Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Deer’

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

I stand on the long, straight track that cuts through the heart of St. Leonard’s Forest. I recently looked for it on a map from the 1870s. I thought it might have been a 20th Century addition to ease forestry operations. To my surprise, it was there cutting through what today remains a heavily wooded landscape.

Looking around, it’s probably even more wooded now. In the 1870s, the woodland was likely oak and beech with holly underneath. Where pines now stand abandoned to nature, heathland probably expanded over more open areas.

The name ‘forest’ actually denotes open land where laws once controlled gathering of natural resources and the hunting of animals, with brutal consequences for rule breakers. ”Aforestation’ was the implementation of Forest Law on more land, often at the expense of entire vilages of people.

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At one point in history, a third of England was subject to Forest Law. It was a landscape of oppression, violently enforced by England’s Norman conquerers after 1066. The management and control of deer was a key part of the Norman forest landscape.

The track is endless in this crepuscular light. At the edges ditches are stuffed with bracken which has yellowed in the August heatwave. Sudden explosions of heather interrupt the vertebra-like leaves of the bracken.

Ahead I can see two people or animals. The light is fading, the sun has slipped beyond the pines. As I get closer I can see one is a roe deer. The other figure has gone. The deer are grazing the edges of the ditches, stopping to check on my progress. I’m moving slowly, but hurrying with my hands to change the lens on my little camera to one with more reach. I get closer but it doesn’t fear me. It turns and walks away into the dark woodland.

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Walking further down the old track, a pathway, broad and green appears on my left. Two fallow deer are looking at me. They must have been grazing with the calm roe I have just passed, but they are less accepting. They scarper, one zig-zagging and leaping to distract what is a would-be predator.

Then, from the bushes, a roe deer has been startled and lurches across the path into the undergrowth that the fallow deer has disappeared into. Squashed into that small green lane, that burst of animal limbs felt almost like watching a stampede.

The Sussex Weald

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Sika deer

Newton Stewart, Galloway, Scotland, February 2014

A lady with a crutch and white hair slipping from a woollen hat stops me in the road. She saw me photographing the upturned soil and root plate of a gigantic spruce. Her accent suggests she has moved here from England:

‘I’ve seen about half a dozen deer in the woods just up there,’ she says. ‘If you’re quiet you might see them.’

I thank her and take my camera from the bag, pulling my hood up to shade out my face. The day is bright, sunny and warm. Beyond the dry stone wall the woodland begins, a line of evergreens creating a dense bank of shade along the wall, before the characteristically decrepit and mossy trees of an old Scotch wood. I look into shadows and see that a deer is watching me. It’s a sika deer, the first one I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t seem frightened. It turns to me, then away again, grazing behind the line of dark trees. I follow it along, it doesn’t gallop or run. Its path leads me to two more animals, one of them a stag, new antlers primitive but still impressive. It stares at me behind the wall – there’s a good twenty-metres between us. I’ve been photographing them the entire time. I think back to the venison sausages I had at the Galloway Arms, the conversation I had with the bar man:

‘Everyone thinks they’re all cute and cuddly, like Bambi,’ he’d said. ‘No one wants to kill them.’

‘But not everyone knows what they do to woodlands,’ I’d said, thinking aloud.

‘Well, exactly!’ he’d affirmed in his thick Scotch accent.

I know their numbers are at their highest in the United Kingdom since the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago (so are ours, by the way). I know the link between the nightingale’s sudden decline in England and deer overgrazing woods, not that the nightingale makes it up here to Scotland. But I could not kill one of these animals. I’d rather leave that to the lynx, or even the wolf. I put my camera away and make my way along the empty road.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Sweet chestnut coppice

King’s Wood, Kent, December 2012

The piles of birch trunks tell us that this chalky fringe of King’s Wood has recently been coppiced. The heartwood glows golden against the black, brown and grey of a winter’s afternoon. The paths are boggy, holding the tracks of boots and the tyre marks of cyclists and scramblers. Large ditches appear at intervals, home to trees and dead wood. A Soakham Downs poster a little way back identified these as chalk pits dug in old times to extract the chalk from the soil. The chalk was then spread in the fields – what once would have been woodland – to fertilise the soil, left to weather under sun and rain.

Further ahead the woodland opens in earnest, endless tracts of sweet chestnut coppice climbing into the sky. A brown puddle reflects the bare branches. Sweet chestnut provides the nuts we like to roast at Christmas, as well as forming the most economically viable form of coppicing in today’s market. The poles are cut after about five or six years and split down the middle to make chestnut paling, a type of fencing used in parks and nature reserves up and down the country. It’s another aspect of the Roman’s botanical legacy – they brought it along with them. The vertical slant of the branches is interrupted by a movement of four legged animals crossing our path in the distance. Our talking pauses as we watch an endless trail of deer move from right to left, disappearing into the trees. One of them was all white and it sticks in my mind like a puncture. We make our way towards Chilham, stopping briefly to search amongst these overgrown trees for walking sticks. We listen to the multiple stems tapping together as the wind steals through, some trees creaking. This a sound that in the endless scene of coppiced trees we mistake for shrill and distant calls of people.

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