One More Chance

Note this was not taken this weekend! The smattering of snow on the ground is the clue to that. I have taken oddly few pictures at Otmoor, or at least, I can’t find many.

Between October 2010 and April 2011 I spent perhaps 100 hours in all at Otmoor, a low-key RSPB reserve tucked away in the Oxfordshire countryside. Yet so little time do us modern humans tend to spend in one place (other than our houses) that this felt like ample time for the big fields, big skies and calming stillness of Otmoor to work their way under my skin. The reserve and surrounding farmland are of course managed very carefully and deliberately to be the way they are, yet this careful stewardship, like all good landscape conservation, has created something of a wilderness atmosphere, in which it is possible to imagine that creatures other than us bumbling bipeds still hold sway.

Finding ourselves with reasons to wend Oxfordshire-way at the weekend, I felt it was high time I returned to this favourite haunt to see if it retained something of this wild magic. It had, of course, and I was not the only creature to have returned this winter. The fieldfares were back too, chack-chack-chacking as ever from hedgerow to hedgerow. Some distance from the hide the regular 200-300 lapwings rested, occasionally taking alarm and flocking into Otmoor’s big open spaces, row after row of those striking wide wings sculling at the sky, a few score of golden plover riding shotgun alongside. And despite those 100 hours under my belt, one more visit was all it took to add an overdue species to my Otmoor list in the shape of a hen harrier, which hung elusively around far corners of the reserve throughout the afternoon. Modest improvements in the ‘visitor experience’ were interesting to note too: a fetching new feeding station constructed out of trees, rather than the old rusting metal contraptions, and a fittingly winding path through the berry- (and therefore thrush-) laden carpark field.

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A Toodle in Tudeley

Before doing anything less fun, it’s normally my policy to go birding. What better way to arrive relaxed and clear-minded? And last Wednesday I couldn’t have chosen a much better place to indulge in peaceful contemplation of nature than Tudeley Woods RSPB reserve, near Tunbridge Wells inKent. So peaceful, even the birds didn’t disturb it much. For once, it didn’t matter. Let me explain. For Tudeley woods is one example of a special sort of place.

 Very often a bird-free stroll through the countryside is quite depressing – emptied of its most charismatic inhabitants, you wonder what hope there is for this patch of land, what chance it could ever resemble anything more than a shadow of past life, or a carefully swept factory floor. Not so here. What birds I did see were members not of a valiant last stand, as normal, but the advance party. Startled by a drumming great-spotted woodpecker, I heard in it the rap of a military snare, drumming the assembled unseen avifauna to the season’s work, soon to fill the canopy with song. If I’d arrived at dawn, I daresay I would have heard some. At a sometimes cloud-obscured noon, the tide of life had not yet completely taken the dark valleys of the wood back from winter, and even my friends the marsh tits were reticent, but evidence of what was to come was everywhere:  bees, bumble and solitary, dozily remembered flight paths from the spring before; a solitary primrose lit up the path. Shoots of green decorated the leaf litter. Tudeley is a good place for wildlife.

And how is it so? A criticism of the RSPB that you might hear in the ‘deep countryside’, if you listen and read between the lines, is that it tramples on tradition, ignoring time-honoured modes of rural life in favour of its own new-fangled ideas, imposed disastrously by non-native do-gooder tree hugging conservationists.  A picture which evaporates not far into a walk in these RSPB-managed woods: dense, extensive coppice surrounds you at first, before breaking out into open, varied, managed woodland. There’s even a decently sized area of newly felled trees, stacked in neat pyramids, no doubt full of potential at the hands of somebody more skilled in woodcraft than I (not difficult, I assure you). Rounding a bend you may even notice an old fashioned charcoal burner.

I walked the woods in 2012, but it might have been 1912, or even 1812. True, many corners of the reserve are not as they once were (the usual ill-imposed conifer plantations see to that) but the heart of the woods are managed this way because it’s good for the wildlife that lives there. This, for me, is the very best kind of tradition – the old practices are maintained here not for the sake of them, but because in this place and at this time they still work. After all, one of the keys to successful conservation is to respect the spirit of the place you are working with. Tudeley nestles happily into the glorious Wealden countryside that surrounds it: woods, meadow, coppice and heath giving way to sheep-grazed pasture, parkland, and standard-issue quaint English villages. It’s a beautiful piece of landscape stitching: no seams in sight. Subtle, respectful conservation. A good place for people.

 Such a good place, in fact, that my initial two-mile walk took the best part of two hours to complete. I only managed to see, at most, half of the reserve. So after taking care of dull shopping-related business, I headed right back to the woods to ‘finish it off’. South of the carpark, pine plantations stretch down the hill, now bisected by regenerating heath that accompanies the path on either side. In sandy outcrops, wood ants had their burrows, and periodically paused in their daily exertions to turn and threaten this mysterious bipedal invader of their realm:

Terrifying, I tell you.

 Moving swiftly on from the ants, the conifers gave way once more to thin coppiced hazel studded with ancient oaks, and then birch scrub, surrounding a small pond. A lone chiffchaff called gently from somewhere in the thick of the wispy branches that overhung the water, still refusing to sing for me. I reached the edge of the restored heathland proper, where I hoped to at least hear a woodlark sing: a resident bird, and generally an earlier starter, heard singing as early as February. But I’d bitten off more reserve than my boots could chew their moderately muddy way through: Tudeley is actually quite big. Disappointed not to have time to make a more thorough search, but nonetheless running out of light, I turned back. And almost immediately I heard it – a distant descending run of notes, on the edge of hearing, but unmistakeably a woodlark. My steps more hurried, I headed back up the hill, the lark’s song rising in volume and fervour all the while, before seeing, ahead on the left, an open area of rough pasture and gorse heath I’d not noticed coming the other way. Above it the woodlark sang.

 Excuse the bad poetry. But it felt as though the sleeping heart of the landscape had found its voice; the powerful notes of the woodlark painted each corner of it into life – illuminating the purpose of these quiet, new-old reserves even more clearly than before.  No amount of environmentally sound agriculture or landscape-scale conservation, however important, will ever quite replace the value to nature of some places being set aside, where the needs of wildlife trump all others*.

 Besides, it’s not just wildlife that benefits. By opening special places up to the layman, the likes of you or I, reserves democratize nature.  As the RSPB’s compact mission statement suggests, nature reserves are as much for people as they are for birds**. The woodlarks sing over private land, farm field edges even – as my heart leapt to hear last May in north east Hampshire. They live where they can, and don’t care who is or is not listening. But walking and working in places where public access is usually restricted, even with the owner’s permission, one never quite feels at home. Give me a well-laid path, a carefully-planned vista, one that doesn’t detract from the wildness of the place but draws you deeper into it. Give me a sense of ownership, of belonging, of freedom. Give me a signpost that welcomes my presence and invites me in, not shuts me out.*** Call me a Marxist if you like (my wife does), but I think the countryside belongs to all of us, not just those who by accident of wealth or history have a piece of paper to prove it.

I’m aware that not everybody is careful, and respectful. That access causes its own problems. Indeed, the carpark at Tudeley is currently closed due to misuse. There are some sad, ignorant people in the world. And where trampling feet would cause real damage to a species barely clinging on inBritain, or the nefarious actions of a criminal minority are a threat, yes, judicious access restrictions are required. But if we save wildlife only to cut people off from it completely in the process, what will we have achieved? Nothing, I reckon, for without the inspiration of a welcoming, inspiring place that is a sanctuary for both wildlife and people, not enough of us will lift a finger to make it happen in the first place. As I left the woods, I bumped into the warden, who said that ‘we want people to come’. For which I commend him absolutely, and encourage you to go. Even if you don’t see many birds, you’ll have a thoroughly uplifting time.

Nature reserves. Wildlife's churches?

*Even so, no reserve is an island, and Tudeley Woods is not immune to wider problems.Willowtits were not found here last year, I’m told (they can be elusive, but it’s not a good sign), even though the habitat, to my semi-trained eyes, looks excellent for them.

**Increasingly birds are not the only target. 1000 species of fungi, 400 of moth have been found within Tudeley Woods. I’d say that’s quite impressive. Or how about the 20,000 (I think) species of plant and animal found at Abernethey inScotland?

***One you often see in the countryside reads ‘Conservation Area – Keep Out’. It should be regarded as oxymoronic. Or perhaps just moronic.   

The Sprawl

Every time I visit the USA, I notice a fresh installment of alien objects – lumpen, ungainly clapboard boxes dropped into the landscape, scattering trees and pasture in their wake. Surrounded by a lurid green expanse of ‘lawn’, broken only by ribbons of fresh tarmac driveways, and nary a tree or shrub in sight. Apparently these are houses, and people choose to live in them – at $500,000 a time and upwards. Though, who in near recession ridden 2011 can possibly afford such an asking price? If this is the best way to fix ailing Western economies, then I’m a dodo.

This is, of course, bad news for birds. Bad news for just about every species, us included, with the possible exception of a few grasses – not that they ever get to fulfill their true potential, grow tall, and go to seed.  But for birds in particular it is very bad news, because to borrow a phrase from a book I read this week (‘Silence of the Songbirds’ by Bridget Stutchbury), ‘Birds need neighbourhoods’. Habitat fragmentation has moved beyond ecological theory and into the realms of fact – result after result has been published showing that, on the whole, forest specialist birds like unbroken tracts of forest, not patchy unhelpful little pieces divided by our sterile non-neighbourhoods.

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