Daniel Greenwood

I am living with the animals

North Downs diary, Gatton Park, Surrey, April 2017

As we drive into Gatton Park a mistle thrush and a robin are singing under streetlamps. In front of this vast estate, with gardens laid out by the famous ‘Capability’ Brown, the darkness yields little birdsong. It’s 4:30 and dawn is yet to break on the downs, even the nearby M25 is held in relative silence. A cold wind blows across the lawns before the estate mansion, once the dwelling of the Colmans Mustard family, now an environmental education centre run by the Gatton Trust. Jess Hughes, the Trust’s education officer, is leading a dawn walk of the grounds and I am here to pick out the birdsong. Walking in a place I don’t know without full vision is unnerving with 3 hours sleep, so we pause at the dark blur of trees and fish for birdsong.

Walking down from the hill the wind dips, we ruffle the feathers of roosting woodpigeons in passing underneath their trees. Those wings and that kerfuffle are unmistakeable. Blackbirds sing from ranks of mature trees, the repeated verses of a song thrush pitched across the cover. A robin scratches its scribbly tunes from a branch somewhere. The dawn chorus always alters the sense of time that you take with you before one of these walks. I have learnt to recognise the change in sound with the change in the light, the point when some species emerge or sing. There is a set list of sorts.

As the light begins to spill over we enter a wood of tall, stringy ash and scrubby bramble. Behind us, the open parkland begins to fill with the flurry of blackbird music, my personal highlight of the dawn chorus. The tide pushes down through the open lawns and dotted trees, across the Serpentine stream to meet us in this wood. The blackbirds appear in ones and twos, I never know if it’s a case of birds moving like an armada, or whether one by one they blink into life like bulbs.

We hear not only song, alarm calls pierce through – the ticking of wrens, the rattling of a mistle thrush. We continue on back to the brink of woodland. The Serpentine crawls between the wood and park, on its banks yellow cowslips offer the day’s first glimpses of colour. At the water’s edge sweet woodruff flowers, its use for flavouring gin draws warm appreciation. Mallards drift in the subtle flow, in the shade of a tree opposite the first blackcap bubbles and warbles. From further downstream a great tit adds its bicycle pump to the mix.

Now crows skate to and fro overhead, a kestrel edges trees and hovers over the long grass in search of a first meal. We head round to the vast lake along a track marked by wild garlic, the sun rising between alders, behind clouds, the light rippling in the water. We pass Gatton Park’s edges where old yews have been lopped and anglers have built platforms embellished with woodchip for their camps. A neighbouring field overgrown with nettles lies for sale, from the group there are worries of an impending threat to the downs, echoed across Surrey by recent proposals to build entire new villages. Whenever green space is for sale it can be the only thought.

We pass up away from the enormous lake near veteran oaks enclosed by fencing, remnants of ancient parkland. The sun rises in the south east, the fresh leaves of the oaks glowing lime green in the light. We pause at the crown of the hill, before a Pulhamite rockery brought back from the brink of woodland by the Trust’s volunteers. Edging the hill is an ash tree, protruding, exposed to the south before Surrey, the Weald and Sussex. It is yet to leaf but Jess and the group have found fruit. A tree creeper inches the pale bark, its curved bill picking away for food. It’s a pointer to the time of day: dawn is over, the hard work has just begun.

North Downs diary

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Roydon Woods, The New Forest, April 2017

It’s Easter Monday and the sun breaks through the generic forecast of cloud, cloud and cloud. So too the bells of St. Nicholas’s church, reputedly the oldest in the whole of the New Forest. Bluebells swarm around graves, one reinstated in bright white stone. Sunglasses are needed to read the inscription. Bluebells and greater stitchwort spread out on the roadside banks and ditches, the fresh green feeling of spring is present here. The bells are clanging away for miles, oaks pushing out leaves after flowers.

Entering Roydon Woods the bluebells offer their spring greeting, washing off every now and then, where leaves and old bracken stems colour the woodland floor brown instead. The lilies have been trampled in places by badgers cutting across the margins of fallen trees and fencelines under dark. The bracken unfurls its prehistoric leaves, for how many millions of years has that been true, some in heart shapes fit for Instagram and greenwashing marketing campaigns. The urge is irresistible. In a place like this, at a time like this, it is difficult not to rejoice in the manner of the church at this time of year. Whatever your religious persuasion, it is hard not to feel a sense of something good making a long awaited return.

It is that time when those with less tolerance for heat jig between sun hat and tea cosy. It is the best of both worlds, and not expected to be the same again until autumn. The British summer usually dispels that generalisation. The birdsong has lifted, many species can be heard: blackcap, willow warbler, chiffchaff, coal, great and blue tit, robin, wren, nuthatch and the hammering of woodpeckers. The paths slaloms through Roydon Woods, at its edges oaks give way to holly, ash and birch. From these trees comes a sound I had hoped to hear for years in Britain. It is a quickfire piping that I have only personally heard in Poland and the Czech Republic. It is a lesser spotted woodpecker.

With binoculars I watch the point from which the call came, and sure enough the bird appears. White horizontal lines scar its black back, it is the size of perhaps a big chaffinch or a small thrush. This, the New Forest, is one of its final remaining strongholds in Britain. It has disappeared from woods in south London and across England for reasons not quite known or substantiated. The increase of their greater cousins and the general lack of available habitat for them may be the defining explanations. Walking on through Roydon Woods, lesser spots continue to call and hammer. I feel I know this ancient place a little more deeply now.

New Forest archive

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Mole gap trail - 3-4-17 blog-5

North Downs diary, Mole Valley, Surrey, April 2017

I follow the Mole gap trail into Norbury Park, ash woodland glowing in the spring sunshine, dog’s mercury abounding on the soil between the pale trunks. The railway line cuts across the eastern edge of the woods, a brick bridge taking trains straight over one of the major footpaths. Under the bridge a lady walks her dog down the hill, her shape appearing beneath the brick. She pauses as I pass under the bridge and takes a photo.

‘All I could see was your legs,’ she says. ‘And then the rest of you appeared.’

We both have cameras and she asks what I’m here to photograph, about butterflies and how many I’ve seen today. Orange tip, brimstone, peacock and my first small tortoiseshell of the year. Along the banks of the Mole butterflies have flitted in good number.

‘Oh I haven’t seen many,’ she says. She tells me more about Norbury Park, its managers Surrey Wildlife Trust and how angry she feels about the fact all the Trust’s rangers will be made redundant. ‘It’s always the people who are out there doing the actual work that suffer. When there’s a fire or something goes wrong there won’t be anyone there for us to contact.’

The ranger programme was being funded with money from Surrey County Council, and Jenny has been making efforts to register her discontent with local councillors. ‘It’s all about priorities, they’ve just resurfaced the A24 and when there was nothing wrong with it.’

‘I devote myself to the countryside,’ she says. ‘Apart from 3 years in London for university I have always lived in Surrey. I spend hours walking with the dog and never get round to everything I need to do in life. When I get home I just head back out again.’

I ask her how things have changed over the years.

‘There are definitely less birds than there used to be,’ she says.

As we stand talking next to the railway bridge the sun shines down through the leafless trees. Peacocks sun themselves on the ride’s edge, bright yellow brimstones pass across the slopes above us. We say farewell, Jenny heading off into the Park while I continue south towards Box Hill.

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The Mole edges Norbury Park, where beech woods sprawl along the eastern slopes. On the other side of the river the smell and calling of livestock breaks through. In the woods the beeches gleam in the glory of the sun, ramsons begin to flower one by one. Leaving the Park, farmland opens out and the woodland is replaced by fields with single oaks, and a beanpole lime tree riddled with mistletoe. I learned recently that mistletoe grows only on smooth bark, its seed is sticky and is often left there by the mistle thrush, so named for this reason. The branches in the canopy of limes are always sleek and silver, perfect for the mistletoe to attach itself to. The oaks are grand specimens, one dying back from above. Many trees are leafing on the Downs but no oak or ash quite yet. Overhead buzzards soar and mew, and the rickety frame of a red kite tumbles towards Box Hill.

The green fields turn instead to brown where cattle graze. More oaks mark the old field boundaries, likely once connected by hedgerows now removed. The farmer has fenced them to protect their roots and bark from the jaws and hoofs of his or her livestock. The fields are protected by electric fencing audibly ticking, but several of these oaks are dying, possibly from the damage done by the cattle. Crossing the Mole again the train line returns, a neat arch allows the river to flower as it kinks round. The light shimmers and ripples on the underside of the brickwork built almost in a spiral. It’s dizzying to watch for too long. Across the old footbridge and into a field named Foxbury Shaw more veteran oaks stand ready to leaf again, a trio leaning into a dried up channel, perhaps a former braid in the river.

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One oak has fallen and lies supine with that typical stag head of old roots. Passing close by I notice the swarming of insects at the root plate. It is surely too early for wasps and they appear too big. Edging closer, they are in fact hairy-footed flower bees whirring and zipping around the old roots. When the tree fell the roots lifted soil with them, now hardened like great chunks of biscuity dough. The sun has baked the soil and the wood of the fallen oak. Here is the very image of a life after death.

The oak is being mined by solitary bees, some, like the bronze furrow bee are minute. There are more animals besides them, with jumping spiders waiting for the chance to pinch their prey. One sits atop a root basking in the sun, camouflaged against the  bleached timber. The soil has been drilled with holes, the habitat of the flower bees. A group of about five to eight males, blonde and super-fast in flight, zip around me as I photograph their homes. Truly it is the sound of racing cars or X-wings tearing around at several hundred miles an hour. Another species of bee basks on the upturned roots, it has long, black antennae and is disturbed when I look more closely. It’s a mourning bee, a parasite that lays its eggs in the nests of hairy footed flower bees. The eggs hatch, eat the young of the flower bee and then eat the food stash left for its prey. Despite our clichés, some bees are only in it for themselves.

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Clapham Common - 27-3-17 blog-3

This English oak is easily missed, to the point where I didn’t notice it was an oak until looking at the photo later. This early spring sunshine is the kind that brings people to sit underneath trees, like the man in the distance on Clapham Common. His bike is resting against the trunk behind him.

Oaks of London

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Enfield oak

This English oak (Quercus robur) is alongside the Great Cambridge Road near Turkey Street station in Enfield, north London. It was photographed on my phone in January 2017. It stands in what evidently was once a more open, rural landscape. It’s a big, healthy-looking tree, likely between 200 and 300 years old. What I like about this one is the clash of the old and the new, rural and urban. If it can remain in peace it could live a good many centuries. This is dependent also on a gradual reduction in emissions from the nearby traffic as predicted move towards electric vehicles progresses and its ability to remain unimpeded by either self-seeded trees or new plantings. If this landscape was abandoned in future, the oak would create a new woodland of oaks around it.

Oaks of London

 

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North Downs diary, Banstead Woods, March 2017

A bench has been built in a patch of recently churned clay, a rusty red. The bench matches the colour, dedicated to Jamie Eve who passed away in 2016 aged 26. His dedication tells passersby that he loved this place. A bouquet of tulips and ivy lies on the seat. Around Jamie’s bench bluebells peek, it is that special time. All across this wood the lilies push through. All around us life is returning, our side of this earth is coming closer to the sun, and wildlife is responding.

Edward Thomas, a poet made famous, really, by the success of Robert MacFarlane’s The Old Ways and sense of invigoration given to the subject of nature writing, wrote about the Banstead Downs. It is only because of reading Macfarlane’s books that I know of Thomas and for that reason that this time of year, when bluebell leaves threaten to reveal flowers, when the earliest pipings of blackbirds don’t quite progress to nightly songposts, reminds me of his poems. I have never truly got on well with his style, but Macfarlane’s success is the ability to bring you closer to the lesser known authors, walkers and naturalists. The line ‘Spring is being dreamed’ is one that is quoted across media formats at this time of year. It perfectly encapsulates that rough and wearied time when winter has bitten in and bitten long, but spring’s presence is unmistakable.

You can feel it in the movements and actions of birds, the great tit, chaffinch, blue tit, tree creeper all singing and moving across the wood. The consensus is growing. The hornbeam’s branches look different to the way they were two weeks ago, as the buds begin to break with their usual slowness. Small clusters of leaves spit from elder branches, hawthorns are never too ready to shift with the season. Throughout Banstead Woods large oaks stand in stoic silence. There is no hint of a leaf, their fistfuls of buds, many of which will never be needed, remain golden brown and closed. I remember last year seeing the tiny red leaves of oak coming out months in advance on the 25th January in south London, but this year there has not been the mildness to tempt the oaks out.

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These oaks, along with beeches, hornbeam pollards and mighty sweet chestnuts, suggest this wood was once more open, lighter and more intensively managed. These trees bestow a grandeur not quite felt in other woods I know along the North Downs, even the mighty beeches of Devilsden Wood. Here the trees are all on the plateau of Banstead Downs, their scale is not reduced by the steep slopes of the many valleys that cut through this chalky landscape. Here storm Doris has broken limbs and split trees, several by gusts blown along a ride that cuts widely through. Sometimes you have to squirm through branches to carry on.

I pass a man with binoculars and ask him of hawfinch and lesser spotted woodpecker, two birds that are rumoured to be present here. He has black curls with a touch of grey and says he has never seen them but ‘surely they must pass through’. He exhibits a sense of contentment in what the land holds for him this afternoon. It marks the end of Banstead Woods, signalled by a family passing, booted and offering a greeting as they make their way inside. At the wood’s edge the landscape opens out, a few of the typical farmland oaks stand in the centre of the field and along a hedgerow boundary. I follow the path along the wood’s edge where crumbling oaks and beeches dominate, with laurels and rhododendrons creeping in at their toes.

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At nearby Canons Farm a buzzard perches in branches, mobbed by crows, stirring starlings, sparrows and finches to leave their feeding until later. Above a lane enclosed by a close crop holly hedge birds explode across the grey sky, the buzzard following them in a blaze of alarm calls. Following the road round past a small clutter of houses where a man revs his van and reverses out, its emissions pungent, the buzzard perches in the branches of an oak. In the distance jackdaws roost and break in the tops of trees, closer at hand a crow swings low and short of the buzzard. It is unworried by the attention, taking its time, waiting for the right moment to move off over the fields again.

Tracing a path through leafing croplands that lead into the wealthy suburbia of Kingswood, the prospect of spring has been sidelined. It rings true – those who have no closeness to or desire to venture into woods or landscapes of the less manicured kind, can have little sense of the changing seasons. Treading the verge on route to the train station beside mansions with static laurel hedges, four cars and paved driveways, I can guess what Edward Thomas valued more.

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