Daniel Greenwood

I am living with the animals

Posts tagged ‘Wildlife’

There were many human things to feel sad, angry and upset about this year but still nature’s continuity and the simple movement of seasons brings encouragement and a reminder – change will come.

Politically it’s been a year to forget for nature conservation, with the UK government killing more than 10,000 badgers in its mindless badger cull, the likely loss of EU protections for nature in the UK, the ascent of climate change deniers in the United States and more evidence of species-declines brought about by human impacts on the landscape, be it intensive agriculture, pollution or man-made climate change. More than ever we need to take notice and maintain a connection with the natural world, to make the argument again and again for how crucial the biosphere is to our own civilisation.

But I’ve had some of the most memorable experiences of nature this year, and they are often enough to focus the mind on doing something positive

I for one will not be giving up on the UK-Europe conservation mission and will do what I can for British and European wildlife in 2017

Thank you to everyone who has helped artistically or logistically with these photos and taught me about the subject matter!

Wishing you a peaceful winter break and biodiverse new year!

Daniel

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Newt, Peckham, London
March 2016I’m lucky enough to spend a few days a week at a wildlife garden managed by London Wildlife Trust. In the late winter and early spring, when darkness falls, things begin to happen. The night before this a huge number of toads had been on the move and I brought my camera equipment along the next day hoping to find them again in action. They had completely disappeared. However, there was one newt on the move and it paused in this position for some time as I photographed it.

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European bison, Bialowieza Forest, Poland
March 2016

I snapped this wild young bison through a hedge with a 70-300mm lens. Bison have been reintroduced to this part of eastern Poland after their near extinction in the 20th century due to the ravages of two world wars. I love the new growth of horn and the snot dripping from its nose!

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Juniper haircap moss, The New Forest
April 2016

More and more I find myself on the woodland floor these days. That’s because it’s where all the action is. Be it wildflowers, mushrooms or the most primitive terrestrial plants, mosses. Mosses were the first plants to make it from the sea onto the land, one reason why they depend on lots of moisture, it’s a throwback to their days under the sea.

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Cuckoo, The New Forest
May 2016I have been fascinated by cuckoos for years. They migrate to Britain and Europe from as far away as Cameroon, spending about 7 weeks here in the spring to mate. This bird burst out of a plantation and I was lucky enough to have the right lens on and the right setting on the camera to snap him. Cuckoos are in sharp decline in Britain and it’s up to us to find out why and try to do something about it.

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Bee on scabious, The North Downs
June 2016This bee was feeding up on the other side of a stock fence in June and with my wide angle lens I managed to get this picture. I think it encapsulates the ecology of meadows, the bee and the flower a symbol of the wildflower-rich North Downs scrolling off into the distance.

Bees pollinate 80% of wildflowers in Europe and contribute £560million each year to the UK economy through crop pollination, and yet we still use neonicotinoid pesticides which are the strongest force driving 32% of bee species towards extinction in the UK.

I’m not sure whether this is a bumblebee or cuckoo bee, having been told it was the former recently. If it is a cuckoo bee my ecosystem metaphor has fallen apart because cuckoo bees aren’t interested in pollination, mainly stealing from bumblebees!

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Marco plays the guitar, The North Downs
June 2016Like 48% of British people who actually did or could vote, I was greatly aggrieved and disappointed by the result of the EU referendum. The week following it was scary. A sharp spike in hate crime, the nastiest characters in our society buoyed by xenophobes who’d pushed for a leave vote based on fear-mongering about immigration and lies about how much it cost Britain to be in the EU each year.

It’s in unsettling times when a simple walk in the landscape can remind you of the bigger picture. I was walking on Farthing Downs, full of angst for the post-referendum Britain, when I met Marco playing his guitar on the hill. He had only just moved to London from Italy:

‘I have been here one week and in Italy they did not even talk about it [the referendum]. Now I am here and wow. My friends think that I am in London surrounded by cars and buildings, but I am here. And I love it.’

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Herring gull, Rye
July 2016

Every time I go to Rye I get chips from a proper chippy and eat them up at the church on the hill. There is always a herring gull in attendance. I took the chance to create this photo, a technique frowned upon by wildlife photography purists.

I wanted the eye in focus but instead got the chip in the bird’s bill, saliva dribbling down.

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Wasp in the cell, Czech Republic
August 2016We were walking along a quiet forest road when my friend Zuzka picked up a piece of something on the ground. Looking more closely it was a chunk of wasp nest that had been torn off and dropped.


Inside the cells were wasp grubs encased in a papery sheeting, with one ready to emerge. It had likely been dropped by a honey buzzard, a bird of prey that eats wasp grubs and will situate its nest with the number of wasps’ nests nearby being the key. Kind of like good restaurants for us.
It was a privilege to be able to see into this world without being stung by wasps guarding an actual nest

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Honey fungus, The New Forest
October 2016

Let’s be clear, in London and the surrounds, it was a rubbish autumn for fungi. It was a dry season with the meadows of the North Downs largely devoid of waxcaps and other mushrooms. But a trip to the New Forest in October did provide an encounter with a gang of honey fungus, a mushroom that many gardens so dread because it kills trees OMG!

It was worth waiting for this chance to find mushrooms in their pomp, largely intact with some nice light and greenery still around.

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Balmer Lawn, The New Forest
Halloween, October 2016

Whilst these New Forest ponies are not wild and they do belong to people as domesticated stock, I felt transported into some ancient scene from the Eurasion steppe. Mist rose with the twilight over Balmer Lawn near Brockenhurst, the ponies grazing the horizon.

 

 

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This post is part of my oaks of London project

For the past five years I have been searching hedge lines, woods, parks and boundaries for the undulating mass of an old oak. This search has not taken place in the English countryside, instead the border of the London boroughs of Southwark and Lewisham. The southern towns of Southwark were once the parish of Camberwell and its boundary with Lewisham still supports centuries-old oak trees that were the previous markers between old Camberwell and Lewisham. Along with the Dulwich Woods and One Tree Hill, these trees are the strongest ties to the much diminished Great North Wood.

 

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One Tree Hill (centre left) when it was ancient woodland in 1799

The Great North Wood

The Great North Wood was a landscape of woods and commons that stretched from Selhurst to Deptford. It was worked over centuries for its timber and underwood (sessile oak, hornbeam and hazel, mainly) for ship building, tannin extraction and charcoal burning. Its origins are in the wildwoods that spread after the end of the last glacial period 10-12,000 years ago at the start of the Holocene. The oaks remain where other species have disappeared as they are tough, long-living (sometimes 800 years in open land) and are of great use to our species. The Forestry Commission approximates that London’s trees are worth £43billion in their environmental and amenity value. Oaks are some of the most important. Their carbon storage capabilities should be remembered by those controlling planting regimes in cities today.

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This old image (likely early 1900s) shows what One Tree Hill’s western slopes were like. The earlier map, dated 1799, shows that One Tree Hill was an isolated ancient woodland. It once connected with the Dulwich Woods which skirt the left hand side of that image, and spread even further before humans began managing the woods. That could have been thousands of years ago, however. The Dulwich Woods are very likely several thousand years old.  There is no woodland at all but plenty of shrubs, likely including gorse and hawthorn. The landscape swelling into Lewisham shows much of south London’s old landscape was farmland. The boundaries of the farms were marked by old oaks.

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Pollarding

One of the first mistakes made by those (myself included, of course) looking for old trees in the landscape is to head for woodland first. The oldest trees are usually living in isolation in what has longest been open land. The great Oliver Rackham told us that ‘ancient woods are not the place to look for ancient trees’. The best trick is really to get an old map, compare it with a current one and see if there are any clear boundaries where trees may have been planted or perhaps wild trees maintained as standards. Sometimes the old maps show trees dotted along the edges. The image above is a pollarded English oak (Quercus robur) at the entrance to One Tree Hill on Honor Oak Park. The tree is actually in the grounds of the Honor Oak Allotments and a line of similarly old oaks can be found running up alongside it.

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This oak, one down from the previous, has clearly been pollarded (c.1900s) and is now swamped by other trees. Logic says that pollarding it again and removing some of the surrounding growth would allow the trees to re-balance and go on living indefinitely, but experimental pollarding taking place in Epping Forest suggests otherwise. Lapsed beech pollards are known to die when pollarded again. These oaks may be so unused to management that pollarding them will kill them off. We may have to accept that these landmarks of the Great North Wood have a limited time left.

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The Oak(s) of Honor

One Tree Hill is a good case study for remnant Great North Wood sites as it was open land until the mid-20th century but was woodland on the north-western slopes up until the 1840s. Today it is returning to woodland having been largely managed through non-intervention, bar access works and hedge planting, by the Friends of One Tree Hill and Southwark Council.

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One Tree Hill gets its name from the single English oak (pictured) which was replanted in 1905 when the hill was reopened to the public after a battle to save it from becoming a golf course. 15,000 people conducted a mass trespass on 10th October 1897 to challenge the Honor Oak & Forest Hill golf club’s attempts to fence and enclose the hill.

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The previous Oak of Honor was thought to be much older and was a boundary tree for the old vice-counties of Kent and Surrey. It was also the edge of the Honour of Gloucester’s land. The idea is that in 1602 Queen Elizabeth sat under the tree and was thus honoured thereafter. Today the Oak of Honor is the most obvious tree to seek but by no means the oldest. I love that it has so influenced local place names. An old black and white photograph of the former oak (the church building can just be seen in the top right) gives the sense that the oak was not so old, perhaps only a few hundred years before it perished. This tree was destroyed by lightning in 1888.

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To the right is the oak of Honor when it was only a decade old. The open landscape of early 20th century Honor Oak/Forest Hill is filling up with housing. The tree cover on the hill was largely hawthorn scrub, as can be seen behind the caged oak.

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It’s worth remembering that though we are fixated by neat and tidy trees in urban areas, often for safety reasons, that oaks provide habitat for a great number of species. The Oak of Honor in September 2015 held many knopper galls, the protective case for a gall wasp (Andrus quercuscalicis), and oak apple galls.

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The top of One Tree Hill is an excellent spot to find butterflies in spring and summer because it is open and sunny. This speckled wood (Parage aegaria), one of the contemporary Great North Wood’s most common butterflies, was enjoying some September sunshine on the great tree’s leaves.

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The winter months provide ample opportunity to find nuthatch (Sitta europaea) which is often tied to oaks because of the invertebrates it forages from the bark and the old woodpecker holes it nests in. It makes a neat mud ring around woodpecker holes to make the entrance smaller and more protective for its young.

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The purple hairstreak was the first ecological record at One Tree Hill when it was mentioned for the first time in the 1766 publication The Aurelian by Moses Harris. This overlooked butterfly was ‘commonly taken in plenty in Oak-of-Honour Wood, near Peckham, Surry.’ It’s one of the insects promoted by conservation groups in the Great North Wood, a good indicator of long-term woodland cover, especially at nearby Sydenham Hill and Dulwich Woods. The purple hairstreak is only usually seen by those straining to look up at the canopy or those lucky enough to stumble across one when it’s down and dazed on the path.

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Secret oaks

The oldest of One Tree Hill’s oaks is likely to be this lapsed pollard (whereby a tree is cut higher up – coppice is cut at the base – to prevent grazing animals eating regrowth) growing on the path that runs adjacent to Brenchley Gardens. I’ve seen a photograph somewhere of the tree isolated in open land, with Peckham’s farms rolling down to what is now Peckham Common.

OTH pollards-1 The tree, seen here on the right of the photograph (its lean exaggerated by the distortion of my 10-24mm wide angle lens) is competing with the seedlings that have likely fallen or been stashed by grey squirrels (Sciurus carolinensis) and members of the corvid family, especially jays (Garrulous glandarius). You could suggest that the new woods of One Tree Hill are products of its old boundary oaks, where the dominant species is oak. Recent research has uncovered how important crows are in establishing new oak woods across the northern hemisphere.

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One of the lower limbs is rotting nicely and providing habitat for slime moulds and small mushrooms, whether this is a bonnet (Mycena) or a parachute (Marasmius), I couldn’t tell you. The life that old oaks can support adds to the tree’s immense amenity and ecological value. Oaks typify the anthropomorphic but no less accurate notion of trees being ‘accommodating’ to many species.

Next door to One Tree Hill and its allotments is Camberwell New Cemetery, a more authentic remnant of Honor Oak’s open landscape of the past 200 years. One boundary, otherwise planted with Lombardy poplar (Populus nigra ‘Italica’), has two old English oaks. One has been hollowed out, possibly after being struck by lightning or affected by human damage. It’s an example of trees as habitat, something which people are generally uncomfortable with at first, especially with fungi as they think the tree is dying. In August 2015 the hollowed oak had the fruiting body of what I think was chicken-of-the-woods (Laetiporus sulphurous). Oak supports many insects and also fungus. The oldest oaks you are likely to find will be dependent to some degree on mycorrhizal relationships with fungi. Fungi can also help the oaks by removing bits of deadwood that may otherwise add extra weight to the tree as it ages. Some species are necrophratic and will eventually kill a tree because they ‘take more than they give’.

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On first thought I was suspicious that the two oaks seen here might be the same two on the allotment-cemetery boundary. This is a photo from the 1920s that shows Camberwell New Cemetery and the Honor Oak Recreation Ground as open land being grazed by a flock of sheep. Evidently the sheep were used to keep the grass short for golf, or maybe also as a way to support a local farmer. The golf club house can be seen in the distance. The building on the hill in the distance is St. Augustine’s Church (1872-3). These two trees are too far away to be the same as those above, they are probably instead some of the black lines that can be seen in the distance. Note also the absence of any tree cover on One Tree Hill beneath and to the right of the church. Between the mid-1800s and this point, there ancient woodland had been well and truly grubbed out, possibly even some old boundary trees going as well. Today, this would be unacceptable.

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Instead, I think this image of the old golf club house exhibits the line of oaks. These oaks look to be dying back, possibly because of the impact of building the club house where the trees’ roots were. The distance between St. Augustine’s and the line of trees is one parcel closer than the previous image (Steve Grindlay).

 

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Wildlife does not heed national boundaries. EU funding, legislation and partnerships have led to benefits for our wildlife and ecosystems that a standalone UK could not have initiated. Britain’s membership of the European Union is often tabled as a threat to our sovereignty and freedom when in fact it has protected us from damaging policy decisions made by our own government. What has the EU ever done to help British wildlife? We must look back into the distant past to understand

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The making of a great divide

Consider the landscape of some 40,000 years ago: glaciers sat north of London, covering the whole of northern Europe. Scotland, Scandinavia, the Baltic States all locked in ice. But the earth was going through a period of global warming that allowed a new species to spread into the landscape we know today as Europe. This species had complex social structures and big brains, had learned how to clear trees, build fire and to cook food. That species was us, Homo sapiens. Our stepping stone societies had made it out of Africa and across Siberia. Fast forward to 12,000 years ago and these first Europeans had found themselves in a landscape that was changing in ways they had never known. Their world, Europe, warmed, the glaciers retreated north, carving valleys, exposing unimaginably old rock formations, rearing up chalk and baring limestone, flooding the deepest lying valleys and trenches. But it was not just people who crossed this new landscape, wolves (the greatest of terrestrial travellers), lynx, bison, elk and deer all migrated across land opening and warming, leafing and flowering in a way it had not for over 100,000 years.

By 8,500 years ago the trenches and gullies that once will have seemed so high, so insurmountable to our ancestors, were submerged by what we now know as the Baltic, the Irish Sea, the Atlantic and most significantly in this case, the English Channel. Those animals (and I include Homo sapiens, of course) that did not cross in time, and that did not have wings with which to fly, were confined to Europe. The European ice sheets had melted and a critical divide had been made: Britain and Europe. For the next 8,000 years there were human attempts at passage and colonisation from Europe, and from Britain to Ireland and the now habitable Scottish isles. Some of these incursions are well known: the Roman invasion (43AD), the Vikings (9th century) and the Normans (11th century). There are some not so well known, like the early boats made from oak, chestnut and ash that will have capsized in their hundreds, their passengers never registered in history. On the shores today, many settled in their cities, towns and villages trumpet their near permanent roots in England, ignorant of the truth: the first Brits originated in Africa, arriving on foot via Russia 40,000 years ago. Further to this, we all depend on a system of food production developed by our ancestors in the Middle East. We are all the children of migration.

 

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The French connection

Ironically, British habitats are not so rich because of our separation from continental Europe both climatically and physically. On a landscape scale, take England’s chalk grasslands, a rare habitat home to species that have evolved in grasslands that pre-date the English Channel. At the tip of Kent, survey the fauna and flora of a chalky valley then catch a ferry across the water and see it equalled where it still exists. In Kent it’s called the Continental Southern Element, a place where plants like man orchid (above), pyramidal orchid, field eryngo, meadow clary and autumn lady’s tresses can be found, wildflowers that spread from southern Europe before the great flood some 8,500 years ago. Britain’s habitats are unique because we are an island. We have chalk grassland, ancient woodland, coastal dunes, freshwater lakes and river networks, saltmarsh, heather moorland, peat bog and mountain ranges. We have many of the habitats found across Europe, all encircled by one shoreline.

Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions. All of these problems are recognised by the European Union

A visit to many of Europe’s towns, cities and wild places, the encountering of common species that we call British, reminds us of our simple and close connections. A percentage of the beloved blackbirds and robins you see in your garden each winter are of Scandinavian stock, the Vikings of the bird world. The nightingales so loved by English literature, the swallows and swifts we welcome ‘home’ in spring, each are African birds, stopping off in Europe on their way to the UK. Each species is known to distant cultures and people who also feel a connection with their joyful freedom and music when we see them depart.

But our wildlife is in decline, our sparser diversity of species growing poorer. Some of our bat species have declined by 99%, our rivers have become polluted and toxic for all life, our farmland birds spiralling towards local extinctions, and even our own habitat, our cities, is poisoned by air pollution that stunts the lung development of our children, leads to mental ill-health, heart disease and shortens the lives of us all. And yet all of these problems are recognised by the European Union and our membership pressures our political leaders to act upon them. Bats are protected species, as are badgers, water voles and the great crested newt thanks to the Bonn and Bern Conventions. In England it is our very own government that ignores the protection of badgers. Our birds are supported by the Birds and Habitats Directives, our rivers now improved thanks to support from the Water Framework Directives. I have volunteered on projects and received training in invasive species control thanks to EU funding so to me and my local area the benefit is tangible. On some of the most crucial issues regarding our collective wellbeing, the EU has stood up against our government to do what is right morally (and ecologically) for British people. Even Chancellor George Osborne wants Britain in the EU, someone who considers environmental protections like the habitats directives ‘red tape’ holding back economic growth.

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Europeans working together for nature

It is true that the EU is not perfect. The spread of agricultural intensification into areas of traditionally-farmed landscapes of southern and eastern Europe will accelerate the ecological breakdown already seen in England’s rural landscape. The owl-rich farms of Serbia, the meadows of Hungary and Romania will be degraded and reduced to a shadow of their species diversity if they ever fall prey to agricultural ‘improvement’. This will mean more pesticides and a disconnection between people and the land. Once gone, these traditionally-managed landscapes are hard to bring back. Their stewards might well have packed up and headed for the city by then. Strangely, in Britain our wildlife is better protected from agricultural intensification by EU membership. When considering the role the European powers have in protecting our environment, the case of declining pollinators like bees, hoverflies, butterflies and other insects is worth noting.

In March 2013 the EU proposed a ban on systemic pesticides, otherwise known as neonicotinoids. This at first failed to achieve a majority of support and the ban could not be implemented. Why was a ban being proposed? Neonicotinoids were linked to declines in honey bee and other wild insect populations. This is because many agricultural plants are now grown from seeds which are laced with neonicotinoid pesticides. This means that the entire plant is toxic. When these plants grow and their remains fall into the soil the toxicity lives on, contaminating local water bodies and river networks. This toxicity is also linked to a decline in farmland birds in Europe. It’s a decline which is shared at home. One month later, in April 2013, the motion was tabled once more at appeal and the UK switched its vote from abstention to objection, but enough nations voted in favour and the hung vote was taken up and implemented by the European commission. In this instance, we require the EU member states to protect our wildlife and wellbeing from the vagaries of our own government. We also have the chance to influence policy in Europe, a continent which has far greater biodiversity than we. We should take heart from the fact that the European commission has taken action on the Polish government’s unscientific clear felling of the Białowieża Forest, Europe’s largest ancient, lowland woodland.

Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at its very heart

In my mid-20s I was lucky enough to attend an EU funded placement volunteering in the Picos de Europa in northern Spain. I saw then what EU money could do: support for local conservation projects that allow people, in this case shepherds, to contribute to the conservation of the lammergaier or bearded vulture (Gypaetus barbatus), a species that like so many does not heed national boundaries. This project with the Foundation for the Conservation of the Bearded Vulture was one of many EU funded projects supported by EuCAN, a Community Interest Company based in Dorset, England. There are partner projects in Poland, France, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Serbia, Romania and Hungary that have benefited from the support of EuCAN and its EU funded teams of volunteers. In July 2013 I visited South Moravia in the Czech Republic to meet people I now consider friends, all of whom are working to encourage a kinship between people and nature, riches of which the English can but dream. In April 2015 I travelled by train to Romania to meet Barbara Knowles, who very sadly passed away in 2016. Barbara’s project, Treasures of Transylvania, works to promote traditional land management in order to sustain some of the richest habitats Europe has. Prince Charles has travelled to Romania to offer his support for the project. Barbara worked alongside Pogany Havas, a local initiative to support the same goals.

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Britain and Europe’s wildlife needs us

The truth is that without EU membership British organisations like EuCAN are even less likely to be able to receive funding and the alliance of EU-wide conservation is threatened with critical impairment. Conservation is one of the single finest adverts for the good that can be brought from Britain’s EU membership. It is a symbol of unity that lies at the very heart of conservation. In England there is an unspoken rivalry between conservation groups (all of whom, it would seem, support EU membership, with 6% of the Wildlife Trusts’ income garnered from the EU and David Cameron’s RSPB endorsement of what the EU does for wildlife) but organisations like EuCAN and the Barbara Knowles Fund show that we all share a common aim and understanding on a local level, whatever our nationality: our ecosystems are suffering because of human impacts, people are becoming disconnected from the landscape and we need to do something about that, together. The impacts of human populations and industry are not going to go away and so we have to accept there will be change and find a way to influence it.

It can’t be denied that the European Union’s impact on nature is not all good, but that is the nature of the world we live in today, be it Britain, Europe or the Americas. Remember that it was the EU that enforced a bee-killing pesticides ban, that it is EU legislation which protects our wildlife and rivers, that funds so many of these local initiatives that connect people and nature. In Britain it is by being a part of this discussion that we as individuals can speak to our political representatives to make a case for a better union for nature. If Britain leaves the EU, we lose that power and our wildlife loses a lifeline. The British connection to Europe is clear in the history of our culture, landscape and wildlife. We are all Europeans, however far back our English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish heritage may take us. My grandparents and great grandparents lived in a time when European nations were at war, when millions of people were dying in wars fought over European borders. We now live in an age where Holland and Belgium trade land to clarify their borders without the hint of bloodshed, simply the ruffle of papers and the clatter of a computer keyboard. Today we reach out to each other, across the Channel to recognise the need to preserve our wildlife and local traditions that maintain Europe’s diverse habitats. The EU has supported and will support this. In conservation we have a common European goal, we should cherish that.

 

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Introduction

In March 2016 I visited Białowieża National Park in Podlasia, north-east Poland. I must give thanks to Karolina Leszczynska-Gogol, Grzegorz Gogol and Izabela Sondej, without whom the trip would not have been possible. Białowieża is somewhere I have wanted to visit for several years after reading about it and hearing from friends (especially Poles) who had been there. It is described as Europe’s last remnant of primeval woodland (12-10,000 years old), a slight exaggeration recycled on social media and subsequently in news items. The Czech Republic has numerous stands of ‘virgin’ forest or woodland though not on the scale of Białowieża, which is probably the largest remaining tract of ancient European woodland due to the 5,000 hectare strict reserve which is said never to have been logged. But it is not the largest woodland in Europe, that accolade belongs to the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest complex on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany. We went to Białowieża at a time when the Polish government were rubber-stamping plans to increase forestry activity in the National Park and outlying woods, resulting in much opposition from environmentalists in the west and large demonstrations in Poland. The premise for increasing logging is to combat the spread of spruce bark beetle (Ips typographus) which is currently impacting on Norway spruce trees (Picea abies) in the National Park. Those opposed to the plans argue that this is a natural process and that the beetle is a key species, a ‘forest engineer’. I agree, having seen the same impact in the Bavarian Forest National Park where some intervention does take place. I would argue that the impact of 20th century forestry practice has led to a proliferation of Norway spruce where there should be a more ‘natural’ balance of other species. However, keen not to criticise without having visited, we went there with an open mind.

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The history of Białowieża

Białowieża National Park has key designations to protect its natural heritage. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve. The National Park was established in 1921 to offer protection to the herds of wild bison (Bison bisonus). Today Białowieża National Park is crucial because it has much of its original large fauna which can help ‘manage’ the landscape without any need for human intervention, i.e. logging. One theory of virgin woodland, established by Franz Vera in 1996, is that the dominant idea of endless trees covering northern Europe before humans arrived (we’ve been in Europe for over 40,000 years) is a myth. In fact wind blew holes in the wildwood and these glades were kept open by large grazing animals like elk, bison, deer and aurochs, meaning that the landscape was more like savannah or wood pasture – grassland dotted with trees. Vera argued that it was the human-enforced reduction and extinction of many of these large herbivores that led to the more dense woodland of the recent imagination. It also meant the larger clearings became towns and villages, settlements which were once established next to woodland (this is what ‘ley’ or ‘hurst’ means at the end of English place names). In Białowieża human intervention is evident in the landscape and has been for over 600 years.

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Białowieża was ‘discovered’ by King Jagiełło before the Battle of Grunwald and established as his own hunting estate in 1410. He is said to have been awe-struck by Białowieża’s vast woodland and herds of bison. He later built a white tower to mark his hunting lodge. ‘White tower’ is what the area’s name translates to in English. The establishment of a proto-nature reserve in the early 15th century is a crack in the image of Białowieża as an untouched wilderness, however much the notion is recycled by us dewy-eyed environmentalists in the UK, distraught at the inexorable loss of our own ancient woods (‘at least we have countries like Poland’). Wilderness is also a misleading term, coined by John Muir at the advent of the American National Park system. That wilderness had been home to Native Americans for millennia, who also happen to be humans. Native Americans are responsible for the domestication of many crop species, including maize, which form large sectors of the global agricultural economy, the arch nemesis of wilderness.

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Just outside Białowieża village at the site of Stara Białowieża, where King Jagiełło built his now lost white tower and established his hunting forest, is a trail of 200-500 year old pedunculate oaks (Quercus robur). Several of them are designated as protected monuments, fitted with red and white Polish emblems. These oaks reflect the reign of previous Polish Kings and the ancient boundary with the Kingdom of Lithuania. Many of these monarchs conducted hunts in Białowieża. In English, ‘forest’ means a place where forest law was enacted, largely related to the keeping and hunting of deer and the outlawing of poaching. In England today forests are areas of land managed for their timber almost exclusively. On the continent, ‘forest’ is used to describe almost all areas of woodland, also because, in places like Germany, France, Poland, the Czech Republic and Romania, woodland areas are often much larger than fragmented English woods. In Białowieża it feels natural to call it a forest, it is too big to be a ‘wood’. But what did people hunt?

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In the 1400s King Jagiełło shared the forest with wolf (Canis lupis), lynx (Lynx lynx), European brown bear (Ursus arctos), aurochs (Bos primigenius), European elk, also called moose, (Elces elces), beaver (Castor fiber) and bison. Today only the auroch and bear are extinct in Białowieża, with the auroch’s final living animals dying out in Poland in 1627. The other species remain, several of them doing very well. Most of the brown bear populations in Europe are in mountainous areas that are not easily messed with by us, but the scale of Białowieża National Park (10,000 hectares) suggests a reintroduction could work. An attempt has been made in the past 100 years but the bears were hunted to extinction again. At least in other parts of Europe bears are now thought to be increasing as some countries urbanise and rural areas become depopulated. Romania is a case in point. They are also coming close to cities.

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Bison once roamed much of Europe, they were even present in the woods of southern England. The bison found today in North America descend from the same roaming animals that crossed the Bering Strait between Russia and Alaska before it flooded some 8-10,000 years ago. Bison were hunted to extinction in the wild by the successive impacts of the First World War (1914-18) and the Second World War (1939-45). They were saved from total extinction by a Polish breeding programme in 1929 that led to the bison being released again into Białowieża in 1952. The bison are now numbered in their hundreds and we were lucky enough to encounter two very warm days which seemed to attract the bison out into the fields to graze. The bison pictured above is a wild animal, photographed with a telephoto lens. It is clear that bison are coming in close contact to people and are even being fed by them. Bison are dangerous animals and should not be disrespected or approached. Unfortunately one local man operating on a little too much wódka had to be pulled away because he got too close.

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The human landscape

The melding of Polish and Russian Orthodox culture is clear in Białowieża. At the entrance to the village we were greeted by a simple crucifix alongside that of the Russian Orthodox church. During the Napleonic War, dramatised in Leo Tolstory’s War & Peace, Napoleon’s armies allied with the Poles to defeat the Russians, but defeat for the French in 1812 meant that Białowieża came under Russian control. The Polish Kingdom was created but there were rebellions from the Poles when Orthodox Christianity and the Russian language was enforced. In response to the uprisings Podlasia was annexed by the Russian Empire and the Polish Kingdom was dully dissolved. The Polish language was outlawed and Catholic churches were destroyed or taken over by the Orthodox church.

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Like King Jagiełło, the Russian aristocracy also fell for the wild woods and bison. Another Royal hunting estate was established though the Russians did not merely protect the bison but breed them so there would be enough for everyone to kill when taking part in hunts. Białowieża was now a forest in the truest sense, a landscape where wild animals were corralled and bred to be hunted by the rich. A private railway was established a few miles outside of the village which today is a restaurant where you can sample dishes of bison, boar, deer or duck. In 1915 the German army took control of Białowieża. They began to build small gauge forest railways and managed the woods aggressively, such is the impact of war. In 1917 the Russian Revolution meant the end of Czarist Russia and yet more instability for the people and wildlife of Białowieża. During the Second World War the Nazis occupied Białowieża, losing it again to the Russians. In 1947 the forest was split between Soviet-controlled Poland and Belarus. Poland finally became independent in 1989.

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Though Białowieża is famous for its trees, one of the highlights for wildlife has to be the village itself. The Narewka, a tributary of the much larger Narew, runs through an area of marshland and reedbed in the centre of the village. This was a wonderful place to spend a few hours after the darkness of the forest, especially the more heavily managed areas of Norway spruce.

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I was visiting with my friend and mondo-birder Peter Beckenham. Many of Pete’s favourite places are in the North Kent Marshes so he felt at home here. In Białowieża he showed me great grey shrike (Lanius excubitor) and snipe (Gallinago gallinago). At first I thought the snipe’s ‘drumming’ song was Pete’s phone ringing. It was a magical sound. I like to think I showed him myriad woodpecker species, like a Czar with a vast woodpecker estate.

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There were several snipe marking their aerial territories over the marshland, while one, as can be seen above, stopped to rest on the top of a telephone pole.

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The village itself developed from the clearance of the naturally wooded landscape. It is known as the Białowieża glade, a clearing that in its pomp was 1367ha in size but between 1953 and 1989 decline by nearly half. Woodland is gradually retaking areas of arable land which are no longer farmed. The farms and fields were some of the most interesting places to visit, not least the open air folk museum (above) which was teeming with toads (Bufo bufo).

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There were signs everywhere of abandoned cottages, though neighboured by new developments of what appeared to be second homes for the Polish nouveau-riche. Tourism is evidently changing Białowieża’s village, and from an ecological point of view it could be for the better, but it could also be for the worse. North-east Poland’s traditional, old fashioned agriculture is key to the richness of its wildlife and habitats. If these practices are completely lost in favour of more intense agriculture as promoted by the European Union’s agricultural board (though conversely not by EU-wide measures like Natura 2000’s Birds and Habitats Directives) then many species which are stable and increasing in this part of Europe will become threatened as the traditionally-maintained habitats decline. Coupled with the threat of increased logging in Białowieża a worrying trend is apparent. Also, if local people can’t work the land in a traditional way and only the wealthy can afford to live there this will also contribute to habitat loss.

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Nature protection

The allure of Białowieża for many is the 5,000ha strict reserve and believe me it is strict. This area of unmanaged, ‘untouched’ woodland is presented as the only remnant of Europe’s wildwood. Wildwood is a mythical forest landscape that thrived after the last glacial period came to an end 10-12,000 year ago, at the same time that bison were walking from Russia into North America. Glaciers covered much of the northern hemisphere until the climate warmed and the conditions became favourable for a greater diversity of tree species. First birch and pine, then hazel, oak and ash covered the UK and northern Europe. There are many misconceptions about the finitude of this landscape – I agree that it was unlikely to be trees coast-to-coast, as Franz Vera argued. There is little to no known remnant of wildwood in Europe and many of its species lost. As Oliver Rackham argues in Woodlands, our sentimentality regarding trees and woods has warped our sense of what is natural for trees, or even what the word ‘natural’ means. Our impact on the climate through the burning of fossil fuels and the unprecedented release of nitrogen dioxide, carbon dioxide and other pollutants that alters the chemistry of the soil, poisons us and a wealth of other species, means that there is no corner or square of this earth that is ‘untouched’ by us.

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We visited the reserve at dawn. You can only enter with a guide having paid the entry fee or on scientific business, if you enter without one you can be fined. Wardens cycle around the main paths seeking to check permits at all times. This officiousness – our pass was checked three times – gave a sense of pressure to our visit but did not take anything away from the strict reserve’s grandeur.

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The strict reserve manages itself ecologically – though there were plenty of signs of chainsaws cutting fallen trees across paths, so ‘truly wild nature’ had not escaped Health & Safety. Trees naturally succumb, fall and decay. Some remain standing to become habitat for fungi, plants and other invertebrates. One of the main attractions for Pete and I was the number of woodpeckers that could be encountered here. By the end of the trip we had seen 8 species.

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One woodpecker that can be seen fairly commonly in east European spruce forest, if you give it the time and attention, is the three-toed woodpecker (Picoides tridactylus). It feeds on the larvae of the spruce bark beetle, the subject of much press attention in Europe currently. The three-toed woodpecker makes its way around the trunk of a dead spruce tree, pecking away at the bark to find its food. Evidently the deadwood created by the bark beetle is of great importance, rather than being the threat outlined by the Polish government. But is the threat economic or ecological?

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Another woodpecker which I have rarely spent any time with is the lesser spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos minor). In England this bird is undergoing a speedy decline, having disappeared from its historical range and now confined to strongholds, including the New Forest. Its decline in the UK is not completely understood. In Białowieża we had the opportunity to spend a good half an hour with this bird alongside the Narewka as it picked its way around the tree. Before reaching the river we had seen the Syrian woodpecker (Dendrocopos syriacus), identifiable from the great spotted woodpecker (Dendrocopos major) by a break in the black bar that connects its cheek from its nape!

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Fungi is a friend of the woodpeckers in that it softens up trees for excavation. Fungi performs a vital role in woods, in breaking down dead trees, controlling the number of certain species and in creating soil and stable nutrients for other life to prosper from. It also helps trees by weakening and quickening the removal of deadwood that otherwise adds weight to a tree, inhibiting its growth.

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Outside the strict reserve this hoof fungus (Fomes fomentarius) evidenced the role fungi has in offering direct nourishment to wildlife. I pray that this was bitten into by an elk but it was most likely a horse.

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I’ve written before about beavers in Europe. In Białowieża’s strict reserve they are another ‘forest engineer’. You can even find them in Warsaw, a lesson for us in the UK as we get to grips with these returning beasties. The flooded woodland you can see here has been opened up and the river Orłówka broken out and slowed by beavers. This has a massive effect on the number of species found in wetland habitats. The smaller pools of water create breeding space for fish and many aquatic invertebrates, as well as for amphibians. The rerouting and channelling of European rivers – especially by communist or Stalinist agricultural schemes – was one of the most destructive environmental practices to have occurred in the continent’s history.

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This is a multi-stemmed hazel tree which had been ‘felled’ by beavers. I love how similar this is to the hazel stools coppiced by volunteers in much smaller English woods. So it’s ok if beavers do it, but not us? I’m not so sure.

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Pete was also impressed by the beaver’s work. They are able to sharpen their felling teeth with bottom front teeth that act as a kind of sharpening stone. They are evidence of the fact that sometimes cutting down trees can be a good thing.

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The bark beetle battle

Tree felling is not always the right thing to do. Walking in Białowieża there were clear signs of spruce trees dying off from the impacts of the bark beetle. Trees with red dots or crosses with numbers marked in red spray paint indicated that they were to be felled.

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The bark beetles do damage to trees when present in large infestations because they bore through the cambium of the tree. The bark is the protective layer for the cambium as well as the phloem and the xylum. Water travels through the xylum and sugars and other minerals pass through the phloem. These are the two most important cell membranes in a tree’s ability to feed and grow. There are many species of bark beetle, the above image is an ash tree and so I don’t profess to know if it’s the spruce bark beetle, it probably isn’t seeing as the spruce bark beetle family only feed on spruce or pine.

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As mentioned earlier, deadwood is an intrinsic part of a woodland ecosystem. It provides habitat for thousands of species of invertebrate and fungus. Many managed forests completely lack any deadwood because it has been removed for sale or simply tidied up. Also the key plantation trees of spruce, pine and larch produce very view large branches, unlike oak or ash, and so there is little to even fall anyway. Recent research suggests that the removal of deadwood from woodland environments has contributed to climate change. This is because wood continues to hold carbon as deadwood. The tidying up of woods is one of the key ways to reduce its biodiversity, I hate to see it.

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In the Bavarian Forest, on the border with the Czech Republic, the spruce bark beetle has also hit the woodlands hard. One of the possible reasons for this increase is the intensive forestry of the early 20th century, when Germany was at the forefront of two world wars. In wartime, woods suffer greatly. In the UK, the Forestry Commission was created in 1919 in response to the depleted supply of wood caused by the First World War. In Britain this meant a loss of ancient woodland, an irreplaceable habitat. In Germany war meant more spruce and pine, laying the groundwork for the outbreak of the bark beetle in recent decades. Before the Bavarian Forest’s intensive forestry work in the 1900s, the woods were made up of silver fir (Abies alba), beech (Fagus sylvatica), ash and a greater diversity of species. When the balance in stable ecosystems is disrupted some species can become invasive. Similarly, the outbreaks of Dutch elm disease in the early Holocene (12,000 years ago to present) were likely caused by our species opening up woods and allowing the elm bark beetle (Scolytus scolytus) greater range of travel to infect more elms with the fungal disease. Manmade climate change is also identified as a cause of the dying off of spruce due to drier soils, another reason why no landscape can be described as ‘untouched’ by us.

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On our final day in Białowieża we came across the first signs of intervention from foresters. A nature reserve sitting between the road to Hajnówka and the bison show reserve had large areas of mature dead spruce that had been felled. Was this in response to the bark beetle, or was it a safety measure? We didn’t know for sure but it seemed beetle-related.

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Earlier in the day, before being stopped by the very suspicious Polish border guards warning us not to try and escape to Belarus(!), we encountered a man gathering timber with his tractor. I snapped this picture of him, mainly because I am interested in how woods are managed in Europe and who they are managed by. He didn’t see me take that photo but when he saw me taking the photo below, having driven past us, he began shouting at us in Polish to go away. My general feedback has been that European foresters don’t like being photographed.

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This is what he had been so worried about. We met a Polish birder around the corner and I asked why he had been so angry. ‘Perhaps he is stealing,’ he said. I wasn’t convinced of that. It could be that Greenpeace Poland’s visits to Białowieża to count the number of felled trees, along with their typically ambitious protests being undertaken in Warsaw, has caused anxiety and tension among forestry workers, many of whom will be doing only what they do normally. I sympathise with them.

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In another area we noticed that wherever there was a felled tree, the words ‘eko szuje’ or ‘eko kornik’ had been daubed on the stump. We were unsure what it meant, but ‘eko kornik’ probably means ‘reserve of the bark beetle’. I would welcome any translations from readers! This seemed like an urban protest. But why are the Polish government so keen to fell spruce? Why do they care so much about the tree? It’s not threatened in Europe, in the Bavarian and Bohemian Forest’s case its presence is too great and it inhibits species diversity and only small areas of infected trees are being managed to reduce the beetle. In my opinion, having seen how much use the tree is for construction and carpentry in Romania, the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, the answer is surely commercial. Patrick Barkham has written a very informative account of the issue, he takes it further: ‘They [those opposed to the plans] say the beetle is a handy alibi for commerce. Before Szyszko [the environment minister] (a forestry teacher) was elected, he spoke of the wasted commercial potential of unlogged wood. Only 57% of the proposed harvest refers to disease-ridden spruce – its rotten wood is worthless. Loggers want to get their hands on valuable, large old trees. One forest district has already almost felled an allowance of trees which was supposed to last until 2021 and so the government will permit it to increase its annual take from 6,000 cubic metres to 53,000 cubic metres. Other districts are likely to follow suit.’

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If the opposition view is right and the Polish government is attempting to log old growth forest (400-10,000 years old) the EU, as Barkham points out, should stop them: ‘As Britain heads towards the EU referendum, virtually every conservationist argues that we need to stay in Europe because of its environmental protections, including the habitats directive and its Natura 2000 sites, of which Białowieża is one. Białowieża is the big test for that argument. The EU must intervene, cajole and penalise the Polish government until its vandalism is stopped. If the EU can’t save Białowieża, its environmental protections aren’t worth the – sustainably sourced – paper they are written on.’

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Doing the right thing for Białowieża

I’m uneasy about the ‘save our woods’ rhetoric that is so common now on English-speaking social media. The ‘crying wolf’ of many campaigners has led to scepticism for things that really are important. Evidently there are serious problems in Białowieża. The main crux of the argument to protect it is that it’s ‘pristine’, ‘untouched’ and a wilderness. I don’t agree that it is. Białowieża’s woods and trees have been exploited and its fauna messed with by people for over 600 years and likely further back. If Białowieża is to be saved from these ecologically illiterate measures of clear felling deadwood, the argument should not be based on mysticism. Campaigns to save woods and landscapes should be built on a clear case that people can understand, not on a fairy tale that will later be picked apart through the bureaucratic process. I don’t think Greenpeace Poland are doing this but those of us English-speakers trying to raise awareness about Białowieża should focus on reason rather than emotion first of all. There is a reasonable case not to increase logging in Białowieża, so why not focus on that? If you really do love the idea of Białowieża and want it to be protected the best thing you can do is visit, to spend your money there, invest in the eco-tourism infrastructure and show the Polish government that its value is far greater as a nature reserve than as one to be infringed upon by exploitative forestry. The battle for Białowieża will rumble on as it has for centuries.

 

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London’s mini heatwave has closed its doors, great grey clouds entomb the downs. In my mind the meadows have all flowered and gone, so quickly has the psuedo-summer taken root. Sunday’s 27 degrees felt more like July than May. Gladly, at Farthing Downs all of May’s icons can be found: meadow buttercups, silverweed, yellowhammers singing in flowering hawthorns, cowslips moving to seed. A strange song emanates from the young trees grown too woody for livestock to graze. At first I think it might be swallows passing through, zipping and chattering, then perhaps baby birds. Swifts swoop overhead but no other hirundines are here.

The chattering song continues and I move closer. In ash, bramble and oak twigs the white throat of that very bird flashes. It jumps up onto a branch and I photograph it, a white bud or bug of some kind in its bill. The whitethroat has travelled from Africa to be here on the North Downs, a journey we cannot quite comprehend. Except we Europeans too came from Africa, but it took some 60-100,000 years to do it rather than a few months.

This whitethroat is not alone. Behind me is a bigger clump of trees and scrub, a thicket of ash trees riddled with canker. I’m listening to a song that I expect to hear in passing every April here, like a little chain tinkling, or some early mechanical clock. It’s a lesser whitethroat, another arrival from Africa. But I can’t see it, listening closely for a sign of whether it’s under cover or out in the open. I give up. A kestrel appears from over the whitethroats’ bushes, gliding, hovering and slipping off.

North Downs diary

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Rainfall on the downs. Still the jackdaws toe the grasslands in their flock, still green woodpeckers cut arcs across the landscape, still the spring’s song builds in hedgerow blackbird music. Linnets flock to the small bushes of rose and hawthorn, skylarks lift from the turf, dropping back down onto the grassy mounds of anthills. So few flowers, but rosettes are massing at the margin of soil and sky, the dropwort, rattle and eyebrights feeding on the thinnest layer of nutrients, readying to flower. But the rain still falls and so I make for Devilsden Wood where bluebells have peeled from green to that almost purplish colour. Our common name feels a little inadequate. But then that’s the joy of common names, there are so many, they each tell a tale of our senses through time. Wood anemones, probably my favourite flower, were known as windflowers because people thought that they only opened their petals when the wind blew. Here they bloom in their little flocks amidst dogs mercury and more bluebells.

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