November in the Forest
The shortening of the days and the colder temperatures seem to be harder to bear this year: maybe because we had such a long and warm summer and I am never satisfied! Of course, in this very strange pandemic year, the future months can look both limiting and threatening. The oncoming winter season need not be gloomy though, it just needs more determination to get out of doors and more imagination to find projects and hobbies (devalued word!) to satisfy our need to create and accomplish.
This time of year is ideal for collecting natural treasures from our forays outside. The last of the autumn leaves are still on the trees or underfoot, still crisp and dry. I can’t resist them, and take them home to press under heavy books between sheets of absorbent paper. They can be mounted to make pictures or used to create greetings cards, or if you have access to a laminator there are many possibilities: mobiles, window decorations, table mats….
Evergreen trees begin to take prominence in the forest now. I generally have a preference for ‘the natives’ but the conifers introduced by the Forestry Commission when they purchased tracts of forest in the 1925 have their place too. The New Parks area of the Wyre is the well-known hub of visitor facilities and has plantations of Douglas Fir, European Larch, Corsican Pine, Scots Pine and Hemlock. All of these are cone bearers, cones being the seed-bearing structures of the tree. Their various shapes and sizes are a key constituent for Christmas wreaths and table decorations but even if you don’t intend to make any of those, take time to look at them – they are wonders of practical design! The seeds are tightly-enclosed in cold, wet weather but fall out (or get eaten) when the woody scales open in the dry.
There is a charming story attached to the cones of the Douglas Fir which, incidentally, helps me to identify the tree. It is attributed to the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest of America and varies slightly in its re-telling, but here goes!
A long time ago there was a great forest fire. The wild creatures ran to escape the flames but the mice were unable to run fast enough and asked the trees of the forest for help. The maple and red cedar were unable to help but the Douglas Fir told the mice to climb its tall, fire-resistant trunks and hide in its fir cones until the danger was past. The mice hid between the scales with only their back feet and tails sticking out, and if you look at a Douglas Fir cone you can still see them today!
October in the Forest
When you are walking out in the forest do you ever get the feeling that you are being watched? The Fallow Deer are such experts at blending in to their background that it is almost impossible to see them before they see you. We often give ourselves away by the noise we make too – I’m usually saying something like, “We haven’t seen any deer around here for a while” just before I spot them! The photo shows a young male, a pricket, caught on camera by Mick Farmer among some birch trees, for which his dark winter coat provided poor camouflage. I’m not certain but he may be one of Wyre’s black deer which make up about 40% of the herd.
This month is the beginning of the rutting season, when mature males are far from quiet and elusive. The two sexes spend most of the year in separate herds but from late August rising levels of testosterone in the bucks cause a change of behaviour, and they return to traditional rutting grounds in the heart of the forest. They trample and urinate on the soil then lie down in it, presumably to enhance their appeal to the does, which are attracted by their loud, groaning calls. Rival males are seen off and challengers may be taken on in combat to win the right to mate with the assembled harem. Deer are very sensitive to disturbance at this important time and will often wait for nightfall to mate. In November the rutting season will have passed and the two sexes will separate again. The bucks will take some time to recover and need to build themselves up with high energy food such as acorns and beech mast: indeed some of the older bucks will die at this stage of the year.
Deer are frequent visitors to our farm – each morning shows their droppings scattered in the farmyard and the fields unprotected by deer fencing. One of the advantages of my erratic sleeping pattern is that I sometimes indulge in night-time or dawn forays into the garden, and on more than one occasion have heard munching coming from the other side of the fence. Fortunately the days when they could get inside the garden have gone. If you ask me for a list of garden plants that are ‘deer proof’ the answer is easy – I haven’t found one that they aren’t willing to try!
September in the Forest
‘Most people think I’m completely bonkers,
A grown woman stopping to pick up conkers’
I may not win any poetry prizes for that one. I love the sheen and rich colours of conkers and I suspect they’ll be ripening early this year. I’m glad to say that local children still seem to know the locations of good Horse Chestnut trees and I hope still know how to play ‘conkers’ (after writing their risk assessments). I also note the positions of Sweet Chestnuts in the forest and surrounding woodlands because I enjoy roast chestnuts. There are some on the Iron Age fort in Trimpley Woods – the rest you’ll have to find for yourselves!
The bilberries ripened in July, the blackberries and damsons in August and this month we can look forward to rowan berries, sloes, crab apples and perhaps any ripe hazelnuts that have escaped the squirrels. Apple trees are few and far between in the Wyre Forest and most will be ‘wildings’ which have grown from discarded pips (an interesting connection with travellers of the past). They may have a wide variety of characteristics, while the true wild crab apple, Malus sylvestris, is a round-headed tree often with rather spiny twigs and small, tart green fruits. The latter are so rich in pectin that a few added to a fruit jam will ensure a good set.
Apples and other top fruits are enjoyed by a host of wildlife, especially birds such as Blackbirds, Missel Thrushes and Jays. When they start to rot (perhaps after a peck from one of these) they attract wasps, flies and butterflies. Hornets are amongst those enjoying the feast, and are a very good reason to be careful when apple-picking! Although they are huge (up to 3.5cm long) and intimidating-looking, I admire them. They sometimes find their way into the house and I can usually usher them out without any trouble. (The exception was when they built a nest in one of our fireplaces, but that’s another story!) Their natural homes are holes in trees and so it’s not surprising that they may choose to build in bird boxes or spaces in house walls. Their food consists of nectar, sap and fruit but they catch many invertebrates to feed to their larvae. Unlike the Asian Hornet, which preys on honey bees and other insects, they are almost wholly beneficial – a true friend to gardeners.
August in the Forest
On sunny days recently I have enjoyed watching the dragonflies darting over the pond.
There are two species that visit to hunt smaller flying prey and court their mates. The Broad-bodied libellula is the most frequent: the male with a broad blue abdomen, the female brown. I see the males more often, or maybe I should say ‘male’ as there will only be one in residence at one time and it will make sure it sees off any competitors. I accommodate it by offering a couple of twigs as perches at the edge of the pond – from these it can make its occasional sallies across the water. The female is brown and therefore less conspicuous to predators but her arrival will bring the male immediately to join her in flight. During mating (usually on a handy lily leaf) the male grasps the female with his tail just behind her head, and they will often fly off joined in that way while the female dips her tail in the water to lay her eggs on plants.
The larger and faster Southern Hawker dragonfly is often a slightly later arrival but one which one can’t fail to notice. It charges up and down the pond with wings going full tilt, and if another male or another species is around there will be an aerial altercation. If no female appears it will leave to try its luck at another woodland pool.
The nymphs that soon hatch from their eggs are initially quite tiny but they have a reputation as one of the fiercest hunters in the aquatic environment. They start with microscopic prey such as water fleas (Daphnia) and Cyclops and work their way up, stalking the unfortunate creatures then spearing them with a modified lower lip that shoots out from under their heads. After two or more years of this underwater tyranny they are ready to metamorphose into an adult: the nymph climbs the stem of an aquatic plant and once in the air the adult emerges through the split skin of the thorax. It then stays nearby for several hours while its wings extend and harden, enabling it to fly away leaving the empty skin of the nymph still clinging to the plant. This process sees it at its most vulnerable: one summer there was a canny Jay that staked out the ponds at the Forestry Commission’s Discovery Centre and caught all the adult dragonflies as they emerged. A scattering of large insect wings was all that was left.
July in the Forest
This is a great time of year for a dusk walk. It was always a popular event in the days when I was part of the team at the Forestry Commission’s Discovery Centre and two evening walks were organised to satisfy demand. I was reminded of this recently when I headed out of doors after 10 o’clock one evening to check whether I’d shut the greenhouse door and the deer-proof gates into the garden – an essential operation to prevent the destruction of my gardening efforts by our largest wild herbivores!
On that occasion my attention was caught unavoidably by the loud and strange noises coming from the nearby oaks. My best guess was that they were made by an owl, probably a young Tawny Owl. The source of the sounds started to move away from the house up the edge of the field and, as I followed, a second individual started to answer the first. They moved away into the trees of Lord’s Yard Coppice, still staying in touch vocally. (The species has a range of old names with many variations on ‘hoolet’ and ‘ullet’ but I particularly like the Shropshire name ‘gilly hooter’)
Then my torch picked up the reflection from the eyes of a Fallow doe which had been grazing in the field but which set off with a relaxed springing run when I continued towards it. It jumped the fence with ease and I went to check that our one and only orchid (a Common Spotted) hadn’t contributed to its supper.
Having checked the gates I returned to the house and paused to watch the bats circling the eaves, hunting their flying insect prey by echolocation. As well as the tiny Pipistrelles (Common or Soprano – I didn’t have a detector with me so couldn’t distinguish them by the frequency of their squeaks) there were larger bats: probably Long-eared Bats as shown in the photo. Their ears are almost as long as their bodies and are curled back or tucked under their wings when they are at rest. I’ve learnt from wildlifetrusts.org that ‘as well as hunting airborne insects, brown long-eared bats also fly slowly through foliage, picking insects directly from leaves; they eat large prey on perches, rather than in flight’. Anyway, we’re very pleased that they make their homes in our house, barns and old trees.
I stepped back into the brightly-lit house and left the nocturnal goings-on of the garden and woods – a mysterious world which we hardly ever appreciate or acknowledge.
June in the Forest
In recent weeks I’ve been taking regular walks in the forest, although not beyond a pretty small radius. One of the benefits is that I really notice the little details and the changes in the forest from one week to the next. The luminous leaves of the spring have darkened to a deeper green, the foliage giving cover to the Fallow Deer and reducing the sunlight to the ground-hugging plants.
I’m watching the little Bilberry bushes which, like almost everything else, flowered generously this spring, developing their purple fruits and noting the most promising clumps for picking in August. Could this be the year for a bilberry pie? Still on the fruit theme, we’re keeping an eye on the cherry orchard and have high hopes that next month may yield a crop for us to enjoy and even share. The blossom in April was a sight to behold and even the surviving centenarian trees set fruit to some extent. It all depends whether the Wood Pigeons and Mistle Thrushes leave any for us.
The tadpoles in the reservoir are growing their legs and form black shoals near the surface. Any day now the edges will be teeming with baby toads leaving the waters of their birth to take their chance in the wider world of the woods. Toads are much more tolerant of dry conditions than frogs and can make a good living eating slugs, worms, spiders, ants and other insects. They sometimes take up residence in gardens: what with fat adult toads lurking unexpectedly under stones or logs in the garden and tiny baby toads finding their way into piles of weeds waiting for the bonfire, my interactions with them have not always been happy.
The sounds of the forest develop too as the season progresses. We’ve lost the Cuckoo and the Garden Warbler is silent now, but the squeals of the Swallows ring out around the barns. Nesting sites are sometimes revealed by the squeaks of the nestlings when we pass close by and there is no doubt where the Greater Spotted Woodpeckers have built their nest in a dead cherry tree. The Green Woodpeckers may be nesting somewhere nearby too: we often see the adults picking up ants from the track or fields, and their loud laughing cry is the origin of their other name of Yaffle.
May in the Forest
The sun is shining, the apple blossom is out and I’ve seen 3 Slow Worms enjoying the heat under one of our pieces of corrugated iron down the track. I love May: it is spring and summer, with the freshness of one and the heat of the other. May takes the accelerating growth, warmth and day length of April and leaves it with a full complement of summer bird visitors joining the rest of our wildlife in the serious business of breeding. (By the way, the ‘mystery bird’ which delighted me with its trilling song all around our garden turned out not to be a rare summer visitor but a common Wren, singing its heart out in the effort to retain its territory and mate/mates).
This month is spectacularly marked by the arrival of Bluebells. They are predominantly woodland flowers and look delightful under a canopy of newly unfurled, bright green leaves of oak, beech or other deciduous trees. They have to flower, seed and replenish the energy stores of their bulbs before the shade becomes too dense. Consequently they won’t be found under evergreens, whether conifer, holly or yew, which never allow enough sunlight to reach the ground. They may enjoy a sunnier spot for a while after an area of forest has been cleared, as long as the woodland soil with its store of native plants is still there and the micro-climate remains sufficiently damp. They reproduce both by seed and multiplication of their bulbs. One of our regular magazines often carries an advertisement aimed at landowners which promises ‘excellent prices to thin out specified areas (of wild woodland plants) – very little disturbance caused’. I’m sure this can be done in a sustainable way, allowing the plants to replenish themselves, but I can’t help feeling concerned. The Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 made it illegal to uproot any wild plant without the landowner’s permission, but there is a great demand for wild flowers in gardens and amenity planting which may tempt woodland owners to let the diggers in. I hope you’ll enjoy the photo of Bluebells in the Wyre Forest (near Beaucastle in this case – thankyou Mick Farmer) and be able to experience the sight and smell of the flowers in a bluebell wood near you without disturbing them.
The Wild Garlic or Ramsons also burst into flower in lush, damp areas of woodland this month. The plant’s smell makes it easy to identify and it has become popular with foragers: picking the leaves in small quantities before the flowers open can give a delicious salad, wilted greens or pesto. But beware – the plant is poisonous to dogs and cats!
March in the Forest
The Wyre Forest is drained from west to east by the Dowles Brook, which in turn is fed by its smaller tributaries such as Bell Brook, running from its source near the A456 northwards through Uncllys Farm then on down a delightful little valley. (The photograph by Mick Farmer shows the waterfall on the brook.) Dotted around the nearby forest are freshwater pools sitting on impermeable clay and draining into the nearest downhill watercourse. Recently I have written about the ‘Slow the Flow’ scheme which delays the water in these upper catchments from joining the Dowles and Severn to help avoid destructive flooding.
I am one of the volunteers who wander the forest from February to April making note of the amount of frogspawn in these large and small pools. I was recruited to the team by Rosemary Winnall of the Wyre Forest Study Group, present organisers of the survey which began in 1988 under the auspices of the Nature Conservancy Council. Long term studies of this kind are extremely valuable, especially in view of likely climate change. The frogs are, in general, breeding successfully but we do notice that the pools gradually change over time, responding to local conditions, and can become less attractive to frogs and their tadpoles. To help this situation some of the ponds on Forestry Commission and Natural England (i.e. public) land will be managed by cutting back vegetation around their edges and also taking out some excess water plants. The wildlife in each pool will be monitored to see if these actions have the desired effect. As I am the kind of person who enjoys getting wet and muddy (but not cold) I hope I’ll be able to lend a hand with the work later in the year when the water warms up!
The other survey in which I will be involved this month is the deer census. On a couple of consecutive Saturdays about 30 volunteers will arrive in their allocated sections of forest before dawn and will comb the woodland noting any deer they encounter. The majority will be Fallow Deer but the little Muntjacss have shown a steady increase in numbers, to the annoyance of foresters whose young trees they like to chew. They are the size of a dog and bark like one too, and breed all year round unlike the Fallow does who produce a single fawn in June. At the collection point our survey results are rewarded with a hot cup of tea and a bacon sandwich. The privilege of experiencing a spring dawn in one of the best woodlands in England may only occur to me once I’ve enjoyed a hot bath at home.
February in the Forest
Spring has come! Well, let’s say that by mid-January there were plenty of signs that our wildlife was behaving as if the time had come to burst its buds, flower, mate or whatever seemed appropriate for spring. There were snowdrops and primroses in my garden, hazel catkins opening along the hedgerow and birds calling excitedly everywhere.
For several weeks now Tawny Owls have been hooting loudly nearby. The hoot is the true song of the bird but the female often answers with the sharp, ascending ‘whit-whit’ contact call. (The British Trust for Ornithology’s website has a ‘Learn about Owls’ page which, helpfully, has recordings of all the British owls.) They will already be nesting and may have eggs by the end of the month. Their natural nest site is a hollow tree but they will readily use a nest box with a large entrance hole (150mm or wider), at least 2.5 m high and with a clear flight path. A piece of dowel or branch attached to the side of the box makes a helpful perch for adults and fledgling young. Once the eggs are laid they are incubated one at a time, with food supply determining how many are hatched. One of my sources mentions grey squirrels as one of their foods but I feel this is wishful thinking: voles, shrews, worms and small birds are more likely to form the bulk of their diet.
Mandarin ducks, which don’t even feature in our older books on British birds, have established themselves firmly on the River Severn, Dowles Brook, Trimpley Reservoir and smaller pools in the forest. Like Tawny Owls they nest in tree holes but not so early in the year. Some years ago a pair chose to nest in an old, hollow apple tree at Uncllys but the eggs were abandoned. The nest was so deep that I would imagine the ducklings would have found it extremely difficult to exit safely. At this time of the year a pair of Mandarins make their presence felt by circling over the farm at dusk on their way to the reservoir, flying rapidly and making shrill, squeaking calls.
The aforementioned BTO website will also tell you how you can take part in their Nest Box Challenge. Volunteers are asked to monitor the birds in their garden through the breeding season and the data gathered will give important information on the status of our native birds and the success of our efforts to help them. So get those nest boxes cleaned out now to be ready for the real spring!
January in the Forest
Janus, the Roman god of the New Year, looked both forward and backward, ushering in the new and closing the door to the old. We all step through the door into 2020 and another year in the forest starts to unfold.
The more you look, the more you see, and winter is not so ‘dead’ as you might think. Look out for leaf buds swelling on Honeysuckle stems, early Hazel catkins and new shoots of Dog’s Mercury. Grey squirrels are still active in all but the harshest weather and bats break hibernation to fly out hunting if nights are mild.
There may still be enough berries on holly, hawthorn and rose to attract pigeons and various members of the thrush family (Blackbirds, Redwings, Fieldfares, Song and Mistle Thrushes). The Redwing was photographed by Mick Farmer in a Bewdley garden, and places like this are often a better source of food for wildlife than field hedgerows or woods. You may have the privilege of being visited by a flock of Redwings feeding or arriving at dusk to roost in thick cover. Their soft calls have earned them the local name of wind thrush or whin thrush. Their summer quarters are generally in Scandinavia but some are now breeding in northern Scotland.
The days are slow to lengthen and I like to spend some of the dark evenings planning my garden, making changes in the design and planting. Most gardens can offer enough space for at least one small tree and care in choosing will benefit you and our wildlife. A wide variety of hawthorn, birch and Sorbus are available. The native Rowan or Mountain Ash, Sorbus aucuparia, is a small, elegant tree which has creamy-white flowers in spring and brightens the autumn with prolific red berries and red or orange leaf tints. A valuable constituent in our ancient woodland, it is a good tree for gardens, offering welcome light shade in the summer but allowing the weaker winter sunshine to penetrate. Trees such as Hazel and Dogwood can be coppiced when they get too large for the site, and in order to avoid a drastic cut a few stems could be cut to ground level each year. Small pieces can be brought into the house and kept for a week or two in a vase so that you can watch them respond to the warmth. Your garden could also be brought to life by introducing nectar-bearing flowers such as Primroses, Wood Anemones and violets which are also found in the Wyre Forest. Seed merchants offer many British-raised wildflowers, but stalwarts such as the White and Red Dead Nettle are likely to appear unbidden and can offer an early season snack to hungry bumble bees.
December in the Forest
Our native Corvids (Magpies, Crows, Rooks, Jays and Ravens) are very intelligent birds but they are a noisy lot. The colourful Jays have been busy eating and burying acorns ‘while stocks last’ and set off with an affronted shriek if I disturb them. We see Crows and Magpies too, far too many of the latter for my liking, but it is the Raven that gives me a thrill when I hear its grating call, usually high above the woods or fields as it flies over its territory hunting for pigeons or other birds and small mammals. In these circumstances it is hard to guage its size but sometimes other birds will mob it, trying to send it away, and then I can compare them. With a wingspan of up to 150cm they can be larger than Buzzards, whose call is more musical (if that is the right word) but just as haunting.
The forest seems emptier now that the leaves are nearly all off the trees. It still offers some protection from the weather and you will feel warmer there than in the surrounding open landscape. Fallen leaves carpet the ground and are especially thick where they have drifted in the wind. This is where you will find concentrations of the little leaf eaters such as worms, slugs and millipedes, and the decomposers (eg fungi, bacteria and protozoa), all busy despite the winter. In ‘The Woodland Trust Book of British Woodlands’ Michael Allaby writes that only 1% of the total volume of leaves is eaten on the trees – the rest provide energy for all these organisms which live in and just above the soil, recycling each year’s leaf fall so that the nutrients can journey through the soil and air to supply living plants and animals again. Dead wood is also broken down but it takes longer. It resists digestion by most creatures but this is where the fungi play a major part: like animals they secrete digestive enzymes which can break down complex molecules, including cellulose and lignin in wood, into simpler ones which are then absorbed. The fruiting bodies of fungi, mushrooms and toadstools, usually show signs of being nibbled: a fleeting food source for slugs and larger animals.
Talking of larger animals, most of them are out and about during winter months, with only dormice, hedgehogs and bats really hibernating. Dawn only arrives after 8am this month, so that is a good time for a quiet walk to enjoy beautiful effects such as that captured in this photo by Mick Farmer, or perhaps to spot Fallow Deer before they spot you. On Christmas Day the sun will rise at 8.17am, giving a day lasting 7 hours 47 minutes before sunset at 4pm. Make the most of it!
November in the Forest
On a woodland walk recently we followed an avenue through Shelf Held Coppice towards Ruskinland. (As far as I know the origins of the name of ‘Shelf Held Coppice’ are lost, but if you know anything about that or other colourful names for parts of the Wyre Forest please let me know!) Cedric Quayle has told me that the avenue was well-established by the time his Uncle moved to Uncllys in 1914, and was probably planted by George Baker of Beaucastle to link up to a halt on the Tenbury and Bewdley Railway (now disused, with no sign of the halt) so it is now about 140 years old. Where it survives, the avenue is made up of conifers but here and there it contains False Acacia trees (Robinia pseudoacacia) some of which can also be seen along the track continuing from the cattle grid on Tanners Hill.
Cedric remembers that the trees were planted to supply wood for making rungs for the tall ladders used to pick cherries in the local orchards. I decided to find out a little more about this unusual forest introduction and was soon up to my ears in fascinating facts! The tree’s other name is Black Locust. ‘Aha!’ I hear some of you say, as locust crops up in American literature and, to quote Wikipedia, ‘ As a young man, Abraham Lincoln spent much of his time splitting rails and fence posts from black locust logs’ The specimen at Kew is one of the oldest in the gardens, perhaps dating from their original establishment in 1759, but it did not become widespread in this country until the 1820s thanks to the commercial efforts of William Cobbett, who owned locust nurseries in its native eastern USA. He was convinced of the wonderful properties of its wood, which is hard, straight-grained and very resistant to rot. Cobbett overestimated the strength of the timber in larger scale sections, where oak is far superior, but it is true that it is the closest to a tropical timber which can be grown here in the UK. Over a million were sold, bringing Cobbett a considerable income and leaving specimens in parks and gardens all over the country.
The Wyre Forest trees will never be cut to make ladders but their easily-recognisable, deeply-ridged trunks hold up a light canopy of attractive composite leaves and in June lovely, hanging clusters of white flowers decorate and perfume the woods. The bark, leaves and wood of the tree are poisonous but in some parts of the world the flowers are eaten and other parts are used in traditional medicines. It makes good firewood and grows back quickly after being coppiced. I should mention, though, that it can spread by means of suckers and become an invasive nuisance.
Coming back to the present season, the rut of the Fallow Deer will soon be over and the forest will take on its winter quietness. This is a month to enjoy the last of the autumn leaves and colourful fungi.
October in the Forest
Autumn sees the culmination of all the work we have put into the apple trees in our orchards over the years. The planting and formative pruning of the new trees, protection from large herbivores (sheep, cattle and deer), subsequent pruning, not to mention watering in times of drought and helpful feeding with potash from the wood stove amount to a good many ‘person hours’. What is it all for? The obvious answer is a crop of lovely apples to eat, cook and eat, make into juice and attempt to make into cider. Despite all our efforts, however, the outcome is a very chancy business. This year is a case in point – there was a very mild winter which allowed many pest species to survive in large numbers, then the spring blossom was hit by late frosts. Some of our trees just look horrible, with diseased and sparse foliage and small, blighted fruit. The Scotch Bridgets, which have served us so well for years, have hardly any apples on them. Others look fine, having escaped both frosts and pests, while some are so laden that their branches are bending down to the ground and in some cases have torn off.
We have been harvesting apples for several weeks now. The earliest ‘eaters’: the Bardseys, Red Falstaff and little Pitmaston Pineapples have virtually all gone and the remaining big Captain Toms, which can be eaten raw or cooked to make a lovely apple puree, are beginning to go soft. Buckets-full of windfalls have gone to the cattle at St George’s Farm where they were greeted with great enthusiasm. Now the later varieties: the Worcester Pearmains, Bramleys, Ribston Pippins, Orleans Reinettes and Herefordshire Russets are being gathered. Crates of fruit are going to Blackstone Farm to be juiced, pasteurised and bottled for us in a blend governed by chance!
Most people seem to enjoy participating in some smaller-scale juicing on the farm. There’s plenty of action and opportunities to help with loading the ‘scratter’, which minces the fruit into a sloppy pulp, shovelling the pulp or ‘pomace’ into the cloths to make the ‘cheeses’, and turning the screw on the press to extract the juice. The process even has its own vocabulary! Even sceptical, fruit-shy children are surprised and delighted by the delicious results.
It’s not only people who enjoy the fruits of the season. Flies, wasps and hornets are feeding on apples still on the trees and well as bruised or squashy windfalls. Butterflies are also attracted to the sugary fruits: in fact I was picking plums last month with friends amongst a flurry of Red Admirals. With about 150 fruit trees at Uncllys there’s plenty for everyone!
September in the Forest
I thought you might like to see my photo of this rather large snake found tangled in netting in a friend’s garden recently. I was called for advice and hurried along, hoping or fearing to find an Adder, which I still haven’t seen in the Wyre Forest. The yellow collar and sheer size gave it away as a Grass Snake (probably a female), harmless but still formidable, especially when hissing and emitting a powerful stink in its defence. It was estimated at about 3 feet long, so well short of the record 6 feet according to Stefan Buczacki’s ‘Fauna Britannica’. It was eventually cut free and soon disappeared, unharmed.
The singing of the Robin heralds the start of autumn and the year’s harvest has moved on to blackberries and crab apples, damsons and sloes. The beautiful fruits of the Rowan are attracting Blackbirds and Mistle Thrushes and I wonder how much longer supplies will last.
The wild and dog roses in the hedgerows are beginning to show their red hips, reminding those of us of the war-time and post war generations of delicious rose hip syrup being spooned into our young mouths to boost our Vitamin C levels. The hips were gathered throughout the countryside: about 450 tons a year between 1943 and 1945 according to Simon Fletcher in ‘A Wyre Forest Diary’. The seeds are the source of the irritating country itching powder popped down other schoolchildren’s backs, so they must be removed before boiling the pulp with its own weight in sugar and straining the resulting syrup.
Heather and gorse flowers brighten the woodland edges and heaths and provide plenty of early autumn food for bees and other nectar-loving insects. Acorns and beech mast are ripening and the first of the autumn colour is appearing: wild cherry showing red and purple, orange on the deciduous European larch, and yellow on birch and some of the oaks.
It’s changeover time, with swallows and martins preparing to leave on their migration flights to Africa. They do this by massing in large groups and juvenile house martins may help their parents to feed the last, late broods of young still in the cup-shaped nests of mud attached under the eaves of houses. Sand martins are brown and white in contrast to the black and white of the house martins and can be seen darting across the river surface in Bewdley. Efforts were made to accommodate them in the quay walls when the flood defences were built and they still breed there. The badgers will be changing over their bedding too, replacing the summer’s grass, bracken or straw with a thick layer of fresh material. Even for a badger there must be nothing like a freshly-made bed.
August in the Forest
Thanks to some fine, settled weather and invaluable help from the Wyre Community Land Trust volunteers the hay was cut, baled and brought in with no problems last month. You’ll be pleased to hear that the old-fashioned sisal baler twine worked well and will become the twine of choice here at Uncllys!
The garden bird feeders are almost knee deep in baby Blue and Great Tits, forced aside regularly by the Great Spotted Woodpecker family. The woodpeckers are rather wary of our presence and veer off with a loud squawk if they see us nearby. They are a species that has benefited greatly from garden peanut feeders but still rely on old trees, mainly in the forest and old orchards, in which to bore a nest hole. The British Trust for Ornithology’s Nestbox Guide gives instructions how to try and attract Great Spotted Woodpeckers to use medium-sized birdboxes by stuffing them with rotten wood, which the birds can then excavate. It seems a lot of trouble when there is plenty of old wood round here.
Our efforts in putting up bird boxes are beginning to bring results with the smaller birds. An increasing and vociferous gang of House Sparrows use some boxes near the house and a gap in the masonry of the north-facing wall (we’ve no idea how many are in there!). Redstarts have made fleeting appearances in past years but this year our friend Elaine pointed out that a pair were nesting in a box fixed to one of our young apple trees. As it was fairly near the house we were able to keep an eye on progress and latterly to hear the parents and fledgling(s?) calling to each other as feeding was carried out. The birdbox they used was shaded by the lower branches of the tree and a lower twig was used by the adults to land and check that the coast was clear – both factors that probably contributed to its attractiveness to the birds. Thanks again to Mick Farmer, who managed to take some fantastic pictures of the parent birds, in this case the male.
Another way in which we try to help wildlife is to put out small sections of corrugated iron on the ground to provide reptiles with safe places to bask (safe, that is, from buzzards). We lift them regularly and are rewarded with sightings of Slow-worms, Grass Snakes and Common Lizards (in declining order of frequency). Grass Snakes like compost heaps and grass piles for breeding and the eggs generally hatch in August, as do those of Slow-worms, although I’m wondering if they are earlier this year judging from the tiny individual I’ve already seen under one of the tins.
July in the Forest
Our fields are a picture at the moment: the various grasses are tall and in flower, thanks to the buttercups and pignuts there are swathes of yellow and white, with pink and purple accents of vetch and clover. Butterflies and other pollinators rise from the flowers as you walk through and grasshoppers ‘ping’ away from your feet. Not all of this will last the month as it’s hay-making time. The flatter fields will be cut, turned twice and, if the weather is kind, bound in small bales all within a week. (This year polythene baler twine will be replaced by natural sisal – our contribution to reducing plastic in the environment). Then human power takes over to load the bales and stack them in the barn.
Grazing is an important part of this traditional farming practice. Our resident sheep are currently grazing the big cherry orchard, which means that there won’t be enough grass for hay-making. On the top and ‘hay’ fields the sheep moved off a while ago so the grass has been able to make good growth and will be worth cutting.
We’ve been following this pattern for 15 years now, and can see how the wild flowers and grasses have spread through the pasture. Conservation management is not the same as gardening: it’s knowing enough about the habitats, ecology and life-cycles of species to make sure that any interventions you make are beneficial rather than harmful. People have been having an impact on nature so long on these islands that there is no ‘wild’. The diversity of wildlife is a result of traditional land practices.
You can see this in the Wyre’s woodland, which has been felled and coppiced for hundreds of years. Over recent years the Guild of St George has been catching up with oak thinning and ride widening, which has been necessarily drastic but now we are seeing the beneficial results. In Shelf Held Coppice there are two new rides which have been colonised by Pearl Bordered Fritillary butterflies. This is a wonderful victory for Butterfly Conservation and all the others who have developed policies for making conditions right for the butterflies. For your education, and because they’re very beautiful, here are Mick Farmer’s photos of both the Pearl Bordered and Small Pearl Bordered Fritillaries, which both love sheltered rides and the nectar-rich brambles which line them. If you can get a view of the undersides of the hind wings, the Small PBF gives itself away with more white ‘pearls’, a central black spot and an edging of black chevrons. As these two species are threatened nationally we are delighted that the Wyre Forest has thriving and increasing populations.
June in the Forest
I try not to be too gloomy in my articles even though the overall picture regarding our wildlife is inescapably bad, so it’s wonderful that I can bring some good news. Following last month’s article which mentioned the disappearance of Nightjars from the Wyre Forest a friend got in touch with me to say that he had a heard a Nightjar ‘churring’ behind his house on the edge of Ribbesford Woods last summer. Let’s hope it that it returns this summer, bringing some friends with it!
I have waited to hear the Cuckoo with some anxiety in recent years. It’s a huge change from earlier days: an elderly lady who used to live along Tanners Hill told me that the noise of Cuckoos calling incessantly in the late spring and summer in her youth was maddening (enough to send anyone ‘cuckoo’). The precarious state of the bird species such as Meadow Pipit, whose nests they invade, combine with the dangers of migration from sub-Saharan Africa to threaten the continued presence of this iconic bird in our forest. However I was relieved to hear my first Cuckoo on 24th April and have since heard the distinctive call, sometimes distant, sometimes loud and nearby, many times during May.
Another chance encounter was with a Woodcock, which flew over us as we walked back to the farm at dusk recently. It was flying low and uttering a squeak, much like a child’s or dog’s toy when trodden on, at regular intervals. I checked that I hadn’t trodden on a frog then concluded it was a rare sighting of this heavily camouflaged woodland bird which looks much like a Snipe, with a long beak for probing soft ground. At this time of the year the males perform a courtship flight known as ‘roding’. They fly a circular track at dusk, uttering a strange croak or groan followed by the squeak I’ve described. The sound we heard lacked the croak, or at least we didn’t hear it, so it may have been a male or a female. Norman Hickin records that this goes on for about an hour, usually from March until August. The wonders of a dusk walk are arguably as rewarding as those of the dawn walk I was advocating last month!
Now that the forest has closed up and new leaves block the long views it is harder to see Fallow Deer. This applies even to the white deer, which make up a small but increasing percentage of the Wyre herd. This is the month when fawns are born, hidden among undergrowth by their mothers in the very quietest parts of the forest. Let’s try not to disturb their peace.
May in the Forest
The first Sunday of the month is International Dawn Chorus Day, often marked by special walks. However, you don’t have to join an organised event to hear a free, virtuoso performance somewhere near your home. Setting the alarm in time to be out in the woods ready for a 5.30am sunrise may take grim determination but the reward is memorable. The build-up of birdsong and the effect of the gathering light among the tall trees is uplifting and magical. You can stand still and let yourself be blessed.
The dominant songs will probably be those of Blackbird and Song Thrush. They perch as high as they can to broadcast their melodies: the Blackbird repeating them twice; the Song Thrush rather more varied in its repertoire and repeating each phrase three times. If, like me, you struggle to identify the other songsters, you can listen to recordings on websites such as www.rspb.org.uk to become familiar with them. Or you can just enjoy the occasion and make up your own mind whether you are experiencing a behaviour that is purely functional – an establishment of territory - or an outpouring of joy.
I have only heard Nightingales a few times and sadly never in the Wyre Forest, where they were last noted in the 1940s, but I can re-read and enjoy Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ to recapture the wonder of the elaborate song or hear 3 hours of it courtesy of YouTube! The Nightingale favours coppiced woodland and scrub, which used to be common enough in Wyre and other woodlands in the past. The forest also incorporated much more heath in the past and efforts have been made recently to restore and extend this habitat so that many species threatened with local extinction can hold on. Norman Hickin’s ‘The Natural History of an English Forest’, published in 1971, talks of the Nightjar still being numerous in areas of heath and bracken despite a decline from the earlier years of the century. He describes watching a Nightjar performing aerial acrobatics as it hunted moths at dusk, silhouetted against the sky. The bird’s mouth is wide and fringed with bristles to aid it in catching its food and its brown cryptic-patterned plumage allows it to avoid detection during the day. I was amazed to hear its loud, ‘churring’ song (like a clockwork toy winding down) on the RSPB website. Wouldn’t it be wonderful to welcome this fascinating former resident back to our forest?
April in the Forest
It’s all happening in the forest this month. This would be true for a normal April, but this year spring started early and quite a few seasonal milestones are being turned on their heads. There were reports that Swallows and House Martins were arriving in the southwest at the end of February. I hope they found enough food – the insects they rely on may not have woken from their winter slumbers in time to breed the numbers needed. This is a danger with climate hiccups and changes, which upset the patterns that the life cycles of wild creatures exploit. The example that springs to mind is that of Great Tits, which have been studied by Oxford University in Wytham Woods since 1947. I quote from the project’s website:
‘Once the chicks hatch, parents embark on what is perhaps the most challenging few weeks of their lives – in the space of two weeks they will transform their naked and blind chicks, weighing about 1 gram each, into fully-formed birds capable of flight, each weighing more than their parents! This is only possible because the parents time their breeding so that they have chicks in the nest when there are lots of caterpillars in the woods. Although caterpillars are plentiful they are only available to the tit for a few weeks, and the timing of this caterpillar peak varies greatly between years. Timing of egg laying is therefore critical – if parents get it wrong, and lay too early or too late, they may not be able to find enough food to keep their brood alive.’
I don’t know when the Swallows and House Martins will arrive at Uncllys but Great Tits are the most numerous birds in our garden and probably in the surrounding woods. They empty our (large) sunflower feeder in a morning but I suppose need the caterpillars to give their offspring a balanced diet.
If the weather is anything near normal I shall be trying to spot the toads this month as they migrate through the woods to spawn. They walk rather than hop, and on a still day you may be lucky enough to track them by the rustling of dead leaves as they make their way to their favourite pond or lake. They produce long strands of dark spawn (unlike the clumps of frogspawn) along the pond margins. When we lived at the end of Kidderminster Road, Bewdley we often saw toads at all times of the year but they dwindled, presumably as the construction of the by-pass took its toll on the Spring Grove lakes. Now that we live in the Wyre Forest we try to make our patch as hospitable as possible to all forms of wildlife and value the visits of Bufo bufo , hoping that it will continue to help itself to our slug population.
March in the Forest
This month we anticipate the birth of the first lambs on Uncllys Farm since we moved here. Our grazier has a flock of 16 Kerry, Welsh Mountain and Herdwick ewes who have been consorting with a Kerry ram, so we hope for a good crop of lambs with a mixture of markings but all equally bouncy! On a serious note, we’ll have to try and protect them from dog worrying. The forest is very popular with dog walkers and most assume that they can let their pets off the lead here. They also assume that their pet would never chase sheep, but sad experience shows that you can’t be sure of this.
There’s a connection here with our efforts to conserve woodland birds, which are increasingly disturbed by dogs. Fortunately a number of woodland plots are now surrounded by deer fencing so that trees can regenerate naturally, safe from hungry Fallow and Muntjac. Volunteers have recently planted little Rowan, Hazel, Wild Cherry, Wild Service and Hawthorn trees in these plots to create a diverse habitat which can better support a wide range of insects, birds and other wildlife. Research shows that many woodland birds including Dunnock, Nightingale, Garden Warbler and Long-Tailed Tit are adversely affected by deer browsing. We intend to do more survey work so that we can see if our efforts produce the beneficial results intended.
This month also sees the opening of a new exhibition at Bewdley Museum. ‘Beautiful, peaceful and fruitful: Ruskin in Wyre’ marks the 200th birthday of the eminent Victorian whose legacy could be said to include public libraries, museums and art galleries, the sympathetic preservation of old buildings and beautiful landscapes, the recognition of Turner, the improvement of factory working conditions…etc.! His acquaintance with our forest inspired a movement (the Guild of St. George) to set up communities where ordinary people could work the land, develop craftsmanship and pursue their own education, in short ‘make some piece of England beautiful, peaceful and fruitful’. Ruskin Land is certainly beautiful and peaceful. Its fruitfulness may be measured in many ways: the produce from its orchards and fields, the diversity of its nature, its role in spreading a love of nature, art and craftsmanship, and the health and wellbeing of those who live, visit or work there.
February in the Forest
February 14th to 21st is National Nestbox Week. It always coincides with St Valentine’s Day, which I think is rather sweet. I’ll be using the opportunity to gain some woodworking skills and I’m hoping the birds aren’t too fussy about the finish! Advice on the dimensions and siting of boxes for different species of birds can be found in an excellent new book by the British Trust for Ornithology: ‘Nestboxes: Your Complete Guide’.
Over the years we have put up many boxes that didn’t get used, or didn’t attract the species intended. The Blue and Great Tits have probably had a population explosion around here thanks to the boxes we put up to attract Redstarts to nest in the cherry orchard. The answer there is to block the entrance holes until the Redstarts arrive from abroad, but we’re not as quick off the mark as we should be. In the garden we have a few boxes that have never been used but I shall persevere and try them in different places. I try to think like a bird: is it safe from cats; will it be too hot in summer; are wasps, bees or mice already using it? You can help to make nest boxes safe by fixing a metal plate or ring around the entrance hole, preventing woodpeckers and squirrels from pecking or chewing their way in to predate the occupants.
Another way we can help is to provide nesting materials. This could include feathers from old pillows, sheep’s wool and moss from the lawn. Beware of long fibres in which nestlings could get entangled. Materials could be offered near a bird table in a satsuma net or just left in a shrub or flower bed. Nest boxes can be cleaned out when the nesting season is over, and since several species have more than one brood this probably means waiting until autumn. Old nests are often infested with fleas and other parasites, so all nesting material should be thrown a good distance away from the box.
If you walk in the woods in or near Ruskin Land you will notice that a number of larger boxes have been placed for Tawny Owls, Barn Owls and Kestrels. Our support for wildlife-friendly farming comes from the EU via a Countryside Agreement with the Department for the Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs. The parcels of land which belong to the Guild of St George and others under private ownership all have their own agreements, all of which are designed to increase biodiversity. The substantial, triangular-shaped boxes are built for us by the volunteers of the Wyre Community Land Trust and then placed in positions which should be attractive to Barn Owls. There is no guarantee that they will be avail themselves of the best ‘des. res.’ in the area but we’ll keep a lookout for the tell-tale blur of white swooping low at dusk.
January in the Forest
The rain seems to be trying to make up for lost time. The forest tracks, which were dry and easy to walk in the summer, are slippery clay again and the potholes are opening wider at the passage of each vehicle along our access road. Wellies and overtrousers are de rigueur. This is all part of the winter experience but all too often in recent years we have suffered the more serious problem of flooding, sometimes from the Severn coming upwards but just as often from its tributaries coming downwards.
Just recently we and other local landowners have been introduced to a project called Slow the Flow. Initiated by DEFRA and the Environment Agency, it is part of a national scheme with funding from central government and in our area is being led by Wade Muggleton of Worcestershire County Council. Its aim is to delay the movement of rainwater off the countryside long enough to spread the peaks of storm water runoff. A hold up of just ten minutes can prevent the water contributing to a damaging flash flood.
You may have thought the photo showed a beaver dam (now there’s an idea!), but the loosely piled logs are a man-made ‘leaky dam’ which allows steady flow in normal conditions but causes water to back up during storms. It is just one of the measures which we’ll be using: others include making pools and ponds along watercourses and improving the profile of trackways so that rain flows off to the land on each side rather than turning the track into a stream. Other landowners will be planting more trees and hedges, retaining water along the contours of the land so that it is not able to run straight downhill, and deliberately blocking field drains to create boggy areas. All this is pretty ironic, considering the extent to which advice for improving agricultural productivity in the last 100 years has urged (and the government has grant-aided) land drainage schemes and hedge removal! Loss of woodland and over-stocking of sheep in upland areas has also contributed to the risk of flooding: a risk that will increase with weather changes linked to climate change.
This new aspect of countryside management will be good news for wildlife and for those who love to walk the paths of the Wyre Forest and its neighbouring landscape. It will also help to conserve part of the natural world which is often overlooked but which is absolutely vital - the soil.
For more information on ‘Slow the Flow’ please contact Wade on email@example.com.