The Lek

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.

Further up the slope, at the edge of a band of younger growth, the full glare of the morning sun was focussed on a patch of bracken. It hummed and fizzed with the energy of a lek: 30 or 40 male hoverflies** engaged in a competition that’s every bit as dramatic as the more renowned gatherings of grouse. Each fly, holding steady on a leaf tip, would signal its readiness for battle with a high-pitched whine, the product of furious wing-vibrations too fast to see. The combined effect was much like a grid of high-performance racing cars waiting for the starting light.

Eventually one of the flies would break ranks and take off, and then another, and another, until the lek became a chain reaction and all participants leapt up to engage in a brief airborne struggle to re-establish a place in the hoverfly hierarchy.  What constitutes the best spot in which to whine and signal to females I’m not sure, but they were clearly jostling over something. I wondered how many still-slumbering inhabitants of the village below were aware of the wildlife drama unfolding just five minutes’ walk up the slope from their doorsteps.

*Much is very well hidden: for example the remarkable and enigmatic ghost orchid.

**genus Syrphus, species tricky to determine without at least a hand lens.

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