Daniel Greenwood

The language of leaves

Posts tagged ‘Wood anemone’

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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In April 2015 along with my hiking pal Eddie Chapman I travelled to Romania from London by train via Germany and Hungary. We had agreed two years ago to do this trip, something I had suggested after reading Patrick Leigh Fermor’s Between the woods and the water where the 18-year-old Fermor documents part of his experience of walking from Rotterdam to Istanbul. That was between 1933-35 before the collapse of the old European order with the World Wars and before the eventual shift to communism. Fermor’s Romania was still a thriving rural culture of haymaking and rivers flowing free. What we saw was different, communism having ended and Romania now a member of the European Union, capitalism stretching its tentacles into the farthest reaches of this vast nation with its mounds of plastic waste and the invasive plant species which thrive in a free market, globalised economy. But we still saw elderly people digging their own fields each day, hay ricks in back gardens and plenty of horses ploughing fields and transporting people around. We visited on the back of a sudden cold snap and so it was still winter, nevertheless we saw some wonderful wildlife and landscapes. We are very grateful to Barbara KnowlesRóbert Biró and Laci Demeter for showing us more of the Csík mountains and teaching us about the local culture and ecology. I also would not have known about this region without the work of Nigel Spring and EuCAN who run conservation trips to that part of Transylvania.

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We entered Romania by train from Debrecen, passing through to Cluj-Napoca. The manager of our guest house in the Hortobágy in Hungary had told us instead that Cluj is Kolozsvár, and is in fact a Hungarian city. This was of course not the first time we had heard about the issues between the two nations after the Treaty of Trianon in 1920 that saw the dissolution of the Kingdom of Hungary and two thirds of Hungarian territory passed to Romania. The Hungarian argument is that Magyar people have been present in what is now Romania for over 1000 years which gives them ownership (of course even that is a simplification on my part). Romanians point to Dacian settlement 1850 years ago, before the Hungarians were present in Transylvania. This is covered in greater detail by Walking the woods and the water, a book by Nick Hunt about retracing Fermor’s route to see what had changed in 2011.

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The journey across the border was not what we had expected. The detritus of the failed communist system was plain to see with vast areas of industrial land and infrastructure abandoned. I like what nature can do with these ‘wastelands’ but to see people still having to live in and around these places was a shock. This, allied with the amount of rubbish strewn through what would have been species-rich farm and meadowland, was disturbing and added to the toll of the long distance travel we had undertaken. I will never forget the sight of people having to live in tents of rubbish, with plastic nailed to pieces of timber to keep them dry. The argument for good housing for all struck home here.

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In Cluj I have never seen such sickly street trees with branches hacked to bits and choked by the wires that thread the streets together. Cluj as a city was best viewed from Cetățuia Hill where you can see the sensitive design of the Cluj-Napoca football stadium and the Apuseni Mountains in the distance, the city itself is a melange of capitalist-era hotels, communist apartment buildings and centuries-old architecture preserved in the old town. We had wanted to get into the Apuseni Mountains, famous for the skeletons of cave bears which were discovered in the 1980s, having become extinct 30,000 years ago when much of Europe was covered by ice.

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Our next destination was the Carpathian basin in eastern Transylvania, an area known as the Csík (Hungarian) mountains. The area is accessible by train from Brașov to Miercurea Ciuc (Romanian). The region is strongly Hungarian in culture and the city of Miercurea Ciuc is known in Hungarian as Csíkszereda. I had been in touch with conservationist Barbara Knowles who, through her project The Barbara Knowles Fund, was supporting local farmers in managing the mountain hay meadows in the region, some of which are the richest in Europe. Prince Charles has recently visited to highlight the importance of these habitats.

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Barbara put us in touch with Laci (pronounced Lot-see) Demeter, a local farmer and ecologist who owns a few hay meadows and acts as a local guide for the region. Laci was brilliant, with a great sense of humour. He knew all the birds and plant names in English as well as Hungarian and taught us a few of them in his native tongue. Marsh marigold, a buttercup that grows in damp ground and brooks is known as ‘stork’s messenger’ in Hungarian because its flowering in April indicates the arrival of the bird and the spring.

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We volunteered with Laci to remove some of the Norway spruce brash from the meadows so they could grow uninhibited in the coming months. Laci drove us into the mountains where snow still lay on the ground and butterbur and cowslip were the only plants coming into flower. The Carpathians were still shaking off winter. We saw nutcracker, raven and heard buzzards calling from overhead.

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In the valley below a group of men were working on constructing a small shelter for cheese-making in the summer months as part of a local common land cooperative. They were all being paid. How much could Britain benefit both ecologically, socially and economically from similar initiatives? The short-sighted, profit-driven focus of modern politics means we are unlikely to find out. At least Prince Charles is interested.

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We were invited for lunch with the workers and feasted on a pork stew with bread and the most common Hungarian ingredient – paprika. There was also enough beer for everyone, plus some watered-down pálinka. The sun was so intense even at this time of year that we had to inch our way into the shade while the Magyars sat comfortably in full sun.

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In the afternoon Laci took us to the top of one of the mountains, a gentle climb to overlook the unfolding peaks of the Carpathian basin. The meadows were still brown and wintry, snow melting under the sun’s rays. Laci pointed out the snuffling of wild boar and rolled their chocolate-like poo in his fingertips. He showed us the small dips in the ground which were evidence of the old style of felling trees – cut the roots in the soil and let the wind blow the tree over, leaving a space where the root plate used to be. It was thrilling to finally be in the Carpathians, a mountain range I had longed to see.

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On our second trip out with Laci we drove to a quarry that was a good site for eagle owl and where our esteemed guide knew they bred. We passed fields being ploughed by horses, a throwback to a bygone age in much of Europe.

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At the quarry I was distracted by the range of plants, particularly the anemones, and the above endemic to Transylvania, Anemone hepatica transylvanica. On the way here, in Bavaria, I had seen Anemone hepatica, a beautiful purple anemone and was very happy to be introduced to this special plant.

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That was not the only anemone growing in the quarry. The most famous and common, wood anemone (Anemone nemerosa), which I know well from the ancient woods of south London, was also present. This is a plant that struggles in the woods around where I live because of trampling and disturbance but in this part of Transylvania it grew in the old quarry with little to disturb it.

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There were signs of mammalian life in the quarry. Fires had been set in the quarry’s depths, with broken televisions and other detritus of the modern age. There was also detritus of another kind, with this possible bear or wolf scat. It was a pleasure to speculate on what might have passed through here, in both senses of the word.

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We rounded the quarry edge in silence, Eddie and Laci did, anyway. I sent down rock after rock as we made our way to the point where the eagle owls breed. Laci had been enticing us to overcome our apprehension about entering into this place by collecting a bouquet of feathers, not least this owl feather above. As we sat on the ledge where the birds roost, an eagle owl flew across the far side of the amphitheatre and out of view. Eddie missed it. He remained silent thereafter.

Csik lo-res-16There was also evidence of owl prey. Laci gathered together the remnant plumage of raven and buzzard. The size of the prey of this owl is astounding.

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Satisfied with our visit to the quarry, Laci drove us to one of his favourite sites, a 10-12,000 year old pond created during the last glacial period. Laci had bought pieces of land around the pond to try and protect it. Some farmers had been filling it with rubbish and trying to drain it for agriculture. It was a treasure trove of biodiversity, with the moor frog its most colourful species, turning blue in breeding season.

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Laci perched on the small mounds of sod dotted throughout the pond and fished out a great crested newt as he tried to collect a sample of fairy shrimp to show to us. It was in its breeding gear, a beautiful animal that is rare in England but common across Britain to the point of Asia. Its protection measures in Britain are famous for their severity and the ensuing failure to prosecute for any breach.

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We said goodbye to Laci, Barbara, our host Magda and the small village of Pauleni-Ciuc (Romanian), its centuries old spruce barns and horses. Now it was time to travel south to Brașov and then to Sinaia in the Carpathians proper.

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We arrived in Sinaia excited by the ascent of the railway into mountains that would eventually reach more than 2000m. We stepped into the tourist office in search of a map. The attendant thought we were idiots, rightly so: ‘The hiking season doesn’t start for another 60 days, do you have the right equipment? I shouldn’t really give you this map.’ His English was impressive, his scolding even more so. We whimpered and said something about how we wouldn’t do anything stupid.

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Our first hike was the only one that seemed accessible from Sinaia. We crossed through the railway station, literally across the tracks, over a bridge and through a pack of feral dogs (whose bark is far worse than their bite, by the way, we grew to appreciate them) and into the beech and spruce woods crowded by the snow-capped Carpathians. Entering into the mountains we were immediately met by signs warning us of the presence of bears.

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We got a good whiff of bear as we made our way up into the mountains, reminding us of our true place in the food chain. Homo sapiens has, through our cognitive revolution and technological march, excelled to the top of the table in one respect but the fear of large predators presented Eddie and I with a different feeling. It was frightening and exhilarating to find the bear prints congealing in the mud. We were reminded of our fragility as animals but I felt a sense of calm from the fact that, for once, I knew my place. We couldn’t be expected to deal with a bear.

Carpathians lo-res-19There were signs of them everywhere. We didn’t dare open our salami.

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The principle timbers of the Carpathian woodlands were beech and Norway spruce (the tree of choice in the Csík region), with some sycamore and hazel. We encountered these horses dragging beech trunks down from the alpine woods to a little camp guarded by angry dogs. The whooping calls of the woodsmen alerted us to their presence.

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Though we were in a truly wild landscape regarding large fauna, the rivers were in a sorry state. Many of the rivers around Sinaia, and indeed much of Romania, were concreted and dammed, some choked with plastic waste, others with logs caught on the lip of the concrete. These rivers were clearly once great but were now tamed, throttled by man.

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Away from the rivers and woodsmen we hiked for hours in complete solitude with only the company of jay and nutcracker, an eerie silence pervading at higher levels beyond the sound of our boots scuffing rocks and boulders as we scrambled.

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At the top of Mount Compatu a line of tracks was visible in the snow. Were these the footprints of wolf? There was absolutely no chance of encountering a wolf, but the fear simmered all the same.

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Whatever four-legged animal had left those prints, it was the closest we could get to the wild heart of the Carpathians. To walk in a landscape with signs of wolf, bear, boar and more was a dream realised.

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We left Romania exhausted by travel but with fond memories of the Hungarian region where we had spent time in the mountains and villages with local people. April is the wrong time to go for those who want to experience wildflower meadows and spring birds. It’s also the most dangerous time to encounter bears if cubs are present. Thankfully we only got a whiff. Romania and Transylvania has a great deal of bad press in Britain, mainly because of xenaphobic political positioning in the past few years from right-wingers (Boris Johnson) and liberals (Nick Clegg) alike and a book written by an Irishman over a century ago. In reality Romania is a massive, complicated country which cannot be generalised over and has no vampires. It is a place of great natural and cultural riches but also urban poverty and decline. Whether Hungarian or Romanian, its landscapes are species rich, wild and vast, its people welcoming and good humoured. Please support wildlife conservation and the people who enact it in this wonderful country.

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Blean Woods RSPB just outside Canterbury in Kent

I live in an area of London that was once covered by a stretch of woodlands, commons, meadows and wood pasture that was called the Great North Wood. It was not the continuous wildwood which some argue had covered parts of England totally after the melting of the ice 10,000 years ago, before humans began to cut the trees down. It was known as the Great North Wood because it sat north of Croydon, a large market town fringed by chalk downlands which are not so hospitable to the kind of woodlands dominating the land to the north on London clay, namely hornbeam and sessile oak. On London’s open downlands livestock grazed and rabbits were bred for their fur and flesh. The wild but manipulated landscape of the Great North Wood would have stretched all the way north to the Thames at Deptford (where timber could be exported on ships or turned into ships), cutting off at Penge (Celt for ‘the end of the wood’) and slithering down a little like the continent of South America to Selhurst. Many of the placenames in the locality echo the woodland past, the history of its woodspeople, or the woodsman (which Ben Law neatly points out means ‘wood hand’ rather than excluding women). This can be seen most clearly by Norwood, derived from the name of the landscape itself, as well as Brockley which could describe a human settlement where badgers were notable. The ending of ‘ley’ generally means a clearing or settlement next to woodland. Honor Oak is a pointer to the Oak of Arnon Wood, a slab of probable millennia-old woodland which is now embellished by the Local Nature Reserve One Tree Hill, where the Oak of Honor stands in the form of an English oak replanted some 100 years ago after the site was saved as a public open space by dissenting locals in 1896. The lack of a ‘u’ shows that this is of the old English spelling for honour, the language taken to the Americas by settlers some centuries ago and now seeming somewhat alien or incorrect.

The Great North Wood was not merely one of endless woodlands or of wildwood, it was a landscape that humans were a part of and dependent on for their livelihoods. Some of the woodlands which remain today such as One Tree Hill and Sydenham Hill Wood, have shown that they were at times more open, that larger trees stood singularly with commoners grazing their livestock on the grasses and herbaceous plants underneath the shade of trees like elm, oak, hornbeam and ash. This before the advent of the enclosures when commoners had their rights removed through an Act of Parliament, a series of events which define the landscape of my hometown to this day. As recently as the 1950’s one of the Great North Wood’s most unaffected remainders, Dulwich Wood, was grassier and more open whereas today it is darkened by holly and an array of other trees such as hornbeam, ash, hazel and rowan. Still, the ancient remnants of the Great North Wood hold colonies of wood anemone, dog violets, wild garlic and other plants which indicate continuous woodland for at least 400 years.

Wood anemone indicates 400 years of continuous woodland

One of the main ways that people would have earned a living was by inhabiting the woodlands. Charcoal burning was one of the most common sights and vocations in the Great North Wood. They were known as the colliers, their presence indicated by Collier’s Wood in Wandsworth, beyond the western fringes of the catchment. Hornbeam was ‘coppiced’ on a cycle of 10 or so years, the trees cut at about 20-30cm, a vigorous regrowth the next year created multiple stems and thus an eventual greater crop to be burned and sold to blacksmiths and those needing intense heat to fire their craft. Other trees coppiced were hazel and ash, with hazel especially important for its usages for fencing and walking sticks. Sessile oaks were allowed to grow tall and true for their timber and the tannin residing in the bark. But coppicing is not necessarily as destructive or exploitative as it may sound, as when coppicing was more common – before the advent of coal and the increase in imports of cheaper fossil fuels from abroad – the Great North Wood’s coppices were home to populations of nightingales and nightjars, not least at Penge Common (now covering the famous Crystal Palace Park and the town of Anerley) where locals were said to visit at night to listen to the nightingale song, and there is some anecdotal evidence that the nocturnal music fuelled an increased birth rate. Coppicing allowed light into woods, enriching the herb layer of these woodlands, giving life to wildflowers such as dog violet which then supported the silver washed and dark green fritillary butterflies, as well as beloved primroses, now diminishing from the English landscape as ancient woodlands and hedgerows have been grubbed out and poisoned over time, feverishly in the latter part of the twentieth century.

A renewed interest in coppicing has given a new sense of purpose to our woodlands

This brings me to the issue of woodlands and biodiversity offsetting, a scheme mooted by the Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) as a way to mitigate losses to wildlife from development. In recent times the former Transport Secretary Justine Greening advocated the ‘transplanting’ of ancient woodlands which are in the way of the proposed High Speed Rail 2 line intended to travel from London to Birmingham and then north to Manchester and Leeds in a final ‘Y’ section. More recently Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has confirmed his liking for proposals to clear ancient woodlands and plant 100 trees for every ancient tree that is lost. Both of these proposals fall flat after only a little research or, dare I say it, consideration. As Oliver Rackham puts it in his totemic ‘Woodlands’, ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees. Paterson is mistaken. What he is looking for might be something like Penge Common, or one of the other commons now gone from the Great North Wood. It is now only really in wood pasture or ancient hedge lines that you can find ancient trees. In ancient woodlands it is the landscape and ecosystem which is ancient. Paterson sells himself as a man in-tune with nature and the countryside, posing by fence posts and boasting of keeping badgers as childhood pets. His rhetoric suggests he is out of his depth.

Ancient woodlands are not the place to look for ancient trees.

Today ancient trees are loved, most in estates or arboretums where they are prized for their age and ‘wisdom’. In ancient woods, such is the diversity of life, many trees succumb to fungal infection, because fungi is another aspect of an ancient woodland. The life of fungi is in the soil, the mycelium, to be exact. The mycelium is, in some ways, the life force of woodland, passing nutrients back and forth between trees and soil, a little like the information superhighway I am using to publish this article. Fungi is as vital to human existence as trees, often described as ‘the third force’ after animal and plant life. So too are certain species of wildflower, insect, mammal and bird depend on ancient woodland ecosystems. We are talking about an environment that takes many hundreds of years to develop. This is why HS2 Limited’s desire to dig up the ancient woodlands (33 ancient woodlands are directly affected according to the Woodland Trust) and transplant them elsewhere is the thinking of people who should not be entrusted to decide on infrastructure projects that endanger ancient woods or natural landscapes. ‘Moving’ a woodland would not mean a big family moving from a big house to another. It would be the same as a city removing its hospitals and replacing them elsewhere without foundations or power to run the building and its infrastructure. The real point is that ancient woodlands, biodiversity, nature, these are hindrances to short-term economic gain, and in many ways, to this government’s ideological assault on the environmental sector. Biodiversity offsetting, on this level, is something those of us who love trees, woodlands and nature cannot accept or allow to occur.

One Tree Hill’s Golden Jubilee beacon attracted 600 people in 2012

But what does this have to do with the Great North Wood, or of woodlands that were not necessarily valued for their biodiversity and wildlife but instead for their produce? The failure of biodiversity offsetting is its inability to recognise the need that human beings have for woodlands int he environmental sense, the importance of access to green and ‘natural’ spaces. It fails to see the importance of place, let alone wildlife or biodiversity. Worst of all it is a signifier of our failure, not just that of politicians, to see that woodlands present an opportunity for a more simple and healthier existence than the one presented to many in England today. In Ben Law’s ‘The Woodland Way’, he outlines just how far the English have moved away from their ‘forest dweller’ existence, an era that would have dated back to the Great North Wood. Woodlands offer us sanctuary, food, the resources for infrastructure, a place for real learning – wood carving, coppicing, construction, food growing, fencing, tool use – and countless creative industries. Many people express the sense of belonging offered by time spent in woodlands. The woodland sell-off plans panned (but possibly remodeled to fit biodiversity offsetting) caused outrage in the UK and led to a 500,000 strong petition being delivered to the Prime Minister David Cameron. This was a worrying time – we learned then that this government do not hold the best interest of our woodlands at heart – but the public were able to send a unified message. The sell-off was not acceptable.

Biodiversity offsetting fails to acknowledge the importance of place

The Great North Wood is a case in point for people standing up for their woodlands in the shape of One Tree Hill, saved from enclosure by ‘the great agitation’, as it is known locally, when thousands rioted to protect it from enclosure. And then there is Sydenham Hill Wood, saved twice by local people, London Wildlife Trust and the Horniman Museum from plans for it to be developed for housing. I wonder how the battles would have gone if biodiversity offsetting was in place in those, both very different, times. Our woodlands are only safe when they are loved, ‘used’ and valued by local people. Sadly, it would appear that our woodlands are not merely under threat from invasive species and disease, but also from the short-termism, bravado and lack of thought from authority figures like Paterson. Though some woodlands have been around for more than 1000 years, even in a place like urban south London their national fate is at the whim of individuals looking only as far as 12 months into the future. But that is only the case if people do not speak out and challenge the ecological illiteracy of ancient woodland offsetting. Consider that the next time you walk through a wood in spring, when its wildflowers, birds and insects are flourishing around you. That place is only safe because you and the community value its sense of place.

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Wood anemone

Last year I was commissioned to write this piece about the four seasons in Sydenham Hill Wood. Woodlands are beautiful, yes, but the lives of their inhabitants are not as gentle or pleasant as we might like to think. Here are my four dispatches.

Spring

Along the trackbed of the disused railway wild garlic grows. It’s a remnant of the wood’s ancient lineage, its deep green is welcome refreshment on a grey spring afternoon such as this. Every so often you find other indicators of the wood’s age. Wood anemone are growing in isolated clumps and English bluebells, too, some hybridising with the Spanish garden variety. The hornbeam standing along the track is another pointer to the old age of Sydenham Hill Wood.

Above our heads is another species sure to have been breeding here for some time. There are three tawny owl chicks sitting in the top of a large ash tree not yet in leaf, and through the bare branches we have a clear view of them. They snuggle into their plump, downy coat of feathers, calling to their parents, with rasping voices you might not expect them to make.

The wood’s bird community is watching, not least because the tawny owls are the top predator in the wood and one of the chicks’ parents is nearby trying to make a kill. Last week we found a crow’s head by the pond and it now appears likely that the adult tawny that spawned the trio above is the culprit. The birds know it too: there is an anxious din of woodland birds – woodpecker, crow, robin, great tit, blue tit, ring-necked parakeet, nuthatch – as the rufous adult tawny emerges from its hiding place.

The chicks are further along than expected, they move one at a time over our heads and closer to mum or dad, their spread of primary wing feathers giving them a tactile appearance, each like a finger. The parakeets are the most successful in bothering the young owls as they shriek and dive around them, the vibrancy of these exotically coloured birds muted by the task, on a dour afternoon in the spring wood.

Summer

The leaves of trees under torchlight are sticky with honeydew, a little like our faces, damp with sweat and bothered by mosquitoes. I swat them away.  The wood is perspiring, wet with aphids. The air is thick with the funk of wild garlic that has flowered and gone. Stars are appearing in the ocean of night sky. A dot of light moves across the expanse. Is it a satellite?

A male tawny owl calls from acres away. We blow through a hazel whistle carved in a fashion to mimic the owl, and the bird itself responds in kind, edging closer and closer to us after each play of the whistle, its voice becoming clearer: What’s the time Mr. Owl? Now there is no foliage between us and anxiety stirs. We decide it’s better to stop in case the tawny thinks we’re another male. They are renowned for their aggression in protecting territory.

With the wood under the spell of darkness, the industrial world is reduced to a dreamy wash. Beyond the lining of trees could be an endless wildwood or an open pasture – the imagination runs free in the absence of engines and electric light. Some centuries ago the old woodland was felled and turned into farmland that skylarks, corn bunting, lapwing, turtle dove and cuckoo would have colonised. These birds are now absent from land that is used for cricket, golf and rugby.

From the glade’s sleeping bed of rosebay willowherb the great ghost of a hawkmoth ascends. I swoop the child’s pond-dipping net I am holding towards the monstrous insect, bringing the net and my knees to the ground. I carefully peel it away from the grass, revealing only shadows. The mysteries of the night wood remain.

Autumn

We’re sitting around the moth trap again tonight. A large flock of crows are returning to a roost in the direction of Dulwich Park. There’s something about vast movements of crows, it gives the sense of an ending. In old times this would have been the signal to down tools at the close of a day labouring, ‘when the crow flies’, as they used to say.

The insect numbers have visibly dropped since summer but the pipistrelle bat hunting just above our heads shows there must be enough for them to eat. The twilight is metallic blue, stars are lanterns in the sky untouched by trees.

We’re surrounded by oak woodland, with smatterings of birch, ash, willow and hornbeam. We can only hope the darkening wood conjures something beautiful for us to behold. The leaves around us are soon to fall and even in this fading light you can sense the change, nature exhausted after the sex of spring and summer’s heat. A hobby flies the same path as the bat, catching a moth in midair.

Night falls. Nocturnal mammals begin their movement through the leaf litter, their sound much bigger than they actually are. A moth has been drawn to the bulb of our moth trap and we retrieve it in a clear plastic pot. It’s medium-sized, purple and mustard in colour. It’s the barred-sallow. This moth has evolved to match the leaves of autumn, but it’s early, many of the trees are still verdant green. We release the insect and it disappears into the dark.

Winter

A slender pathway cuts through the ground layer of ivy, most likely to have been forged by a train of foxes. A large ash has been pulled down by the wind, the underside of the ivy leaves wrapped around it are a fresh colour, like the flesh of a lime fruit. To the side a den has been made with string tied to the rotting logs that rest against a tree in a tepee form. Sometimes people spend a night in the wood and so the sign of a tent or den surrounded by food packaging and drinks bottles is not unusual. There isn’t much litter to be found tonight, other than things the ivy has subsumed, bottles or cans taken in by the soil or blown over from the road. Spiders make a home for themselves in empty bottles and the woodlouse is a common inhabitant of an old shoe. Now the leaves of premature bluebells peek through the earth and we take care not to trample.

We come upon a clearing around a large yew tree, the soil cleared of ivy and plant life by the acidity and shading of the tree’s needles. The trunk is rippled and worn like an old doll’s limb. It’s one of a line of yews that would have been a hedge in the grand Victorian garden that was once here. The villas were built in the 1800s, but too grandiose to last, they were abandoned during the Second World War and, deemed unsafe, were eventually bulldozed into the earth. The ground dips to reveal the whitish bricks of a wall and a trail of broken glass. Behind us is a group of silver birch trees, quarantined amidst layers of ivy and the yew. These birch look like they’re waiting for something.

The other side of the wall shows a support structure for the terrace of the old Victorian villa, where the slow life of the woodland has been allowed to resume. A blackbird calls in the canopy and a great tit sings its winter song down in the woodland glade. The sun is setting low through the slope of trees. It’s time to go home.

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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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