Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘West Sussex’

Knepp 24-6-18 djg-15

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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SLF - 13-6-2019 djg-6

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.

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Bury - 2-5-2019 jpeg-2

Amberley, the South Downs, May 2019

I’m followed by a flock of dancing flies along the River Arun. I put out my hand to let them alight. Their bodies dance urgent as mayflies, their wings flutter soft as moths. They travel with me along the bend in the river.

Reed warblers are settling into spring song patches on the riverbanks. A reed bunting with his black warpaint holds a perch in green willow, delivering a simple, fractured tune.

Across the river a mighty willow sprawls dominant, dipping its branches into the flowing water.

An octopus returning to sea.

These great veterans stalk the Arun valley at Amberley, oaks replacing them where hedgerows arise.

A low note breaks the din of the A29 traffic and trains rattling through the chalk quarry at Amberley.

Koo…koo…koo…koo!

It’s a cuckoo.

The fields beyond the river lack trees, smudged by rushes creeping into pastures where cattle loaf. Crossing a shock of metal that bridges the banks, I can’t see it.

Out here the cuckoo can target the nests of reed warblers, but that’s the female’s job. This cuckoo has a song to sing first.

Passing away from the river on a track, towards the chalk ridge of Bury Hill, telephone wires cross the landscape. Not far beyond them, where the track is white underfoot, the cuckoo sings again.

Turning back to look towards the Arun, the bird balances on a telephone wire.

Cuc-koo, cuc-koo, cuc-koo!

His tail fans as he rocks on the wire, the full thrust of his calling causing a see-sawing that could send him tumbling.

I wonder how many female cuckoos are out there in the Arun valley, listening. Are they perched in riverside willows or the ancient, dying ash woods in the steep escarpment of the chalk hills.

One of them, somewhere, has heard him.

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Shelleys - 26-4-2019 djg-4

The Sussex Weald, West Sussex, April 2019

I visited a small woodland in the Sussex Weald after work to make the most of a break in the showers. My aim was to catch the bluebells in the early evening light when I think they look best. The forecast was for cloud but it was windy enough for some sunlight to break through. This woodland is coppiced and was where I photographed the wood anemones last month. It is the bluest bluebell woodland I’ve ever seen. My friend always tells me, ‘no, it’s purple!’. He’s right.

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Bluebells are a huge draw for anyone who has a camera (so that’s everyone). It’s part of the traditional spring experience to go to a bluebell wood, in most places that still have them. That’s something that shouldn’t be taken for granted, ancient woodlands like those in the Sussex Weald are being lost, despite the fact that they are irreplaceable habitats. Their species diversity has evolved over thousands of years. At a coppiced wood like this, their ecosystems have coalesced with our management of them for wood products. The oak above might be a coppice, but it could also be three oak saplings fused together.

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Something felt quite gentle and warming about this oak plugged in amongst bluebells. Perhaps it’s the slight lean, it’s almost an invitation to pass by. The mental and physical benefits of spending time in woodland are great.

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I’ve noticed the flush of new green oak leaves and how quickly that freshness is lost to the stiff darker shade.

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Take these two oaks in the High Weald from a week earlier. Their new green is incredibly fresh but will now have darkened. You have to enjoy every moment of spring before it goes.

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Back to the wildflowers. Before visiting the wood I spoke to a colleague whose job it is to survey woods. He said he’d seen very few early purple orchids this year, possibly due to the colder than average January and then sudden heatwave in February. I said I would report back on my findings. I discovered a patch of about 10 flowering on the wood’s edge with plenty of other spotted leaves yet to produce flowers. I had seen them in the same patch a couple of years ago so knew where to go.

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I find orchids that grow in woods to be twice as exciting as those out in the open landscape. It’s a personal thing, because the diversity is far greater out there. There’s something about woodland versions of other species, birds or butterflies for example. There is something so interesting about the fact some species have made a niche for themselves in certain types of woodland only. Don’t get me started on firecrests. It’s even more interesting when these species, especially the wildflowers, escape out into the surrounding landscape.

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It’s not possible for the flowers to do much of that in this slither of the Sussex Weald because it’s surrounded by a monoculture of oilseed rape. On the contrary the farm is making its way into the woodland through the run off of fertiliser and water being piped in. You can see where the wildflowers are being pushed further into the woodland, away from the polluted areas. It’s something happening to almost every small woodland in England in one way or another.

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Photographing the orchids was tricky because it was windy, dull and the plants were small. I used a telephoto lens and tried to maximise the bokeh around the flower. These flowers are beautiful even when out of focus.

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The woodland flowers felt as if they were at their peak. Elsewhere yellow archangel spread amongst bluebells.

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The details of a wood at this time of year are incredible. If you look closely it’s not just the bluebells that will attract you, the fronds of bracken unfurling are worth investigating. These primitive plants reproduce through spores and pre-date flowering plants like bluebells by millions of years. It’s a tough plant and can be a bit invasive. Oliver Rackham reckoned it was the most common plant across the whole of the UK.

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People often say they spend a lot of time trying to remove pendulous sedge from their gardens. It gets around. It’s actually a resident of ancient woodland and can be found in the wood. I passed this community of sedges on my way out as a few bands of sunlight broke through the clouds and lit their drooping seedheads.

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That light broke free as I made my way out again, illuminating bluebells either side of tree trunks. It was a reward for gambling on a grey sky.

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Storrington, The South Downs, April 2019

A recent walk along the the South Downs on a hazy day with hawthorns. They tough it out in some of the most intensively managed landscapes the UK has to offer.

A hawthorn stands alone, overlooking the folding Downs as they run deeper into West Sussex.

This hawthorn faces out over the Arun Valley towards Pulborough. The Low Weald is hidden by mist in the north.

Along the South Downs Way the trees show signs of pathway lopping, or an extreme politeness to the thousands of users of the National Trail.

A hawthorn obscuring a village built along spring-lines. The Arun snakes away in the background.

 

A tanker sits in an open field. I think that’s a hawthorn splodged against the South Downs Way towards Amberley.

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A monoculture of wheat (I think) with a single oak on the horizon. Wheat has been grown in the South Downs for thousands of years. It has only become mechanised and intensified in the past 100 years. We may idealise the days of horse and plough in the South Downs but it was a harsh and unforgiving existence. Few people could cope with it today. There were also fewer people to feed.

There was a single break of light over the Downs. The hazy nature of the day makes the photo look like a painting. My friend said it was good that the simple things matter to me, which apparently wasn’t an insult. I agree.

 

 

 

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The Sussex Weald, March 2019

My time in the woods has thinned. Just like the seasoned photographers in magazines tell you, planning your time is key to getting the photos you most enjoy. It also becomes dependent on weather forecasts. A few years ago a friend of mine was leading me around his favourite sites in the Czech Republic and he made a point I haven’t forgotten. Nothing matters more with photography than light. You could have the most amazing scene in front of you, but light is everything. It adds contrast, shadow and colour. It makes you feel good.

Bearing that in mind, I had a few hours in the afternoon before the sun went down to visit an ancient coppice woodland in the Sussex Weald. The Weald is a chunk of southern England that runs from the Hampshire border of West Sussex all the way to Kent in the east. It was once an ‘impenetrable forest’ but now is a large mosaic of oak-dominant woodland with a Conservation Board to protect it. Coppicing is the practice of cutting trees low to the ground to harvest the materials for wood products. It’s effectively farming the woods. Our ancestors have been doing it for thousands of years. Even beavers do it.

It produced the multi-stemmed trees see above and allows light to enter in, often resulting in a profusion of flowers indicative of a woodland that has remained there for over 400 years. March-May is the time when these flowers arrive, benefiting from the fact the canopy is still open. Wood anemones are the first of this swathe.

Like many people before (and after) me, I fell for this small white flower when I learned of its charming lifestyle. The petals close when the sun is gone and they are punished for this delicateness. It takes about 100 years to spread 2 metres across the ground. In the past it has been my job to try and protect wood anemones from trampling. I agonised over it.

Wood anemone is a member of the buttercup family. The similarity to buttercups is in the number of petals, the leaves and the reproductive parts of the flowers (the stamens and anthers) that protrude from the centre. At this time of year in continental Europe purple anemones push through crusts of snow that we don’t really have in the UK. Our friends in Europe have wood anemones, also.

Bluebells and anemones can create beautiful spreads of flowers in woods. But they don’t always make the photos you want. Anemones look wonderful with a bit of early morning or evening light passing through their petals. I went with that thought in mind to see the Sussex anemones.

This is a special time – perhaps the best in the year? – when winter has been overcome and the promise of longer days, of warmth and green is on the cusp. It could also be a genetic memory we have from our ancestors who found winter to be more uniformly cruel than we experience today.

It’s really important for me that photographing any wildlife does not add to disturbance. With woodland flowers it means taking photos from the path or sparse areas. I’ve already said how long it takes them to travel. The photo above may reinforce that: a vulnerable, delicate flower isolated in a darkening wood.

You sometimes find a single flower left over from a trampled population, like a single cottage left from an abandoned village.

Everywhere in wild corners of the UK ther are signs of a micro-shift in a season. The wood anemones hold the floor today, but the first bluebells are unfurling. In this old coppiced wood the bluebells will run rampant and the wood anemones will be squeezed. It’s just the natural order of things.

For now the windflowers, as they were once known, break out from beds of dead bracken in still leafless woods.

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Ebernoe - 22-3-2019 djg-23

March is an odd month in British woods. There is the tantalising sense of spring arriving but winter’s dankness holds fast. Though we learn to see seasons a bit like buses coming and going, I see them as more incremental. There are pointers to change every single day. It’s something I picked up through wildlife surveys, seeing the return of migrant birds, the first bees and leafing oaks. In January it’s the barking fox as mating begins, in February (or sometimes earlier) bluebells and elders leafing, in March it feels like something has to give.

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I go to the woods to take photos now more than to simply look for wildlife or listen, so there has to be some reason for taking out a heavy bag full of equipment. When I know there is a good amount of time to take photos I bring two cameras, almost always a macro and a wide angle lens, with a standard 50mm lens stowed away. If I’m feeling super strong I bring a telephoto lens (not a massive one) in case of some lucky encounter with a raptor perhaps.

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On dull days the light feels glowering and like nothing is responding. I usually turn to trees at this time to slow my impatience. Here I went looking for mushrooms with the hope of some spring glut. It wasn’t there. Pathetically, the disappointment is real. The first queen bumblebees are symptomatic of the need to survive, winter is not over for them until they have found a spot to start their nest.

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There is a lot to be said for taking the time to look at details. Turkey tail is a fungus that lingers all year and can be found in hypnotic shades and patterns on pieces of dead wood. It’s renowned for its medicinal benefits but I’ve never tried it. I’ll stick to camomile and honey.

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In the UK (and perhaps the Northern Hemisphere?) a mushroom called glistening inkcap bursts from the moss and soil after a change in the weather. It usually makes an appearance when a spell of rain has finished and the temperature is a little higher than it has been.

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Moss is one of the few colours found in a winter wood and its ability to hold dampness can sometimes boost the growth of a mushroom, as seen in the inkcap photo. Up close these primitive plants are like miniature palm trees.

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In the South Downs National Park, 10.5% of the landscape is covered by ancient woodland according to the Woodland Trust. That figure astonishes me. Much of this woodland is in the Low Weald, a stretch of ancient oak woodland that pitter patters between the South and North Downs. from near the Sussex-Hampshire border all the Way to Kent. Ebernoe Common is a National Nature Reserve managed by Sussex Wildlife Trust, home to almost every species of British bat and an amazing array of other species.

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Ebernoe also hosts populations of wild daffodil, much smaller than the shop-bought beasts that burst from lawns and roadsides. This is a spring woodland flower that indicates ancientness. It is a privilege to see them in flower, especially considering that they have declined greatly in the past century. In the still wintry Weald, spring is trumpeting silent and yellow.

Ebernoe Common, West Sussex, March 2019

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