This April has turned out to be exceptionally dry and the boggy tracks have been quickly transformed into hardened passageways. When one is walking through quagmires in mid-winter it is hard to imagine that the soil will ever dry out. Coupled with the dry weather it has been cold, snow fell and briefly settled on the 12th April and bitter north-eastern winds have kept temperatures low, with frosts at night being a problem for gardeners.
Despite this the wildflowers seem to follow their own pattern. Woodland flowers that started coming out in March really come into their own. The woodland floors have been covered with Wood Anemones, Dog’s Myrtle, and, of course, the Bluebells. These plants are all shade tolerant and tend to be competitive, vying for greater ground cover. The reason this is important to a species growing in a woodland at this time of year when insect populations are still low is that pollinators will be more willing to come to a place where there is an abundance of pollen. As the year goes on and insect numbers rise this becomes less important to field plants and thus we don’t get the blankets of flowers typical of spring. I just love the logic of nature! Many of our local woods have beautiful displays of spring flowers and most Ewhurst residents will have admired the sweep of Wood Anemones and Bluebells that can be observed in Canfold Wood, as you travel from the village to Cranleigh. The number of ancient woods in the region provide ideal habitats but there is a danger that plants like the Bluebell may lose out to more vigorous competitors and I have seen that in the Cobbler’s Brook wood bramble seems to be swamping the Bluebells, which struggle to hold their own and elsewhere, in the Gull’s Isle Wood for example, Dog’s Myrtle suffocates them. It is difficult to manage woodland to avoid this happening but a return to more coppicing may help balance things. This allows more light into the wood and creates glades: it is interesting that woodland plants have different tolerances, as the German ecologist Heinz Ellenberg has shown. Ellenberg’s scale puts plants like Dog’s Myrtle in a low light category. This means that it will grow under dense cover, whilst bluebells and wood anemones would be placed in a higher light category.
By a strange serendipity I discovered a passage in a recent book that echoed a developing interest of mine:
As the year progressed, I followed the badger tracks that crossed the woods, cutting through the clouds of bluebells, the forests of ferns and nettles, the clumps of bramble, on tracks that barrelled through the bracken, bust under fences and burrowed through hedges. Every now and then the paths would lead me to their homes, large mounds of greenish chalk, clannish compounds, like Iron Age Forts, some of which were inhabited, some of which were empty.The Book of Trespass, by Nick Hayes
Following the tracks badgers make is to trace routes which may have been used for countless years and can lead to remote wilderness. As I have noted many times we live in an area where badgers patrol with frequency and networks of their paths and evidence of their presence can be seen everywhere. Nick Hayes’s evocative account makes clear that human boundaries mean nothing to badgers, which is rather the point of his book. He returns to his home village, stays at his childhood home and sets out to rediscover his old haunts, finding special places as he does so. It is when he returns with his mother to a habitat where he has spotted a kingfisher that he is rudely challenged by a landowner who accuses them of trespassing. Complying, he leaves but the seed of his quest has been sown and his book explores the injustices of land-holding.
As I have wandered in the last year I have been struck by differences in attitude: there are those wealthy landowners who will seemingly do anything to keep people off their land, with threatening signs, CCTV cameras and barbed wire on fences; whilst others allow right of access to areas which villagers and others can enjoy. A good case of the latter is the circuit through the Cobbler’s Brook Wood, where the only, totally reasonable, sign asks that dog owners deal with dog poo. As far as I can see the public respond well to this and there is virtually no litter and a lovely place is enjoyed by many. By contrast on the other side of the main footpath an area of woodland, wayside and field was fenced off a few years ago, with menacing barbed wire and locked gates. This countryside has not been used for anything since this “enclosure”: no animals, no crops, no activities. This was a popular spot for walkers, who again did no harm to the environment and were deprived of this for no other reason than the fact the land was owned by one individual. It is a common pattern over the country as a whole and raises many questions, which have roots in history.
I think youngsters raised in the countryside have an instinctive urge to explore the forbidden and I can remember the thrill of trespass when I was a child. We would creep into the overgrown gardens of derelict mansions and then climb the rickety stairs of these grand houses, imagining what they were like in their heydays and we would seek out grounds where “Private Property” acted as an inducement to cross over forbidden boundaries. Somehow this need for transgression is deeply embedded in the psyche and never leaves; I look at the signs as an old man and still want to break the bounds.