Daniel Greenwood

I am living with the animals

Posts tagged ‘Woodland’

North Downs diary, Coulsdon, September 2016

It’s dry and dull on the downs, wild carrot and ragwort desiccating, but house martins migrate overhead as they begin their return to Africa. In the damp and shady nooks of Devilsden Wood’s rotting logs the mushrooms sprout. The first I can find is a tiny bonnet rising out of beech leaves, one such leaf topped by an aphid. There is a spread of what I think are webcaps, orange-yellow in the wood dark. Now I remember the ache of kneeling for so long, gently turning the focus ring of the lens to catch the right part of the mushroom: the serrated gills, the skin of the cap. Overhead the soft calling of a tawny owl comes, at four o’clock in the afternoon. I’ve noticed this for the past month, with owls calling at two and three o’clock. The jays begin to rouse with their piercing shrieks, they are the principle mob leaders against the tawny. But no ruckus is forthcoming. I’ve read that tawny owls actually call more commonly in daylight rather than under darkness. Reading about them only this morning I learned that owls are better at hunting at dusk and some species are aided by an increase in moonlight. The jays are right to be worried, with birds taking up the largest chunk of a tawny’s diet. Under a decaying beech trunk dressed in moss the shape of a wood mouse trails into the cover of the leftover bark, another species fearful of the owl.

Away from the fungi I take a closer look at an old horse chestnut perhaps some 200-300 years in age, planted as a boundary marker on the edge of Happy Valley. It stands out beyond the still verdant hazel coppices with its floor of red crinkled leaves. It’s often the first to leaf and the first to leave. Out beyond the trees in Happy Valley the sun casts long shadows, the lines of hay the shadows of recent cutting, soon to be bailed, probably sold on to feed local grazing animals through the winter. I don’t quite know. Elsewhere on the North Downs these rows of hay are burnt, its value no longer universally high across the chalk. The sun sets over Devilsden Wood, the sheep grazing in the golden September light. All appears well in this remnant of downland past.

More from my North Downs diary

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Having been continually wooded for hundreds, if not thousands of years the Blean is an area steeped in history which is unusually well documented. The continuity in woodland cover has also resulted in the creation an immensely rich habitat. Almost all of the 11 square miles of woodland comprising the Blean complex is classified as ancient woodland, which contains an enormous variety of biodiversity. Its value for wildlife is recognised at a national level with over half of the Blean being designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest; further to this, approximately one third is designated as a Special Area of Conservation, affording it protection at a European Level. – Blean Woods official website


Along a pathway, sessile oaks pale with algae, a sign of clean air


Sunlight through sessile oak leaves


One of very few mushrooms, a species of Coprinus inkcap


Coppice with standards: the piles of timber are sweetchestnut cut (I think) last year, the spring-summer growth can be seen


September is a beautiful month, the light has a spring-like quality about it. This gorse caught my eye where it grows in the areas of heathland in Blean Woods


Some epicormic growth on a sessile oak. I shot this at f1.4 with my 50mm lens to try and highlight the woodland ‘bokeh’


Blean has lots of birch, much of it coppiced. On the pathway between Canterbury and Blean the strongest signs of autumn were the seeds (of which I took many back home with me accidentally, and to me look like little flies in flight)…


…and the leaves tangled in spiders webs


The orchards, of which there are a fair chunk running between Blean and Canterbury, were heavy with apples, the ground littered with hundreds of decaying fruits.

I’ve recorded a lo-fi folk song about Blean Woods, which you can listen to here:

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Dog stinkhorn Coulsdon, London, November 2014

In Devilsden Wood we tiptoe around fallen beech logs, slipping at times on beech leaves and clay, and the emptied mast. The nuts will have been eaten by hungry jays and squirrels. Over the past few weeks I’ve crouched down around these logs photographing their fungi: beech jellydisc with its almost caucasian flesh, purple jellydisc creeping out by the week from wisps of moss. Most startling for a layman like me was the glaring eye of dog stinkhorn, named after its canine stench. Lodged in a piece of black deadwood it had the appearance of a fox or wolf skull looking up at me. The long, finger-like stems that it had produced had collapsed, orange tips like finger nails. As Julian Hoffman has written recently, referring to the poet Rilke, we are surrounded by a world that beckons us to perceive it, to engage with it, to look and to touch. To me the fingers of the stinkhorn could be pointers to something worth seeing. Today only the jellydiscs remain, as well as a brown mushroom that reflects the white break of cloud between the trees above in its glossy cap. My friend Philip is searching for something behind me and as I look up the sharp dark shape of a sparrowhawk slices between us in silence. If we were little woodland birds we would not have seen a thing.

© Daniel James Greenwood 2014
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Woodland is vital

Every week I volunteer at one of my local woodlands and I reap the rewards of working with the natural environment. The skills I’ve gained from toiling with wood and earth will never be lost, the longer I can spend outside the more useful they will become. How have I learned the art of coppicing, dead-hedging, hedge-laying, tree identification and management? By working with people who know, people who can pass these skills on. We have worked this way for centuries, wood is a vital part of human existence, it gave us shelter when used for structure, warmth when burned for the fire, and fruit when the time came to pick. We built fences, bows and arrows, walking sticks, ships, wooden spoons, food bowls, huts and houses. Now our trees line the streets and sit evenly in our parkland, the idea of cutting a tree means death to us and we have no idea of why trees are here and how they have been used. The wood used for our desks and chairs (if wooden anymore) isn’t from the local woodland, nor is it really English, instead shipped from Eastern Europe, Scandinavia and, most criminally, from the Amazon rainforest.

I see the potential in woodland. By investing in the natural environment our governments could satisfy the desire for ‘job creation’, and we’re talking real jobs, work where both the mind and the body are engaged. Woodland provides work for anyone and everyone – studying the ecosystem in detail for those of an intellectual or scientific mindset, surveying lichens, birdlife, insects and our declining woodland wildflowers. And for those who want physical work pure and simple, the wood offers that chance, felling trees, carrying timber, working with your hands and alleviating the weight of the mind. This is how our ancestors have survived and built communities, and it may be the answer to our loss of direction as individuals and as a society. Nature wants to work with us, the landscape is man-made, we haven’t stepped out from a wildwood in to pristine parkland. Many of the old species are gone, many are on their way out, much of what remains is being overrun by the shade of a closed canopy and the spread of invasive species, escaping from gardens and parks. All this goes without mentioning the importance of the wild, of the wild creatures which still live among us and treat our cities and towns, railway lines and airports, as wild places. The pigeon and the peregrine see our brick blocks as cliff faces, space to roost and raise young or to hunt from. We have not escaped the natural world, we are wildlife, too.

Working woodlands

The woodsman (or woodsperson!) is a job, a role, a way of life which has existed in some capacity since men and women walked the earth, either felling the primeval woodland for farmland or making a home and life from the woodland at the edge of the communal clearing. Woodland is for people and wildlife and we should invest in this resource, not merely our money but our time. Trees will always be growing as long as the earth is healthy. Trees are used to us working with them: ash, hazel, small-leaved lime, field maple and alder are all trees which thrive from coppicing, a schedule of felling the tree at its base every 7-12 years depending on species. Some species, if cut regularly and at the right time, will live indefinitely. So don’t scoff at the idea of woodland being an empty bet for giving people work. It might just be the very thing we’ve been looking for. Working woodlands for local people means freedom from the uncertainty of the global energy market, and the chance to take a part of our lives into our own hands. Woodlands need not be seen as a carbon sink, the idea should be to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and engage with new technologies which will allow us to reduce our impact on biodiversity, air and water quality and soils. A wood-burning stove is a way of heating the home with local resources and our independence from wood fuel is new, it is not too late, by any means, to return to using wood again to fuel at least part of our lives.

But it’s not possible for everyone to grow willow or ash and fell it for themselves, not everyone has a garden, nor does everyone have a home. That’s why it’s important to make woodlands a publicly managed resource, the complete opposite to the notion of selling public woodland to the private sector. Instead we need to focus on three principles: protection, management and access. Protection for ancient woodland from short-term development and prestige infrastructure projects such as High Speed Rail 2, management of our closed-canopy woodland where the ground is shaded out and no new generation of trees able to grow, and reasonable access for the public, who depend on woodland to maintain a sense of well-being and a connection with the natural world, to forget about the industrial hubris of the age and revel in the tranquillity of the wild. Woodland is worth our time and money.

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Bramble (Rubus frusticosus) is a point of contention. This is a common plant in gardens, alongside railway lines, in woodland and parks. Through the summer and into autumn ripe blackberries are a delicious and easy feed for humans and animals alike, the only price you pay is the odd nip from a thorn or a scratch to the tummy reaching for the highest bunch of all. The gobbling of blackberries by animals and their ultimate evacuation is one of the main ways the plant colonises new ground. In my family we have a dense lot of bramble at the back of the garden which, traditionally, my mother picks for fruit and freezes through the winter. Blackberries work wonderfully in pies, their bloody juices swamping the mixture of apples and sugar, colouring the innards a fantastic pink.

In the open and wild landscape of woodland bramble can be invasive, encroaching on grassland, rides and glades until wildflowers are shaded-out. A happy medium can be drawn by the technique of ‘scalloping’ along pathways and rides or in glades. This can be achieved with a grass hook or slasher, or else with the petrol power of a brushcutter. By cutting messy semi-circles into the shrub layer the bramble is pushed back, but not completely, and hopefully wild flowers will thrive with the new light which reaches the soil. The biodiversity is improved all round. In the autumn we brushcut the woodland ride of Cox’s Walk in Sydenham Hill Wood and the next day I accidentally flushed a green woodpecker (Picus viridis) which was feeding on insects in the newly cut scallop.

In the summer months bramble is a good place to spot butterflies. Comma (Polygonia c-album) and red admiral (Vanessa atalanta) can lay their eggs on bramble, and speckled wood (Parage aegaria) is commonly seen sunning its brown wings on a bramble leaf. Last year on Cox’s Walk we found a dying purple hairstreak (Quercusia quercus) amongst bramble, a butterfly which is tied to oaks (hence its Latin name) and should really have been ferrying between the canopy above. Bramble is not a good sign for wildflowers in woodland because it points to nitrogen-rich soil which promotes common nettle (Urtica dioica) more than anything.

However, the problem with labelling plants as wholly good or bad was emphasised to me recently when a group of teenage volunteers were working in One Tree Hill to push back the bramble from the acid grassland patch. They did an excellent job and opened up a patch which will hopefully be reclaimed by a diverse array of acid grassland flora in the growing season. But as we enjoyed a break, we glimpsed a small mammal, possibly a wood mouse, but small enough to be a harvest mouse, climbing through the last line of bramble. The red bramble leaves were frost-covered. This beautiful mixture of ice and vibrant colouring, and the tiny creature escaping to safety made me wince at the thought: bramble, good or bad?


Holly blue

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

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