Macro 📷: City Nature Challenge 2021 (in the South Downs…)

In recent months I’ve become somewhat addicted to iNaturalist. It’s a website or app which collects species records but has AI which can identify a species from a photograph. It can be used by anyone and even has an auxiliary app called Seek which can scan plants, animals, fungi and other animals and identify in real time. It’s the way ecological monitoring is going. Nature conservation is dominated by too small a cohort of people and needs to find ways to open its doors to more people. I will never forget hearing of a lifelong species recorder who wouldn’t provide their sightings to science, and that they would rather be buried with them than share them.

It’s lamby time

Onto more inclusive ways of thinking, over this bank holiday weekend it’s the City Nature Challenge (CNC) where people the world over submit species records to iNaturalist and into the project. As of 10pm on Sunday 2nd May there have been 631,418 sightings submitted. Amazing!

I went to a part of the South Downs that was just about included in the Brighton CNC catchment. I used my zoom lens rather than a dedicated macro because I was doing general ‘work’ with creatures great and small. I used an Olympus 12-45mm lens which can still do macro to a degree (in normal camera terms it’s 24-90mm because I was using a Micro Four Thirds camera, which has a cropped sensor). It worked like a dream.

Xanthoria parietina, a sunburst lichen

I photographed each species once, rather than everything, which would never work – can you imagine? I’d still be there now. I really noticed how, even though I probably recorded about 100 species on the South Downs Way, it was dominated by a small number of species. Ground ivy was very common, as was hogweed, white deadnettle and nettles.

Another Xanthoria sunburst lichen

The most dominant species were nitrogen-loving, just like this golden shield lichen above which is able to deal with fertiliser and other agricultural pollutants. I wonder how different things might have been before the Second World War’s agricultural boom. The Downs is known to have lost a vast area of chalk grassland in the 20th century, one of the rarest and richest habitats in Britain.

Two ravens (centre) and a red kite

I will save you all the generic images of flower-less plants. I did manage to capture record shots of ravens mobbing a red kite, of which there were several. I love ravens, they are such intelligent and characterful birds. They are also not quite common enough to feel as familiar as crows or jackdaws.

A heath snail

One of my favourite encounters was with this heath snail which was curled up (so to speak) in the flower head of a dandelion or hawkbit. I instantly saw this and started talking to myself dangerously loudly about what a nice image it was. I hope you agree!

Hawthorn trees with the Arun Valley in the background

I inspected some old hawthorns that were dotted on the edges of the grasslands. I’ve heard they’re good places in the South Downs to find lichens. Though I found nothing outrageous, there were some beautiful species growing on the branches.

These are possibly the beard lichen Ramalina farinacea. iNaturalist has a weird name of farinose cartilage lichen. Farinose seems to mean mealy or floury. That’s a new one for me.

A small parcel of woodland atop the Downs

On this section of the South Downs Way there is a sudden square of woodland which the path cuts through. I had always thought this was perhaps planted or some recent woodland that had grown up on fallow land. But I found something that makes me think very differently about it.

Town hall clock

This is the first time I’ve seen town hall clock or moschatel. I was amazed to find it. It’s an ancient woodland indicator, which suggests that the woodland is far older than I had realised.

Cowslips flowering en masse

It was nice to witness the typical downland spread of cowslips. Last year we got locked down before this began, and now I’m just getting back here at the point that they’re peaking.

The view towards Amberley

The weather started behaving like something you’d expect in the Yorkshire Dales which cut my species recording short, bar a few desperate snaps in the cold and wet march back to the start.

I managed to capture this footage of a hunting kestrel, hardly macro, but worth sharing.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

Poetry: Heavy metal orchids

I’m in the process of editing a third booklet of poems. It takes me something like 2-4 years to get one finished because things need to be left to cool and develop, you need time away from it. I have a ghost document of poems that don’t quite fit in. This is one about a walk on the South Downs between Firle and Itford in June 2019.

I really thought this one would work with the collection, but something changed and it’s going free.

As I progress towards finishing the third booklet, I’ll post some more of those which won’t be in it. Definitely interested in your views on them.

Mount Caburn is an Iron Age hillfort (which is no longer there).

If you want to see more of my poems or buy yourself a booklet please head over here.

Heavy metal orchids

 Barren Downs
 broken by sea
 tropical blue
 and the sinking hint
 of chalk reef
  
 Newhaven onion dome 
 and brown lagoon
 toy town train services
 honking on approach

 up here you all look like
 ants who have
 gained human traits
  
 a thirst for farming
 more than aphids
  
 up here skylarks translating 
 the silence of masts
 stood in muted alarm 

 heavy metal orchids
 so rare they’re padlocked
 in barbed wire cages
  
 at Lewes the ramparts
 of Mount Caburn 
 like a bowl cut 
 but you promised
 the reality was far 
 more blood-soaked
  
 Ouse water a
 concrete slow worm
 with seaweed on the side
 and rusting iron cranks
 crawling with a sea
 of red spider-mites
  
 hare barely 
 breaking barley
 her winging blues
 and tortoiseshells
  
 the wooden bridge
 where the crow
 begs a toll like a child 

© Daniel James Greenwood 2020

Macro Monday: back to chalk

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Macro Monday 7th May 2020

I was on lockdown leave last week (the holiday you booked last year but aren’t able to go on, not that I’m complaining). One morning I was reading a book on the sofa – Horizons by Barry Lopez, which I haved really enjoyed – and I heard what sounded like very a noisy daddy longlegs entering the room. I looked up and a damselfly was resting on the wall. I ran to get my little camera and took some photos.

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It was a female azure damselfly, the second damselfly I’ve recorded in my garden this year. I helped it onto the tip of my finger and took it over to the window. It flew away and landed on the curtains. The light was beautiful and soft, helped by the curtains. In the end it slipped off into the sunny garden.

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Out there some hyper-goth-punk has taken residence in the raspberry patch. Really I think it’s a vapourer moth. This one will be worth watching. I’ll keep you posted. It’s a nightmare to photograph.

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The cranesbills are flowering now in my garden and they’re a good place to find spiders. They’re a bad place to find spiders if you’re an aphid.

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I’m not sure what kind of spider this is (there is a new book coming out in September that I’m waiting for) but I would guess it was a crab spider. Please let me know if you do.

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Spiders do make you realise how much of a nightmare they would be to sit next to on the bus.

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Ok, I know what you’re thinking: you have a nice garden. You’re too kind, but it’s not mine. This is the South Downs National Park. I visited the South Downs for the first time in three months with one aim in mind: macro.

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At one point this year I didn’t think I’d have the chance to visit the chalk downs. I was prepared for that, because I think the health of the wider populace is more important than getting to look at some flowers in a field, or a wood, whether or not they’re on my dad’s farm in Northumberland. Needless to say I drove the 30 minutes to the South Downs to check my eyesight. I believe I acted reasonably.

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Turns out my eyesight is good but not this good. To really get close to this chalk milkwort I need a macro lens. Lucky for me, I had one! The flowers of this very small plant look to me a bit like spiders, too.

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This rock rose was growing in amongst some of the drier grasslands, starved of decent rain for a long while. May was the sunniest on record. We need rain, so bad.

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It was a windy day up on the Downs and butterflies were having a tricky time of it. To be honest, I can’t remember it not being windy on the Downs…

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I’m fairly certain this is a brown argus, which I hit the deck to get closer to. It was having a wild thyme. I also saw brimstone, common blue and small heath.

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On the lane I picked up this cinnabar moth, a species which is lives on ragwort. They develop from the iconic orange and black caterpillars that you can find on a-plant-so-hated-someone-made-a-website-to-defend-it. In macro terms of keeping beautiful insects distracted long enough to have their picture taken, ragwort has been good to me. I’m a fan.

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You may know that chalk formed about 65 million years ago from the shells of molloscs in an ocean. That ocean is gone but I found a tiny piece of chalk in one of the dusty, dry exposed areas of the grasslands. I think the black spots may be the early development of a lichen. I thought it was so beautiful as an object, like a piece of cave art, its canvas so many millions of years in the making.

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This photo was taken with my macro lens. It was lovely to see a skylark again.

Thanks for reading.

More macro

 

 

The South Downs: the Sullington yew

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The Sullington Yew, Sullington, West Sussex

The South Downs is renowned for its ancient churches. Its chalk soils have also proven hospitable to yew trees. Some of the most extensive yew woodlands in the UK (if not Europe) are on the chalk of the North and South Downs in southern England.

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I had a couple of minutes in the village of Sullington at the foot of the South Downs close to Storrington in West Sussex. The village is made up largely of an ancient farmstead and the Church of St. Mary.

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The Sullington yew sits in the churchyard, supposedly 1200 years old. To me it looks like it could be younger due to its lack of hollowing in the heart of the tree. If it’s that old it would pre-date the church by several hundred years. It is true that many yew trees pre-date the churches they share a plot with. Yew trees hold strong spiritual significance to pre-Roman/Saxon Brits who were Pagan. Therefore churches came later, being Christian, on sacred Pagan sites.

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The church itself is built of flint, sandstone and other materials. Part of it is Saxon, meaning it survived the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is thought to originate from 1050.

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Here’s the tree on the Ancient Tree Inventory.

 

#FungiFriday: deadwood brings the disco

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Fungi Friday: 24th January 2020

A week of blissful winter sunshine and endless starry skies, cut short by low clouds. What is the point of January, many ask. If fungi asked themselves that question, they probably wouldn’t be here and therefore nor would we. Nature does not disappear completely in winter. The paucity of species can help introduce us to new ones we never knew existed.

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January to me is a good time to find slime moulds. Yes, I suppose this is two straight weeks of cheating after last week’s lichen love-in. But if this is the only way to raise awareness about slime moulds, I don’t think fungi will mind. I had an hour to look through the wooded slopes of an old estate in East Sussex, to find this week’s quarry.

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There was very little fungi of the mushroom kind, in fact, none. But one of the bad funguys had been making itself felt in the wood. Ash trees had been felled after becoming infected with ash dieback. I used to monitor a woodland at the time of ash dieback’s arrival in the UK and have, since about 2014, watched it rocket across the country. In Sussex it is killing lots of ash trees that are under 50 years of age and the landscape of the South Downs is losing a lot of its higher woodland.

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Here you can see the effect of the fungus, though of course many other fungal organisms will be benefitting from the decay caused by the disease. The rot has moved from the outside in through what are the softer layers of waste wood. Had the fungus weakened two thirds of the overall mass, the tree would probably have fallen down. Lots of people walk under these trees, so that’s why they have to be pushed before the wind shoves them.

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I have been exchanging emails with a fellow macro photographer this week who has been spending hours looking for slime moulds. One day this week he looked for four hours and found nothing. I was lucky enough to walk straight outdoors for a few minutes and happened upon this epic spread on the tree above:

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No, slime moulds aren’t fungi, they’re not even moulds, which are another kind of fungus. I still don’t have the slime mould ID book so any help is welcome.

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The thing that amazed me about these slimeys was that you could barely see them, even when I knew they were there. They camouflaged so well with the glowering winter light. The photos here have been taken with a flash.

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I could have spent all day with this spread but only had an hour and my small camera. Up close they look like little black kalamata olives. Nom, nom and nom. Though inedible.

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The land managers had left lots of standing dead trees which is excellent. There is some epic misinformation going around about deadwood in woodlands and their contributions to forest fires. It’s guff aimed to misinform people, appeal to people’s fears (what a surprise) and promote the destruction of these habitats. In Britain our native woods of oak, beech and so on, are far too wet to ever burn like a heath.

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The crevices seen above are the perfect places to find slime moulds in cold weather. This is because they provide microclimates and protection from the elements.

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Here I found some old stalkballs which are fungi (or maybe a species of slime mould, am not quite sure), plus the real life of the party:

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DISCO. I’m not sure which species of disco the blue cup fungi are, but the orange fruiting body is definitely a slime mould. They were few and I couldn’t get a good angle on them.

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Thankfully this blue disco brought the party on Fungi Friday.

Please do share your finds this week in the comments below. Also here are some fungi things of interest this week.

Thanks for reading.

First mushrooms appeared earlier than originally thought

More mushrooms

 

 

 

 

 

#FungiFriday: more like #LichenJanuary

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Flooding from the river Rother in West Sussex

Fungi Friday: 17th January 2020

Storm Brendon rocked up this week in Sussex and gave freedom of movement to the Arun and Rother. Temperatures have tickled 11 degrees but are set to crunch back down this weekend. Mushrooms must think, guys, WTAF?

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I see images of nice looking shrooms on social media, things like velvet shank glowing orange like sweets on tree trunks. All I saw were the melted ice lollies of sulphur tuft (Hypholoma fasiculare) on an embankment. It gets worse:

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Probably some bonnets, like a scene from the Netflix drama You. The rain has been too much for these Mycena. But have hope.

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Where there are non-chemical treated fence posts, there is hope. That hope comes in the form of our symbiotic fungi-algae friends, the lichens. This is a great time of year for lichens due to the amount of rain and their resistance to winter weather. They are hard to shift.

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The fruiting bodies here are known as apothecia. I love them. They are like cartoon eyes or mouths. Wonder what they’re trying to say. Obviously it’s a climate warning.

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This one just takes the biscuit. My lichen guide is in Ireland where it belongs, with all the other lichens. So I’m sailing in the dark and just here to appreciate the beauty of these ancient, life-giving organisms.

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These fencing rails are a reminder of how important dead wood is in the biosphere as a structural support for biodiversity. No doubt lots of other organisms will make a home for themselves in these lichens.

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This is a finger post with the yellow being the paint of an arrow pointing in the direction of the public footpath. I love the little apothecia eye cups on the right hand side.

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Living wood also provides a platform for lichens to grow. I can’t cope with the colour range in the species which dominates the image here. They were growing on the bark of a fairly young beech tree. A few people did glance over when they saw me effectively hiding behind the tree with a camera. In actual fact the camera was jammed up against the bark taking macro pics. Still, could have gone wrong.

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Here you can see the brown streaks which are fissures in the maturing bark as it grows. Patches of foliose or leafy lichens are growing in among the crustose species.

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This was their view, an oak tree fanned out before the South Downs ridge. Not a bad place to be for a lichen.

The British Lichen Society are running the hashtag #LichenJanuary. Lichens are for everyone so it’s good to see such a niche group spreading their knowledge to the masses(?) for free.

Thanks for reading and please share any interesting lichen finds (or indeed identifications) in the comments. Some interesting mycological articles this week:

Mushrooms and orange peel: could biotech clean up the building industry?

Ikea to use packaging made from mushrooms that will decompose in a garden within weeks

More mushrooms

 

 

#FungiFriday: witches’ butter? Of gorse, it is.

Due to Christmas hols I’m a couple of days late to Fungi Friday on my blog, morphing instead to Mushroom Monday!

A couple of weeks ago I spent some time at Lullington Heath in the South Downs National Park. Lullington Heath is a National Nature Reserve with the super rare habitat chalk heath. It had lots of little waxcaps fruiting at the time.

As you can see Lullington Heath is dominated by gorse which affects the diversity of plants and fungi that can prosper there.

The gorse forms a scrubby woodland and provides ample habitat for one of the most striking species of fungus: yellow brain. It’s also known as witches’ butter, a lovely colloquial name that hints at the role fungi has in British folklore.

This is the yellow brain from the pics above. I cut it out before it was cleared and brought it into the sun. I hid it further away in the gorse afterwards.

It’s actually parasitic on crust fungi which you can see on the right hand side here.

Keep an eye out for my fungal year 2019, an account of things I found and photographed this year, which I’ll be hoping to post in January.

Merry Christmas to all the funguys and gals out there!

More mushrooms

The Sussex Weald: Woolbeding to Midhurst in the Amazonian Weald

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Woolbeding to Midhurst on the New Lipchis Way, West Sussex, August 2019

Download my route for this walk on ViewRanger

In late August 2019 a friend and I took an evening hike on a section of the New Lipchis Way. This was in addition to a previous walk from Midhurst to Singleton. The 7 mile walk began at Older Hill with astonishing views across the heathlands of the Sussex Weald to the hills of the South Downs. It’s easy to forget (or not even realise) how wooded southern England is. The stretches of woodland in the Weald are some of the most contiguous and largest in the UK. In these images they look like the Amazon rainforest. Against the foot of the Downs they offer awe-inspiring views.

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Above heather can be seen in flower, an icon of the Greensand Hills, with birch trees blending with oaks all the way to the Downs.

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Stedham Marsh is a very wet area in winter but we met it on a beautiful evening when a dry period had given us free reign over the tracks and paths.

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Mushrooms were beginning to fruit at this time. The woods were littered with brittlegills (Russula). You can see how dry it is here by the colour of the mushrooms (they’re usually more red) and the leaf litter is crisp.

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We weren’t foraging (and I’m not telling you that you have permission to do so here) but this boletus mushroom had already been uprooted and it made for a lovely image. There were hundreds of mushrooms on this walk.

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My walking buddy Jonathan agreed to pose under this huge Ganoderma bracket fungus.

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Another Boletus edulis along the way. They seem most happy in the drier progression into autumn, before the October storms when much of the leaf cover is pulled down.

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As with all walks in southern England, the walk crossed through farmsteads and settlements. This beautiful carriage was sitting at the side of a track like something from the days of John Clare when gypsies were free to roam the open landscapes of England.

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The Rother is one of the main features of this amazing walk. The river has much of its natural form, winding its way through the area. The sun created long shadows of alder trees in the water.

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Iping bridge is a local icon dating from the 17th century. It reminds me a little bit of the Anglo-Saxon helmet found in the hoard at Sutton Hoo.

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This selection of milk churns is throwback to times past. One of the things you notice about villages in southern England is how they have lost their working class rural element and have become places for wealthier middle class people. If you were here in the early 1900s it would have been different but the shifting rural economies of the post-war period have changed these communities.

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Walking in late August, the trees were heavy with acorns in what turned out to be a mast-year for oaks.

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Stedham Hall is pretty difficult to miss. It is a Victorian building built on top of something much older. How can people cope with so many rooms?

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The walk reaches Midhurst through Woolbeding, an area owned by the National Trust. Here we ended the walk under a pink and purple sky. Herdwick sheep grazed the grasslands between oak trees.

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Arriving in Midhurst you can find plenty of places to rest up after the near 7-mile walk.

The Sussex Weald

The South Downs: the otherworldly nature of Kingley Vale

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Kingley Vale, South Downs, West Sussex, October 2019

We enter the ashy woods of Kingley Vale, one of the most spellbinding place in the South Downs. Mushrooms are everywhere at the feet of yew, ash and oak trees as the season enters its peak.

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The light is weak so we kneel down next to the mushrooms to look more closely. We find blushers, ceps, deceivers and many brown species that are very difficult to identify.

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Archetypal mushrooms grow with black gills and caps that glow purple. Their collars hang loose like pastry over the edges of a tin.

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Kingley Vale is famed for its ancient yew trees, particularly one area that is heavily visited, the roots of the trees beginning to show above ground from the impacts of footfall eroding the ground around them. They feel like one of the most still and unmoving of tree species, owing to their hardness and strength. Their living tissue is some of the strongest in the plant kingdom and their heartwood is not at all needed for them to remain upright. Their roots can go on producing new trees even when those above ground have died, like the Borrowdale yews in the Lake District.

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Out from under the yews chalk grassland spreads to the foot of the ridge where yew and ash woods cover the hills. Many of the ash trees are succumbing to ash dieback disease, in a landscape where they are content. It is a tragedy but then it is our own fault for unchecked trade of wood products, combined with the eventual spread of fungal spores.

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In the chalk grasslands we find a cowpat with mushrooms popping from the poo. One of them is snowy inkcap, a species I have never seen before, with its powdery cap and stem. It looks like something you might find in a snow globe.

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Climbing up onto the ridge the sun slips away in the west, casting a final glow across the chalky bowl of Kingley Vale.

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The grunting of a male deer echoes in the yew woods broken by the white stags of bare bone ash branches. Knowing some of these trees may be dead lends them a ghoulishness. Their brushheads are fading into history. Many will not be here in years to come.

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The sun glimmers in Chichester Harbour and the sea. A plume of smoke spirals into the evening sky.

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In the dense and dark yew woods on the slope we hear the strange, tropical bubbling of a tawny owl. Here yews reach out into the light at the edges like multi-limbed bodies sucked into a vortex. The yews have clarified the soil, no other plant can compete. Combined with the tawny’s song, the experience is otherwordly.

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At dusk rooks flock in a sea of black over a field-edge wood. Their cawing grows louder and closer as they envelop the sky above our heads, drawing in jackdaws, drifting back beyond the tops of the trees. On the darkening hilltops deer graze like slow-footed, four-legged people. We are left with so many questions.

Explore my Wood-Wide-Web

Video: The Magnificent South Downs Way

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In August my oldest friend Adam George came home for the summer from where he lives in China. Adam makes videos about travel in China as well as his job as an English teacher out there. Having known him since we were about 4, I think his accent is now a lot less south London after 5 years in China! My friend Jamie however, still a Londoner.

Adam wanted to make a short travel video about the South Downs. We went to Devil’s Dyke in West Sussex and this is what he produced. You can see me talking about the Sussex Weald and suncream.

You can see Adam’s YouTube channel here.