Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘The Weald’

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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

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Fungi Friday 21st February 2020

The Weald holds so many future Fungi Fridays. It’s an ancient wooded landscape that stretches across Sussex, parts of Surrey and into Kent. It covers the most wooded part of the UK in East Sussex. Once it will have connected with the New Forest, forming much of England’s post-glacial ‘wildwood’. I am very privileged to live within rambling distance of the Weald. I write about walks in it once a month, check that out if you will.

I managed to sneak ninety minutes in locally last week and found plenty of interesting things. As well as the ‘dark side’ of fungi, a reminder that a fungus giveth, and it taketh away.

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We have had two storms in two weeks in Sussex and the winter streams are tickling through the woodland understory. Above, a tree was resting in a winterborne. This means a stream that only flows in winter when rainfall is higher. In Ireland, lakes (or loughs) that appear in winter are known as ‘turloughs’. Got plenty of those right now in Brexit-land.

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The log was covered in some nice looking turkeytail, a very common polypore that is said have anti-carcinogenic properties. It was a nice way to start.

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Then I happened upon these absolute corkers growing on a dead birch tree. These are blushing bracket in their mature stage. This area of the woodland is very wet, with mosses like sphagnum attempting to recolonise more places. It is set in amongst mature beech trees at the edge of heath-ier habitats, largely consumed by pines that were planted, rank and file, by the Forestry Commission in the 20th Century. It’s very wet and many birches are succumbing there. This is natural.

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This is a standalone dead birch tree with birch polypore, also known as razorstrop fungus. It’s a tough bracket fungus that people probably once used to sharpen their razors. It naturally controls birch trees and breaks them down for other organisms to devour, and therefore new soils to be created.

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Here’s a quick macro of one of the mosses from the work of the razorstrop, looking much like a cedar or a fern.

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I found some split gills looking rather shaggy, in a good way. If you look at the yellow smatterings around, I think that’s a slime mould making its way across the surface of the bark.

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Rewind to May in this area, when the first leaves were appearing on the trees and the ground was far drier. This is one of my favourite trees to photograph in this woodland because of the orange algae and the beautiful buttresses at the tree’s base.

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Here it is in December, the ground much more wet, the leaves all gone. Can you see the bracket fungus at its base? It has been damaged, probably by a visitor testing its strength.

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And here it was last week. Evidently the tree has been destabilised by the decay which has been accelerated by the fungus. This has softened the heartwood which leaves the tree vulnerable to storm damage.

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But this veteran beech tree still lives, it has only lost one of its three trunks. I hope it can remain where it is and continue down its veteran path into the realm of the ancients.

It’s just another reminder that fungi has its own way in the world and there is no sentimentality involved. It’s there to break down organic matter. Trees were not a safety concern until we started walking underneath them everyday.

Some species share what they can find, others take, take, take. It’s in their nature. But in the end fungi are contributing to vital processes of organic recycling and renewal. Without the ecological role of fungi our species would not exist writing blogs, taking photos, hurling abuse at passers by, or walking under veteran trees in the woods.

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SLF 50mm - 18-1-2019 blog-7

St. Leonard’s Forest, January 2020

The winter sun floods the dark stands of birch, oak and sweet chestnut. It glitters in the frost as it melts away from crowds of moss. Steam rises from the soil as the sun warms the ground between oak trees, where nuthatches pipe and skip through their upper reaches. I scan a fallen pine tree for small things, fungi, moss, and find an incongruous clump of slime mould. The mould is like an emptied basket of boiled eggs resting in the swirling heartwood of the pine, smoothed by rain and people sitting.

The slime mould has a rope of spider silk crossing it and it has begun to melt in the centre like poached eggs that haven’t cooked for long enough. I set up my tripod as a man and his two black Labradors exercise themselves nearby. He stares at them, hidden behind a tree. I thought he had gone and left them until I stepped back and his monolithic profile appeared.

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Mud squelches grey and beige under foot, still on the Wealden clay, with the sandy soils of the High Weald sitting only across the gill. Speaking of the stream, I can hear it gushing down below. The rain has fallen heavily all week, with the Arun and the Rother both bursting their banks and swallowing fields whole. This feels like the first sunny day of the year.

A song thrush scampers across under holly, with redwing dotting the branches overhead. Their contact call is a bit like a hiccough. A stock dove’s wings beat in a way that sounds to me like the gentle yaffling of a green woodpecker, stopping abruptly as they land on a branch. A real woodpecker, my first of this year, hammers in the top of an oak. Robins rise up onto waist-high branches and sing their songs. Spring is building in the winter wood.

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At the foot of the High Weald’s heathland, where the clay comes to an end, frost looks to have crashed down over night onto the bracken. The fences that protect the heath are topped with barbed wire, itself entwined in honeysuckle. The warm weather (eleven degrees on Thursday) have given the green light for some plants to grow. The honeysuckle spurts small green tongues, its leaves hold the water beads of melted frost. In the droplets the shape of pines, sky and open heath glow, in a world turned upside down.

The Sussex Weald

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River Rother, Midhurst, West Sussex, October 2019

The Rother wends its way around the foot of St. Ann’s Hill, the site of a motte-and-bailey-castle probably built by the Normans in the 11th century. The water is high and brown after heavy rain that has fallen for several days. Atop the hill the ground is carpeted by the spiky cases of sweet chestnuts, freshly fallen from the huge trees that dominate the hill. The sun, shining on what feels a rare occasion, lights the open shells, their chestnut fruits glimmering where they lie.

Away from the hilltop I follow a path that whips back across the prow of the hill. Here dead oaks lie on either side of the path. Angel’s bonnet mushrooms grow in a cluster from crevices in the sinewy wood, their white caps used as a post by a dung fly. Under one mushroom cap I notice another fly’s head poking out as it rests on the stem.

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I hear the loud clopping of a dog coming towards me on the path. In my stillness it doesn’t know I’m here. As it comes closer and closer into view, its legs are in fact long and thin. It’s a roe deer, young and carefree. It sees me at a distance of ten feet and splashes through ivy, hazel and brambles down to the safety of the winding Rother.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Warnham, West Sussex, October 2019

It’s so warm in the sun. Dragonflies touch the edge of the boardwalk as they mate in heavy flight. The sun glistens in the water. Flocks of tits have formed as winter approaches. I wait for one group to appear from shadowy alder carr but they keep their distance. Long-tailed tits chirrup and bounce between branches well beyond the boardwalk and space of water that separates us.

A couple of weeks ago we were shown harvest mice nests in the reeds and willows by a local ecologist. One of them is still here, the small bundle of grasses and leaves. Not much bigger than a cricket ball. I turn again to the alder woodland and a willow has crashed and fallen in the water. Its trunk has split, creating an entrance into its rotten core. The sun floods this wet woodland and the light brightens the dark glut of trees.

The broken willow again:
a movement in the shadows.
Whiskers and a pink nose.
Brown fur and paws.

It exits a hole where the heartwood used to be and slips back inside, down to water level. Out again it reveals itself on the willow bark with two paws spread out like furry stars, a white throat and breast. It turns its head to one side and sniffs the air. It dances back inside and disappears.

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A couple approach me with caution. Aware I am now kneeling on the boardwalk I stand up and turn to them:

‘I’ve just seen an American mink,’ I say.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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Knepp, West Sussex, July 2019

The footpath runs off Countryman Lane behind a deer-proof gate. In this case it’s keeping them in. On the gate a sign welcomes visitors to the Knepp Wildland Project. A woman with three dogs holds the gate open for us. I’m here with friends visiting for the day from London, where the Knepp narrative of rewilding lowland England and its successes for wildlife are influential. We’ve come for a circular walk on the public footpaths that cross the Knepp Estate.

Knepp is an ancient deer park that, with investment from government and the landowner’s private wealth, is attempting to prove that farming can be done in a way that is much more sustainable and beneficial for wildlife. Critics say that most farmers lack the personal finances of the Knepp Estate and government investment to sustain the same, low-intensity measures to remain in business. Some people just don’t like change. Many farmers in Sussex are tenant farmers, not landowners, meaning they don’t possess the same money to set up a rewilding project in the first place. Many proponents of rewilding argue that farming shouldn’t happen anyway and the land should be allowed to re-establish natural states of woodland, grassland and wetland.

The footpath is lined with stringy hedges growing to a state of woodland. Large oak trees thrust up from the Wealden clay every few metres, the pillars that hold the Low Weald together. Trees like these run all the way west to the New Forest. In one of the hedges a bike has been locked up, purple ribbons are tied to hedge trees at intervals. It’s an indicator: we have arrived in purple emperor butterfly high season. A man with a large telephoto lens marches towards us, his tripod legs splayed like a broken umbrella. He sees that we’re looking up at an oak, where the emperors fly high. He sets his kit up, eyes open wide in anticipation, mouth gaping. He barely acknowledges us.

We carry on, purple emperors flying lower and in pairs, the white markings on their wings translucent in the light as they pass over our heads. Behind a hedge where people are warned not to go, a couple with their dog asleep in the grass watch with craning necks yet more of these superstar butterflies. The man with the tripod reappears on the horizon, spotting the small group, he homes in again like an insect-seeking missile. Further ahead two vehicles are parked on the track, a group of men are standing around a film camera pointed up at the canopy of an oak. One of the men squints into the viewfinder and grips the equipment, ready to shift it when its subject moves. Another man stands back smoking a cigarette, possibly the film’s producer.

‘Seen a blue tit?’ I say.

The smoking man offers a wry smile in response. The camera man takes his eye away from the camera and grins.

Leaving the oaken lane and continuing along the public footpath, we follow a circuit around and meet a couple tuning in to a turtle dove singing beyond the crown of an oak. My friend has just heard her first ever turtle dove in the UK, in six decades of living here, and she’s touched by its turring. This is a bird on the edge of extinction in our great nation. The couple tell us they’re camping and that it’s disappointing to hear the nearby A24. Their expectations of Knepp didn’t include the sound of the combustion engine.

The man says a spotted flycatcher is hunting around the corner from a branch, and so it is, along with a juvenile. This is the first fledged juvenile spotted flycatcher that I have ever seen in the UK, and the first flycatcher in southern England. Like the nightingale and turtle dove, they seem at home here, indeed they have made this piece of the Sussex Weald just that. There is so much chin-scratching, speculation and opinion in nature conservation. When you see results such as these, it’s hard to disagree with the state of a place.

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St. Leonard’s Forest, Sussex Weald, June 2019

Gentle rain falls as dog walkers share tales in the car park. Squirrels saved from their pet’s jaws giving thanks with a bite of their own. Birdsong swells from the understorey, perhaps five song thrush sing to sure up territories. Either side of the track is a wall of green, from the shrubs to the canopy of oak, birch and beech.

There is a feeling of a deeply wooded landscape here, the continuity of the Weald stretching away east to Kent. Of course it has now been broken, so many times, but there is a sense of the wilderness that faced the Romans and later the Saxons upon their respective invasions of Britain. It is thought St. Leonard’s Forest was part of a wooded landscape that stretched all the way to the New Forest, as recently as a thousand years ago.

The rain has drawn me out here. It is such a relief that this June is one of mini-monsoons, compared to last year’s heatwave hell. The nearby South Downs were rendered brown for months. At the side of the path, under the darkness of a beech, mushrooms glow. They sprout peach-coloured, or maybe apricots on sticks, from a tree stump. They are sulphur tuft, one of the most common species but very photogenic.

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Further into the forest chiffchaff sing from the pines, a distant willow warbler’s melody decaying in the darkening evening air. There is a scale to this landscape that feels expansive. Woods challenge our human senses of depth and time. Moving along the footpaths the woodland shifts from clay where beech and oak prevail, to the pine and birch dominated sands where heathland once was kept open by local people expressing their rights of common.

Down a track through birch and holly a single flute-like note comes from the trees above my head: a bullfinch. It calls over and again. It’s a beautiful sound.

Returning round through dark areas of oaks and veteran beeches, I find a small toadstool uprooted at the edge of the footpath. It’s an amanita of some kind, a ring around its neck like Shakespeare or a ruff, patches of white webbing still on its grey-brown cap. Amanitas are a fearful family of mushrooms, being home to the deathcap and destroying angel, to name but the most potent. But I’m not here to eat these marvels of nature, so I take my photos, capturing memories to take back to the town, to ease the sense of dislocation from this ancient wooded landscape, its bullfinches and mushrooms.

Explore the Sussex Weald

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