The Sussex Weald: between the seasons

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, August 2021

Mid-August: the woods sit between seasons. Leaves are not yet turning, the soil is dry and the leaf litter brittle. Even so, mushrooms are pushing through. I turn off the hard track to cross over the ghyll that cuts through the woodland, one of many dammed further down for the ancient iron industries that hammered this landscape several centuries ago.

Today no such industry exists but the streams still flow. In fact, from this area of the High Weald, some of Sussex’s great rivers rise and head off on their respective journeys: the Arun, the Adur and the Ouse.

Sitting on the bank, I notice fungi on fallen wood but also in the soil. They are terracotta hedgehogs, mushrooms with spikes where the gills or pores are found on other species. They’re a delicious edible mushroom.

When the iron industries were at full pelt here some 400-500 years ago, there was immigration of skilled workers from France. They brought knowledge unavailable to iron workers here in Sussex, with some tensions developing with the local workforce. On 21st January 1556, ‘Peter’ a French collier was ‘cruelly murdered’ (Weir-Wilson, 2021: p.45).

I wonder if those French men and women picked hedgehogs here, a species that’s treated as a delicacy in France. The Belgian father of a friend of mine messaged me on social media when I posted a photo of these mushrooms:

‘Pied de mouton,’ he said. ‘Clean then blanch them for 2min. Drain and keep. Fry 2 shallots and 1 garlic in butter (or oil). Butter tastes better.’

Deeper into the woodland there are the first signs of heather beginning to flower. The birdsong has dwindled but the edges of the rides burst with flowers that are covered in insects. A broken and battered fritillary butterfly nectars on hemp agrimony flowers as if for the first time. I watch to see if a butterfly with so many pecks taken from its wings can even fly, but it does, high into the overcast sky.

Further along the ride hogweed has built a great white canopy. The droneflies – a honeybee mimic – drink nectar in their tens, fizzing as they switch from one umbel to another. That’s when I notice the long, drooping antennae of a longhorn beetle, doing the very same thing. I can’t take my eyes from it, as it clambers over the small inflorescences.

After walking along the endless forestry road, I slip back into the woodland to an area of birchy bog and broken beeches. It’s quiet and still in here. Unlike the final bursts of summer flowers on the open forest rides, autumn can be found among the birch trees.

First there is a bolete with its pores and cap that has begun to turn upwards, growing from a stump. There’s a Leccinum or birch bolete of some sort standing tall (for its kind) in the soil. There are Russulas yellow, red, green and purple. These hard to identify fungi are a mental bridge between summer and autumn. They are also a welcome meal for squirrels and whatever can get there first.

It’s a reminder that the seasons are not concrete. There is give and take, building blocks can come tumbling down. Seasonal signs come with species appearing, some that pass like ships in the night.

The Sussex Weald

Fungi 🍄: summer shrooms in Ashdown Forest

I was lucky enough to have a couple of hours to spend in Ashdown Forest last week. The light was beautiful and the views expansive across this famous part of the Sussex Weald. For those who don’t know, Ashdown Forest was the inspiration for A.A. Milne’s Winnie the Pooh. I very nearly titled this blog ‘Winnie the shroom bear’.

The mushroom situation at the moment in Sussex is one of a twilight late summer boom, with not really enough rain recently to feed the fungi and maintain the fruiting window. However, where there is shade there is moisture and therefore there is hope.

I followed a path into the woodland, away from Ashdown Forest’s famous heathlands. The ground did look quite dry, so I wasn’t expecting to find too much growing from the soil.

My first sighting was, in fact, in the soil. In the shade at the edge of the path I found a group of common puffballs.

This is an edible species, and though two looked in fairly good condition, I wasn’t looking to forage for food.

On the opposite side of the path a piece of wood was covered in feather moss. The moss was home to a gathering of glistening inkcap mushrooms. They were in wonderful condition, with varying stages of growth in the bright green bed of bryophytes.

Under a beech tree I noticed some large fallen wood sitting in heavy shade. This is always a good place to find fungi because there will be high levels of moisture and damp throughout the year. Especially under beech which casts heavy shade through its leafing phase.

My guess for this species would be stump puffball which grows in large numbers on decaying wood. From a distance they looked like fairy inkcap, but were of course much larger when looking properly. As I knelt down to take these photos, the sunlight broke through on occasion and then faded away. It was a fateful fungi photo.

Off of the path, as I considered whether there was enough time to take things a bit deeper into the woodland, I found an incredible beech tree. This looked like an old beech pollard (regularly cut high) or perhaps a coppice (regularly cut to the stump for regrowth). It had lost a huge limb which lay in front of it, providing a home for a Ganoderma bracket fungus, as so many beech trees both standing and fallen do.

I don’t know Ashdown Forest at all well. It feels to me quite an elusive place. This short walk allowed me to experience more of its quiet allure. I hadn’t expected to see so many unusual beech trees, which would probably qualify as veteran with the discerning experts out there.

This is another wonderful beech tree which has experienced damage to its trunk. The image above shows the tree’s own ‘aerial’ roots feeding of its own decaying wood. No doubt fungi has its role here in helping the tree roots to feed on itself by softening up the wood with its own decay processes.

My hour was up and I had to head back to the car park. On the return leg I noticed some very small yellow mushrooms on the bank built up along the footpath. It clicked that they were probably chantarelles. I looked at the gills of one that had fallen loose and could confirm they were. There is a beech leaf in the left of the image above which provides scale – they really were tiny.

On the way out I noticed the heather was flowering, one of the final acts of summer. It’s always good when there are shrooms on show to support this darkening shift in seasons. The days are getting shorter, the leaves will soon be on the turn and the mushrooms will be arriving.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

The Weald: 800 years of history in the Appledore tapestry

On several occasions I’ve had the pleasure of visiting the village of Appledore on the Kent side of the Kent/Sussex border. It’s where the Weald, a core subject area for this blog, moves between the two counties. A lot of what’s featured here is in the realm of Romney Marsh because of the connecting history of the landscape, at the south-eastern edge of the Weald. You can see a great interactive timeline of the history of Romney Marsh here.

The Church of St Peter and St Paul, Appledore, Kent

Churches are some of the most important cultural and historic places in England today. I personally find them very peaceful and welcome places to drop into, or shelter, often when out on a walk somewhere. The village of Appledore has a church steeped in history: The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul. Inside, there is a tapestry which was completed in 1988 to celebrate the church’s 800th birthday.

I don’t know much about tapestries beyond the obvious Bayeux Tapestry most English children studied at school, depicting the Norman Conquest of England in 1066. But this tapestry is a great achievement and contains beautiful details, documenting the incredible history of this part of what is now called England.

The tapestry begins with trouble for the local Anglo-Saxons, when 5000 vikings arrived from Denmark in the year 892 via the River Rother (the eastern Rother, rather than the West Sussex/East Hampshire Rother).

Scandinavian raiders had first dropped into England at Lindisfarne, Northumberland in 793, when they sacked the monasteries, killed the monks and took their valuables. At this point Appledore was known as Apuldre, meaning ‘apple tree’ in Old English. The Vikings would have definitely been interested in the apple trees. Here we can also see depictions of 1086 when the Domesday Book was completed after the Norman Conquest of 1066.

This is a little bit what I looked like after lockdown hairdresser restrictions were in place for several months, minus the beard. The detail is excellent, with the use of different materials to bring the scene to life, not least the viking man’s fleece.

To the left is an Anglo-Saxon man (with stereotypical, but not necessarily accurate, golden hair) watching as the vikings appeared, with axe in hand. Next to the old name for ‘Apuldre’ you can see what must have been the original church, a wooden building of Anglo-Saxon origin. Many Anglo-Saxon churches were destroyed and rebuilt in stone by the Norman invaders.

1188 shows us the first recorded rector, Father Joseph. The landscape behind appears to show a farmed landscape with reeds being cut from the wetlands of Romney Marsh. The English Knight may indicate the King Henry III leading an army to France.

1380 highlights the burning of the church by French soldiers. I can’t find any other information on this other than it being described as a ‘raid’. There is long-running beef between England and France, with this part of Kent/Sussex vulnerable because it was so close to the Channel. In the top right you can see Henry VIII (1491-1547) hanging out.

Let’s take a look at those flames in greater detail. I think it’s likely the colours in the tapestry have been dimmed by its positioning next to the window, which makes the fire seem less severe.

In 1450 we see a group of people partaking in what I am guessing is Jack Cade’s Rebellion. This was a similar uprising to that of the Peasant’s Revolt in 1380:

Leading an army of men from south-eastern England, the rebellion’s namesake and leader Jack Cade marched on London in order to force the government to reform the administration and remove from power the “traitors” deemed responsible for bad governance. It was the largest popular uprising to take place in England during the 15th century.

Kaufman, Alexander L. (2009). The Historical Literature of the Jack Cade Rebellion. Burlington: Ashgate, p. 1. via Wikipedia

Here we see the detail of a bear being kept for baiting or entertainment. The expression on the girl’s face and her hands in pockets show a level of disdain for the poor bear. I like the detail in the chain, despite what it’s depicting.

I don’t know if Shakespeare (1564-1616), top left across from Elizabeth, visited Appledore but his work and legacy stands over the time. I’m not sure who is getting happily married in 1650.

In 1804 we can see the development of the Royal Military Canal in Romney Marsh, which began on the 30th October at Seabrook, Kent. It was built to slow any invasion from Napoleon’s Army, which was a big worry at that time. You can now walk 28 miles of the Military Canal.

In 1914 we see the call-up for the First World War (1914-18), which was not a long journey for anyone living in coastal Kent or Sussex. I’m struggling to work out the chap with the pick-axe in the top right, however. I can appreciate it’s an industrial image, with what may look like a viaduct in the background.

This detail could confuse you as it looks a bit like the church collapsed. In actual fact it’s a German military plane that has been shot down in the Second World War (1939-45).

In 1988 the tapestry was completed, with the vicar of the time standing at the end of the path admiring the building and all it has been through.

You can buy a leaflet which describes the tapestry in detail, but obviously I bought it and then lost it!

If this wonderful tapestry has taught me anything, it’s that peace between England and France has not always been there. England has always been a very sought-after place. Its cultures have always been diverse, rather than the mono-ethnic notions trumpeted today by ultra-nationalists.

I may come back to update this post when I get new information and will note any edits.

Thanks for reading.

The Weald

The Sussex Weald: the piping woodpunk

On the last day of May I set off on a walk into the High Weald not far from where I live. It was spring at its height, with warm weather more like the summer months to come. I waited until the late afternoon to head out for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t love walking in the heat, secondly, the light is better for photography when the sun’s glare has softened.

The willows had begun to release their seeds, the ground covered in a coat of white fluff. This seed dispersal is what makes willow so effective. The catkins are pollinated by bees, flies and other insects, which then produce the seeds. The same effect comes from poplars, which are willow relatives.

Hawthorn peaks around the end of May and I always look for insects on its nectar-rich flowers. I didn’t have a macro lens at the time but with my zoom found this large sawfly nectaring. Sawflies are relatives of bees and wasps, though sawflies actually came first. Their reputation is usually defined by the behaviour of the larvae of a species which can eat roses. You can of course say the same about many other species, moths for example.

The High Weald is home to a lot of Scots pine, where it succeeds the once open heathland. I have always been confused by the ‘native range’ of pine, whether it is naturally occurring in places like the Weald. It was planted for forestry, especially on the heaths, though it is not being harvest in the same way here anymore. Pines are gymnosperms which came before the flowering plants (angiosperms). They evolved over 300 million years ago, whereas angiosperms ‘arrived’ 130million years ago.

A flowering plant I was hoping to find on this walk was lily of the valley. Last year I found this beautiful plant in the very same spot. Someone who works on this site told me that it may be evidence of earlier human settlement because it was once cultivated for perceived medical purposes. That would require a blog in itself!

Having spent several years working, walking and hanging around in woodlands, you become accustomed to hearing certain birds and learn about their behaviour. One call I’m unlikely to forget is that of the great spotted woodpecker nestling. I was walking along a track, mostly minding my own business, when I heard the piping of the little woodpunks. There didn’t seem to be many suitable trees around, but the birds were definitely there.

Continuing down the path I saw that a hole had been made in this standing dead birch tree. I could hear a nestling but also another woodpecker nearby, outside of a nest. I used the foliage seen here to hide for a while – still on a footpath – and see what would happen.

The nestling soon popped its little head out of the tree hole, calling for its next meal. They are beautiful little birds. I did once have the chance to see one up close after it fell out of a nest:

They are beautiful, reptile-like birds. I once said to a colleague who was also a herpetologist that they look reptilian.

He scolded me: ‘they are reptilian!’

The Wealden woodpunk did get its dinner after a while. A parent bird returned to pass food between bills. It was such an incredible thing to witness and all the more special because I had not expected to see it that day. It was also interesting to see the role of fungi in this breeding opportunity. The birch tree had been softened internally (if not actually ‘killed’) by birch polypore, a type of bracket fungus. I received several other examples from people in London of great spotted woodpeckers breeding in standing dead birch trees. It should be a lesson to people managing woodlands or birchy landscapes such as heathland – this is an important tree species in the wider ecosystem.

The first oak leaves were out in that lovely fresh green, which will soon turn more leathery and a deeper shade.

New holly leaves were appearing also, like little flames or woodpecker crests in the shade.

On the return home from the woods, I noticed these large spikes of orchids in a field. A new farm building had been built in the background. At the edge of this field, alongside the footpath I was on, the landowner had tried to plant leyland cypress and laurel, probably the worst things to plant in this landscape, next to rhododendron (which was nearby anyway). It seemed so mean-spirited to block the view of this expanse and its rare flowers for people passing by. Do people know how privileged they are to own land like this in England?

I know this beech tree agreed with me (yes, it’s been a long year). Or at least that’s what its facial expression seemed to suggest.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald: a nightingale sings at the recycling centre

Header image: Frebeck, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Horsham, West Sussex, April 2021

It was a quick lunchtime visit to the household recycling centre, the kind of thing that is exciting enough in a year of lockdowns.

Having been waved in and asked to mask-up, I got out of the car and began searching the options to recycle some fabric. A workman was collecting materials and asked me to make it easier for him and drop it straight into his dumpy bag. It made it easier for me, too.

It was a warm and cloudy afternoon with the sun breaking through. The air held that acrid whiff of landfill, like sickening vinegar.

Returning to the car, I was distracted by something. The one-way system that takes you through the recycling centre was edged by wrought iron fencing. Beyond that an old, overgrown hedge with brambles, hawthorn and perhaps willow, marked by a large oak tree. This area sits on Weald Clay, which I’ve learned was once known geologically as Oak Tree Clay, so common is the species in this landscape.

A bird was singing from somewhere along the hedgeline, mixing in with other bird calls and sounds. Typical late April in southern England, with the new arrivals from Europe and Africa breaking out in song after unthinkably dangerous and long journeys north. After resting, you would sing, too.

The song was being thrown around, I couldn’t pin it down. Then I heard the rapid, reverb-laden drip-drip-drip-drip-drip.

Nightingale.

I had heard this song a few times before in Sussex, with their stronghold at Knepp or else at Woodsmill in Henfield. In 2017 I’d honed my understanding of their incredible song while on a conservation study tour of the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands. Hearing this bird in little olde England is something else.

The song was unmistakable. I took out my phone and recorded a short clip. Just 20 seconds.

I had to drive along to the next bay to dispose of some cables and empty tins of emulsion. I wanted to tell the men working on there what they could hear if they listened, and ask if they already knew. They might have known. I asked one worker a question about solvents and he replied with eastern European-accented English. Nightingales are not so rare in that part of the world, perhaps he knew their song from his childhood.

It’s why I love John Keats’s poem so much (below), because he knew how important birdsong was to all people. Not just landowners who know how to welcome nightingales, those who can afford holidays to hear them, or those as privileged as me to live in this beautiful place. By that I mean Sussex, not the tip.

Thou was not born for death, immortal Bird!

No hungry generations tread thee down;

The voice I hear this passing night was heard

In ancient days by emperor and clown

This bird had flown all the way from Africa in a time of globalised trauma, when they are disappearing from our island as a species. We are all connected, we just need reminding sometimes.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the Saxon oak

The West Sussex Weald, February 2021

The final day of February. The seasons are exchanging but only in light. The first blackthorn flowers are breaking buds at the roadside. Two cyclists float past:

‘Do you really want Louis back?’ one of the women says to another.

They swerve away from two horse riders, one dismounted: ‘At least I know when to get off now. There’ no point pushing him if he’s so nervous.’

The light is golden, low. Birds are singing at spring levels, minus the continental recruits like blackcap, chiffchaff and willow warbler.

The ancient pond was frozen last week but now the water shimmers black and blue with broken reflections of the dark branches against the clear sky.

At the old road’s margins bluebells are leafing in patches. Beyond the shrubby edges the field opens out, home to a massive pine tree. Looking at the 19th century map of this landscape, the pine is there. It must be ancient but how old may not be discoverable.

Two jackdaws fly away from its branches, perhaps having found a suitable nest hole.

Winter is still here in the treetops at the field edge, where fieldfares chuckle, moving in small flocks deeper into the open field. Soon they will make their way north to warming breeding grounds. They feel like a treat, I don’t see or hear them that often.

A breeze rustle the oak leaves on the ground, building into a hush in the leaves of redwoods high above.

At the end of the lane stands an ancient oak tree, the Sun Oak. It probably marks an ancient boundary. A couple of weeks ago I was stood here admiring the tree and a man commented in passing:

‘Amazing, isn’t it? The farmer says it’s in the Domesday Book.’

I had always thought it was 800 years old. A refence to it in 1086 would mean it was already of significant size then. Could it really be over 1000 years old?

That puts it in the Saxon Age, a time so long ago it seems inconceivable. But that’s what makes these trees so special. They are living things that have, in their ecological existence, witness and processed so much time.

This tree, the Sun Oak, is of course on the 19th century map, too.

In the surrounding trees and woodland redwings are flocking, feeding and singing. It’s hard to describe the sound – like some distant chattering, a school playground carried on the wind perhaps. Whatever it is, it’s a sign of their need to gather. Along with the fieldfares, they will all soon be on their way and with them another season under the belt of the Sun Oak.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: a winter springline

West Sussex, December 2020

A storm has passed through overnight and in the morning the Arun is near flooding. All summer the river has been low, stagnant where managed by mini-dams installed to slow the flow through suburbia. On one footbridge where usually dogs jump in, chemicals and all, the river floods sections of the path, submerging the recently exposed roots of bankside alders. Those roots need to be underwater most of the time, and the storm had righted that wrong.

I speak to a man and a woman, armed with optics, on the footbridge. The river’s power is cause for relief. Even in 2020 these reminders of nature’s prowess can still be welcomed, even longed-for. They advise me on ways to avoid flooded footpaths, but I’m heading for higher ground anyway.

On the slopes silver birches stand in their ornamental regiments. They look like a stage set with their white trunks and even size. They bring forward mental images of Russian and other Eurasian art, hunters in the snow, or the main character feeling their way through the woods in an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Above their white bark it’s blue sky.

Out and across the open parkland, water sits in the grass like mini-marsh. A great spotted woodpecker arrives in the branches of an oak. Quiet, it sits in that semi-diagonal pre-creep. Long-tailed tits pass across the open plain, re-tangling in brambles that shield a private fence and garden.

The trees change from oak to dotted limes, a probably ancient sweet chestnut – where a woman with a dog lingers beside its massive trunk – and the collapsed limbs of a red horse chestnut. In the spring lockdown, when everything stopped, a workman chainsawed the fallen logs for a man who stood close by with his young son. They were all way too close to the saw and without any protective equipment. Above the noise I could hear the father earmarking the limbs and branches for future firewood. The workman carried on, loading logs onto a small trailer attached to his car.

The red horse chestnut might be ancient but it is most certainly veteran. The fallen limbs are a key part of that. It holds dead and decaying wood, plus the many places wildlife can move into. It has a single limb of young growth that will keep it living for as long as time allows.

Around it the fallen wood is covered in silver-leaf fungus, which is pleasing to look at more because of its purple glow. The fallen branches have created niches of long grass where mossbell mushrooms fruit, as well as a pale brown cup fungus (Peziza) that looks like an ear. I think the man marking up his future firewood lived in the converted mansion house a hundred metres away from the tree. I hope he can come back with his son, witness the fungi, and have a change of heart. These logs provide life for species that need them more than we need firewood.

Across the parkland old furrow lines lead to views of the North Downs, so much woodier than their sisters to the south. Here the hill drops down into a bowl, rising back up again, before dropping once more to where the Arun rocks and rolls.

At the foot of the first decline water floods and I look to jump over the deepest stretch without making a complete idiot of myself. But the pause to make a choice is a blessing. The nearby road roars with surprising levels of traffic, seeing as we are subject to severe restrictions on movement due to the Coronavirus. A higher pitch cuts the drone, however. Looking closer at the water, it is not still, it is bubbling up. It’s a springline. This is the first one I’ve ever seen in the ‘wild’ sense. Perhaps the overnight deluge has driven water up through the aquifer to create the rural equivalent of a bubbling sewer. It’s not something I know much about.

A few metres up the hill another spring pushes from below the surface, calming tremors tickle the surface like moving clouds. Further towards the road and the spring bursts up from a large pool that has formed, bubbles resting in its wake. Without pause, the water spits and splatters like a fountain. The sun falls behind the hill and this winter springline turns an oceanic blue.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald: the caddisfly on the streambed

St. Leonard’s Forest, West Sussex, December 2020

The cold has come to the woods, and with it, the silence of birds. It’s not all quiet. Rain has fallen overnight and there is a gushing to the hill as it wends its way through the woodland. Looking at the water I see the bare sandstone. The water, over a very long time, has cut through the soils and softer substrates. Walking here over several years I have wondered why the sandier heathlands rest high up and the ancient woodlands of oak, beech, hazel and holly grow only really in the clay gulleys. It’s here, the answer.  The stream has cut through the sand and washed the gravel away to reach the sandstone.

I follow the twisting stream up hill, jumping from bank to bank, where vegetation blocks progress. In a slowed stretch something small and black is moving against the flow on the clay streambed. It’s an invertebrate, what I think is a caddisfly with a pack of debris on its back. It looks to be trying to grab at a small stone or piece of material on the streambed. It could be ready to attach itself to the stone and move to its next stage, the pupa, before becoming an adult insect for a month next year.

Ferns spool out from the freshly leaf-laden banks and the trees are drenched in moss. It dawns on me: this is south-east England’s rainforest.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald: the buzzard’s lunch

The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020

Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.

From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.

A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.

‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.

I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’

Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.

I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.

All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.

As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.

Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.

The Sussex Weald