Saturday, December 22, 2007

Hargate Forest near Tunbridge Wells

On 20 December I walked in the frost in Hargate Forest south east of Tunbridge Wells. It is an extensive area of pine, broad-leaved wood and heath with some valley mires, streams and a gill. Well worth a visit at any time of year and free access as it belongs to the Woodland Trust.

The top picture is of a place called 'Butterfly Corner' as grizzled and dingy skippers are found here (in warmer weather).

The moss is blunt-leaved bog moss (Sphagnum palustre), very distinctive in winter due to its dark antheridia like the central boss of a flower. It is one of commonest bog-mosses in the Weald, but less and less of the wet woodland habitat it likes.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Midwinter in Brede High Wood, East Sussex

A fitting celebration of Midwinter's Day was a walk round Brede High Wood with two friends and a dog. It remains very cold and there was deep frost everywhere.

As in the carol there was plenty of holly and ivy and, at one place, we saw "the running of the deer" as half a dozen wine-grey fallow fled through the coppice. In some places there had been much turning over of the brown, fallen leaves and we thought this must have been wild boar looking for acorns where the ground was not hard frozen.

Yesterday the final document was signed and the northern part of the High Wood transferred from Southern Water to The Woodland Trust, a move that should secure a well-managed future.

Over the centuries the wood has been used to fuel the iron furnaces and gunpowder mills; it has been divided up into farms; turned into a reservoir catchment area and planted for commercial forestry. Now it will be managed as a public amenity and for its wildlife - a new career, though there is no going back to the original wildwood, especially as we are not at all sure what this was actually like.

Managing for conservation is an anthropocentric activity and there is tension between the aesthetic and the scientific approaches. It is all far less simple that the commercial and economic imperatives that determined the way in which woods like this were used in the past.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Frost on the sheep pasture

For the last week we have had heavier, deeper frosts than, it seems, for a long time and the idea that we will be having generally mild winters looks a bit shaky. The picture above is of the fields east of Sedlescombe church.

Here in Sussex this cold is brought on an easterly breeze from mainland Europe and it does make for some beautifully crisp walking days.

Today I was in Hargate Forest near Tunbridge Wells and the clear, cold air was exhilarating. Somehow I always think that these cold spells are good for invertebrates, but if there is an abundance next year I might simply be ascribing it to the wrong cause.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Holly cow!

This evening as the frost drew in again, there was a crashing and snapping in the hedge on the west of the garden. It was one of the bullocks in the next door field pushing through the hazel and thorn to browse on our green holly leaves.

Holly used to be an important fodder crop and there are still a few remaining wood pastures known as 'hollins' dotted about the British Isles, mainly in the north, though the famous holly tops on Holmestone Beach near the Kent/Sussex border may be a hollin.

George Peterken (1981) in his Woodland Conservation and Management says "Holly was once cultivated as a source of winter feed for livestock". He says further "Since wood pasture was fundamentlally a system for reconciling the existence of trees and grazing animals on the same ground, it is legitimate to regard hedges and hedgerow trees and surrounding pasture fields as a form of wood pasture."

As wood pasture is a UK HAP Priority Habitat I shall never look at our front hedge in the same way again.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Of no ecological worth?

A small piece of Sussex that has been deemed by 'ecologists' to be of no wildlife value and therefore a good place on which to build a few houses.

Well, people do have to live somewhere and I find it difficult to decide where the balance of virtue lies. I suppose I want the best of all possible worlds: people with the homes they want and need and plenty of space for wildlife. Maybe we should all become smaller - a good project for the genetic engineers. Roll on Lilliputia.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

Broadwater Warren

It is July already and it warm among the heaths, pines and bogs of Broadwater Warren near Tunbridge Wells.

One afternoon I found this pine tree embraced by a silver birch: a remarkable instance of a plant's tenacity. I suppose if the pine were felled, and the birch with it, the latter might send up coppice shoots and survive, while the pine would not.

Later I explored the peaty pools near Broadwater Bridge. Black and stagnant with bright green borders of sphagnum moss and areas of tussock sedge (the plant in the picture), they give a feel of what the Weald woodlands might have been like in the past.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) in flower

The flowering of the may is, to some pagans, a signal that Beltane has arrived, that summer has started. I like this as starting summer at Midsummer on 21 June seems rather odd.

So I offer you the hawthorn flowers photographed on May Day, 1 May, in Brickwall Deer Park, East Sussex, England.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Wild cherry flowers (Prunus avium)

The wild cherries are flowering with particular magnificence this year in the Sussex countryside. They seem especially fine probably because it has been warm and sunny and there has been little rain or wind to shatter the blossom.

Their flowering gives the best of excuses to post A E Housman's poem:

LOVELIEST of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Tawny mining bee (Andrena fulva)

Today I was sitting in the sunshine in our garden in East Sussex when I noticed a bee visiting the flowers of wood spurge (Euphorbia amygdaloides): a striking contrast between lime green and auburn.

With its bright orange top and black underside it is easily determined as a tawny mining bee, a species I have not seen in the garden before, though it is common enough in England. Sometimes known as the 'lawn bee', the female digs holes like small volcanoes in short grass areas for her brood.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis) in Hastings

In Victoria Road in the Ore area of Hastings, East Sussex, I came across this splendid plant of bear's breeches (Acanthus mollis).

The plant appeared to be self-sown and is clearly in abundant health.

Bear's breeches is a Mediterranean plant whose leaves, or that of Acanthus spinosa, are often considered to source of the acanthus leaf designs on architecture and furniture. Although an alien - it looks like an alien too - it is naturalised in parts of the West Country and judging by vigour of the plant above it might be about to start doing well in Sussex.

Why the plant is called 'bear's breech' I have been unable to discover: others may be able to enlighten me.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Ants (Formica rufa) gathering sunshine

I was in Broadwater Forest, just south of Tunbridge Wells (and just in East Sussex) on a beautiful spring-like day earlier this week. One very striking feature was the huge wood ants (Formica rufa) nests that are common along most of the rides.

The warm sunshine had brought the ants out into the open but, instead of running allover the nest and everywhere else as they usually do, they were clustered tightly together in dark patches around the nest entrances. As they were not engaged in any food gathering activity, it would seem this behaviour was simply to warm themselves up before going back into the dark. Maybe they take a little heat indoors with them; maybe, like some humans, they enjoy sunbathing; or maybe they are unaware that the sunlight if February is likely to be of short duration.

John Pontin in his excellent book The Ants of Surrey (2005) says the insulation provided by the nests "retains the metabolic heat of the ants' activity", so perhaps they are gathering sunshine.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Maidenhair spleenwort (Asplenium trichomanes)

Walking up Battle Road in Hastings the other day I came across a brick wall with many ferns in the mortar. There was the one above, maidenhair spleenwort, as well as hart's-tongue and black spleenwort.

Ferns like this are not all that common in walls beside busy roads in urban areas and I suspect there is something very fern-friendly in the mortar of this particular wall. Often it is that the cement is lime mortar rather than modern cement, but this wall does not really look old enough.

Anyway, long may they flourish.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Two galls (Andricus aries and A. lignicola)

Today I found two galls, the cola nut gall (Andricus lignicola) and the ram's horn gall (Andricus aries) on the same oak twig on the Pestalozzi Estate here in Sedlescombe. The ram's horn gall (fairly obviously) is the upper one.

The ram's horn
was first recorded in Britain from Parliament Hill, London in 1998 and has since been seen in Kent, Surrey, Essex and Berkshire, so it appears to be spreading rapidly. It was first found in Sussex (so far as I know) in 2001. Elsewhere it occurs in mainland Europe, but does not seem all that common.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Cola nut galls (Andricus lignicola)

In a scrubby field in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex I found these cola nut galls (Andricus lignicola) yesterday growing on some young oak trees. The trees were most probably the hybrid (Quercus x rosacea) between pedunculate oak (Quercus robur) and sessile oak (Quercus petraea), not that I think this is of any significance so far as the galls are concerned.

They are caused by a small wasp and chemicals injected by the female at egg-laying time induce the galls to form, thus providing food for the larvae. The cola nut is a plant from tropical Africa and there is only a very superficial resemblance between it and these galls.

Although described as widespread and common, I have been unable to find any earlier Sussex records and, though seemingly not so frequent as the marble gall, I am sure it is overlooked rather than rare.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Wall screw-moss (Tortula muralis) in Hastings

I came across this small desert on top of the wall of the bridge that carries Linton Road across Braybrooke Terrace (where the cars below are parked) in Hastings today.

I have watched plants like this colonise bare stone. Often they start as the tiniest pieces along a seam or crack that retains a little more water than areas nearby, then spread out over a few years to form small cushions. Eventually they may join up and make a thin layer of soil where vascular plants can get a foothold and in no time at all you have a forest.

The cushions even at the stage they are at in the picture are often well populated with fauna such as springtails, nematodes, black fungus gnat larvae and the larvae of the parthenogenetic midge Bryophaenocladius furcatus. All these must be able to withstand long periods of desiccation when the moss cushions dry up in summer.

I have been reading Animate Earth by Stephan Harding (2006) and the following passage on life during interglacial periods seemed to be illustrated by these mosses: "Plants grow well in the new high carbon dioxide atmosphere. They send their roots deep in search of nutrients, cracking open rocks with sheer brute force and with the subtle but relentless dissolving powers of their acidic chemical exudations. One can almost hear the gentle grinding noise of the increased weathering as plants all over the planet pummel and pulverize the rock, releasing nutrients on a scale unknown during the time of ice. Myriads of phosphorus, iron, silicon, calcium atoms are captured by plant roots to be sucked up into the growing green biosphere which, in its heedles growth, draws out more and more carbon dioxide from the atmosphere."