Howgill Fells, Yorkshire Dales National Park, October 2019
At the beginning of October, my friend Eddie Chapman and I walked ten miles into the Howgill Fells in the Cumbrian reaches of the Yorkshire Dales National Park. You can view and download the walk on ViewRanger here.
The evening before the walk we passed the Howgills during the golden hour. A day of heavy rain dried up and the sun cast its glaze across the folds of the fells.
Cloud hung over the Calf, the highest peak in the area and was to remain for the next day.
The stone barns are one of the Yorkshire Dale’s most iconic features. Swaledale seems to have the greatest compliment of these beautiful structures.
The walk began from Sedbergh, the largest settlement in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. The day was sunny and surprisingly warm.
The cloud still lingered over the highest points but the fields glowed in the morning sun.
Looking east towards Garsdale, the Yorkshire Dales are always more wooded than I remember.
As we made our way up into the hills through a steady ascent, the clouds settled in overhead.
Here Eddie could still make out a small family group of stonechat in some bracken.
Climbing higher onto Arant Haw the mist locked down, a strange and claustrophobic experience.
Up and over our first peak, the mist began to clear only when we headed towards the Calf, the highest point of the Howgills.
It was a great relief to have the folds of the fells reappearing from the cloud.
Anyone who has travelled between Glasgow and Manchester will have passed the Howgills. At this junction in the fells the motorway can be heard in the distance and the small specks of vehicles passing. Above you can see what looks like the remains of an old sheep pen.
The clouds lifted and the fells appeared. The creases speak of millenia-old waterways.
Greater views began to appear, with Ribblesdale appearing in the distance in the shape of Whernside, one of the three peaks famed for the 30-mile day hike challenge.
Atop the Calf, Eddie is happy to be out of the clouds for once.
This sheep felt like it was being watched.
The light began to dip as we headed deeper into the folding Howgills.
Our target was Cautley Spout, the waterfall that would lead us down into the valley for a return to Sedbergh along the river Rawthey.
The waterfall thunders down into the valley from Cautley Crag.
The waterfall is a safehaven for trees, unlike the wider hillsides which are either unsuitable due to the boggy nature of the moorland or because of sheep grazing. Rowan, ash, holly and elm were all growing in the gully.
The limestone surrounding the falls is covered by map lichens glowing neon.
This area holds evidence of an Iron Age settlement. It isn’t surprising. There is protection, the river provides food and once woodland will have been more prevalent providing fuel. This landscape was potentially a site of spiritual significance. The allure is undeniable.
It’s a grey and dark September evening. Robins sing solitary from trees in their autumnal fashion. Cars wash nearby on the A272, to and from the village of Easebourne. The bracken rests in stages of green, yellow and brown. In Cowdray Park a sign warns of the bull in the field, but there are no cattle. The only beasts are the trees sat across the undulating hillside of parkland. Here lives the 1000 year old Queen Elizabeth oak and the Cowdray Colossus, the biggest sweet chestnut in England.
I pass creeping thistle still in flower and others with their leaves thinning to a translucent yellowy green. Walking under one of the ancient oaks, it looks like a rabbit’s head, its heartwood torn out and lying on the ground. An alcove has become of its bark, like a doorway to another place. It’s a fair metaphor, the word oak derives from an old name for door.
The second oldest oak sits on the hill, its heartwood also lost, mainly trampled out by cattle and people. But now it has a fence around it. In front of the fence stands a roe deer. It watches me in complete stillness. I approach one slow step at a time, taking a photo each time I get closer. Soon it turns on its heels and disappears off behind the tree, springing into the air. I see it rising up and down beyond the fence like a merry-go-round.
I approach the oak and see it is producing acorns. How many millions of acorns has this sessile oak tree produced in its 800 or so years of life. How many autumns has it lived through? Perhaps as many as 800. Our lives seem so small and precious, fragile in comparison to this natural treasure.
March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.
I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.
On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.
There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.
In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.
Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.
In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.
Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.
I’ve recently moved somewhere new and with that comes an interaction with new landscapes. In the United Kingdom, a distance of 25 miles can open up entirely new experiences in the outdoors through the sudden change in soils, topography and local culture. I have moved further south into Sussex, in touching distance of a tangled web of counties (West Sussex, East Sussex, Surrey and Hampshire), communities and habitats. One landscape that feels closer than it ever did is lowland heathland, a landscape I’ve come to learn more about in recent months.
I now know that dry lowland heath has been drastically lost over the past 150 years and it is rarer than rainforest. It is a human-made habitat with intrinsic ties to a pre-industrial way of life where local people grazed their animals, cut and burned heather, extracted sand, cut trees, but were unable to grow crops due to the poor fertility of the soils. It is subject to epic conservation projects in some places, like the Heathlands Reunited project working across the South Downs, tipping into Hampshire and Surrey in places outside the South Downs National Park.
My family have roots in Ireland and I have spent time there learning about the way of life of people who lived in the wild and very wet western areas. To my ancestors heather was an incredibly diverse resource. It could be cut at the right age to produce all manner of items, most fascinating to my mind were lobster pots weaved from woody heather growth. The subsequent cutting of heather allowed new growth and light to reach the heathland, benefiting many different species – denser growth for ground nesting birds, increased flower abundance – and a mosaic of vegetation lengths which further the species diversity through the creation of micro-habitats.
With the popularity of the rewilding movement in the UK, heathlands are a point of contention because an argument for landscapes to be left to ‘adopt their natural state’. This is at odds with the desire to see heathlands humanised again, what is shown to produce the richest conditions for their wildlife. Heathlands which are ‘left’ or ‘rewilded’ become simply poor quality woodland in the sense of the lack of species diversity.
One site stuck in that tangled-web of counties is Thursley Common, a National Nature Reserve managed by Natural England in Surrey. I visited Thursley for the second time in June on a hot but mercifully breezy day. There were many thousands of dragonflies on the wing – so many I declined to ‘tick off’ the vagrant red-backed shrike which people were heading over to see but completely ignoring the riot of Odonata – and the sandy paths were brimming with rare insect life.
Having visited Thursley a year before with a tour from the site manager, I had an idea of where the good stuff was and some background on their ecology. Over the winter I had looked forward to returning to try and photograph the heath sand wasp and mottled bee-fly. Thankfully the weather was perfect for this.
Kneeling down on a sandy track it was possible to see the heath sand wasp, found only on lowland heath, mainly in the south of England. It was caching moth larvae that it had been hunting out in the heather. It’s hilarious how they use a small roll of sandy soil to close their doorway before heading off again to hunt on the heath.
They have every right to be cautious. Lying in wait on tiny scatterings of twigs were mottled bee-flies, a rare insect that parasitises the nest of the sand wasp. It wasn’t clear whether the sand wasp was wary of me or suspicious of the presence of the fly (do insects experience suspicion?) but at times the bee-fly deigned not to move, creating a kind of stand off between the two insects as the sand wasp waited to fly off to hunt and the bee-fly waited to hover and throw its eggs into the hole.
Sure enough, after the wasp had moved away, the bee-fly was hovering over the nest hole, chucking its eggs in like a footballer volleying the ball into an open goal.
These are two species which, without managed heathlands (interestingly much of the management they benefit from is the result of footfall exposing sand along the paths) would be lost. Woodland’s return would mean a loss of light, warmth and resultant heather growth where the sand wasp’s prey is found, meaning that the structure that binds these species would collapse.
Another unusual insect along the paths was the hornet robberfly. This is another type of fly that can be found in heathland and is classified as rare. It is possibly the largest fly in the UK but it looks like a hornet. Like many of our flies (bet you don’t consider them your own) it mimics the appearance of a predatory wasp to give a greater sense of protection. In terms of natural selection, it has survived probably because it looks like a species that has a world-shattering sting at the tip of its abdomen.
Robberflies do exactly what their name suggests, they steal insects and eat them, sucking them dry in about thirty minutes in the case of the hornet robberyfly. The best way to see them is through a macro lens and to hang out somewhere that you know has lots of other insects present. Some stunning photos are out there with robberflies holding on to their fly prey.
I spotted the hornet robberfly because it was sitting on a pile of manure, exactly where it likes to spend its time in life. It was using the manure as a perch to hunt where it can blend in with the hay stems that a horse or cow can’t quite digest. They also lay their eggs in the crevices of the dung.
It was a privilege to see these rare species, unseen to almost everyone (obviously), only present because of good management and an appreciation that human impacts can be positive for living things other than ourselves.
In September 2017 I visited the Pálava Hills in south-eastern Czechia, close to the border with Austria. Beginning at the Archeopark Museum in Pavlov, where an exhibition of some of the most important Paleolithic finds ever were on show, and finishing in the town of Mikulov, I try to capture the world of our hunter gatherer ancestors, the Gravettians.
I take the road up towards Děvin, a hill where Děvičky, a ruined 13th century castle faces out towards Austria. From the surrounding vineyards sounds the booming of gas cannisters designed to deter flocking starlings from eating the grapes fruiting at this time of year. A church stands in the heart of Pavlov, and a small murmuration of starlings swoops and morphs in search of a perch. The faux-shotgun fire is working. I pause at a bench overlooking Dolní Věstonice, and north of this a village now flooded after the damming of the river Dyje. Long before the flooding, some 30,000 years ago, a tribe of people known as the Gravettians kept watch from the hills with small encampments and fires. When herds of reindeer and roaming mammoths entered the valley they lit fires to signal that the time to hunt had arrived.
Down in the village of Pavlov the Archeo Park Museum protrudes from the grass bank like fragments of chalk, perhaps an attempt to reflect what’s kept inside – some of the most revealing human artefacts ever to be found. In this area of the Czech Republic, now known as Czechia, evidence has been found to show that hunter gatherers, the Gravettians, lived in these hills approximately 30,000 years ago, disappearing when a climactic cooling took place 8,000 years later.
The items on show in the exhibition include a copy of the Venus of Dolní Věstonice. This sculpture is of a woman with large, elongated breasts and wide hips. Its meaning is unknown but it suggests some ritualistic celebration of the female form and fertility. There are many such small sculptures to have been found but more often broken into pieces, possibly smashed as part of a ritual. The Venus was found almost complete. Yet more intriguing is the presence of a fingerprint said to be that of a child between the age of 7 and 15. Was this a gift in mourning from a father or family member to a child after the death of their mother?
Whatever the explanation is, a ceramics culture appears well ingrained in the world of the Gravettians, something unknown until the discoveries were made here in Moravia. The exhibition, lodged deep at the foot of the Pálava Hills, brings to life the human history of this Carpathian outcrop. Here I learned about the megafauna that both predated and sustained the human tribes in what will have been a cold and unforgiving landscape, one that has much changed from that of the Paleolithic hunter gatherers. In Dolní Věstonice, flooded after the damming of the Dyje, only the village church remains above water on a small island, along with the skeletal remains of trees that drowned with the intentional flood. Red-footed falcons, ospreys and other birds of prey are said to perch on those dead branches. To look out from this point is to see an industrialised landscape of crops and vineyards.
The Gravettian hunter gatherers used wood for specific purposes, and they had the ability to prepare flints and stones for weapons. The use of wood suggests an understanding of woodland management, at least how trees will grow and which species is most useful for a specific task. The permanent settlements of the Gravettians were constructed from timber. Ash and hazel were surely the preferred material for a spear, if they did indeed grow in the area at that time, as they produce straight and flexible poles unlikely to snap upon impact, therefore able to be picked up and chucked again. Both can be split by the flints and other sharp tools they had with ease, similar to their use in making early wooden hay rakes. As for stones or flints, the Pálava Hills are part of the Carpathian massif, formed in the Mesozoic, no more than 250 million-years-ago, from the residue of the oceans that once washed here. Limestone is simple to quarry, as a sedimentary rock it is younger and subtler that igneous or metamorphic rocks. But the colder conditions of the time would have made that difficult, therefore the animals they hunted would have been crucial in all the resources they provided.
The river Dyje runs south of Pálava, joining with the Morava at the border of Czechia, Slovakia and Austria. These two great European rivers are tributaries of perhaps the greatest, the Danube. It is thought that the first Homo sapiens to enter Europe 42,000-years-ago did so by following the Danube and its floodplain. It was rich in resources: water, wood from floodplain forests, fish and meat, rocks and stone, and pelts from animals present in its riparian margins. This behaviour has resulted in the creation of many European cities along major rivers, my home city of London and the Thames being a fine example. The Dyje’s braided channels and meanders are where the Gravettians based in the Pálava Hills found their flints and stones for tools, weapons and crafts. Here they found fish and beavers for pelts. Thankfully beavers are still in the area, despite the attempts of local Moravian fishpond owners to eradicate them.
Into the woods
The first break from the town is into Děvin’s woods, where a steep track worn by feet and running water swerves through multi-trunked trees: small-leaved lime, elm, hornbeam, ash. These are old coppice stools, trees once cut down, their wood harvested for firewood or some other need. Now they are overgrown. These woods hold plants that are not found in many other places, including rare bellflowers, and birds such as black woodpecker, hawfinch and golden oriole. The woods will not have been the same 30,000-years-ago when the Gravettians lived here, so much colder was the climate and closer the northern European glaciers. At this time Middle England remained under ice.
Worse still for the vulnerable hunter gatherers, wolves and lions would all have hunted from the cover of woods and the caves held within. But wolves were a key prey for hunter gatherers in Pálava, with their bones commonly found near former settlements. The Gravettians lived in tepee-like tents made from wolf and other animal skins and pelts, meaning that hunting was a crucial part of their lifestyle. Mammoths would have been the key prey in housing a tribe because of their size and the rich bounty of materials that could come from them. Other megafauna included arctic fox, woolly rhinoceros – a species which beggars belief – elk, reindeer, horse, deer, ibex, chamois and maybe bison. Now only the red fox, chamois, ibex, deer and wolf remain from this array of wonderful animals. Wolves inhabit Czechia, Slovakia, Poland and are moving into Germany, Belgium and even the Netherlands.
Reaching the light beyond the woods I take the choice of a lower route with more cover. This rain is the thin, fast-falling, soak-you-through kind. The path is pale with the calcium of the chalk. The slopes from the hilltop are dotted with scraggy scrub, some are charming little oaks, a species once more common in Czechia, before a move to German forestry ethics of pine and spruce took hold. Ironically these are the trees that will have sprouted from this rocky outcrop some 30,000-years-ago.
The grasslands the scraggy oaks stand in are muted and yellowed, but in season they are some of the richest around, with uncommon plants, many tied to these limestone hills, and a rich abundance of moths and butterflies. They are a rare habitat known as steppe grassland, a remnant of the open landscape that the Gravettians entered into. It’s likely that these meadows hold more species of butterfly than all the British species combined. The Gravettians of Pálava had problems with less colourful insects. They were known to use red dye to deter the mosquitos that plagued them here in the Dyje floodplain. Even today mosquitos are considered a major problem in the area, exacerbated by attempts to dam the river near the Austrian border.
These grasslands tell a further story of the Gravettians, one which says much about the world we live in today. Work by Italian archaeologists has led to the discovery of microscopic plant matter on rocks used in the form of a pestle and mortar. The Gravettians may have been grinding down grain or other plants to create pastes or other foodstuffs. This technique has a domestic hint to it, suggesting that the farming or Neolithic revolution of 4,000 BC was not the explosion it is sometimes said to be. Perhaps the Gravettians took with them from the Middle East and Africa an understanding of how to do more than forage, also to use certain plants to produce pastes and even soups.
Evidence suggests the role of the already present Neanderthals, Homo neanderthalensis, is not completely recognised in how our own species adapted to life in Europe. There is evidence of hazelnuts being ground down into a paste by ‘British’ hunter gatherers to use on the move, a source of energy that suited their lifestyles. Our Paleolithic ancestors were not dim cave people banging their heads against the wall; their lives were short, their strength and fitness great, their understanding of natural resources far keener than the average person today. Who out there could ever hunt a wolf with hand tools?
Walking on, the path dips in and out of more coppiced woods, the stools extending in length and thus in age. Chlorophyll has already begun to fade from the leaves, creating a faint glimmer of yellow in the woods. It’s a welcome shift from the grey, misty day. I pass down into more woods where flocks of marsh or willow, great, blue and long-tailed tits join with nuthatches to feed in a rain-drenched glade. The rain falls hard and I sit under a picnic watching it pour down, the birds still flocking, calling, feeding. It’s a time to regret not getting the bus and instead confining yourself to a march over open hills, with the mist stealing away views.
Memories of sunnier times
In 2013 I woke up in a tent on an old farm and walked from Mikulov at dawn over the Pálava Hills, ending up at Dolní Věstonice. It was July and vital to begin at first light to avoid the highs of a Moravian summer. Hence the images used here don’t quite correlate to the reverse I experience now: rain and cold. In 2013 the hills were being tramped by families from Czechia, Poland, Austria and Slovakia enjoying summer holidays, today I am unlikely to see anyone at all before the villages and eventually the major town of Mikulov. Back then golden orioles sang from trees and colourful bee eaters lined up on telephone wires. Now these African migrant birds have returned south to avoid the European winter. There is a heavy sense of absence in this place.
On that sunny day in July 2013 the vista of Austria was clear, the end of Czechia marked by the reversion to thin strips of farmland and crops, white wind turbines spinning on the horizon. Mikulov castle stood clear against an Austrian tapestry of fields and small woods. The castle (‘zamek’ in Czech) itself has relevance to the Gravettian treasures found in Pálava. During the Nazi invasion of Czechia (1938-45) the fascists wanted to continue the work of the Czech archaeologists. Many of the artefacts were kept in Mikulov castle. During a battle to remove the Nazis from Pálava, the castle burned down and many important items were lost. Thankfully the Venus was being kept in Brno and survived the devastation. Never forget that war is about more than an atrocious loss of human life, it so an attempt to erase certain histories and cultures, even if it was not the desire of the Nazis on this occasion.
I pass over Stolová hora where horses graze against the desolate horizon. Mountains of cut scrub are piled alongside the path, cleared to allow the wildflowers and their co-dependent butterflies and other insects to remain. In July I saw crested-cow wheat and sparkling shows of stellarias in these meadows. Down from the hills once more, I walk alongside the road with sweeping views of endless monocultural crops, a throwback to Soviet collectivisation that has led to huge environmental difficulties: biodiversity loss, soil erosion and aquatic pollution from pesticide run-off. The average field in Czechia is 500hectares. Many come here to photograph the undulating fields and valleys of Moravia, known as ‘Moravian Tuscany’ in places.
At Klentnice a bus sweeps by: wet and muddy I trundle on. Cyclists ride in the opposite direction towards Pavlov, the leader speaking English in guiding tones to two Australian friends who listen closely. In 2013 I noted viper’s bugloss, poppies, thistles, knapweeds, scabiouses tended by red tailed bumblebees and painted ladies. ‘The colours of the living strike against the black, crumbling tarmac edge’, said the notes. Not today.
Before turning up onto Turold, the final hill of this three peak challenge, I stop to photograph a small-leaved lime tree lodged between houses and parked cars. It is a natural monument, even located on the Czech map service I’m using on my phone. These trees are commonly planted across eastern and central Europe. They are the linden tree, one of the first to colonise after the most recent glacial period 14,000-years-ago. The small-leaved lime is the Czech national tree. The Gravettians would have had a use for this tree, perhaps eating its leaves and making tea from its flowers.
The path curves around Turold, with a view of the hills I have just walked, stretching away in the rain beyond vineyards. Turold is a series of limestone outcrops heavily wooded and cut internally by networks of caves. The rock faces are where the eagle owl nests, Europe’s largest, a beast that preys on birds as big as buzzards and ravens. The caves contain colonies of lesser-horseshoe bats, one of Europe’s most threatened species. Of course, all this is only clear because of information boards, for which a visitor should be grateful. Perhaps the best information of all comes from the edge of Turold and the beginning of Mikulov. Here stands a wooden shelter selling refreshments, it’s a bat bar. Faded laminated photographs are stapled to the wooden panels showing images of inside the caves and bats roosting. Sadly, the bat bar is hibernating.
Of castles and campfires
Arriving back in Mikulov the question comes to mind: could those Paleolithic Gravettians ever have dreamed that a building as grand as Mikulov castle might stand here looking south towards the great river Danube? Living in tents of animal skin, carving small sculptures of rhinos, mammoths and images of deceased mothers and sisters, what futures did they dream of? The castle is grand, indeed, but it is not dissimilar to the hunter gatherers keeping watch from the hilltop – you only have to note the structure on each of these hills to realise that we share the same desire for protection from threats appearing on the horizon.
Distant the Gravettians may have been in time but in practice and creativity we are the same, but for the fact that their strength, stamina and practical skills are likely to have far outweighed our own today. We still carry their fears of insect bites, of megafauna that might hunt us, though we are without that very same megafauna, projecting those fears onto the closest thing we have, imagining that our countrysides are the domain of great unknown beasts.
The thing that I take from the knowledge of our ancient ancestors is a need to remember our origins, not in nationalities or ethnicity, but our place in nature. The Gravettians faced everyday difficulties which we do not, but there can be no doubt that we share the same need to create, to move freely, to use the resources we have wisely. The Gravettians are thought to have left Moravia because of climate change, exacerbated by the micro-climate of the Carpathians. They moved south for a time out of necessity but then came new generations who went on to establish our great European cities and institutions. These ancient people we patronise and know so little about, we are indebted to them.
I pass through the gate onto the downs and a fox crosses the lane, that long, fluffed up tail and jinking stride. It seeks the safety of the woodland edge. Snow lingers on the downs, magpies feed in small groups. When they fly up it’s not unlike slices of snow lifting off the ground. Their strategy is simple: feed until a bigger beast passes, sit in the trees, then return. The sun breaks the dough-like cloud, a kestrel cutting through with ease. She finds the tip of a branch and balances, the twig bending under her weight. She looks out across the snow. Feeling herself perhaps too exposed, she shifts to the fox’s wooded margin. Restless, knowing she is now unwelcome in open land, she cuts west and disappears over the hill.
The hazel scrub carries beads of melted ice, hanging long out of the breeze. The shapes show black branches like little snow globes, a looking glass into some dark wood of elsewhere. On the ground the snow carries tokens of those living things that have since passed: dog, human, crow. In between them the stems of wild carrot persist. On the steepest slopes of the downs, sleds slip across the scene, their crew dressed in pink and orange, the colours of our mass production garment industries. On the eastern slopes of Happy Valley the snow rests without the patchiness of the highest point. Yet more magpies are driven from piercing their bills in search of soil. At the bottom of the hill birch trees reflect the snow’s whiteness, their reddish hue shows they are not whiter-than-white.
I heard a radio programme recently charting the decline of snowfall in Kent over the past fifty-years. It brought the presenter to the point: might snow become a thing of the past in southern England? Climate change’s predicted course means that the snowy downs here as I see them today may yet be something that can only be spoken of in the past tense. So does the act of photography now morph into a sentimental act of conservation? Our species’ recent photographic binge, due to the camera phone revolution, means that snow will never be forgotten in image, but its sensuality can’t be felt in a jpeg or print.
I forget these things so quickly when London’s short snowy affair departs, the glow of light from the white ground, the dripping trees, the soft press and crunch of boots, the sheer joy that children feel and express on their plastic sleds. Perhaps to us southerners who see so many different types of weather, the loss of snow’s short stint will barely be noticed. For climate change will bring profound challenges for species that depend on certain conditions, be they polar bears, butterflies, mushrooms or migrating songbirds. On the downs, like many thousands of others I’m sure, I seek change in itself. A different state of mind, of perspective, colours, textures and places to walk in. Nature reminds us always that change will come.
There were many human things to feel sad, angry and upset about this year but still nature’s continuity and the simple movement of seasons brings encouragement and a reminder – change will come.
Politically it’s been a year to forget for nature conservation, with the UK government killing more than 10,000 badgers in its mindless badger cull, the likely loss of EU protections for nature in the UK, the ascent of climate change deniers in the United States and more evidence of species-declines brought about by human impacts on the landscape, be it intensive agriculture, pollution or man-made climate change. More than ever we need to take notice and maintain a connection with the natural world, to make the argument again and again for how crucial the biosphere is to our own civilisation.
But I’ve had some of the most memorable experiences of nature this year, and they are often enough to focus the mind on doing something positive
I for one will not be giving up on the UK-Europe conservation mission and will do what I can for British and European wildlife in 2017
Thank you to everyone who has helped artistically or logistically with these photos and taught me about the subject matter!
Wishing you a peaceful winter break and biodiverse new year!
Newt, Peckham, London
March 2016I’m lucky enough to spend a few days a week at a wildlife garden managed by London Wildlife Trust. In the late winter and early spring, when darkness falls, things begin to happen. The night before this a huge number of toads had been on the move and I brought my camera equipment along the next day hoping to find them again in action. They had completely disappeared. However, there was one newt on the move and it paused in this position for some time as I photographed it.
European bison, Bialowieza Forest, Poland
I snapped this wild young bison through a hedge with a 70-300mm lens. Bison have been reintroduced to this part of eastern Poland after their near extinction in the 20th century due to the ravages of two world wars. I love the new growth of horn and the snot dripping from its nose!
Juniper haircap moss, The New Forest
More and more I find myself on the woodland floor these days. That’s because it’s where all the action is. Be it wildflowers, mushrooms or the most primitive terrestrial plants, mosses. Mosses were the first plants to make it from the sea onto the land, one reason why they depend on lots of moisture, it’s a throwback to their days under the sea.
Cuckoo, The New Forest
May 2016I have been fascinated by cuckoos for years. They migrate to Britain and Europe from as far away as Cameroon, spending about 7 weeks here in the spring to mate. This bird burst out of a plantation and I was lucky enough to have the right lens on and the right setting on the camera to snap him. Cuckoos are in sharp decline in Britain and it’s up to us to find out why and try to do something about it.
Bee on scabious, The North Downs
June 2016This bee was feeding up on the other side of a stock fence in June and with my wide angle lens I managed to get this picture. I think it encapsulates the ecology of meadows, the bee and the flower a symbol of the wildflower-rich North Downs scrolling off into the distance.
Bees pollinate 80% of wildflowers in Europe and contribute £560million each year to the UK economy through crop pollination, and yet we still use neonicotinoid pesticides which are the strongest force driving 32% of bee species towards extinction in the UK.
I’m not sure whether this is a bumblebee or cuckoo bee, having been told it was the former recently. If it is a cuckoo bee my ecosystem metaphor has fallen apart because cuckoo bees aren’t interested in pollination, mainly stealing from bumblebees!
Marco plays the guitar, The North Downs
June 2016Like 48% of British people who actually did or could vote, I was greatly aggrieved and disappointed by the result of the EU referendum. The week following it was scary. A sharp spike in hate crime, the nastiest characters in our society buoyed by xenophobes who’d pushed for a leave vote based on fear-mongering about immigration and lies about how much it cost Britain to be in the EU each year.
It’s in unsettling times when a simple walk in the landscape can remind you of the bigger picture. I was walking on Farthing Downs, full of angst for the post-referendum Britain, when I met Marco playing his guitar on the hill. He had only just moved to London from Italy:
‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it [the referendum]. Now I am here and wow. My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here. And I love it.’
Herring gull, Rye
Every time I go to Rye I get chips from a proper chippy and eat them up at the church on the hill. There is always a herring gull in attendance. I took the chance to create this photo, a technique frowned upon by wildlife photography purists.
I wanted the eye in focus but instead got the chip in the bird’s bill, saliva dribbling down.
Wasp in the cell, Czech Republic
August 2016We were walking along a quiet forest road when my friend Zuzka picked up a piece of something on the ground. Looking more closely it was a chunk of wasp nest that had been torn off and dropped.
Inside the cells were wasp grubs encased in a papery sheeting, with one ready to emerge. It had likely been dropped by a honey buzzard, a bird of prey that eats wasp grubs and will situate its nest with the number of wasps’ nests nearby being the key. Kind of like good restaurants for us.It was a privilege to be able to see into this world without being stung by wasps guarding an actual nest
Honey fungus, The New Forest
Let’s be clear, in London and the surrounds, it was a rubbish autumn for fungi. It was a dry season with the meadows of the North Downs largely devoid of waxcaps and other mushrooms. But a trip to the New Forest in October did provide an encounter with a gang of honey fungus, a mushroom that many gardens so dread because it kills trees OMG!
It was worth waiting for this chance to find mushrooms in their pomp, largely intact with some nice light and greenery still around.
Balmer Lawn, The New Forest
Halloween, October 2016
Whilst these New Forest ponies are not wild and they do belong to people as domesticated stock, I felt transported into some ancient scene from the Eurasion steppe. Mist rose with the twilight over Balmer Lawn near Brockenhurst, the ponies grazing the horizon.
Having been continually wooded for hundreds, if not thousands of years the Blean is an area steeped in history which is unusually well documented. The continuity in woodland cover has also resulted in the creation an immensely rich habitat. Almost all of the 11 square miles of woodland comprising the Blean complex is classified as ancient woodland, which contains an enormous variety of biodiversity. Its value for wildlife is recognised at a national level with over half of the Blean being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest; further to this, approximately one third is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, affording it protection at a European Level. – Blean Woods official website
Along a pathway, sessile oaks pale with algae, a sign of clean air
Sunlight through sessile oak leaves
One of very few mushrooms, a species of Coprinus inkcap
Coppice with standards: the piles of timber are sweetchestnut cut (I think) last year, the spring-summer growth can be seen
September is a beautiful month, the light has a spring-like quality about it. This gorse caught my eye where it grows in the areas of heathland in Blean Woods
Some epicormic growth on a sessile oak. I shot this at f1.4 with my 50mm lens to try and highlight the woodland ‘bokeh’
Blean has lots of birch, much of it coppiced. On the pathway between Canterbury and Blean the strongest signs of autumn were the seeds (of which I took many back home with me accidentally, and to me look like little flies in flight)…
…and the leaves tangled in spiders webs
The orchards, of which there are a fair chunk running between Blean and Canterbury, were heavy with apples, the ground littered with hundreds of decaying fruits.
I’ve recorded a lo-fi folk song about Blean Woods, which you can listen to here:
View my full gallery of New Forest photos on Flickr
I hadn’t managed to visit the New Forest since May, when redstarts sang in the woods and the stitchwort and bluebells flourished under the trees. A lot has changed since then, Britain having voted by 52%-48% to leave the European Union. I am pro-EU and on the morning after the vote took place I felt a degree of sadness that The New Forest voted to leave. Why sadness? The New Forest is one of the EU Habitats Directives Natura 2000 sites which is specially recognised for its importance across the whole of Europe. One of the main barbs of the Leave campaign was that somehow the EU was an attack on individual freedoms, especially of local, unique communities in Britain. I disagree with this. The Natura 2000 website recognises that the New Forest is designated as a Special Area for Conservation because of the role that local people play in managing its habitats:
The quality of the habitats of the New Forest, and the rich diversity of species which they support, is dependent upon the management activities of the various owners and occupiers. Of fundamental importance is the persistence of a pastoral economy based on the existence of Rights of Common. The commoners’ stock, mainly cattle and ponies, roam freely over extensive areas of the New Forest, playing a vital role in keeping open habitats free of scrub and controlling the more aggressive species such as bracken (Pteridium aquilinum) and purple-moor grass (Molinia caerulea), and maintaining the richness and variety of heathland and wood pasture habitats.
Then again, don’t ask me what I think about the antics of the Leave campaign, nor the failures of Jeremy Corbyn and David Cameron in alerting people to the importance that the EU holds/held for the environment. If you’re interested there is a petition asking for the EU environmental protections to be upheld if/when Britain leaves the EU. Yet again our politicians and political system have failed to protect the environment.
The Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust’s Roydon Woods is one of my favourite reserves to visit. It was silent but for a few flocks of blue tit and long-tailed tit, and one of only a few insects I found was this lacewing larvae (Neuroptera). It was carrying this backpack around, what I think is tied together by the downy hairs of leaves, possibly willow or hazel.
Autumn is a special time, though there has been little rain in recent weeks, there were several large bracket fungi to be found. This is a newly emerging chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus).
The solitude of the New Forest – most areas away from campsites, car parks and cycling routes are largely devoid of visitors during the week – means you can encounter some wonderful things. I looked up to find a roe deer (Capreolus capreolus) watching me, half way between a field and the woods. There is a clear browsing line in the New Forest and very little natural regeneration of trees because deer and other herbivores, generally New Forest ponies and other livestock, are eating the new growth. Chris Packham has recently said that the New Forest is dying because of over-grazing.
It’s not often that you come across a perfect specimen of a mushroom. Fruiting bodies are short-lived and very quickly deteriorate. To find this giant polypore (Meripilus giganteus) was a moment of sheer joy. As I’ve said in my fungi round-up for last year, I don’t pick them, just photograph them. I’m not precious about this nor hyper-critical of mushroom picking, I just prefer that other people and indeed animals can enjoy them. This mushroom was about 2ft in length and just beside the path. I hope others manage to see it before it decays.
Out on Beaulieu Heath it was drizzling and grey. Stonechats were low in the leftovers of gorse, a flock of medium-sized birds flew overhead and down into the heather which I couldn’t identify. Horseflies dive bombed from the woody margins, the sound of their wings is unmistakable and unnerving. They only want one thing. Along a denser edge of trees and scrub a hare burst free, then came a stoat, turning on its heels at lightning speed to return to the cover of bramble. Spotted flycatcher was also a nice sight at the corner of Lodge Heath.
In the Frame Heath Inclosure forestry operations were underway with mature sessile oaks (Quercus patraea) being harvested. I’ve been reading about the Forestry Commission’s attempts to remove broadleaf species like this from the Forest in the 20th century. It took ministerial intervention and local opposition to stop a near complete shift to conifer plantation.
Sitka spruce (Picea sitkensis) is one of the preferred species for foresters. They are shallow rooted trees liable to windthrow in more open landscapes. This spruce had been taken down by just that, a large hole bored through its middle where the soil had fallen away.
The gentle giants of English oak (Quercus robur) are far ‘happier’ standing alone in the landscape. The reason they are not surrounded by regenerating trees is because of the aforementioned grazing taking place around it. Give me these beautiful old trees any day over a spruce or pine monoculture. We should be thankful to all the people who have fought to fend off intrusive forestry practices in the Forest.
It is these ancient and veteran trees that makes the Forest so unique in Europe. The number of these old trees draws the breath, in areas which are not Inclosures where oak, pine or spruce are planted in regimental fashion for timber, there are just so many of them to be found.
Balmerlawn is close to Brockenhurst and hosts two spectacular old English oaks. This one has a trunk about 6ft and I would approximate it to be over 500 years old.
Next door to it is a younger oak with a massive ‘wolf branch’ as arborists call it, reaching out towards the road. Where it swoops closest to the ground there are two patches where the grass has been worn away by kids jumping up and down over the years. It’s a dream to climb.
For the past five years I have been searching hedge lines, woods, parks and boundaries for the undulating mass of an old oak. This search has not taken place in the English countryside, instead the border of the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. The southern towns of Southwark were once the parish of Camberwell and its boundary with Lewisham still supports centuries-old oak trees that were the previous markers between old Camberwell and Lewisham. Along with the Dulwich Woods and One Tree Hill, these trees are the strongest ties to the much diminished Great North Wood.
The Great North Wood
The Great North Wood was a landscape of woods and commons that stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. It was worked over centuries for its timber and underwood (sessile oak, hornbeam and hazel, mainly) for ship building, tannin extraction and charcoal burning. Its origins are in the wildwoods that spread after the end of the last glacial period 10-12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene. The oaks remain where other species have disappeared as they are tough, long-living (sometimes 800 years in open land) and are of great use to our species. The Forestry Commission approximates that London’s trees are worth £43billion in their environmental and amenity value. Oaks are some of the most important. Their carbon storage capabilities should be remembered by those controlling planting regimes in cities today.
This old image (likely early 1900s) shows what One Tree Hill’s western slopes were like. The earlier map, dated 1799, shows that One Tree Hill was an isolated ancient woodland. It once connected with the Dulwich Woods which skirt the left hand side of that image, and spread even further before humans began managing the woods. That could have been thousands of years ago, however. The Dulwich Woods are very likely several thousand years old. There is no woodland at all but plenty of shrubs, likely including gorse and hawthorn. The landscape swelling into Lewisham shows much of south London’s old landscape was farmland. The boundaries of the farms were marked by old oaks.
One of the first mistakes made by those (myself included, of course) looking for old trees in the landscape is to head for woodland first. The oldest trees are usually living in isolation in what has longest been open land. The great Oliver Rackham told us that ‘ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees’. The best trick is really to get an old map, compare it with a current one and see if there are any clear boundaries where trees may have been planted or perhaps wild trees maintained as standards. Sometimes the old maps show trees dotted along the edges. The image above is a pollarded English oak (Quercus robur) at the entrance to One Tree Hill on Honor Oak Park. The tree is actually in the grounds of the Honor Oak Allotments and a line of similarly old oaks can be found running up alongside it.
This oak, one down from the previous, has clearly been pollarded (c.1900s) and is now swamped by other trees. Logic says that pollarding it again and removing some of the surrounding growth would allow the trees to re-balance and go on living indefinitely, but experimental pollarding taking place in Epping Forest suggests otherwise. Lapsed beech pollards are known to die when pollarded again. These oaks may be so unused to management that pollarding them will kill them off. We may have to accept that these landmarks of the Great North Wood have a limited time left.
The Oak(s) of Honor
One Tree Hill is a good case study for remnant Great North Wood sites as it was open land until the mid-20th century but was woodland on the north-western slopes up until the 1840s. Today it is returning to woodland having been largely managed through non-intervention, bar access works and hedge planting, by the Friends of One Tree Hill and Southwark Council.
One Tree Hill gets its name from the single English oak (pictured) which was replanted in 1905 when the hill was reopened to the public after a battle to save it from becoming a golf course. 15,000 people conducted a mass trespass on 10th October 1897 to challenge the Honor Oak & Forest Hill golf club’s attempts to fence and enclose the hill.
The previous Oak of Honor was thought to be much older and was a boundary tree for the old vice-counties of Kent and Surrey. It was also the edge of the Honour of Gloucester’s land. The idea is that in 1602 Queen Elizabeth sat under the tree and was thus honoured thereafter. Today the Oak of Honor is the most obvious tree to seek but by no means the oldest. I love that it has so influenced local place names. An old black and white photograph of the former oak (the church building can just be seen in the top right) gives the sense that the oak was not so old, perhaps only a few hundred years before it perished. This tree was destroyed by lightning in 1888.
To the right is the oak of Honor when it was only a decade old. The open landscape of early 20th century Honor Oak/Forest Hill is filling up with housing. The tree cover on the hill was largely hawthorn scrub, as can be seen behind the caged oak.
It’s worth remembering that though we are fixated by neat and tidy trees in urban areas, often for safety reasons, that oaks provide habitat for a great number of species. The Oak of Honor in September 2015 held many knopper galls, the protective case for a gall wasp (Andrus quercuscalicis), and oak apple galls.
The top of One Tree Hill is an excellent spot to find butterflies in spring and summer because it is open and sunny. This speckled wood (Parage aegaria), one of the contemporary Great North Wood’s most common butterflies, was enjoying some September sunshine on the great tree’s leaves.
The winter months provide ample opportunity to find nuthatch (Sitta europaea) which is often tied to oaks because of the invertebrates it forages from the bark and the old woodpecker holes it nests in. It makes a neat mud ring around woodpecker holes to make the entrance smaller and more protective for its young.
The purple hairstreak was the first ecological record at One Tree Hill when it was mentioned for the first time in the 1766 publication The Aurelian by Moses Harris. This overlooked butterfly was ‘commonly taken in plenty in Oak-of-Honour Wood, near Peckham, Surry.’ It’s one of the insects promoted by conservation groups in the Great North Wood, a good indicator of long-term woodland cover, especially at nearby Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. The purple hairstreak is only usually seen by those straining to look up at the canopy or those lucky enough to stumble across one when it’s down and dazed on the path.
The oldest of One Tree Hill’s oaks is likely to be this lapsed pollard (whereby a tree is cut higher up – coppice is cut at the base – to prevent grazing animals eating regrowth) growing on the path that runs adjacent to Brenchley Gardens. I’ve seen a photograph somewhere of the tree isolated in open land, with Peckham’s farms rolling down to what is now Peckham Common.
The tree, seen here on the right of the photograph (its lean exaggerated by the distortion of my 10-24mm wide angle lens) is competing with the seedlings that have likely fallen or been stashed by grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and members of the corvid family, especially jays (Garrulous glandarius). You could suggest that the new woods of One Tree Hill are products of its old boundary oaks, where the dominant species is oak. Recent research has uncovered how important crows are in establishing new oak woods across the northern hemisphere.
One of the lower limbs is rotting nicely and providing habitat for slime moulds and small mushrooms, whether this is a bonnet (Mycena) or a parachute (Marasmius), I couldn’t tell you. The life that old oaks can support adds to the tree’s immense amenity and ecological value. Oaks typify the anthropomorphic but no less accurate notion of trees being ‘accommodating’ to many species.
Next door to One Tree Hill and its allotments is Camberwell New Cemetery, a more authentic remnant of Honor Oak’s open landscape of the past 200 years. One boundary, otherwise planted with Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), has two old English oaks. One has been hollowed out, possibly after being struck by lightning or affected by human damage. It’s an example of trees as habitat, something which people are generally uncomfortable with at first, especially with fungi as they think the tree is dying. In August 2015 the hollowed oak had the fruiting body of what I think was chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphurous). Oak supports many insects and also fungus. The oldest oaks you are likely to find will be dependent to some degree on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Fungi can also help the oaks by removing bits of deadwood that may otherwise add extra weight to the tree as it ages. Some species are necrophratic and will eventually kill a tree because they ‘take more than they give’.
On first thought I was suspicious that the two oaks seen here might be the same two on the allotment-cemetery boundary. This is a photo from the 1920s that shows Camberwell New Cemetery and the Honor Oak Recreation Ground as open land being grazed by a flock of sheep. Evidently the sheep were used to keep the grass short for golf, or maybe also as a way to support a local farmer. The golf club house can be seen in the distance. The building on the hill in the distance is St. Augustine’s Church (1872-3). These two trees are too far away to be the same as those above, they are probably instead some of the black lines that can be seen in the distance. Note also the absence of any tree cover on One Tree Hill beneath and to the right of the church. Between the mid-1800s and this point, there ancient woodland had been well and truly grubbed out, possibly even some old boundary trees going as well. Today, this would be unacceptable.
Instead, I think this image of the old golf club house exhibits the line of oaks. These oaks look to be dying back, possibly because of the impact of building the club house where the trees’ roots were. The distance between St. Augustine’s and the line of trees is one parcel closer than the previous image (Steve Grindlay).