Tracing the footsteps of the first Europeans in the Pálava Hills

The Pálava Hills

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.

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The Venus of Moravia (copy)

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.

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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.

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Tools including primitive saws made from flints and shards of rock
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A necklace made from mammoth bones

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.

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Mikulov castle with Austria on the horizon

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.

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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.

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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.

North Downs diary: Snow’s short stint

North Downs diary, Farthing Downs, January 2017

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.

Explore my North Downs diary

Photography: 10 photos for 2016

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!

Daniel

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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.

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European bison, Bialowieza Forest, Poland
March 2016

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!

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Juniper haircap moss, The New Forest
April 2016

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.

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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.

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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!

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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.’

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Herring gull, Rye
July 2016

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.

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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

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Honey fungus, The New Forest
October 2016

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.

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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.

 

 

Photography: Blean Woods, September 2016

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

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Along a pathway, sessile oaks pale with algae, a sign of clean air

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Sunlight through sessile oak leaves

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One of very few mushrooms, a species of Coprinus inkcap

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Coppice with standards: the piles of timber are sweetchestnut cut (I think) last year, the spring-summer growth can be seen

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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

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Some epicormic growth on a sessile oak. I shot this at f1.4 with my 50mm lens to try and highlight the woodland ‘bokeh’

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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)…

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…and the leaves tangled in spiders webs

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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:

Photography: The New Forest, September 2016

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This is part of my Woodlands project

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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Oaks of London: The Honor Oaks

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This post is part of my oaks of London project

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.

 

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One Tree Hill (centre left) when it was ancient woodland in 1799

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.

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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.

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Pollarding

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Secret oaks

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.

OTH pollards-1 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.

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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’.

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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.

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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).

 

North Downs diary: The man from Italy

Coulsdon, June 2016

Britain has descended into political turmoil, but out here on the downs normality persists. Summer’s flagship species are on the wing in the form of the marbled whites, meadow browns resting low down in the grass, feeding on hawkbits, hawkbeards or whatever these large yellow daisies happen to be. Yellow rattle flowers in its prime, this nationally rare flower in full voice on Farthing Downs. Now is the time to seek orchids, but so very many of them can be found in the right place it’s more a case of avoiding them. Pyramidal orchid, common spotted orchid and common twayblade gather in great number on one slope. Crab spiders cling conspicuous to florets, waiting for their moment.

The birdsong has not yet come to its end: a whitethroat sits atop scrub not yet cleared, singing, preening and dropping down to safety, a skylark and a yellowhammer distant. The plaintive piping of a raptor can be heard and a kestrel with feathers lost skates across, disappearing beyond the brow of the hill. Crows raise an alarm, I scan the now open downs for a bird of prey. Crows, ragged and worried, fly across the roof of woods, and more alarm calls are made. A scuffle ensues, the brown of a buzzard’s wings, like melting milk chocolate in this light, is followed into the trees by crows. It’s usually where the battle ends.

Trundling on in the growing heat, I pass through an area of oak, ash and bramble. From the long wash of pale grasses high as hips, a young deer bursts free. It jigs and jumps up, not so much running as bouncing along the sheltered belt of trees and bushes. It seems almost naked, in body and spirit, free of all sense. It ranges to obscurity. Soon a man dressed in a trench coat passes with his dog and their dwindling shapes swim in the overpowering scene of breaking sun and flowering grasses.

Moving through the quiet of Devilsden Wood, the clamour of school children’s voices behind me, I quietly question the decision of motor cross riders to drive back and forth for half an hour along Ditches Lane. There is a sense of a hollowing out, the opportunity to express oneself without remorse now, at least since Friday morning. I walk through these woods, ancient, growing, and think of all they have lived through. The world wars, Napoleonic war, the Magna Carter, what about the Norman Conquest, the Roman invasion, even the Neolithic revolution of 6000 years ago? I don’t know.

I leave the woods and its splintering blackbird phrases. Why do they still sing now, is there still time to breed? The meadows have thickened with grasses in one week, I rue their itchy monotony. We have experienced rainfall on an unprecedented scale, 40mm of rain in what Londoners call ‘the Brexit storms’. There are so few butterflies, only really the meadow brown, a creature that seems to endure rain, moves amongst the flowers. I feel ripped off, dispossessed. I dream of these meadows in winter. Now they have been reduced. Heading back I see a figure on the hill with a guitar. In five years I’ve never seen someone like this here, a place mainly of dog walkers, horse riders, retirees exploring the London Loop and the weekend charge of cyclists. I approach him.

He has dark hair in a ponytail, I don’t think he’s English. ‘Hi, can I take your picture?’ I ask. ‘I’ve never seen someone with a guitar here.’

‘Of course,’ he says. ‘Usually I play the piano but I want to busk in London so I am learning to play the guitar. I am Italian, from the north.’

He begins playing a song but can’t remember who it’s by, someone American, slapping his wrist against the hollow body of the guitar. When he finishes I ask him what he thinks about the referendum.

‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it. Now I am here and wow,’ he says. ‘My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here.’ He opens his arms to the sunny downs. ‘And I love it.’

I thank him, Marco is his name, and point him towards Happy Valley. You can go that way and walk for weeks, I tell him. It’s something I always dream of doing, ambition reduced by its likely pain and lack of time to do it. I leave him to practice, flecks of struck guitar strings ringing out from the crown of summer downland.

North Downs diary

North Downs diary: Where the buttercups erupt

North Downs diary, Coulsdon, May 2016

Buttercups cover the secret meadows of Happy Valley, an almost unthinkable break from the towering darkness of Devilsden Wood. There the bluebells are going to seed, the yellow archangel flowering on the edges of the track where the buttercups erupt. With a macro lens I stalk the flowerheads for insects. There is a note of impatience. A sawfly buries itself between the petals and stamens of a buttercup. It is powdered yellow by pollen. A variable longhorn beetle with demonic elytra grapples with stems of ribwort plantain. I rock back and forth turning the focus ring to try and get a picture of its eyes, my camera firing off shots in hope. It’s never easy. Micro moths stir at each step. One rests finally and I frame it against a buttercup background, blurred, it could be the sun rising.

The meadows are edged by hedges and woods, nuthatches call, chiffchaffs sing. A song thrush moves through its repertoire, conjuring mimicry and melodies that could be tens of species to the uninitiated. Blackbirds draft a soundscape that I cling to, I never want this hubbub of thrush music to end. I love the margins of woods, especially when they are met with meadows as full with life as this. I know a trick: lie down, cover your face and be still. See what comes your way. Flies teem around my ears, on my clothes. I spy them cleaning their legs in the corner of my eye. From this perspective my walking boots toe a roof of flowers. Three swifts appear from over the woods and for the first time I hear their wings, a rippling sound I forget almost instantly. Beetles whirr and slap down onto my hat. An animal arrives in the grass behind my head and, spooked, it escapes. A gull calls and I look up to see fifty or more rising on warm air. A single swallow travels across. It must be good here, why else would they cross the Sahara.

North Downs diary

Photography: The New Forest, May 2016

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This is part of my Woodlands project

English bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) growing in the open, grassy woodlands of Roydon Woods National Nature Reserve, managed by Hampshire & Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust. Bluebells grow freely away from tree cover and can often indicate the site of former ancient woodland in areas of open land.

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An English boundary oak (Quercus robur) There are an inordinate number of ancient and veteran trees in the New Forest. The New Forest is of European importance for this reason, amongst others. It is a treasure trove of old trees and landscape features.

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The New Forest is significant also because of its roaming herbivores, in this image one of the many New Forest ponies can be seen grazing under the boughs of another boundary oak.

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There are also a number of notable beech trees, this one contained an intuitive birder, not a species native to this area.

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May to June is a good time to spot Chicken of the woods (Laetiporus sulphureus). This specimen was unmissable, it was massive, something like 40-50cm in length across the log.

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The breaks of sun in Roydon Woods gave warmth and light to invertebrates on the edges of the paths. This beautiful demoiselle (Calopteryx virgo) was resting on plants growing in a ditch.

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But the New Forest is in fact more heathland than woodland. There were a good number of stonechat (Saxicola torquatus) singing atop gorse bushes out on the heath.

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It was a joy and a pleasure to hear cuckoo (Cuculus canorus) singing in the distance. It was an even more pleasing feeling to see this male shoot past us. Spring, it is the most precious time of year.

Białowieża, Europe’s mythical forest

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Introduction

In March 2016 I visited Białowieża National Park in Podlasia, north-east Poland. I must give thanks to Karolina Leszczynska-Gogol, Grzegorz Gogol and Izabela Sondej, without whom the trip would not have been possible. Białowieża is somewhere I have wanted to visit for several years after reading about it and hearing from friends (especially Poles) who had been there. It is described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland (12-10,000 years old), a slight exaggeration recycled on social media and subsequently in news items. The Czech Republic has numerous stands of ‘virgin’ forest or woodland though not on the scale of Białowieża, which is probably the largest remaining tract of ancient European woodland due to the 5,000 hectare strict reserve which is said never to have been logged. But it is not the largest woodland in Europe, that accolade belongs to the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest complex on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany. We went to Białowieża at a time when the Polish government were rubber-stamping plans to increase forestry activity in the National Park and outlying woods, resulting in much opposition from environmentalists in the west and large demonstrations in Poland. The premise for increasing logging is to combat the spread of spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) which is currently impacting on Norway spruce trees (Picea abies) in the National Park. Those opposed to the plans argue that this is a natural process and that the beetle is a key species, a ‘forest engineer’. I agree, having seen the same impact in the Bavarian Forest National Park where some intervention does take place. I would argue that the impact of 20th century forestry practice has led to a proliferation of Norway spruce where there should be a more ‘natural’ balance of other species. However, keen not to criticise without having visited, we went there with an open mind.

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The history of Białowieża

Białowieża National Park has key designations to protect its natural heritage. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The National Park was established in 1921 to offer protection to the herds of wild bison (Bison bisonus). Today Białowieża National Park is crucial because it has much of its original large fauna which can help ‘manage’ the landscape without any need for human intervention, i.e. logging. One theory of virgin woodland, established by Franz Vera in 1996, is that the dominant idea of endless trees covering northern Europe before humans arrived (we’ve been in Europe for over 40,000 years) is a myth. In fact wind blew holes in the wildwood and these glades were kept open by large grazing animals like elk, bison, deer and aurochs, meaning that the landscape was more like savannah or wood pasture – grassland dotted with trees. Vera argued that it was the human-enforced reduction and extinction of many of these large herbivores that led to the more dense woodland of the recent imagination. It also meant the larger clearings became towns and villages, settlements which were once established next to woodland (this is what ‘ley’ or ‘hurst’ means at the end of English place names). In Białowieża human intervention is evident in the landscape and has been for over 600 years.

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Białowieża was ‘discovered’ by King Jagiełło before the Battle of Grunwald and established as his own hunting estate in 1410. He is said to have been awe-struck by Białowieża’s vast woodland and herds of bison. He later built a white tower to mark his hunting lodge. ‘White tower’ is what the area’s name translates to in English. The establishment of a proto-nature reserve in the early 15th century is a crack in the image of Białowieża as an untouched wilderness, however much the notion is recycled by us dewy-eyed environmentalists in the UK, distraught at the inexorable loss of our own ancient woods (‘at least we have countries like Poland’). Wilderness is also a misleading term, coined by John Muir at the advent of the American National Park system. That wilderness had been home to Native Americans for millennia, who also happen to be humans. Native Americans are responsible for the domestication of many crop species, including maize, which form large sectors of the global agricultural economy, the arch nemesis of wilderness.

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Just outside Białowieża village at the site of Stara Białowieża, where King Jagiełło built his now lost white tower and established his hunting forest, is a trail of 200-500 year old pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur). Several of them are designated as protected monuments, fitted with red and white Polish emblems. These oaks reflect the reign of previous Polish Kings and the ancient boundary with the Kingdom of Lithuania. Many of these monarchs conducted hunts in Białowieża. In English, ‘forest’ means a place where forest law was enacted, largely related to the keeping and hunting of deer and the outlawing of poaching. In England today forests are areas of land managed for their timber almost exclusively. On the continent, ‘forest’ is used to describe almost all areas of woodland, also because, in places like Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, woodland areas are often much larger than fragmented English woods. In Białowieża it feels natural to call it a forest, it is too big to be a ‘wood’. But what did people hunt?

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In the 1400s King Jagiełło shared the forest with wolf (Canis lupis), lynx (Lynx lynx), European brown bear (Ursus arctos), aurochs (Bos primigenius), European elk, also called moose, (Elces elces), beaver (Castor fiber) and bison. Today only the auroch and bear are extinct in Białowieża, with the auroch’s final living animals dying out in Poland in 1627. The other species remain, several of them doing very well. Most of the brown bear populations in Europe are in mountainous areas that are not easily messed with by us, but the scale of Białowieża National Park (10,000 hectares) suggests a reintroduction could work. An attempt has been made in the past 100 years but the bears were hunted to extinction again. At least in other parts of Europe bears are now thought to be increasing as some countries urbanise and rural areas become depopulated. Romania is a case in point. They are also coming close to cities.

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Bison once roamed much of Europe, they were even present in the woods of southern England. The bison found today in North America descend from the same roaming animals that crossed the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska before it flooded some 8-10,000 years ago. Bison were hunted to extinction in the wild by the successive impacts of the First World War (1914-18) and the Second World War (1939-45). They were saved from total extinction by a Polish breeding programme in 1929 that led to the bison being released again into Białowieża in 1952. The bison are now numbered in their hundreds and we were lucky enough to encounter two very warm days which seemed to attract the bison out into the fields to graze. The bison pictured above is a wild animal, photographed with a telephoto lens. It is clear that bison are coming in close contact to people and are even being fed by them. Bison are dangerous animals and should not be disrespected or approached. Unfortunately one local man operating on a little too much wódka had to be pulled away because he got too close.

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The human landscape

The melding of Polish and Russian Orthodox culture is clear in Białowieża. At the entrance to the village we were greeted by a simple crucifix alongside that of the Russian Orthodox church. During the Napleonic War, dramatised in Leo Tolstory’s War & Peace, Napoleon’s armies allied with the Poles to defeat the Russians, but defeat for the French in 1812 meant that Białowieża came under Russian control. The Polish Kingdom was created but there were rebellions from the Poles when Orthodox Christianity and the Russian language was enforced. In response to the uprisings Podlasia was annexed by the Russian Empire and the Polish Kingdom was dully dissolved. The Polish language was outlawed and Catholic churches were destroyed or taken over by the Orthodox church.

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Like King Jagiełło, the Russian aristocracy also fell for the wild woods and bison. Another Royal hunting estate was established though the Russians did not merely protect the bison but breed them so there would be enough for everyone to kill when taking part in hunts. Białowieża was now a forest in the truest sense, a landscape where wild animals were corralled and bred to be hunted by the rich. A private railway was established a few miles outside of the village which today is a restaurant where you can sample dishes of bison, boar, deer or duck. In 1915 the German army took control of Białowieża. They began to build small gauge forest railways and managed the woods aggressively, such is the impact of war. In 1917 the Russian Revolution meant the end of Czarist Russia and yet more instability for the people and wildlife of Białowieża. During the Second World War the Nazis occupied Białowieża, losing it again to the Russians. In 1947 the forest was split between Soviet-controlled Poland and Belarus. Poland finally became independent in 1989.

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Though Białowieża is famous for its trees, one of the highlights for wildlife has to be the village itself. The Narewka, a tributary of the much larger Narew, runs through an area of marshland and reedbed in the centre of the village. This was a wonderful place to spend a few hours after the darkness of the forest, especially the more heavily managed areas of Norway spruce.

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I was visiting with my friend and mondo-birder Peter Beckenham. Many of Pete’s favourite places are in the North Kent Marshes so he felt at home here. In Białowieża he showed me great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor) and snipe (Gallinago gallinago). At first I thought the snipe’s ‘drumming’ song was Pete’s phone ringing. It was a magical sound. I like to think I showed him myriad woodpecker species, like a Czar with a vast woodpecker estate.

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There were several snipe marking their aerial territories over the marshland, while one, as can be seen above, stopped to rest on the top of a telephone pole.

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The village itself developed from the clearance of the naturally wooded landscape. It is known as the Białowieża glade, a clearing that in its pomp was 1367ha in size but between 1953 and 1989 decline by nearly half. Woodland is gradually retaking areas of arable land which are no longer farmed. The farms and fields were some of the most interesting places to visit, not least the open air folk museum (above) which was teeming with toads (Bufo bufo).

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There were signs everywhere of abandoned cottages, though neighboured by new developments of what appeared to be second homes for the Polish nouveau-riche. Tourism is evidently changing Białowieża’s village, and from an ecological point of view it could be for the better, but it could also be for the worse. North-east Poland’s traditional, old fashioned agriculture is key to the richness of its wildlife and habitats. If these practices are completely lost in favour of more intense agriculture as promoted by the European Union’s agricultural board (though conversely not by EU-wide measures like Natura 2000’s Birds and Habitats Directives) then many species which are stable and increasing in this part of Europe will become threatened as the traditionally-maintained habitats decline. Coupled with the threat of increased logging in Białowieża a worrying trend is apparent. Also, if local people can’t work the land in a traditional way and only the wealthy can afford to live there this will also contribute to habitat loss.

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Nature protection

The allure of Białowieża for many is the 5,000ha strict reserve and believe me it is strict. This area of unmanaged, ‘untouched’ woodland is presented as the only remnant of Europe’s wildwood. Wildwood is a mythical forest landscape that thrived after the last glacial period came to an end 10-12,000 year ago, at the same time that bison were walking from Russia into North America. Glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere until the climate warmed and the conditions became favourable for a greater diversity of tree species. First birch and pine, then hazel, oak and ash covered the UK and northern Europe. There are many misconceptions about the finitude of this landscape – I agree that it was unlikely to be trees coast-to-coast, as Franz Vera argued. There is little to no known remnant of wildwood in Europe and many of its species lost. As Oliver Rackham argues in Woodlands, our sentimentality regarding trees and woods has warped our sense of what is natural for trees, or even what the word ‘natural’ means. Our impact on the climate through the burning of fossil fuels and the unprecedented release of nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants that alters the chemistry of the soil, poisons us and a wealth of other species, means that there is no corner or square of this earth that is ‘untouched’ by us.

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We visited the reserve at dawn. You can only enter with a guide having paid the entry fee or on scientific business, if you enter without one you can be fined. Wardens cycle around the main paths seeking to check permits at all times. This officiousness – our pass was checked three times – gave a sense of pressure to our visit but did not take anything away from the strict reserve’s grandeur.

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The strict reserve manages itself ecologically – though there were plenty of signs of chainsaws cutting fallen trees across paths, so ‘truly wild nature’ had not escaped Health & Safety. Trees naturally succumb, fall and decay. Some remain standing to become habitat for fungi, plants and other invertebrates. One of the main attractions for Pete and I was the number of woodpeckers that could be encountered here. By the end of the trip we had seen 8 species.

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One woodpecker that can be seen fairly commonly in east European spruce forest, if you give it the time and attention, is the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). It feeds on the larvae of the spruce bark beetle, the subject of much press attention in Europe currently. The three-toed woodpecker makes its way around the trunk of a dead spruce tree, pecking away at the bark to find its food. Evidently the deadwood created by the bark beetle is of great importance, rather than being the threat outlined by the Polish government. But is the threat economic or ecological?

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Another woodpecker which I have rarely spent any time with is the lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor). In England this bird is undergoing a speedy decline, having disappeared from its historical range and now confined to strongholds, including the New Forest. Its decline in the UK is not completely understood. In Białowieża we had the opportunity to spend a good half an hour with this bird alongside the Narewka as it picked its way around the tree. Before reaching the river we had seen the Syrian woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus), identifiable from the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) by a break in the black bar that connects its cheek from its nape!

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Fungi is a friend of the woodpeckers in that it softens up trees for excavation. Fungi performs a vital role in woods, in breaking down dead trees, controlling the number of certain species and in creating soil and stable nutrients for other life to prosper from. It also helps trees by weakening and quickening the removal of deadwood that otherwise adds weight to a tree, inhibiting its growth.

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Outside the strict reserve this hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) evidenced the role fungi has in offering direct nourishment to wildlife. I pray that this was bitten into by an elk but it was most likely a horse.

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I’ve written before about beavers in Europe. In Białowieża’s strict reserve they are another ‘forest engineer’. You can even find them in Warsaw, a lesson for us in the UK as we get to grips with these returning beasties. The flooded woodland you can see here has been opened up and the river Orłówka broken out and slowed by beavers. This has a massive effect on the number of species found in wetland habitats. The smaller pools of water create breeding space for fish and many aquatic invertebrates, as well as for amphibians. The rerouting and channelling of European rivers – especially by communist or Stalinist agricultural schemes – was one of the most destructive environmental practices to have occurred in the continent’s history.

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This is a multi-stemmed hazel tree which had been ‘felled’ by beavers. I love how similar this is to the hazel stools coppiced by volunteers in much smaller English woods. So it’s ok if beavers do it, but not us? I’m not so sure.

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Pete was also impressed by the beaver’s work. They are able to sharpen their felling teeth with bottom front teeth that act as a kind of sharpening stone. They are evidence of the fact that sometimes cutting down trees can be a good thing.

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The bark beetle battle

Tree felling is not always the right thing to do. Walking in Białowieża there were clear signs of spruce trees dying off from the impacts of the bark beetle. Trees with red dots or crosses with numbers marked in red spray paint indicated that they were to be felled.

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The bark beetles do damage to trees when present in large infestations because they bore through the cambium of the tree. The bark is the protective layer for the cambium as well as the phloem and the xylum. Water travels through the xylum and sugars and other minerals pass through the phloem. These are the two most important cell membranes in a tree’s ability to feed and grow. There are many species of bark beetle, the above image is an ash tree and so I don’t profess to know if it’s the spruce bark beetle, it probably isn’t seeing as the spruce bark beetle family only feed on spruce or pine.

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As mentioned earlier, deadwood is an intrinsic part of a woodland ecosystem. It provides habitat for thousands of species of invertebrate and fungus. Many managed forests completely lack any deadwood because it has been removed for sale or simply tidied up. Also the key plantation trees of spruce, pine and larch produce very view large branches, unlike oak or ash, and so there is little to even fall anyway. Recent research suggests that the removal of deadwood from woodland environments has contributed to climate change. This is because wood continues to hold carbon as deadwood. The tidying up of woods is one of the key ways to reduce its biodiversity, I hate to see it.

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In the Bavarian Forest, on the border with the Czech Republic, the spruce bark beetle has also hit the woodlands hard. One of the possible reasons for this increase is the intensive forestry of the early 20th century, when Germany was at the forefront of two world wars. In wartime, woods suffer greatly. In the UK, the Forestry Commission was created in 1919 in response to the depleted supply of wood caused by the First World War. In Britain this meant a loss of ancient woodland, an irreplaceable habitat. In Germany war meant more spruce and pine, laying the groundwork for the outbreak of the bark beetle in recent decades. Before the Bavarian Forest’s intensive forestry work in the 1900s, the woods were made up of silver fir (Abies alba), beech (Fagus sylvatica), ash and a greater diversity of species. When the balance in stable ecosystems is disrupted some species can become invasive. Similarly, the outbreaks of Dutch elm disease in the early Holocene (12,000 years ago to present) were likely caused by our species opening up woods and allowing the elm bark beetle (Scolytus scolytus) greater range of travel to infect more elms with the fungal disease. Manmade climate change is also identified as a cause of the dying off of spruce due to drier soils, another reason why no landscape can be described as ‘untouched’ by us.

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On our final day in Białowieża we came across the first signs of intervention from foresters. A nature reserve sitting between the road to Hajnówka and the bison show reserve had large areas of mature dead spruce that had been felled. Was this in response to the bark beetle, or was it a safety measure? We didn’t know for sure but it seemed beetle-related.

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Earlier in the day, before being stopped by the very suspicious Polish border guards warning us not to try and escape to Belarus(!), we encountered a man gathering timber with his tractor. I snapped this picture of him, mainly because I am interested in how woods are managed in Europe and who they are managed by. He didn’t see me take that photo but when he saw me taking the photo below, having driven past us, he began shouting at us in Polish to go away. My general feedback has been that European foresters don’t like being photographed.

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This is what he had been so worried about. We met a Polish birder around the corner and I asked why he had been so angry. ‘Perhaps he is stealing,’ he said. I wasn’t convinced of that. It could be that Greenpeace Poland’s visits to Białowieża to count the number of felled trees, along with their typically ambitious protests being undertaken in Warsaw, has caused anxiety and tension among forestry workers, many of whom will be doing only what they do normally. I sympathise with them.

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In another area we noticed that wherever there was a felled tree, the words ‘eko szuje’ or ‘eko kornik’ had been daubed on the stump. We were unsure what it meant, but ‘eko kornik’ probably means ‘reserve of the bark beetle’. I would welcome any translations from readers! This seemed like an urban protest. But why are the Polish government so keen to fell spruce? Why do they care so much about the tree? It’s not threatened in Europe, in the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest’s case its presence is too great and it inhibits species diversity and only small areas of infected trees are being managed to reduce the beetle. In my opinion, having seen how much use the tree is for construction and carpentry in Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, the answer is surely commercial. Patrick Barkham has written a very informative account of the issue, he takes it further: ‘They [those opposed to the plans] say the beetle is a handy alibi for commerce. Before Szyszko [the environment minister] (a forestry teacher) was elected, he spoke of the wasted commercial potential of unlogged wood. Only 57% of the proposed harvest refers to disease-ridden spruce – its rotten wood is worthless. Loggers want to get their hands on valuable, large old trees. One forest district has already almost felled an allowance of trees which was supposed to last until 2021 and so the government will permit it to increase its annual take from 6,000 cubic metres to 53,000 cubic metres. Other districts are likely to follow suit.’

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If the opposition view is right and the Polish government is attempting to log old growth forest (400-10,000 years old) the EU, as Barkham points out, should stop them: ‘As Britain heads towards the EU referendum, virtually every conservationist argues that we need to stay in Europe because of its environmental protections, including the habitats directive and its Natura 2000 sites, of which Białowieża is one. Białowieża is the big test for that argument. The EU must intervene, cajole and penalise the Polish government until its vandalism is stopped. If the EU can’t save Białowieża, its environmental protections aren’t worth the – sustainably sourced – paper they are written on.’

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Doing the right thing for Białowieża

I’m uneasy about the ‘save our woods’ rhetoric that is so common now on English-speaking social media. The ‘crying wolf’ of many campaigners has led to scepticism for things that really are important. Evidently there are serious problems in Białowieża. The main crux of the argument to protect it is that it’s ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ and a wilderness. I don’t agree that it is. Białowieża’s woods and trees have been exploited and its fauna messed with by people for over 600 years and likely further back. If Białowieża is to be saved from these ecologically illiterate measures of clear felling deadwood, the argument should not be based on mysticism. Campaigns to save woods and landscapes should be built on a clear case that people can understand, not on a fairy tale that will later be picked apart through the bureaucratic process. I don’t think Greenpeace Poland are doing this but those of us English-speakers trying to raise awareness about Białowieża should focus on reason rather than emotion first of all. There is a reasonable case not to increase logging in Białowieża, so why not focus on that? If you really do love the idea of Białowieża and want it to be protected the best thing you can do is visit, to spend your money there, invest in the eco-tourism infrastructure and show the Polish government that its value is far greater as a nature reserve than as one to be infringed upon by exploitative forestry. The battle for Białowieża will rumble on as it has for centuries.