Our meadows have been absolutely beautiful this summer. I have been putting together a video of our meadows over the course of the summer, right up to haymaking last weekend.
Bugs are often overlooked and ignored, and often misunderstood as well, but are really very beautiful and spectacular when you get in close. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful collection of several species of shield bug as well as two species of weevil on one small patch of nettles at the woods.
Shield bugs are flat bugs with a back that resembles a shield, and sucking mouthparts which extract sap from plants. They are also called “stink bugs” because they exude foul smelling and tasting fluid when threatened to deter predators.
Weevils also have a bad reputation as plant pests, with different species specialising in different plants. In our case, in an oak woodland, we found an acorn weevil, looking like a truly alien being – a bit like StarBug from Red Dwarf!
This set of photographs shows some of the variety and beauty of these overlooked creatures.
English bluebells. To me the are the English countryside in spring. We are so very fortunate to have a lot of English bluebells at our woods, concentrated in two main areas, but with patches scattered throughout the whole woodland.
This week they have really started to come into flower, just a little bit early this year thanks to the mild March and April that we have had. There are two main areas – an area we call The Plantation because of larch that was planted there, and the bottom part of the woods. Both of these areas have bluebells with bracken developing later in the year.
Over the last two years, the exceptionally mild winters have meant we had no frost under the trees, and this has led to brambles taking over, particularly in the Plantation area, because they have not been killed off by the frost. Letting them get a head start in the spring means that they dominate the bluebells, and last year the display suffered. This year we have cut back the bramble to allow the bluebells to recover.
We have not been disappointed by the display!
Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.
Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.
Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.
They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.
The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.
Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.
Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.
This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.
Yesterday, we had Mike Daniels and his team from Arborcare, come to the woods to deal with two large oaks. Both of these needed to be pollarded for safety. It was a privilege to spend the day with these lovely guys, watching them at work.
The first tree had a branch fall off leaving a large scar a few years ago. This was healing, until it was seriously eroded by hornets, leaving a very unstable situation with a heavy branch on a weak base. The other branch of the tree had a crack (not easily visible). Both branches were overhanging a path used by visitors, so something had to be done. The aim was to preserve the tree and the habitat, but make it safer.
The second tree was again, very hollow and weak, and overhanging a path. We tried moving the path but it didn’t work out, so the tree needed reducing. This second tree may not survive, but it will remain as standing dead wood and fantastic hollow habitat for birds.
None of the brash was wasted: most of the holly brash from our coppicing, together with all the brash from this pollarding work was chipped to surface our paths. The rest was left as habitat piles.
I am totally in awe of people who can do this wonderful work. The photos show some of the process and the skill involved.
Our thanks to Mike, Paul, and John from Arborcare, and to Keith, who turned up to help us. We were all working flat out all day – I was helping to cut up the branches cut down and stack the logs and brash, and the others were chipping the massive pile of brash and delivering it to our paths.
A wonderful day.
Over the past three weekends, we have been working on a very overgrown hedge between Alvecote Wood and Betty’s Wood. In particular we have been working on several very large holly trees, about 40 feet/15 metres high. These had been cut about 30 years ago, but the hedge has not been maintained since then. In consequence these trees have grown huge, and were cutting out a lot of light on the southern boundary of the wood. Behind the trees was some poor sycamore scrub and some bramble. We tried to get hazel established here, but it was just too dark. Nothing would grow.
So this year we decided to coppice back this holly hedge, removing three enormous holly trees (some with up to eight stems each), a couple of sycamore, hazel and hawthorn to open this area up and let in light.
We have also cleared the bramble, and plan to plant this area up with some hazel, birch and cherry, and also encourage oak seedlings to grow between these trees.
The photos tell the story: before, during and after.
There are also two videos showing how Stephen felled a particularly awkward twin-stem holly.
Apologies that the first clip of this video is out of focus.
Robins nearly always show up whenever you do any work in the woods. Last week I was cloning some willow. This means you cut about 18 inch/50 cm lengths of wood about 1 inch/2.5 cm diameter. Then, making sure it is the right way up, push it into the ground about 15cm or so, put a guard around it to prevent browsing, and the vast majority of willow will re-sprout into a new tree.
I nearly didn’t take my camera. But I was glad I did. The little robin was waiting for me to hammer in one of the sticks, then coming down to perch on it while I went to fetch the guard from the wheelbarrow. And when he wasn’t doing that, he was perched in the tree close by.
I managed to snap one photo of him with the light just right – he looked like he was sitting in a bubble!
I’ve seen hazel catkins out in January before (just!), but never seen willow or alder catkins at this time of year. Yet that is what is happening at the woods right now. The lack of a really harsh frost this winter has led to everything being extremely early. We have buds on our daffodils, bud burst on elder, and a load of catkins coming out, producing pollen and giving me hay-fever!
These photos were all taken last week. Hazel, birch, alder and willow catkins coming out. It really seems crazy. We have had frost, but not a hard frost, and no frost under the trees themselves. I hope we don’t get a hard and late frost to set everything back now they have started to come up.
As a photographer, I am always interested in light. So it might seem strange that I love the winter, because it tends to be dark and grim, at least in the UK. However the quality of light at this time of year can be absolutely magical. We all know of the golden hour near sunset and sunrise, when the light is warmer and more gentle, lighting subjects from a low angle.
However in winter in the UK, the light is always coming from a low angle because the sun never gets very high in the sky – and while it may not have the intoxicating warmth of a summer evening, it does have a lovely gentle and watery quality that simply isn’t available at any other time of year.
As well as a low angle and gentle watery quality, winter light is also enhanced by the cold weather bringing mist, frost and occasional snow. The other day I was privileged to walk round the woods at just the right time of day. There had been a very heavy overnight frost which was melting in the sunshine, adding water vapour and mist to the sense of wonder. There was also mist rising from the ponds and canal and settling in the flood plain where the woods are situated.
So we have the wonderful quality and angle of the light, frost, mist and the wonderful bonus of the trees without leaves. The form of the trees can be clearly seen at this time of year too. In summer, all is lost in the confusion of leaves, but right now, you can see every detail, every shape. The shadows also have much more form than in summer. The combination of light and form is quite intoxicating. The beauty gives me a squeezy feeling in my stomach.
I took a series of landscape shots as I walked round, trying to capture that squeezy feeling – the mystical beauty of mist, light and trees. You don’t get the mystical winter light every day, but when you do, it can take your breath away.