The bluebell trespass

One of the most beautiful sights in English nature is a Low Weald bluebell woodland. The shimmer of blue in the evening sun pocked by the white stars of wood anemones. These are my favourite evenings of the year, the promise of spring but still delivering on all you had hoped to see in the darker months. Summer just can’t match this.


This square of woodland in the Sussex Low Weald was not officially open access, but we kept to the paths and no bluebells were harmed in the making of these images. There is a lot of conversation about access to the countryside at the moment in England, and how power and privilege resonates in the landscape. These are important conversations and the issues are complex.

It was my first visit to this woodland, much like another picturesque bluebell wood a little further north that has now been completely closed to public visitors. A look at the maps shows how a larger landscape of natural woodland had been chomped up by farmers to become fields, leaving this section completely isolated. That will have occurred over the past few hundred years.

However, it had all the key indicators of ancient woodland, as seen here: English bluebell, wood anemones, greater stitchwort, dog’s mercury, wood spurge, and all under a shrub layer of hazel and high canopy of oak.

This kind of habitat is very much human-made, with centuries of coppicing hazel and felling of oak standards. That doesn’t stop it from being good for wildlife, coppice woodland is one of the richer landscapes in the UK.

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The Sussex Weald

A trip to Wild Nephin National Park ๐Ÿ‡ฎ๐Ÿ‡ช

In March I visited Wild Nephin National Park at the Atlantic edge of Ireland, in Co. Mayo. I thought it was called Ballycroy National Park, but the name seems to have been updated.

The mountains here are the Nephin Beg range. There’s a great visitor centre here and a brilliant cafe run by a very friendly couple. I’d seen these mountains from afar for years but this was my first time in the National Park.

The National Park itself is said to be home to golden eagles, which I hadn’t realised were present in Ireland. It’s also where one of Europe’s largest blanket bogs resides, a special type in this region known as Atlantic blanket bog. Great name!

If you want to read more about this landscape I would recommend Sean Lysaght’s book Wild Nephin. Copies are available in the cafe also. I really recommend it, also Sean’s poems.

I’ve tried to work out the names of the mountains but may have some of them wrong. I’d welcome corrections in the comments and will amend.

Here are some images I took during our visit to Ballycroy:

Nephin mountain
Scree and stream bed on Nephin
Mountain I don’t know the name of with cottage for scale
Croagh Patrick, possibly the most famous mountain in Ireland
Mulranny view towards mountains
Sheep with lambs
View of Croagh Patrick from Mulranny, across Clew Bay
Cleggan Mountain Trail (boardwalk just visible on the left) and view towards Achill
Cnoc Leitreach (Owenduff Hill) I think!
The Ballycroy visitor centre boardwalk loop
Sunny day in Ballycroy
Gorse in flower
Inishbiggle mountain (I think)
Views towards Nephin Beg mountain range
Local farming in Ballycroy
Abandoned farmstead near Ballycroy. Note the succession of rushes, grasses and gorse onto the green of the ‘improved’ grassland.

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Is it safe to come out yet? ๐Ÿ‘€

Two years ago I began posting a weekly macro blog, mainly because of the UK Covid-19 lockdowns, which only allowed us to leave the house once a day. I kept to those rules to protect other people, ultimately sacrificing much of the time I would have been able to spend with my Dad in the final two years of his life. If you’re in the UK and in touch with current affairs, I think you probably know why I’m making that point. During the lockdowns I spent a lot of time in my garden, in a house we had only just moved into, and relished the opportunity to get to know the tiny lives being lived in the small space of my back garden.

I mention all this because I now have nothing like the same amount of time to spend outdoors in the garden. So what time I do have out there is precious. One thing that hasn’t changed too much is that I am one of those privileged people who is able to work flexibly and I can visit my garden on breaks. I’m yet to receive a passive aggressive post-it note from a bespectacled Somerset MP.

I popped out one morning recently and found a neighbour had returned, though they were rather nervous about leaving their own quarters. For many people, it’s a similar issue.

Last June I got some of my best ever macro photos as I leant over my fence, straining my lower back to capture photos of a fencepost jumping spider. I was pleased to see this beautiful spider in the same spot once again this year. It was rather timid and if I got too close it would dart back in. The photo above has been edited to bring out the shadows so you can see those beautiful cartoon eyes. I think this species is mainly interested in hunting the flies and other winged-insects that bask on the hot spot of the fence top.

The spider did venture out on occasion, but after a couple of minutes I felt it was best to leave it to do its work, what is of course key to its survival.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

A glimpse of Mayo’s dark skies ๐ŸŒŒ

Mayo is Ireland’s only dark sky park, internationally recognised for its low levels of light pollution. Basically it’s super starry. Here are a few images from the front door (the only door) of my family’s cottage in northern Mayo.

Tree lungwort lichen in western Ireland ๐Ÿ„

Since 2013 I have been visiting a small area of ‘Celtic rainforest’ I know in Co. Mayo in Western Ireland. It’s hard to find much ecologically significant woodland in Mayo, a place of vast peat bogs, wetlands and where the woodlands are largely low diversity plantations of spruce and larch. Nine years ago I found one woodland on the map and asked my parents if they wouldn’t mind dropping me off there. In March 2022 I had about 30 minutes to check in on this real gem of an oak woodland.

I don’t want to give the name of the woodland openly because it is incredibly sensitive and is already experiencing the impacts of anti-social behaviour (fires, litter, human waste… not that you would head straight there to mess it up!) but if you want to know the details you can contact me via email for info (unlockinglandscapes@gmail.com). It’s one of the special Western Atlantic oak woodlands which the western edges of Scotland, England, Wales and Ireland are known for. This woodland is rich in ancient woodland plantlife and is also good for fungi, as you might expect due to the long-term stability of ancient woodland species communities.

Upon entering I spotted the little red traffic light of a scarlet elf cup in among the moss. This is a species which thrives in damp and shady woodlands near water.

The woodland here is close to a large lough so it is never short on moisture.

I was astonished to find this naturally-occuring terrarium on the woodland floor. Someone had chucked a jar here and the mosses and other plantlife had colonised it.

Anyway, I was here to check for an uncommon lichen in the UK & Ireland – tree lungwort, Lobaria pulmonaria. It’s a massive lichen that can be found in these ‘Celtic rainforest‘ habitats. The Woodland Trust say it’s an incredibly rare habitat.

After a few minutes of searching where I had found it back in 2017, I saw this. It is a seriously impressive species.

I was so pleased to find the tree lungwort again. It’s unlike similar organisms we find in the UK. It makes far more of its fungal elements than other lichens through its size and spread. Remember: in lichens, fungi provide the physical structure and fruiting mechanism (usually a cup-style spore shooter), while the cyanobacteria or algae are able to photosynthesise and harvest energy from the sunlight.

The oak trees in Celtic rainforest provide habitat for plants as well as lichen. There are often modest ivy vines trailing the trunk, as well as other epiphytes such as ferns and mosses:

Another thing I noticed was oaks leafing on the 31st March. This may be the earliest I have ever seen oak come into leaf, but the race between ash and oak is certainly a contest. The old saying of “If the oak before the ash, then we’ll only have a splash, if the ash before the oak, then we’ll surely have a soak” doesn’t quite play out from my experience. The very warm March we’ve experienced in the British Isles has possibly more of a role to play in this than traditional benign weather or climate patterns might.

One thing I learned from observing the other communities of tree lungwort were that the lichen seemed to prefer younger trees. I didn’t observe any on more mature specimens of oak. There didn’t appear to be a lot of oak regenaration but then again there was no danger of overgrazing due to the quite isolated nature of the woodland, its lough-side location and livestock being nowhere near.

Another lichen I observed was one of the pixie cup lichens in the Cladonia group but I couldn’t tell you the exact species.

There were many candidates for #StickOfTheWeek, so much so that there wasn’t even much of a stick to look at!

Thanks for reading

Further fungi

Stonehenge: lumps and bumps in the landscape

In September 2021, on the way back from a visit to Dorset, I managed what birders call a ‘life-tick’. This wasn’t a case of dropping in on a rare bird to add it to a life sightings list. No, instead it was visiting the World Heritage Site of Stonehenge for the first time in my life.

Many people in southern England will have witnessed Stonehenge’s standing stones as they crawl along the A303 in Wiltshire. But how many notice the many burial mounds?

How many people knew (maybe before they watched The Dig on Netflix) that the stones were a minuscule part of the site’s wider significance? That the site itself is a vast burial ground, with lumps and bumps (as seen above) dotted throughout this part of Salisbury Plain?

I am no expert on burial mounds, more like someone who knows a couple of garden birds when they see them. Burial mounds have different names, often they are classed as a type of earthwork or tumulus. There are bowl barrows, some of which are huge mounds of earth, built up upon the bodies and significant objects or possessions of a person or family. The South Downs have been described as one long ancient graveyard, with mounds evident across much of the 100 mile long ridge. In places like the South Downs and Salisbury Plain, the freshly turned chalk would have stood out for miles in these vast, wide open landscapes. It’s a bit like those of you with white Range Rovers or Teslas sitting on your paved-over front garden in Kensington. It’s a status symbol.

When I drive along the A303, perhaps once a year when heading south-west, I ask my fellow passenger(s) to play spot-the-burial-mound in the surrounding fields while I focus on the road. Stonehenge itself is not only special for its stones, it’s about the wider expanse, either side of the A303.

This place is important to many people, even beyond the tourists like me passing through the turnstiles at the new visitor centre. Along a lane that cuts across the A303, people had camped in mini-buses with flags flying high.

I don’t know why they were there, but the scale of the transport shows it wasn’t a stop of for a quick cup of tea.

One thing I loved about the stones was the life that had developed on them. Here you can see the growths of lichen and smatterings of algae.

Far more entertaining and animated than the lichens were the flocks of starlings sheltering from the gusts of wind (although it was actually quite hot) in the crevices of the stones.

Their behaviour was autumnal, gathering into groups, whistling and clicking. They will have been in this place when the stones were constructed thousands of years ago. Their numbers must have been incredible.

In addition to the starlings were rooks, a crow of ploughed land with a bill that looks to have been dipped in chalk. They will no doubt have found things to scavenge from the millions of visitors who make it to Stonehenge every year. The rook seen here was perched where a stone once was, with the tenon-type part of the rock used to secure the top stones in place when originally constructed.

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Early spring at Petworth Park

A series of photos from a sunny late winter/early spring afternoon in Petworth Park. Though it’s located in the South Downs National Park, it’s a Wealden landscape of huge ancient oak and sweet chestnut trees. The views of the South Downs from Petworth are heavenly.

The oaks and chestnuts seen here are very old. The wider landscape contains some of the oldest oaks in Britain.

Photos taken with an Olympus E-M5 MIII + 12-45mm f4 lens, lightly enhanced in Adobe Lightroom.

Solidarity with the people of Ukraine ๐Ÿ‡บ๐Ÿ‡ฆ

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The Sussex Weald

Fungi ๐Ÿ„: Storm Eunice picks her stick of the week

This was the week when fungi made a comeback in the form of windblown sticks.

I used to do post-storm checks in an oak woodland. It was a really enjoyable task, which may come as a surprise to hear. One benefit of all the damage to trees was seeing what previously was only seen by birds and squirrels in the canopy. By this I mean lichens and other fungi attached to windblown wood.

The West Sussex Weald after the storm

We’ve just had one of the worst storms in thirty years hit the UK, with the first-ever red warning for parts of SE England and the strongest gust on record at the Isle of Wight – 122mph. It has long been predicted that climate change would create more intense weather and the scientists are being proven right. This is at the same time that some of the more reactionary British MPs are seeking to use Brexit tactics to attack plans to protect people from the climate crisis.

A tree blocking the path at National Trust Nymans

From my experience, one of the big ‘losers’ in stormy weather in SE England is the beech tree (Fagus sylvatica). Beech is a ‘poor compartmentaliser’, meaning it isn’t particularly good at preventing fungal decay or rot from spreading to other parts of its anatomy. Oak is better evolved to deal with this.

This was a thought I had on Friday (18th February) as the winds whipped up around outside. I thought of all the beech trees in the Sussex Weald and Downs, exposed on their respective ridges, and how vulnerable they can be.

On Sunday, a visit to the National Trust’s Nymans (so woke, bro) revealed a beech to have suffered. Nymans sits on an exposed ridge, with fantastic views across the Weald (to the Ouse viaduct) and the South Downs. One path was closed and in the distance a beech tree had fallen across it. Taking a detour round and looking at the damage, there was clear evidence that it wasn’t just the storm that was to blame – fungal decay had softened the tree up.

At some point earlier in the tree’s life, decay had entered the tree’s core, leaving it open to this kind of collapse. I’ve posted about something similar previously:

It’s a natural part of life on earth but causes problems for more controlled environments where people want to walk under trees and where they perform vital services as ‘green infrastructure’ among the grey. People who work in insurance will be very busy for the next few weeks assessing the damage that the storm, combined with fungal decay in trees, has caused.
A windblown magnolia tree – spot the mushroom in the background

Also at Nymans, a magnolia tree (which I mistook for an ash until I checked the buds) had succumbed. The roots had snapped and the tree had fallen across a path.

As you can see from this photo, the fungal decay was dominant in the tree’s core. This is probably about 30-40% of the tree’s inner wood close to the roots. The decay had spread to the roots, which is probably what caused them to fail. Tension, which holds the tree up, is lost when the roots give way and thus the tree falls.

This is where the treasure is found. When the branches that were once high up meet the ground, interesting lichens and fungi can be seen for the first time.

At Nymans there were plenty of little sticks with beautiful lichens on show (you may be able to tell these are phone pics). You can look at #StickOfTheDay or #StickOfTheWeek on Twitter if you want to see more of these.

My best find of this kind was a piece of decaying oak wood that I spotted the night before. I saw in the dark this glowing thing under a hedge, underneath an oak tree I knew was in decline. I picked them up and stored them away to be photographed the following day.

This was a stunning collection of foliose (leafy) lichens and a species of Trametes fungus, likely to be turkey tail. It perfectly illustrates the importance of decaying wood in trees, whereby the ‘dying’ wood becomes a source of nutrition and, indeed, a home for the fungi and lichens. Deadwood (saproxylic) insects will be inside the wood helping to break the wood down further. It’s what woodlands across Europe are losing due to the ‘coniferisation’ of plantations and the lack of space to allow woodlands to do their thing. Storms included.

The photo above took off when I posted it on Twitter. So much so that it made its way into the strange world of Weed/Marijuana-Gaming Twitter. Sorry to disappoint those in that netherworld, but I hadn’t even considered that someone might “smoke it” until I saw those replies.

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

The Weald: misty views from Leith Hill

Leith Hill, Surrey, January 2022

When you talk about the highest point in south-east England, I wonder what people living far away must think. We’re not talking great peaks here, but instead a stone tower on a modest 313m-high hill. And this tower of course sells tea.

I’m referring here to Leith Hill, a hilltop managed by the National Trust. Leith Hill has stood out to me over the past two years, most tantalisingly during lockdowns when I could see it from the furthest I could legally walk from my house in the most extreme lockdown times.

The tower is built from sandstone that was probably quarried nearby. This stone, if it is said material, is often a sign locally of wealth and status, when local materials indicated as much. This part of the world is geologically rich, with the landscape having so many stories to tell about the Earth and deep time.

“This tower together with 5 acres of land was presented to The National Trust for places of historic interest or natural beauty by W.T(?) MacAndrew Esq. of Reigate on 5th October 1923 to be held for the public”

Leith Hill sits on the Greensand, distinct from the Weald Clay to the south and the chalk of the North Downs seen here in the distance looking north towards London.

Leith Hill seen from the Sussex Weald (looking north) in May 2020 when England was under strict lockdown

Throughout the lockdowns I would see this distant hill from where I lived in Sussex. Though I hadn’t seen them for several months, I knew that my family were locked down on the other side in London. It was a strange comfort. My dad would sometimes send a photo of the North Downs that he could see far in the distance on clear days. Even when kept apart the landscape seemed to connect us.

When visiting Leith Hill and looking to the south, there were misty views of the Surrey and Sussex Weald. Millions of years ago this would not have been visible, with everything instead being covered by a dome of chalk that connected as far as NW France. This is the land bridge that megafauna like wolves, bears and mammoths would have used to enter what we now call Britain. Don’t tell the Priti Patel.

The chalk was eroded over millions of years and exposed the Weald Clay, which soon was covered by wildwood. That woodland lingers today in more formal oak, hornbeam and hazel woods that are now managed as coppices or nature reserves. Beyond the picnicking couple (above) you can see Leith Hill Place, originally built in 1600.

There is a unique pine tree up on the hill, a survivor from some of the first trees to arrive in this landscape after the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. Though there was probably a more Anglicised pine species, the Scots pine is the only UK variety remaining. It thrives in this heathy landscape of the Greensand Hills.

Thanks for reading.

The Weald

The Sussex Weald: the little chimney bird

The other morning I was heading downstairs to do the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual event is one I’ve been partaking in since 2011 when my interest in birdwatching got real.

I opened the curtains as I do each day (obviously?) and saw a lovely sunny winter’s morning out there. The street was filled with sunshine and, down by the tyre of a parked car, I noticed a small grey bird basking in the sun.

Sparrow, I thought.

As the seconds passed I thought of how usually there are more of them together, usually they make noise. Their markings are different, too.

A dunnock, then, I thought.

But then it flew up onto a wall and I picked up my binoculars. It was neither of those birds.

The other day I had been visiting a churchyard in the Sussex Weald when I noticed another sparrow-like bird perched in an unusual place – on the corner of one of the lower roofs. When travelling in France, Germany, Spain and Czechia, I had become used to seeing a little bird in this spot. It was then that I realised what the bird in the churchyard and, subsequently, the street was.

Black redstart.

A male black redstart in an old Czech town

This is bird very close to a robin in appearance but they are rare in Britain. In winter they spend time here if pushed across to Plague/Brexit Island by extreme cold weather. On the continent, robins are more scarce, a role-reversal of sorts and they spend more of their time in woodlands, rather than gardens or parks in towns. This is thought to be because robins established themselves in Britain before black redstarts could get a foothold after the end of the last glacial period some 14,000 years ago. I can’t back that theory up here unfortunately.

A male black redstart in Mikulov, Czechia

In Czechia the name for black redstart is a beautiful one: rehek domรกcรญ. They are known as ‘little chimney men’, as my friend translated it, because they appear covered in soot and they spend their time on chimneys. I don’t think we have bird names in the English language that can match that.

The ‘start’ refers to the tail of the bird, an old English word in the way that ‘shank’ means leg (rather than its more grisly modern meaning). Its tail is indeed red.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald