The Sussex Weald: stars in a different sky

The Low Weald, West Sussex, January 2021

A second wave of Covid has thrown us back into lockdown in England. You can only leave the house for essentials and exercise. It’s much harder now that the night falls early and the window on experiencing daylight has narrowed. But the days are lengthening and spring is building in small ways.

At night the foxes are making their blood-curdling cries and other social calls. They are breeding, probably just outside the back door each night.

On clear nights I sit on the edge of the bed and, with lights out, can see stars. The three lights of Orion’s Belt shine bright, but not more so than Sirius to the south-east. It’s the brightest star in the sky.

Out on my exercise for the day, I stand in a frosty glade of bracken. Silver birches are clustered at the edges, ash branches have collapsed and fallen to the ground. Their twigs reveal leafy lichens, in some places known as oak moss. There are real mosses too, little green pin cushions with their sporophytes poised.

The birds are foraging for life in this time of scarcity. A jay moves between trees and shrubs, flushing white wing-bars as it flies. Nuthatches are dripping from the tree trunks in both number and sound. Further away the hooting of two tawny owls ruffles out of the trees, half-baked. Are these early territorial warning signs? Spring, indeed.

Alarm calls break across the branches and bare blue sky. It is a beautiful day. Knowing these alarm calls mean something is happening, I look up at the patch of sky over the clearing. From the north-west two birds fly close to one another, on passage. To identify them will take a process of elimination:

  • Wings too sharp for sparrowhawk
  • Too small and direct in flight for buzzard
  • Too big for merlin
  • Hobbies are holidaying in Africa
  • Tail too short for kestrel

They’re peregrine falcons, stars in a different sky. Perhaps they are returning to the South Downs and an early morning hunting pigeons in the towns. Maybe they’re a pair getting to know each other and seeking a place to breed. Wherever they’re going, bit by bit, winter is edging away with them.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: a winter springline

West Sussex, December 2020

A storm has passed through overnight and in the morning the Arun is near flooding. All summer the river has been low, stagnant where managed by mini-dams installed to slow the flow through suburbia. On one footbridge where usually dogs jump in, chemicals and all, the river floods sections of the path, submerging the recently exposed roots of bankside alders. Those roots need to be underwater most of the time, and the storm had righted that wrong.

I speak to a man and a woman, armed with optics, on the footbridge. The river’s power is cause for relief. Even in 2020 these reminders of nature’s prowess can still be welcomed, even longed-for. They advise me on ways to avoid flooded footpaths, but I’m heading for higher ground anyway.

On the slopes silver birches stand in their ornamental regiments. They look like a stage set with their white trunks and even size. They bring forward mental images of Russian and other Eurasian art, hunters in the snow, or the main character feeling their way through the woods in an Andrei Tarkovsky movie. Above their white bark it’s blue sky.

Out and across the open parkland, water sits in the grass like mini-marsh. A great spotted woodpecker arrives in the branches of an oak. Quiet, it sits in that semi-diagonal pre-creep. Long-tailed tits pass across the open plain, re-tangling in brambles that shield a private fence and garden.

The trees change from oak to dotted limes, a probably ancient sweet chestnut – where a woman with a dog lingers beside its massive trunk – and the collapsed limbs of a red horse chestnut. In the spring lockdown, when everything stopped, a workman chainsawed the fallen logs for a man who stood close by with his young son. They were all way too close to the saw and without any protective equipment. Above the noise I could hear the father earmarking the limbs and branches for future firewood. The workman carried on, loading logs onto a small trailer attached to his car.

The red horse chestnut might be ancient but it is most certainly veteran. The fallen limbs are a key part of that. It holds dead and decaying wood, plus the many places wildlife can move into. It has a single limb of young growth that will keep it living for as long as time allows.

Around it the fallen wood is covered in silver-leaf fungus, which is pleasing to look at more because of its purple glow. The fallen branches have created niches of long grass where mossbell mushrooms fruit, as well as a pale brown cup fungus (Peziza) that looks like an ear. I think the man marking up his future firewood lived in the converted mansion house a hundred metres away from the tree. I hope he can come back with his son, witness the fungi, and have a change of heart. These logs provide life for species that need them more than we need firewood.

Across the parkland old furrow lines lead to views of the North Downs, so much woodier than their sisters to the south. Here the hill drops down into a bowl, rising back up again, before dropping once more to where the Arun rocks and rolls.

At the foot of the first decline water floods and I look to jump over the deepest stretch without making a complete idiot of myself. But the pause to make a choice is a blessing. The nearby road roars with surprising levels of traffic, seeing as we are subject to severe restrictions on movement due to the Coronavirus. A higher pitch cuts the drone, however. Looking closer at the water, it is not still, it is bubbling up. It’s a springline. This is the first one I’ve ever seen in the ‘wild’ sense. Perhaps the overnight deluge has driven water up through the aquifer to create the rural equivalent of a bubbling sewer. It’s not something I know much about.

A few metres up the hill another spring pushes from below the surface, calming tremors tickle the surface like moving clouds. Further towards the road and the spring bursts up from a large pool that has formed, bubbles resting in its wake. Without pause, the water spits and splatters like a fountain. The sun falls behind the hill and this winter springline turns an oceanic blue.

Thanks for reading.

The Sussex Weald

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The Sussex Weald: the buzzard’s lunch

The River Arun, Horsham, West Sussex, November 2020

Again we must stay close to home. The oaks are in their orange and gold phase. The bright sun catches in their leaves against blue skies, darkening their grey-black trunks. I stop to look out over the Arun’s water meadows. Two large white Sussex cattle rest on a hillock, doing nothing.

From the mature trees that edge the Arun, a bird swoops down into the rushy grasslands that spread away from the river. I can see from its size and underwing that it’s a buzzard. It returns to a perch in a bare ash tree on the river’s edge. I don’t have binoculars so I can’t see what it has, but it took something. Surely it’s too late for frogs or toads.

A man and a woman approach from behind me to share the view across the river’s wet edgelands. The woman has an orange bin bag and a litter pick.

‘Seen anything good?’ she asks.

I point out the buzzard, that it’s hard to see because it’s so well hidden.

‘No,’ she says. ‘I’ve just seen it because it moved.’

Impressive, but perhaps unsurprising for someone with an eye for litter picking.

I say that I don’t know what it has. She tells me that she only ever sees them soaring but never perched. She and her partner live on the edge of the farm. They see buzzards all the time.

All summer I heard a young buzzard calling from a nest along the river, It was incessant, persistent. Every time I visited I could hear it calling. Then I spotted a huge ash tree and saw it sitting up there, calling still. It was out on a branch, begging to be fed by its parents.

As an exiled Londoner, it feels an intense privilege to be able to walk ten minutes from home and happen upon the breeding ground of this great and prospering hawk. A fellow exile said much the same to me, that he had found buzzards roosting in trees across from his new home in Peterborough.

Our conversation about the buzzard dissolves in that awkward English way, and the couple head off in search of more litter. I stay on, wondering what it is the buzzard is having for its lunch.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: to fall is not to fail

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

A jay swoops through the trees in silence, landing on an oak branch, an acorn held in its bill. A friend and I have a running gag. Wherever we see a jay we send a text or voice recording to eachother:

‘Jay.’

It originates from a trip to the White Carpathians mountains in Czechia one September. The bird we saw again and again was the jay. Always travelling around with or for acorns. As is now commonly known now, jays scatter-hoard thousands of acorns every year. They have helped pioneer Europe’s great oak woodlands along with squirrels and other smaller caching mammals.

Here in the Sussex Weald I find a fallen acorn split down its centre. The tannin red catches my eye. The shell is cracked because the acorn is shooting, seeking soil to establish itself in.

I’m tracing an old ditch or woodbank looking for fungi to photograph. There is an almost comical halt to the woodland where the heathland and its diminishing ranks of pine begin and the broadleaf oaks end. Marking that edge is an astonishing beech tree. Let me explain.

Part of the tree’s root plate has lifted. The lignified roots have become hardened like a drystone wall. They have developed into a lattice-work of branches, their function forever entangled by their appearance above ground.

The tree must have fallen about fifty years ago. But it has not died. Where the old trunk hit the other bank of the ditch it has made a sharp turn towards the sky to grow anew. Trees can teach us that to fall is rarely to fail.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: where all the mushrooms are

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

I walk my bike along the field edge, woodpigeons grazing the dry stubble of the field. It’s another hot day in Sussex and the land is thirsty and dry. In the distance, a hedge line with a number of small beech trees in it seems to have died. Ahead of me a small dustcloud rises and dissolves into some oak scrub. The shadows of dragonflies cross my own, a hawker coming close to my face, perhaps lured by the neon hi-vis helmet I’m wearing.

I’m heading for St. Leonard’s Forest knowing that some late summer and early autumn mushrooms are appearing. I just want to see what’s there, to maybe see something new. From the sloping footpath down into the woods, three mountain bikers appear, breathless.

‘Great sesh boys,’ one of them says. ‘I feel violated.’

Entering into this old heathy landscape, the whispering pines give a sense of endlessness. They remind me of the mountains of the Scottish Highlands and the Romanian Carpathians. Though this is southern England it feels so much like somewhere remote, wild and unchartered. I think that’s what makes these places so important.

The heather blooms still at the path edge, and up on the banks of crumbling soil where pine roots are exposed. I find small suede-capped bolete mushrooms in the shade and take pictures.

I get back on my bike and follow the old track where a couple of weeks ago deer roamed freely. Not today. I cycle slowly along the old ride that bisects St. Leonard’s Forest. In the ditches mushrooms appear: red russulas, blushers and some larger boletes. The sun shines in high contrast in the dark birch woods, where bracken still holds green. A hornet flies among fleabane flowers.

I follow a track down past bare-chested mountain bikers. Like deer, a group of people are crossing the track from one area of woodland to another. They have plastic bags full of things, reminding me of Czechia at this time of year. I slow down and hear a Slavic language being spoken. In a friendly way I ask them if they’re foraging mushrooms.

‘No,’ a younger man with glasses responds. He, too, is holding a plastic bag heavy with something.

I tell them I was just interested to know. I think they probably thought I was a warden or maybe some xenophobe. Really I just wanted to know where all the mushrooms were!

Further ahead the track thins and the woodland pinches: pine, birch and spruce. I get the feeling of a good place to find fungi. Out of the corner of my eye I catch the shape of large discs on a fallen tree. Bingo!

I dismount and take my bike off the path. There are two large bolete mushrooms growing from a log, another of the suede-capped variety half-chewed before them. I find more. Nearby, two small mammals, perhaps voles or shrews, follow each other underground in a way so direct they seem magnetised or attached like train carriages.

I take back to the track and grey-spotted amanitas appear at the track edge in their hundreds. They stand at the side like a crowd cheering me on towards the finish line.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: spring is a memory

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

Evening. The sun kindles embers in dangling birch leaves. The songs of birds have gone, spring is a memory. I think of autumn: the cool that grows where the sun can no longer reach. My footsteps crunch and snap in the dry, leaf-littered banks beside the gill. This stream was dammed centuries ago for the Wealden iron industry. But it still runs, just not now. The hammer pond it’s been forced to feed is now the realm of private fishing.

The beeches twist and turn on the slopes, in this light you might have thought they’re creeping up behind your back. It is so quiet that any sound feels like a warning. I hear the first faint murmur of a tawny owl.

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The bracken is high and it’s hard to see around the bend of this winding desire line. On the hill the sun lends the ranks of pines some splendour. But it’s the heather battling down in the bracken that holds most promise. Men have stolen the sun from this heath with forestry, but the pines have been forgotten. Nature lies in wait, its disruptive forces breaking rank in a way so slow it’s not known until it’s done. This place will not be the same in decades to come.

Blackbirds and thrushes shuffle song-less in the shrub layer. The dryness amplifies the sound of their size to large mammal. That old fear ticks and tocks in me. A barometer I forgot I had.

Out on the woodland ride the ditches promise an explosion of new flowers: fleabane, ragwort, valerian, hogweed, and hemp agrimony where small cream moths nectar. One is held aloft, frozen in mid-air. Peering round, I see the camouflage of a crab spider hidden among the florets.

The Sussex Weald

#FungiFriday: the charcoal burners

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Brittlegill mushrooms

#FungiFriday 25th July 2020

It’s a great relief to be able to share some fungi from the Wood Wide Web this week. There has been steady rainfall in recent weeks which gave the sense that some summer shrooms might be ready to appear. At this time of year I’m looking for the early indicators of autumn’s fungal moment, which appear in the form of brittlegills or Russulas, in scientific language.

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A mixed secondary/ancient woodland in the Sussex High Weald

The fungi described this week are garnered from two walks in the woods of the Sussex Weald in West Sussex. The first walk was a short evening wander to a mixed woodland with signs of ancient woodland flowers like bluebell, but with lots of birch, hazel and some oak. It then pretty abruptly turned to pine, which happens quite often in the Weald because of the arrival of sandier soils where the Weald clay ends, and the prevalence of forestry.

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It was much more dry than I had hoped but mushrooms are tenacious things. This nicely illustrated a new fungal phrase I learned in Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweet Grass (p.112 in the ebook). You can listen to an interesting podcast with the author about mosses.Tthe Native American language of the Anishinaabe describes “the force which causes mushrooms to push up from the earth overnight” as ‘Puhpowee’. And so was this very small brittlegill pushing through the leaf litter.

I have never really tried to identify brittlegills to species level because they are so numerous and similar. I would guess this species is the charcoal burner. But I could be wrong about that.

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This is one of the red brittlegills from August 2018 in the Weald, something to expect in August through to September.

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It’s a very dim view due to the light but my companion found this fungus within a fungus. It’s a species of oysterling. You can see a black springtail (or maybe even a tick?) on the left hand side for scale.

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The second walk was in the afternoon at another Wealden woodland I am getting to know quite well. I recorded an Instagram story guided walk of this experience which you can see here. If you have the Gram.

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Again it was well-nibbled brittlegills that could be found. This is probably the work of a small mammal with some input from a slug. I’ve seen grey squirrels pick these mushrooms, and spin them around by the stem and nibble down the gills. That interested me because grey squirrels are an American species. Brittlegills are also found in North America, so perhaps they are just returning to their roots. Does belittle the idea that grey squirrels don’t belong in European landscapes, the evidently do. Yes, I know about red squirrels.

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I’m sure these species are not in any way appetising for the reader. This is probably one of the green brittlegills. It looks a bit ghoulish but I was pleased to find it. All these finds were just at the edge of footpaths.

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A common summer mushroom is rooting shank, one of the toughshanks. ‘Shank’ has a pretty dark meaning in modern language, particularly in London, but it’s an old name for leg. That’s where the names of red or greenshank come from in the bird world. Americans call similar species ‘yellowlegs’. I prefer the olde Englishe names.

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Rooting shank is quite an abrupt shroom, it just shows up where it likes. You can find it from now through to September from the woodland floor to stumps and buttresses of trees. This dream of a shroom was in the White Carpathian mountains in the borders of Czechia/Slovakia but I first saw it in urban south-east London.

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It’s not a fungus, but this dog vomit slime mould was a lovely find (believe it or not). This amazing video gives a much better explanation of what this slime mould is up to:

I have recently learned that slime moulds have memory!

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It was only after taking this photo of the slime mould’s birch log that I realised how much was happening. You can see the early stages of small polypore fungi moving in from the outer edge as the wood degrades. I think the greyish blobs next to the slime mould may be Lycogola species, sometimes known as wolf’s milk. Lyco means wolf. The puffballs, Lycoperdon mean ‘wolf’s fart’. Oh dear. And we don’t even have wolves in the UK anymore, just in Downing Street, LOL!

Thanks for reading.

More mushrooms

The Sussex Weald: beech trees blighted by fire

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

Rain spots my shirt as a storm threatens overhead. The heat in Sussex has been blistering this week, with a breach of the thirty-degree mark yesterday. Today it is much cooler. I waited until the late afternoon to head out while the last embers of the heatwave petered out.

I’m amazed to see that the leaves of a fallen beech limb are still alive, still in their early spring state. It brings me back to those promising early weeks when spring appears.

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There is something sad about these paused beech leaves, perhaps because the tree has died with the fracture that has meant the leaves are so easy to reach and photograph. The tree had become rotten through its heart and base. A spring storm smashed through it and now here it lies. The leaves are beautiful, corrugated, and a fresh green.

Passing through a screen of holly and oak, I enter into an opening where giant beech trees live with great limbs like giant octopi. Everytime I come here someone has had a fire on the roots of the main beech tree. This is frustrating. The tree will be harmed by damage to the roots. The roots of a tree sit closer to the surface of the soil than you might think. This time, there is more than one firepit and signs of small trees like hazel being cut, sawn up and piled, either for another fire or a den. These old trees have clearly taken a beating over the years and I worry that people don’t understand their fragility, especially to fire.

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In the raised buttresses of this veteran beech white sawdust has been left, the trail of saw blades having cut into the tree’s bark. In a sheltered nook of exposed roots a bunch of freshly cut twigs and small sticks has been piled for kindling. Could this have been a place where someone wanted to start a fire, could people really think the tree would not be harmed? I gather the sticks and scatter them among the holly.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the dawn chorus

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

It’s the blue hour and already birdsong rises from the woods: an unbreakable wall of blackbird and song thrush. The thrush pierces through with repetition as the blackbirds pause. Chiffchaff, robin, wren, the cascading song of a willow warbler.

Straight away, the hoot of a tawny owl in the echoing micro-valleys of gills flowing through the woods. Over time new owl sound-posts arise in distant corners of the landscape.

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5am comes. In the birchy patches roe deer crash away through old bracken. Their sheer weight can be heard. A roe barks a warning – we have been seen.

The owls’ calls grow with the onset of dawn. The darkness still sits in the beech, oak and birch woodland. Pine, forever green, holds it that bit longer.

A sound from far away, slipping over the owl and deeper into the Weald. The cuckoo, master messenger of spring. We heard him here last year and wonder if he is the same bird back from the Congolese rainforest where he spent the winter. Whoever he is his life has been richer than any human’s could ever be. And the female cuckoo, she too will be hidden away somewhere in silence, listening.

We meet the crescendo of the dawn chorus now. Owls hooting on the crest of song thrush and blackbird. Cuckoo rising over everything. Crows begin the first administrative duties of the day, checking outposts of their web and marking party lines. The owls will not be lost on them.

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Down a sunken track enclosed by holly, we notice the shapes of bats hawking. It’s the path we need to take. On approach they disappear, as if they were never there. The mosquitoes landing on our foreheads are glad we’ve moved them on. I’d love to tell them, the bats will be back.

The Sussex Weald

The Sussex Weald: the owl in the rafters

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Blackdown, West Sussex, March 2020

We climb the hill on a winding, muddy path through woodland. The trees are sprawling yew, rotten beech and broken holly. On the thick, black soil holly leaves have fallen. We listen to the spinning coins of a goldcrest’s song as it moves close over our heads in the twigs of a yew. These tiny birds weigh little more than a 20p piece and must eat 90% of their body weight each day to survive in winter.

The light at the top of the hill comes through the branches. Woodland becomes heath of gorse, bilberry and birch. The voices of a walking group echo down as we step up through sandier soils now. A screen of crooked birches are splayed across the view, desperate to keep its secret. Their birchen secret is out.

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From up here, the highest point in the South Downs National Park, the Sussex Weald opens out. Soft brush woods are broken by fields where individual oaks express themselves as they once would have, in landscapes kept open by now extinct herbivores like aurochs and wild horses.

Then there are the folding Downs catching in a spill of light from the west. The beechen clump of Chanctonbury Ring, with the heavy metal orchids of Truleigh Hill further east.

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A woman is here with her son and his girlfriend, walking the dog. She tells them in a faintly Irish accent that you can see the Isle of Wight on a good day. This is not one of those days.

The families and walkers are dissipating and the view is now ours for a moment. Just as the last person leaves, a call rings out from the woodland we crept up through.

One call, and then the truncated follow-up. A tawny owl, calling from the rafters of the Weald at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon.

The Sussex Weald