Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Roe deer’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sussex Weald

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Dorset, April 2011

The track was churned up by tractor wheels, giving the appearance of an industrial thoroughfare. The trees were mostly beech, with the odd oak or ash in places. They were not yet in leaf, but on the cusp. On the verges wild primrose had bloomed and swathes of wood anemone grew where light fed the woodland floor. Beyond the ride, greyish flowers were appearing from the thin green sleeves of bluebell leaves. In patches common dog-violets showed their petals and heart-shaped leaves. The wood anemones, bluebells, wild primrose and violets all indicated that the woodland had been here, in part, for over 400 years. In Dorset, only wood anemone is indicative of ancient woodland. Though wild primrose, common dog-violet and bluebells would qualify the wood as ancient in the South-East of England, here in the South-West it was not necessarily proof. But wood anemone signifies ancientness. Beech is the final stage of woodland, and so the wood appeared to me to be especially old. Wood anemone is a slow grower, it increases its range by no more than six-feet a century. The tractor’s movement through the wood may have benefitted the primroses, its wheels carrying their seeds to hedgerows in distant fields.

The track reached a plateau, swooping down and around a dense plantation of larch and other coniferous trees. No light reached the woodland floor, nothing could be seen beyond or between the trunks, merely needles and intense shade. No anemones, no violets. But this was a blip in the wood, the musty conifers likely planted for timber in a clearing came to an end. The spread of bluebells and beech returned. It was here that a big, moving, breathing blotch entered my peripheral vision. It was an animal, too tall to be a dog but that was my instinctive response. This flickering feeling is known as ‘fight-of-flight’, an adrenaline surge caused by the brain sensing that you are in danger. The brain then sends a command for adrenaline to be released into the bloodstream. Your senses are tunnelled. Leap the nearest fence or suffer the consequences. This natural pinch of adrenaline didn’t last. The fluffy white ‘tush’ of the animal engaged my senses. It was a roe deer. This doe got one whiff of a fragrant human and darted out of sight. The encounter was over within seconds. She had looked at me as she would once have witnessed her original predator, the wolf, a species long absent from Britain. In one of the trees a badger-viewing platform had been constructed. I climbed up and looked out across the dulled wood. The bluebells remained in their nearly state, spindly lichens hung from the bare branches of oaks like small, bluish wigs caught as their minor bearers escaped. In the gap of the sky untouched by twigs, the broad wingspan of a buzzard passed across. I clambered down and happened upon a neat den made from hazel poles and covered with brown ferns. To the side was an overgrown hazel coppice in need of cutting, with arms stretching out from the wide base. The ground underneath was coated with bluebells gradually lifting their heads to flower. Inside the den the leaves of the plant were flattened and brown hairs were scattered. A resting deer had stopped here.

There was a left-turning out of the wood marked by a rusted oil drum. The trees came to a sudden end and a field of grass exploded into a vista of deep, silent green. The roe deer stood in the tramlines leading over and down to an undulating expanse of the same. It watched me and continued sniffing around without much concern for a time, before galloping away as I took a few steps in its direction. I turned from the green field and gazed upon the woodland’s sudden end: a border of trees, a ditch and then the dirt of the farmland. A rabbit flinched in the low scrub by the ditch. The monoculture of the crop covered the scene for perhaps a mile over the hill and far away. In the wood, wildflowers of great variety grew, badgers slept through the day in their sett, birds of prey surveyed the glades and clearings while deer ambled along, sometimes stopping to rest in a man-made den. I turned my back to the farmland and sky and entered the wood once more.

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