Two species of chestnuts are common in the UK. Sweet chestnuts are considered ‘honorary natives’, according to the Woodland Trust, since they’ve been here over 2000 years. Probably longer than most of my ancestors, so I think native seems a fair description. The Romans favoured chestnuts for the nutritious seed, of which more later. But it’s their ‘secondary’ use that I’ve noticed this year, finding huge blocks of woodland in Kent especially dominated by young coppiced chestnuts – an almost concrete-tough hardwood that sports almost unnaturally smooth, grey-brown bark when young.
Horse chestnuts followed just a few hundred years ago and swiftly became the tree of choice for grand, ornamental plantings. It’s easy to see why. A mature chestnut is a big, imposing, stolid organism, densely packed with long, pointed leaves. Their bulk offers both shade and, when planted in city parks, a visual counterweight to the otherwise complete dominance of manmade structures. Despite the much more recent establishment of horse chestnuts, these striking examples in Knole Park, Sevenoaks (pictured above), planted amongst the oaks, don’t seem to have harmed the park’s mix of birds. A flame-bright redstart was singing from the same line of trees when I walked beneath them on a warm afternoon in May – not a common species in Kent.
Trees. They’re everywhere, aren’t they? At least in my mid-latitude neck of the woods. Pun intended: it’s funny how trees have set their roots deep into everyday speech. One can bark up the wrong tree, be stumped, felled, or uprooted, branch out, or be unable to see the wood for the trees. Maybe we’re all enchanted by distant folk memories of the legendary ‘wildwood’, home of bears and beavers, wolves and witches, and said to have once stretched from Land’s End to John O’Groats. In real-time it’s long gone, of course, if it ever existed to quite that extent. Trees have stayed with us, though – and the creatures that depend on them. In the long centuries since the primeval forests of Europe receded, many of these woodland species have evolved to depend on the way forests have traditionally been managed by man. And although forests cover only around 12% of the UK land surface, globally speaking a pitifully small proportion, that’s still higher than it has been in some years. Plenty of places which could still potentially harbour woodland specialists, then, even in built-up Blighty – so what’s the problem?
Well, unfortunately the post-wildwood, post human invasion equilibrium is vanishing, for a vast array of reasons, and at a much faster rate than its ancient predecessor: leaving woodland creatures facing a similar conundrum to that brought by climate change. That is, species and ecosystems will always adapt to changing conditions, but the simply staggering anthropically enhanced rates of change being flung at them are just too much. Total woodland cover only tells you so much, I’m afraid, and conceals many a sorry tale of habitat loss, neglect, and unchecked plagues of deer. It’s fair to say that many of Britain’s woods are not in great shape.
White van man.
A familiar feeling, this. Another pair of walking boots worn beyond all recognition, another vehicle littered with clumps of mud, vegetation and cookie crumbs*, and me bruised, blistered and bitten. Very bitten. Though I think the blistering at least was as much from using the spectacularly underpowered vacuum at the petrol station to clean the van as from roaming the woods for four months. Yes, for the last four months I’ve been back on the trail of woodland birds, employed by the RSPB as a research assistant. Finishing said contract has, appropriately, taken up much of my time for the last month, which explains my temporary absence from the ‘blogosphere’
After all this time, I feel like I may have a lot to say. But I won’t try and cover it all at once, for fear of reaching the end of your no doubt already tested to the limits attention span (no offence!). For example, on the occasion of last year’s retreat inside I flopped down in front of the computer and wrote 917 words. 917 words to say ‘I’ve finished with fieldwork for the summer’ – in other words, I could have lost 910 words with no discernible difference to the meaning of the post. Mostly because as usual I swamped the relevant stuff in a sea of prose with a distinctly mauve-edged tone, and embedded it within paragraph after paragraph of entirely unrelated information and anecdotes.
I’m doing it again, aren’t I?
So I’ll cut to the chase. I’m back, and so too, shortly, will be Considering Birds – faster, leaner, and stronger, as befits this Olympic year. And this time, somewhat sadly, I’ve had to turn over the data I collected and won’t have anything much to do with the analysis. So I have a little more free time on my hands to figure out what happens next than I did last August – a daunting prospect, but I’m looking forward to a few sunny afternoons out gathering inspiration for a veritable blogging frenzy. Which I’m looking forward to – I hope somebody else is too!
*I must add that this one was returned in tip-top(ish) condition, since it wasn’t mine. My white van man days are over, alas.