Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Wild primrose’

Dorset, April 2011

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

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

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

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Holly blue

This was the first workday for the Friends of One Tree Hill (FrOTH). We coppiced 10 sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus) trees and cut back the bramble (Rubus frusticosus) which is so dominant on the site. In the case of sycamore we were felling trees of some thirty-feet or more in height that were competing with the sessile oak trees (Quercus patrea). These oaks are regenerating on the slope of the south-facing hill and are slow growers compared to the highly successful sycamore. We felled the trees also to allow light in and let the herb layer regenerate. This is a technique which helps insects and butterflies in particular. PlantLife reports that by 2002 97% of British broadleaf woodland had become high forest. In 1951 that figure was at 51%. This means that most of our woodland is dark and overgrown generally because humans have stopped relying on woodland as a resource for firewood, furniture, grazing of livestock and so on. One of the great misconceptions about woodland is that felling a tree is somehow a bad thing when, on the contrary, wildlife flourishes when trees are cut down in moderation and sunlight can get in to bring life to the woodland floor.

One ancient tradition which has gone out of fashion is the art of coppicing. This is a process of cutting a tree down to its base, generally of hazel (Corylus avellana) or ash (Fraxinus excelsior), which means that the tree shoots new, straight growths. These poles were used for a variety of things, often as fencing. Sycamore is not a typical coppice tree, but the stumps we cut down to in One Tree Hill will shoot similar growths in the spring and summer. In the meantime the wood we have cut will be used either to make log piles for beetles and other bugs to inhabit, otherwise the material will be used to make handrails or deadhedges in the wood. The point of managing a wood in this way is to show that using the material, i.e. trees, is not a negative thing and can boost wildlife in the short term. The Pearl-bordered fritillary (Boloria euphrosyne) is one butterfly which saw a decline in numbers after the tradition of coppicing declined in the 20th century after we began to rely on gas to heat our homes and use wood imported from overseas. You can see that a tree has been coppiced if you spot thin shoots and the hairy green leaves of a hazel. This technique is renowned for its benefits for wildflowers such as wild primrose (Primula vulgaris) and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) which can burst into life when the coppice is cut. These are plants indicative of ancient woodland and seeing as One Tree Hill is located in the area which was once part of London’s Great North Wood, we are hoping that some plants, in certain areas, could reappear one day, not to mention the wildlife which feeds from them. Sydenham Hill & Dulwich Woods and Dulwich Upper Wood are two fragments of the Great North Wood which have ancient woodland flora growing there, and have done for thousands of years. Perhaps one day One Tree Hill can be in a similar vein of health.

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