Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts from the ‘Woodlands’ category

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The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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Introduction

For seven years I volunteered and worked for London Wildlife Trust at Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood in south-east London. These woods are the largest remaining remnant of what is known as the Great North Wood. During that time I soaked up a lot of information, conducting my own research into the cultural and natural history of the area. I led guided walks and gave public talks on as many areas as possible related to the natural and cultural history of the area. I have condensed much of that information into this blog post. An earlier version of this post was handed out to attendees to walks and talks on behalf of London Wildlife Trust. My knowledge of the entire Great North Wood, which Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are the largest remnant of, is not strong enough to ‘write a book on’, but I have posted about the history of One Tree Hill, another remnant, before. This is my whirlwind around these precious woods from the time of glaciers to present day.

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Wildwood: 12,000 BC

The Dulwich woods are a collection of remnant ancient woodlands in south-east London, made up of Sydenham Hill Wood (a nature reserve managed by London Wildlife Trust), Dulwich Wood, Low Cross Wood, Hitherwood and Dulwich Upper Wood. The woods are generally known as Dulwich Woods or Sydenham Woods by local people, sometimes influenced by whether they are from the Sydenham side of the ridge in Lewisham or the Dulwich side in Southwark.

Parts of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods are thought to have been covered by woodland since the first trees returned to Britain at the end last glacial period, some 14,000 years ago. The end of the UK glaciers came when climate change led to a period of warming. This warming melted the great ice sheets that had spread across the Northern Hemisphere and sat north of London. As the ice melted, the ensuing water created lakes, rivers and wetlands and the rocky debris carried by the retreating ice carved open valleys and new landscapes. While what is now the British Isles remained connected to continental Europe, the Thames was a tributary of the Rhine in Germany. Today, off Sydenham Hill runs the Ambrook stream, a tributary of the Effra, a ‘lost river’ which still enters the Thames at Vauxhall.

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Doggerland (via Wikipedia)

Trees spread by seed on the wind or with the assistance of jays (‘scatter-hoarding’), red squirrels and small mammals. This ‘wildwood’ provided habitat for returning wolf, bear, lynx, elk, beaver, otter and deer, along with birds, mushrooms, insects and wildflowers. Hunter gatherers followed their prey into this more hospitable landscape and made settlements in the woods by clearing trees and creating more open areas to live in.

By 6,500 BC the ice had melted to such an extent across Europe that sea levels rose and flooded the low-lying plain between Britain and Europe, creating the British Isles as islands physically separate from Europe. By the Neolithic period (4,000 BC) the wildwood had been much reduced and people exploited nature’s resources like never before. The growth of farming, developed in the Middle East and spreading through Europe, meant that populations were increasing and the hunter gatherer’s way of life was disappearing.

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The coppices known as Peckarmans Wood in the 1800s, what is now Dulwich Wood

The Great North Wood: 500-1500 AD

The Dulwich woods are the largest remaining part of the Great North Wood, the early name given to what was left of the wildwood in south London by the Anglo-Saxon period (AD 410-1066). These remnant ancient woods straddled the clay ridge running from Honor Oak to Beulah Hill. The Romans had come and gone (AD 43-410), forging new roads and making use of the Great North Wood’s resources of oak, hornbeam and hazel, mining its clay for brick and pottery. It was the ‘north’ wood because it was north of Croydon, a thriving medieval market town. The Anglo-Saxons also wanted to differentiate between the Great North Wood and the Weald, another extensive woodland landscape that sits between the North and South Downs, running as far as Hampshire in the west and Kent in the east.

It was only later that placenames related to the woods began to appear: Selhurst and Brockley being two good examples. The use of ‘hurst’ at the end of a name indicates a wooded hill, possibly a place where timber was removed or used to some specific purpose, whilst ‘ley’ means a clearing or settlement in woodland. ‘Brock’ is the old English word for badger, an animal which still clings on today in secrecy. Names like Forest Hill are deemed artificial, though it likely refers to the wooded ridge of Sydenham Hill. The Great North Wood was no forest at all, unlike the New Forest, Ashdown Forest or Epping Forest, it was not created for the purpose of a royal hunting ground. ‘Norwood’ is arguably the single truest reflection of this ancient landscape. Penge is London’s only Celtic placename, meaning ‘the end of the woods’.

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Woodland workers removing the buttresses of an oak before felling. Coppice poles can be seen in the background

Woodland industry

The Dulwich woods have been patrolled or cared for by a warden since as early as the 1200s. One of the key industries was tanning, where the oak bark was peeled off and taken to the tanneries and soaked in with hides to make leather. From the 1600s to the mid-1800s it was the second largest industry in England. The tannery at Bermondsey was the destination for much of the woodland produce. Oak trees were harvested after some 80-150 years to build ships, therefore allowing the British military to ‘rule the waves’ and put the ‘Great’ in Great Britain, as some people say. Britain’s oaks ships were the upper hand in battles waged at sea against the Spanish, the Dutch and attacks against the Chinese mainland.

Britain’s isolation as an island protected it from land invasion after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and the end of Anglo-Saxon rule. The harsh strictures of Forest Law and later royal protections for woodland meant that up until the Napoleonic Wars, the oak resources in England enjoyed some stability. To make one oak ship today would likely require the entire felling of Sydenham Hill Wood and Dulwich Wood combined, some 25 hectares of woodland. Needless to say there is no appetite for such. We should also remember that the Dulwich woods were never ‘forest’ in the Norman term, despite what the word means today.

Colliers were charcoal burners who lived in the woods, an industry of huge importance to London and local villages. Trees like hornbeam were coppiced or cut down to their stump to form multi-stemmed trees that could be harvested for wood indefinitely. The wood was stacked into a kiln, in this case made from clay, and burned to create charcoal. Other woodland products included poles, posts, bavins (bundles of twigs for firewood known also as faggots), birch twigs for brushes and withies (long, thin hazel shoots).

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Margaret Finch in Norwood

The Norwood Gypsies and other local characters

One of the more interesting local placenames is Gypsy Hill, in reference to a camp of ‘gypsies’ who were famed for their presence there. Margaret Finch was known as ‘queen of the gypsies’ and was visited by the Victorian middle classes to have their fortune told. It is said she was so ‘decrepit’ she could only ever crouch. Other notable dwellers within the woods included Samuel Matthews, the hermit who lived in a cave dug near where the Cox’s Walk footbridge is. He was murdered in 1802 for his wealth collected as a jobbing gardener in nearby properties. He was said to be a popular local figure but his murderer was never convicted.

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Samuel Matthews (Steve Grindlay)

Local literary figures include William Blake, whose vision of angels took place on Peckham Common, possibly after a visit to the Dulwich woods in the 1760s (and maybe the ingestion of some magic mushrooms?). At the bottom of Cox’s Walk the poet Lord Byron studied at Dr. Glennie’s above what was then the Grove Tavern pub in 1799. John Ruskin walked in the woods during the time of the Crystal Palace, lamenting the place of the building on the wooded ridge.

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An elm tree enclosed inside the Crystal Palace in 1851

Enclosure: 1720-1830s

In the 1700s Acts of Parliament were put in place to remove common lands from public ownership and allow their sale and enclosure. Locally affected commons included Westwood or Sydenham Common which covered much of what is now Forest Hill, Dulwich Common which is best represented by the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course, Dulwich College playing fields and Dulwich Park, and Penge Common which was enclosed as Penge Place and is now Crystal Palace Park. Sydenham Hill Wood did not exist at this time but was a series of coppices spread across the Dulwich woods in the form of Peckarmans Coppice, Ambrook Hill Wood, Lapsewood, Kingswood and Vicars Oak Coppice.

This seismic political shift has created the townscape and suburbs we see today in London. It is only through hard-fought planning battles, philanthropic foresight and good fortune that any of London’s commons still exist. The enclosures put in place the eventual development of the coppices known today as Sydenham Hill Wood. By the 1730s Cox’s Walk had been cut through an area known as Fifty Acre Wood from Sydenham Hill in order to attract visitors from the Sydenham Wells to the Green Man Tavern at the junction of Lordship Lane and Dulwich Common, site of the Dulwich Wells where natural springs rose. By the early 1800s Fifty Acre Wood had been grubbed out for farming, now forming part of the Dulwich and Sydenham Hill golf course and the Marlborough Cricket Club fields.

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The Hoo on Sydenham Hill, now returned to woodland in Sydenham Hill Wood

The Victorians: 1800-1900

Immense change came to Sydenham Hill and Dulwich with the construction of the Crystal Palace in 1854. In 1865 the Crystal Palace High Level railway was cut through the Sydenham Hill coppices. It took millions of people to the Crystal Palace’s Great Exhibition until its eventual closure in 1954, after the Palace had burned down in 1936. The Cox’s Walk footbridge was constructed over the railway line to allow the continued use of the pathway. The Crescent Wood tunnel, which plugs the southern end of Sydenham Hill Wood, was closed to the public in the 1990s due to Health & Safety concerns and later it was designated as a registered bat hibernation roost due to the presence of brown long-eared and pipistrelle bats using the crevices in the old brickwork.

In the early 1860s the construction of large villas along the Great North Wood ridge running from Forest Hill to Beulah Hill began. The coppices of Sydenham Hill Wood were separated into smaller plots of land and sold on 99-year leases by the Dulwich Estate. The residents of these houses were wealthy, with some houses accommodating more than 20 people, in this case servants for the families. Lapsewood House was home to Charles Barry Junior, the designer of newer Dulwich College, North Dulwich Station and St. Peter’s Church next to Cox’s Walk. Another house, Beechgrove, was lived in by Lionel Logue in the 1930s and ‘40s, the speech therapist characterised in The King’s Speech. A garden folly was constructed with Pulhamite, a material patented by James Pulham, in the grounds of Fairwood. The cedar of Lebanon which still remains was in the grounds of the Sydenham Hoo and can be seen as a sapling in Victorian illustrations of the garden.

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Wood anemone is an indicator of ancient woodland in the Dulwich woods

The returning wild: 1950-present day

The advent of the First and Second World wars brought irreversible change. Traditional woodland management was extinct and the Victorian boom was over. Many of the houses were nearing the close of their leases in the 1950s and by 1980 all of them had been demolished. Local people had been entering the grounds of the old houses and the disused railway line since the 1950s. The landscape was returning to woodland as trees began to retake the gardens and railway cutting with no intervention taking place from either the Dulwich Estate or Southwark Council. In 1981 London Wildlife Trust were formed and by 1982 Sydenham Hill Wood had been designated as a nature reserve. This was after fraught and long lasting battles involving Southwark Council, the Dulwich Estate and local people spear-headed by London Wildlife Trust, the Dulwich and Sydenham Societies and the Horniman. London Wildlife Trust are now lease holder of Sydenham Hill Wood and each of the former mansion grounds running along Sydenham Hill. Today the Trust, Southwark Council and the Dulwich Estate are working in harmony to protect the natural heritage of the Sydenham Hill and Dulwich woods with the support of volunteers.

The woods are experiencing historically high numbers of visitors, with data suggesting that over 100,000 people step through each year. It is a critical time for people to access and understand our green spaces due to the dislocation many feel from nature and the impending threats of climate change and species loss. Sydenham Hill Wood is one of the most important green spaces in London for the story it can tell about human impacts on the land, challenging our concepts of what is natural and normal. Its 10ha has seen it all, surviving through all that our species has thrown at it in over 10,000 years of human history. It bears those scars but its wildness remains. Who knows what it will see in the next 100 years.

Further viewing:

The Dulwich Society archives

Mapping the Great North Wood – video

 

 

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Epping Forest, Essex/London, August 2018

Saturday morning in Epping Forest and so often a trip to the woods feels like leaving a world behind. The weekend shoppers, cyclists, children feeding ducks in the village pond. The open plain. Rain came yesterday in stormy downpours. It was so wet a local garden centre roof couldn’t contain it. Today the sun beats down on the still scorched grasslands, small copper and common blue butterflies drinking from ragwort flowers at the path’s edge.

Breaking into Epping Forest, the temperature sinks and the dampness swells. I’m here to photograph mushrooms, hopeful that the rain has prompted the fast-acting fungi to fruit. Last August autumn came early and Epping Forest was bursting with boletes, amanitas and russulas. Every step meant mushrooms. Over the past year that memory has spread through my mind like the hyphae of a fungus in the woodland soil. Today, the woodland floor offers the complete opposite.

Ganoderma fungus - Daniel Greenwood

Some fungi don’t need much water but for the majority of species it is fundamental to producing a fruiting body, otherwise known as mushroom or toadstool. Epping Forest has many dead trees that hold their own reserves of moisture in the cool, dank shade. The fallen beech trees that lay across the Forest host tough and long-lived bracket fungi that appear as hard as stone. Softer are the oyster mushrooms splashed against the old trunks. At first they are brown-capped but as they mature the cap spreads to match the creamy flesh of the gills.

In Epping Forest our former reliance on woodland trees for simple materials and fuel echoes into the age of disposable plastic and solar panels. Approaching Ambresbury Bank, areas of the Forest open out into exhibitions of old beech trees known as ‘lapsed-pollards’. These digit-heavy trees were once cut to a high stump or pollard. Their branches were pruned back for firewood and other thrifty woodland things. Many have not been cut since the 19th century, the era traditional, pre-forestry woodland management began to fade in the UK. The old way of doing things, that is.

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In the past few years I’ve come to know someone who grew up local to here, living through the Second World War, with the Forest as her childhood playground. She remembers doodle bugs running out of fuel and crashing down to destroy a house a week away from receiving new tenants and the greenhouses where her father grew mushrooms for a living. She also remembers a man approaching her and her sister in the woods but she was smart enough to get them away as quickly as she could.

Today she said something unusual to modern language, calling the path that runs centrally through the Forest a ‘ride’. This is an old woodland word harking back to the days when large trees were felled and carried out along a wide trackway cut through a wood. This act is where the phrase ‘the long haul’ originates from.

The use of the word was proof of a life lived close to woods and a bygone way of seeing them, before they became pure recreation areas, nature reserves or carbon sinks in the minds of citizens today. Now the ride is the domain of cyclists, tyres hissing on the still wet gravel, as well as dog walkers and horse riders. Though the trees are cut for conservation and their own preservation, no timber is drawn out along this ride in the way one local native of the Forest once knew.

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A few hundred yards ahead a small desire-line appears between brambles, leading to a noticeboard and huge trench. On the banks of the trench are pollard beech trees, which are in fact much younger than the trench. This area is known as Ambresbury Banks, an earthwork thought to have been dug out in 500BC by a pre-Roman, British tribe. Its aim was probably to protect the people from invasion or as a place to keep livestock.

The creators of Ambresbury Banks were like close to the true Brits or Picts of pre-Roman Britain, the ‘painted’ people. Unsubstantiated tales (or myths) tell that Boudicca’s final stand against the Romans took place here. It’s a story adopted by several green spaces in the hills of Greater London.

Another nugget of knowledge from my native Forester came with the true pronunciation of Ambresbury Banks when I told her where I was going for a couple of hours:

‘It’s “Aims-bury”,’ she said. ‘Not “Am-bres-bury”.’

I head back to the village following the route I came in on. Saturday walkers appear from behind trees, lost in the lack of ride and clear trackway. A glade has been formed by the collapse of an old beech tree. Its limbs grew as individuals from its base. Falling, they have pulled up soil and broken smaller trees in their wake. Now light fills the break in the canopy. Dragonflies compete for airspace, hoverflies bask on the sun-baked bark. Oyster mushrooms squeeze from cracks in the dead wood. The loss of this old tree has elements of sadness but look at the life that comes in its wake.

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This is an expanded version of an article that was first published in London Wildlife Trust’s Wild London magazine

It’s a sound that stops many in their tracks, the rattling in the canopy of woods, parks and gardens. It’s a sound that brings in the new year, signs of spring breaking through as our own seasonal celebrations draw to an end. While we are still deep in recognising our need to rest in the midwinter, our wildlife is busy setting out its quest for new life. Britain has three species of woodpecker and in January we begin to hear the hammering, or drumming, of the great spotted, the sound of male birds marking new territories. It’s a bird that is becoming more and more familiar to us in London as its numbers increase.

Its favoured habitat is oak woodland with plenty of rotting branches, trunks and limbs in which to create a new hole each year, ample habitat for the biggest of our two Dendrocopos woodpeckers, the great spotted. Dendrocopos translates from Greek as ‘wood-striker’.

One thing I have noticed in suburban locations is the woodpecker drumming on TV aerials and receivers. One great spot I’ve seen has found the plastic box now employed to improve TV signals makes decent percussion. It’s a wonder that this hammering on hard surfaces doesn’t cause the birds injury, but evolution has equipped them with shock absorbers in the back of their skulls that cushion the blow. It’s not the same as banging your head against the wall.

There are four members of the woodpecker family deemed native to Britain, with one now classified as extinct as a breeding bird. That is the wryneck (Jynx torquilla), a bird that migrates from Africa each spring in small numbers still. In 1904 a wryneck nested on south-east London, what was thought by the observer to be one of the last nests in his time, in south-east London historically.

Another of our four species has declined at a rate that has baffled ornithologists. The lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor) was noted in south London’s woods up until 2008. The odd autumnal record does crop up as the lesser spots are migratory, with one seen in 2015 in Brockwell Park in Lambeth.

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Lesser spotted woodpecker

One possible theory for the decline of lesser spotted woodpeckers (above) relates to the rise of the great spot and the disappearance of starlings from London’s woods as a breeding bird. When starling numbers were higher in woods they provided more competition for great spots.

This gave more space for the lesser spots, being much smaller, about the size of a sparrow or starling. As starlings and their ruckus have left the woods, the great spots have increased in number as they have experienced less competition and adapted to the boom in garden bird food. Lesser spots require a smaller hole in a tree to nest and if a great spot chooses the nest they can make the hole bigger and the lesser spots are pushed out.

Lesser spotted woodpeckers, however, are not extinct like the wryneck as a breeding bird and they still have strongholds in the UK. The most important place for them is the New Forest, one of the mythical heartlands of ancient English woods. There the management of the woods has remained the same for centuries, pointing to another reason for the species’ decline elsewhere. British wildlife is under increasing pressure from development and the loss of available food due to wider intensified management of the countryside.

So the two factors which are most harming lesser spots, and starlings, too, are a lack of habitat and food. The loss of food is a loss of invertebrate life being driven by agricultural intensification and a tidying up of green spaces, loss of gardens and general overuse of harmful, residual pesticides. Another key change is the loss of old orchards, another traditional habitat disappearing in Britain, one of the lesser spot’s favoured habitats.

The other member of the British quintet, if including wryneck, is the green woodpecker (Picus viridis). Green woodpeckers are different to the spotted woodpeckers because they don’t hammer to mark their territories but instead call, what was known for centuries as ‘yaffling’. An old name for a green woodpecker is ‘yaffler’. It’s a call that can be heard most clearly in woods and parks with mature trees, where green woodpeckers also nest.

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Oak woodland is a key habitat for woodpeckers

The call has a prehistoric feel about it, echoing deep into woodland, as the reverberation recedes. Greens differ again from the spotted woodpeckers because of their feeding habits, spending their time searching for ant colonies in woods and lawns. Naturally grassy sports pitches with a surrounding area of mature trees are a good place to find the birds. They lie low, shooting their long tongues down into nests to find food. It’s something you are very unlikely ever to see a great spotted woodpecker do.

For those curious and unsatisfied by the array of woodpeckers in London, remember that you will have to travel to continental Europe to find a greater diversity. Arriving in France you could meet with the biggest of all the European woodpeckers, the black woodpecker and heading as far as the great ancient woods of the Czech Republic, Poland or Romania, you can find as many as seven species. In British terms, the health of London’s woodpeckers reflect the state of the nation’s.

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In April 2014 I visited the Bavarian Forest, a landscape which, combined with the neighbouring Bohemian Forest in Czechia is the largest area of protected woodland in Europe. The Bavarian Forest or Bayerischer Wald, contains populations of lynx. In recent decades an outbreak of the spruce bark-beetle has devastated areas of conifer woodland. It is a remnant of the once vast Hercynian Forest.

The Bavarian Forest, Germany, April 2014

They burst from the slabs of granite like stony pillars. They are beech trees and they mask the view on all sides. They are giants imprisoning me on the path to Groβer Falkenstein. They are elephant limbs, they are victims of metaphor. Beneath them is a sea of copper and golden brown. The wind moves through last year’s fallen leaves and I think for a moment that it may be the sound of footsteps. Chunks of shining granite and smatterings of plant life break the spell of the endless leaves. Wood anemones, even this high, have opened their petals to the sun breaking through these yet leafing beeches.

I’ve travelled here over land and left the anemones coming towards the end of their annual cycle in London’s oldest woods. We have that in common, then, both species attempting to move through the woods of western Europe. Back home, I do my best to help them. Amidst my minute understanding of German and the feeling of isolation that brings as a lone traveller, I do get a sense of home from these white buttercups. Wood anemone is not the only plant to have made it up here, wood sorrel, one of the most common wildflowers in the Bavarian Forest, sits with its flower heads drooping, its leaves like the club from a pack of cards, still to be revealed. I continue on, touched by vertiginous thoughts as the path slaloms through the beeches, the mountainside steepening.

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A stream channels its music to my ear and the familiar spread of marsh marigold, a buttercup that I’ve planted in the marshy woods back home and dunked into my parents’ enamel sink-pond by the kitchen window. Yesterday I feared hypothermia in the snow around Zwiesel’s mountains but today I’m in a t-shirt and a large orange butterfly bursts across the stream. It drives around me in a circle, never taking a moment to rest, it must still be too cold for it to pause too long. Butterflies need a body temperature of about 32 degrees to fly and forage properly. They often hold their wings out to trap hot air and warm their hairy bodies. It’s not as simple a manner of basking as it may seem. I think it’s a silver-washed fritillary.

I have come to the continent with a sense of something missing from England’s wildlife. This butterfly is one that was more common in England but has declined. It is a butterfly of woodland rides, laying its eggs on dog violets, plants which grow in my front garden and in our local woods. Last August in London I visited the doomed Heygate Estate in the Elephant and Castle to shadow an invertebrate survey with local entomologist, Richard ‘Bugman’ Jones. Led through the fencing by private security guards with gigantic German shepherds caged in the boot, we stepped out onto the parkland under the shade of cherries and mature London plane trees. The flicker of a butterfly’s wing caught my eye and Richard threw his net into the air. Looking at the contents we discovered a silver-washed fritillary. I could not quite believe it.

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There is a sudden drop in temperature as I turn up the path, a chill wind skis across. In the shadows beneath boulders sits the remnants of yesterday’s snow. The spruce trees return, the snow thickening, slush on stone a recipe for serious injury. This is primary spruce woodland, or natural forest, formed without the helping hand of humans. However, the dominance of spruce lower down is due to the intervention of foresters (förster) in the first half of the twentieth century, as in England, when timber was needed to fuel either side of the world wars. It is telling – one of war’s casualties are woods.

From the boulders comes the drip of melting snow. Through the trees I see a large house that marks Groβer Falkenstein’s height of 1315m. A whisper passes through the highest spruce trees. A number of trees have been felled, the stumps cut with chainsaws. The ‘step cut’ in the stumps is still there, the torn wooden ‘hinge’ which the forester leaves intact and that helps guide the tree in the right direction when falling, throws up splinters.

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I hear voices, laughter and that peculiar zenith-community that exists atop well-attended mountains of this kind. Four happy Germans appear to be double dating. I sit on a picnic bench by a cleared space of spruce, the scene hazy at best, the cloud cloaking the valley below. I hear a dunnock singing, a shy garden bird that instead nests in dense upland spruce plantations in this part of Europe. I eat some nuts and chocolate and head past a lady walking a hund, to the other side of the peak. The snow is deep, I clamber over spruce trunks to get to a plateau. One path back down has been closed due to nesting peregrine falcons. In London, 2014 holds 27 pairs.

I take a seat down on some soft, dead grasses, all around me are the dead and rotting stands of spruce said to have been killed by a spruce bark beetle outbreak. Many of the trees have been allowed to rest for fungi and other smaller, subtler wildlife, one of any woodland ecosystem’s most important aspects – the recyclers. I take it all in – the hazy folds of mountains, the glistening rooftops of immaculate Bavarian churches and towns. I head off and down through the spruce woods, under the song of the ring ouzel and firecrest. This path will take me to the realm of the lynx.

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In September 2017 I visited the White Carpathians on the Czech side of the Czech-Slovak border. The White Carpathians hold wood pasture meadows with the highest plant diversity on Earth per square metre. This is a landscape heavily impacted by people but may be fairly close to the pre-human ‘wildernesses’ of Europe. Here conservation efforts have yielded great success in preserving part of a once international wildlife corridor.

The White Carpathians, Czechia (a.k.a Czech Rep.), September 2017

The sun beats down on the village of Vápenky and in the trees high winds blow off from over the White Carpathians. The sky is a deep, summer blue but in the orchards the colours of autumn are appearing. The meadows are dry and grain-coloured, red apples and green pears drop into the cropped grass.

We follow the forestry road through tall beech woods that stand like the framework of a cathedral incomplete. The wind lashes them but some stillness rests in the opening low between the silver-grey trunks. The limestone quarry track bends up and over into a clearing where the forestry machines have deeply rutted the road. They have also cleared the trees but for one long, thin beech that stands alone, its bark bleached by the sun.

The landscape of a recently deforested area is shocking, wreckage. But this industry is one of the most important in the whole of Czechia. Many lives are sustained by it. Still, I wish we could find a way for horses to still remain an integral part – something I’ve seen in Romania – and that its culture was not so macho, chauvinist and driven by putting profit above good ecological stewardship.

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The clearing of trees has opened up views of the valley, showing forested mountains and peach rooftops. For a country that is nowhere near as pious as neighbours Poland and Germany, each village or town has it church, climbing above all else.

We are looking for a nature reserve called Porážky but our map failed to show the road we were taking some time ago. We speak to a Czech woman heading down a track with freshly picked parasol mushrooms in her hand. She points us back up the trackway, fingernails cut and painted indigo, her hair dyed reddish-brown.

The end of forestry land is always marked by a boost in tree diversity. Here hornbeam, a tree of no forestry value, grows. So too hazel, oak and small-leaved lime – the Czech national tree. These are all species of the pre-industrial forestry age, wildwood species of great use to human hand and hearth, but not the modern machine.

Light breaks through the edging of broadleaved wood to reveal grasslands and the sky atop the hill. Again the wind gusts. Reaching its top we enter Porážky, the protected area of wood pasture we had hoped to find. The landscape is cropped grass and single oaks. You would have not the slightest idea that these are the richest meadows on earth.

They are a man-made and exploited habitat, but they are the truest symbol of harmony between people and nature. In fact, they may even be closer to what the pre-human woodland landscape of Europe was like, due to the cropping of large, roaming groups of wild grazing animals we have now made extinct. ‘Rewilding’ in its purest or most puritanical form wants that world back.

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The White Carpathians are the lowest lying, most westerly extent of the Carpathians massif, stretching east to Romania where they reach their zenith. It is a landscape that holds great mystery, wildness and fascinating human cultures. What a life it could be to travel back and forth across the range, witnessing its wildlife and spending time with the people making a living from its soils, woods and meadows.

Eddie, my hiking companion, and I, have been to their furthest point, and there, too, are found meadows of great diversity. In Romania ancient traditions are dying out as people move to cities – what contrarily is thought to be the driving force behind the return of wolf, bear and other megafauna – the rewilder’s dream. In the White Carpathians conservation initiatives have led to the protection of the meadows and their continued management.

Two days ago we visited the headquarters of the Bílé Karpaty protected landscape area or CHKO in Veselí nad Moravou where we learned that one of the great successes for the organisation has been the return of orchards to the landscape. Vast tracts of this landscape have been returned from arable farming to species-rich grassland, righting wrongs of the post-war Soviet era. Fruit trees have returned because they offer something in return to local people – fruit.

Here in Moravia the Czechs have achieved great things. Grasslands are the most threatened habitat in the world, due to intensive agriculture, afforestation and development, and they have succeeded in both conserving what remains and bringing it back in other areas.

I have recently taken an interest in the Twitter account of Tibor Hartel, an ecologist in Romania whose work includes the mapping of ancient wood pasture. Unlike Czechia, Romanian wood pasture is poorly protected and local groups and individuals must act independently to save these amazing places often, it would seem, without government help. Imagine that this landscape once ran across the Carpathians, from Moravia, through the Ukraine, to Transylvania in the eastern corner of Europe. Even Prince Charles has taken an interest.

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Walking through Porážky it has the feel of an English parkland, the single oaks dotted amongst the green. I first visited here in 2014, hiking over the meadows with Libor Ambrozek, the former Czech Environment Minister and then head of the White Carpathians protected landscape area, or CHKO. I was blown away, the sheer abundance of orchids and the fact of its singular richness. In May 2014 a storm blew in and we were drenched in the open pasture. Today the wind overwhelms and the sun bears down, the glare intense.

Jays pass almost every few seconds, back and forth to stash acorns. They are in the process of ‘scatter-hoarding’the act of burying acorns in places that may well one day grow into the new oak trees of this landscape. These are birds in an autumn-pique. Beyond them buzzards soar but the wind deters the smaller species. In the grasslands clouded yellow butterflies feed on knapweeds and dandelions, red admirals bolt from the dark plantations. We find a single aspen, its trunk crooked, whipped north by decades of strong winds. Half its canopy shows red in its leaves.

To many this kind of landscape is at odds with the contemporary ethic of rewilding, or ‘allowing land to return to its natural state’. If that were to happen here many species would become extinct. One plant clinging on, Pedicularis exaltata, a species of lousewort, is only found in this area away from other localities in Belarus, Ukraine and Romania. Its presence suggests a once-continuous wood pasture landscape across the Carpathians between the Czech-Slovak border and eastern Romania. It can’t be seen today as it flowers in spring and summer. Instead the ground is dotted with meadow saffron, a pink crocus.

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The wood pasture as it looks today was created and ‘refined’ thousands of years ago by people clearing woodland – likely of oak, ash, hornbeam and hazel – to allow their domesticated cattle and goats and Mesopotamian sheep to graze. At least that is the common understanding, for could the presence of large, roaming groups of wild horses, bison, elk and other herbivores have meant a landscape more open than the idea of coast-to-coast closed canopy woodland? Compared with today’s measure, the deforestation work of our species was sustainable deforestation due to the population sparsity, moving a possibly more dense wildwood to something more open in places.

The current management and conservation of wood pasture relates to the belief that habitats which are species-rich are the ones which are most important and valuable. But they need to be maintained. If their management involves local people, provides sustenance and perhaps employment, it will work, especially in a place like Czechia. This may lack the perceived poetry of rewilding, but its practicality brings results: the continued existence of the world’s most important wildflower meadows and all the other chains of life which depend on them.

With thanks to my travel companion Eddie Chapman, friend and guardian Zuzana Veverkova, Ivana Jongepierova and everyone at the CHKO office.

 

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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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