I’ve been looking at beech woods with a changed eye since reading Richard Mabey on the subject. He grew up in the Chilterns beech woods and I’m learning with him to recognise the grandeur of each tree as an individual organism. Beech casts a particularly dense, cool shade, which this heat shy and sunburn prone ecologist appreciates. And in the dark realm of the beech wood there is more life than I used to suspect*, albeit especially where fallen trees let in light and allow understory shrubs and ash saplings to flourish. Knowl and Ashley hills, northeast of where I live in Twyford, Berkshire, are southern outliers to the main Chiltern ridges. They’re stuck out on their own, south of the Thames, but the flora and feel is similar. That’s especially true of the beech dominated woods on the northeast side of Knowl Hill, an area denoted on the map as Clayton Park.
Early one day this week I left the commuter belt behind with a few short steps, and ventured into the shade of beech. A few paces into the wood I saw ahead what looked like a very big animal indeed. A dark, muscular creature with erect pointy ears and a blunt snout. As I cautiously moved closer it shifted shape. First a big deer, then something more cat-like. Now an enormous wolf, now a black bear, and now a fallen log. As much a ‘living’ thing as any mammal, a piece of dead wood may be stationary but its one true form conceals myriad others, brought to life by shifts in light, perspective and mood. That such a sizeable one has been left in-situ to decay, feeding new life back into the wood, suggests that Clayton Park is appropriately and admirably neglected.
I’d intended to go out around sunset, but time ran away from me and I ended up on an enforced night-walk: no bad thing. The usual advice for walking in the dark is to carry no torch – or at least not to use it unless absolutely necessary – and let your eyes adjust to the low light levels. Usually I agree that this is the best way to experience the night, and I should have had no need of a torch, given that plenty of light remained gathered on the western horizon. Not to mention the unnatural orange wash from streetlamps on the main road, a short distance away.
On this occasion I was hunting for invertebrates, and went equipped accordingly. Path, fence, wall and tree trunk in turn fell under the narrow but powerful beam of an LED head-torch. A dark spider scurried away into a crack, walking as only a spider can. A slate grey woodlouse – chunky, segmented, steeply domed – froze in the sudden glare, halfway up the wall of a garage. I turned, and something fluttered close to my face. Then another, bouncing off my head-torch with an audible thud and away over the small patch of pointlessly ornamental grass next to our flat. Sweeping back and forth I picked out two or three more, or the same ones again: ghostly, yellowish blurs of wings, invisible until lit by the beam.
Suddenly a brimstone moth was perching on the sleeve of my jacket. I didn’t see it land, it just materialised. A beautiful highlighter-yellow delta-wing, with a row of chestnut brown blotches on the leading edge each side, the middle one adjoined to a half-closed silver eye. Just as soon as I had taken in those details it was off again, once more a formless blur of flight. These fragments of colour are common in the seemingly colourless dim of spring and early summer nights, ushering in mild nights as surely as the brimstone butterfly promises warm days.
May is a generous month. Giver her the slightest opening and she opens like a single magnificent bloom, vibrant, rich and sweet-smelling. It’s a time of year that plays havoc with a naturalist’s schedule, for we can’t walk for as much as a minute without being waylaid by something wonderful. Last week the 10-minute tramp to my old haunts – through the Wilderness, down Beech Lane and round Maiden Erlegh Lake – took closer to half an hour, seconds turning to minutes whilst I stopped to admire the abstract splashes of various spring flowers unfolding in every rough patch, moving in closer to inspect flower heads for the presence of beetles.
This morning I set out to hear nightingales. And I did, two of them – one distant, the other ear-splittingly loud from somewhere unseen in a patch of dense scrub. Whilst I listened, I sat in the long grass and noted down a few other observations. Bee flies, holly blue, red-headed cardinal beetle, banded demoiselle. Orange-tip, peacock, blue-tailed damselfly, red-and-black froghopper, the last leaping away from my fingertip with a click. Around me, a spectacular dock-beetle city. Flashes of emerald-bronze reflected from their rounded wing-cases as they trundled about seeking mates, the females hugely gravid. I inadvertently brushed a few of their eggs off the back of a leaf with my finger, soft orange capsules like elongated jelly beans.
It was much like our visit to a beer festival earlier in the weekend. The atmosphere was relaxed, but time at the bar lay inevitably before me. I had to drink it all in whilst I could. I ambled further, noticing happily that the team at Dinton Pastures had only trimmed the very edges of the paths and allowed broad strips of verdant wild ‘weeds’ to grow free. As it should be, for this is the truth of what we call biodiversity: Darwin’s tangled bank and its attending endless forms are right here at our feet. They’re on the road verges and waysides, in the cracks in the pavement, in the scuffed and unloved places and the quiet and untrodden corners. The gloriously untidy and the richly alive.
Green dock beetle (Gastrophysa viridula)
Red-headed cardinal beetle (Pyrochroa serraticornis)
Leucozona lucorum, one of the most attractive spring hoverflies.
Red-and-back froghopper (Cercopis vulnerata)
Blue-tailed damselfly (Ischnura elegans)
Dock bug (Coreus marginatus)
Nursery web spider (Pisaura mirabilis)
Helophilus pendulus, sometimes known as The Sunfly or The Footballer
The River Loddon