To me they feel like a doorway to something better, somewhere free of the city’s ills. Somewhere you can breathe, where a wild, pastoral world still reigns. In truth it is just a thought and the reality remains different.

It’s quiet but I meet people walking dogs. A woman admires spikes of rosebay willowherb, remarking in a strong Indian inflection: ‘beautiful wildflowers’, snapping them with her camera phone. Another lady with a hint of Yorkshire in her voice says how delighted she is to watch marbled white butterflies. Whilst examining hogweed flowers a woman from the north of the border asks what I’m looking for. There’s a parasitic wasp with full ovipositor raised over its back like a scorpion ready to sting – of course it does nothing of the sort.

‘I’m looking at the thing that made Darwin think there was no God!’ I say.

Her eyes widen, she looks away, and she knows exactly the thing I mean.

‘I remember reading about them,‘ she says.

Ichneumon wasps insert their needle-like ovipositor into their prey, laying an egg which pupates into a grub that eats the prey from within.

Sitting to scribble this on a desire line between pyramidal orchids, vetches, marjoram and clover, a scorpion fly rests momentarily and horseflies make their attacks. They perch on my bag with turquoise compound eyes and trowel-like mouth parts. I flail my arms like a chimpanzee, mindful that a dog walker may soon approach and offer emergency first aid. These downs hold great riches, some of which only want your blood.

North Downs diary

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Netherlands 2017 lo-res DJG -4

In May 2017 I visited the Oostvaardersplassen nature reserve in Flevoland, north-east of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The trip was organised by EuCAN in their drive to keep the conservation channels open in a post-Brexit landscape and my thanks go to Nigel and Kathy for their work in making it all happen, as well as my fellow travellers. The Oostvaardersplassen is renowned in conservation in the United Kingdom as one of the foremost ‘rewilding’ projects. I won’t attempt to completely deconstruct the project, its successes and failures, its history and ambitions, here. I didn’t gather enough information whilst there to attempt that. Instead I’ll offer a few observations and ideas regarding what we saw.

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The Oostvaardersplassen’s landscape

Oostvaardersplassen is a 22 kilometre-squared area of woodland, marshland and wetland reclaimed from the sea. Where the ‘free-roaming’ herbivores reside is completely fenced on all sides, though attempts have been made to create a wildlife corridor connecting them with other areas of the country. The site has been stocked with grazing animals – cattle, konik horses and several species of wild deer have entered in. The grazing regimes brought about by the inclusion of these animals are an attempt to recreate the prehistoric mosaic of open habitats that were once the ‘natural’ state of the European landscape. For some there is an argument that the landscape was coast to coast woodland, dark and overgrown, with few clearings. Another view, propounded by Franz Vera, a key figure in the Oostvaardersplassen, is that in fact the landscape was more open and that large herbivores (European bison, wild ox or aurochs, deer, elk and indeed geese) held back the woodland through their chomping, meaning a mixture of more open and wooded habitats. I am more convinced by the latter, especially after seeing the impact of the grazing here.

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The majority of the landscape is wetland, of open water and reedbeds. It is rich in birdlife and its geese populations are of European importance. This means that very little of the reserve is easily accessible but there is an excellent visitor centre and some footpaths and hides available for tourists. The most striking sense was of the large scale dieback of trees. As far as the eye could see willow trees were dead and dying. Speaking to one of the rangers for a short time, there is a great pressure from visitors whose views are based on aesthetics. The view from the neighbouring trainline has been voted the most beautiful in the Netherlands. Our guide spoke of how visitors perceived the landscape in terms of suffering, be it because animals that died were left to decay and that trees were not lollipops with a full compliment of leaves. This is not something confined to the Netherlands but it was clear these views stung the land managers and interventions had been made to ensure that animals, especially cattle and horses, were not allowed to suffer in ways that appeared negligent.

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The animals were the reason for the sea of deadwood that was immediately evident. The konik horses and deer had ring-barked the trees, meaning that the passage of food and water to the tops of the trees was impossible and the trees died. I found some real comfort in seeing this landscape of untidiness and it challenged my sense of ‘what a landscape should look like’. We are so used to formalised landscapes in the places that we live, be it the urban environment or the agricultural rural landscape. Why does a landscape have to look any way at all? It is an utterly middle-class concept. The ranger reminded us that there was no ideal vision for how Oostvaardersplassen would look. It was a matter of seeing how rich the landscape would become by returning it to one of free roaming grazing animals with limited human intervention.

In terms of flora, there was almost nothing bar a few dandelions due to the intensity of the grazing. Birds seemed to fare better, with male redstarts singing from song perches provided by the dead branches. The lack of leaves also gave an excellent opportunity to observe and photograph them.

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Redstarts are African migrants, preferring this kind of wood pasture habitat that grazing animals can create. The New Forest, though it has far more in the way of living trees, is another similar habitat type where redstarts still can be found breeding in Britain.

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To our delight, another species which enjoyed the prevalence of dead wood song perches was the bluethroat. At first hunkering down low in the reeds, the bird here nipped into a tree and belted out its medley of tunes and trills.

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In continental Europe the pied wagtail is replaced by a subspecies, the white wagtail. It has a greyer appearance. This bird was gathering insects to feed its young in the nest.

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There was an area of woodland accessible to visitors and free of grazing pressure. This was richer in plants, though limited mainly to nettles and other nitrogen-favouring species. In this area pied flycatcher was nesting and the insect life came to the fore.

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At the roadside a crowd had gathered to watch this eagle owl roosting in willow. It is a very big bird indeed, with a wingspan of 2 metres and a diet of buzzard and raven. It’s not a bird to meet in a side alley on the way home from the pub. There were reports of an eagle owl in Lelystad, the closest town, the previous day and there were rumours it could have escaped from a collection.

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There was a pleasing diversity of bee-life, with several species of Nomada bee potted and identified. This nomad bee had stopped to preen its antennae.

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A golden-bloomed grey longhorn beetle. Outrageous.

The map butterfly is always a pleasant sight because it’s not found in the UK. It has two broods with separate markings, the latter being darker, seen in the Czech Republic in July.

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The most common insect to be found was probably this Empid or dance fly. It spent most of its time drinking from hawthorns or else hunting crane flies. It would attack the crane flies and fly away with them, legs akimbo.

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What is rewilding?

Rewilding is a conservation movement which seeks to return large areas of land to natural processes where human intervention is limited, sometimes to almost nothing. There are strong arguments for moving away from tree planting, for example, in areas where (as Oliver Rackham said) the simple lack of grazing animals will allow woodland to flourish on its own. In Britain there are arguments to allow ‘the uplands’ to be returned to a more ‘natural state’ (sorry about the inverted commas, but the terms used are often subjective) to prevent flooding by ending intensive moorland management and allowing trees to recolonise and therefore store more rainwater to reduce flooding in the land below, where most towns and cities are located.

Other ideas are to introduce wolves or lynx to areas where wild deer numbers are out of control and their grazing pressure is severely damaging woodlands. Something closer to reality is the return of the beaver to the English landscape and the positives they certainly can bring in reducing flooding and diversifying riverine habitats and boosting other species. One interesting idea is the return of pine marten to reduce the number of invasive grey squirrels, and the return of the otter resulting in a reduction in American mink through competition. There are many ideas, some hugely exciting. They are experiments which, due to the utterly changed nature of the British landscape, will remain a mystery in many cases.

Personally I see big problems with the concept as it has been conceived and amplified in recent terms, largely related to my experience as a land manager, not merely an ecological theorist or environmental campaigner. But then rewilding is also thought to be achievable in an urban setting, something that is otherwise alien to the concept.

Rewilding has experienced a massive spike in interest since the publication of Feral by George Monbiot but it was not first thought of then. Sometimes it is hard to be convinced it is a concept at all, such is its similarity to other conservation projects which are currently in action, as with the beaver reintroduction in Devon. Rewilding could be a response to the apparent bureaucratisation of the conservation movement. People don’t want their donations to conservation charities to be spent on printing and electricity bills (sorry but it actually has to sometimes). Rewilding has become a populist movement, largely thanks to Monbiot’s ability to inspire people in ways that previous proponents have failed to.

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Monbiot is a popular environmental writer who seeks to tie in his economic and social writings with those of environmentalism, connecting the impacts of Western consumer lifestyles with the shocking loss of species in the past fifty or more years. He is one of the only writers to be given column inches and use the phrase ‘British wildlife’ in a grown-up way, rather than simply recounting childhood memories. On the opposite end of the scale to Monbiot, there are xenophobic reimaginings of rewilding, highlighted in a twitter page called Rewild Britain, which uses the notion of species decline to lambast ethnic minorities, immigrants and anyone who is not ‘indigenous’ to Britain. Many people today have not understood that there are no ‘pure’ or ‘indigenous’ Brits. Our farming systems evolved in the Middle East, our language a melange of foreign ones, and Britain has been enjoying immigration ever since it became an island. Suffice to say the social media account in question has no accountability, no name, no website, and is easily confused with the official account of Rewilding Britain.

Is rewilding open to misanthropy? I have spoken to proponents of what they deem to be rewilding who have stated that they think, in essence, that humans are bad and that we should not be a part of nature as they conceive of it anymore. We are a part of nature, our place is still in the natural world, it is simply that our place in the food chain, in the temporal sense, has been warped by technological advances: it takes longer for our species to be impacted by environmental change. Climate change is impacting upon species with a low trophic-level (butterflies, bees, birds) right now and it will meet us in the same way later on, in terms, because of our protective measures buying us time whilst our damaging measures draw difficulties closer.

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Doing it the Dutch way

Back to the Netherlands. On our merry way around the five-lane motorways of the north-west Netherlands, we stopped in at the National Park Zuid-Kennemerland to visit an area where European bison were acclimatising. Bison are thought to have been present across the entire Northern Hemisphere before humans began to impact on their populations. Though there is debate about whether they were in Britain, they are now being introduced across Europe thanks to successes in Poland’s Bialowieza National Park. The bison in this part of Holland were living in an area of ancient sand dunes close to the sea but, as the photo above illustrates, close to human habitation. The place was a riot of nightingales. On our tour of this closed site, the manager of the bison told us that he wanted people to see that we can all live alongside these animals. They are not dangerous, they are unpredictable. He was underlining something we have lost in regard to wildlife: respect. That is something I can get behind, planning the reintroduction of extinct megafauna with people in mind. There can be no other way to do it when our population is set to increase further in the coming decades.

What is the point of releasing these bison here? It’s conservation of a gene-pool. By introducing the animals in as many different locations around Europe it makes them more resilient to population loss, allowing their genetic diversity to to evolve and for inbreeding to be reduced.

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The work being done here was admirable. Rather than sitting in front of a computer postulating about the possibilities they are getting on with it. But how wild can rewilding this way actually be? The bison we saw here were penned in, accounted for and cared for, just like livestock. Our impact on the environment is now so far reaching that reintroducing larger animals immediately has connotations in terms of animal welfare. Many of the species we want back in the landscape travel long distances, are predators of livestock and are greatly feared by people, for reasons that are largely unfounded. In Britain we struggle to live with badgers, foxes, cormorants, hen harriers and wasps, let alone wolves or lynx.

The Oostvaardersplassen is a case in point but then its managers have never called it a rewildling project. They have no plan for how it should look and no desired outcome other than to learn from its results. It gives a sense of hope, perhaps that’s what so draws people to rewilding. We are growing bored of the endless stories of negativity when positives exist and must be sought. The very existence of nature is a positive that sometimes conservationists have to draw on to keep going. That should be the very point, whether it’s rewilding, nature conservation or simply good stewardship, we have a duty of care to the planet and its wildlife. Finding out the best way of making it work is the challenge we and wildlife face. That we can surely all agree on.

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