Christmas has come early to Ruscombe. A five-foot Scots pine, inexpertly hacked off with a bow saw a few inches below the lowest branch, lies prostrate on the spare room bed, a plastic sheet beneath to catch the needles. All I need to do now is figure out how to keep it alive and green through December 25th and beyond. Felling the tree, and plenty more like it, was fun if bittersweet. I kept finding beautiful insects sheltering in the top buds of the tree, where I suppose they had been planning to overwinter, and I fully expect to find more crawling around our flat before too long.
Corizus hyoscyami was one, a smart red and black bug about 1cm long. It used to live exclusively near the coast but is now found inland as far north as Yorkshire, thanks to warmer winters enabling adults to survive well away from the mild sea air. Providing some oaf doesn’t turn up and lop off the branches they‘re sleeping in. Another, Nalassus laevioctostriatus, is a fairly common beetle, a gently rounded, dully shining creature that resembles a ground beetle until you see it attempt to run – it has none of the athletic prowess of the carabidae, and is actually related to mealworms (the ‘worms’ being the larvae of mealworm beetles).
We were at Bucklebury Common in Berkshire to clear young pine and silver birch from lowland heath. Left unattended, the heath would soon revert to scrub and eventually woodland, but it’s not necessarily that straightforward. Lowland heath is globally rare and for my money well worth having, but there are plenty of rare insects that quite enjoy the dynamics of advancing birch scrub. Leave too much of it intact, though, and the job of keeping the heathland clear is made more difficult.
Still, getting your hands dirty on behalf of the conservation choices we otherwise make only in theory feels good. And there are many ways in which staying in one place all day for a work party facilitates experiencing wildlife. Visiting the common solely for a walk, I doubt I’d have had the patience to stand in the cold long enough to notice the meadow pipit roost that built in numbers through the afternoon. Would I have spent quite as long on my knees among the fascinating, seething, dripping, decaying world of rotting wood and fungi in the nearby wood edge, enjoying the antics of woodlice and rove beetles and watching winter sunlight catch in dew drops?
Then, there are the Scots pines. They make a fine Christmas tree, more elegant and hardier than a Norway spruce. To find as near perfect a specimen as I could to take home, I wandered off from the group. Eventually I found the right tree. Almost but not quite symmetrical and pleasingly bushy, it was much less of a twig than our first tree, which we took home from Arne Heath two years ago (but oh how we loved that beautiful twig!). A short burst of sawing was all it took to separate the tree from the earth, the cut wood blackening from the heat of the blade.
A consumptive relationship with nature of this sort is unfashionable with many contemporary conservationists, but nearly every choice we make impacts nature in some way. I think it’s actually much healthier if that impact is something we can immediately touch and taste. And of course a pine cleared from a local heath is far more sustainable – and satisfying – than an intensively farmed, overpriced, commercial Christmas tree. Whenever I look at it, fairy lights twinkling amongst a jumble of treasured ornaments, I’ll hear distant echoes of woodlarks and nightjars and it will be a very merry Christmas indeed.