Monday, 23 May 2022

Disturbing return to woodland haven where wildlife once thrived

Disturbing return to woodland haven where wildlife once thrived

MY wife says she wants to visit somewhere new but not too far away.

I unfold my local Explorer OS map and select a small but varied old wood near Binfield Heath and Shiplake Row.

I last walked through Shiplake Copse in the Nineties en route from Caversham to Henley.

One of my most notable memories is of discovering a little stream that ran through the copse for a few hundred yards and then disappeared into a deep, overgrown pit or quarry in open country.

What made it special were the footprints left on the sandy margins by badgers, foxes, deer and voles.

I cannot wait to see that little brook again after such a long time and to show it to Rosemary.

We leave the car outside Binfield Heath Congregational Church, a small building built in 1835 in the Gothic Revival style.

After a short stroll along the roadside, heading north, we take a public right of way to our right and head towards the old copse.

The primary fields to our left are full of a brassica crop and what many a farmer would consider a weed — buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) with pinky flowers. An introduced plant first recorded in 1794 and considered rare in Oxfordshire, it was once cultivated for its nutritious, gluten-free nuts. Here it is rampant and somewhat attractive.

Maybe the combination is a deliberate move to produce green manure?

We both note that there are no insects here — not an ant, millipede or moth; neither a butterfly nor a hoverfly. There are no bees, wasps, shield bugs, beetles, flies or mosquitos. Nothing. I would like to know what has happened.

Rosemary suggests that the cause may be a herbicide, perhaps even the infamous Roundup. If so, this is wrong.

Depressed, we press on, looking forward to getting away from this silent, desolate land and into the trees.

I cheer up temporarily at the sight of a hedgerow smothered in sunlight but this feeling is short-lived.

The hedgrow is full of crab apples and blackthorn, young English elms and field roses with yellow, purple and red leaves. There is also dogwood, oak, ash, hazel and field maple.

White bryony is still in flower and woodbine is fruiting.

Along our path we spot swine-cress, groundsel, red and white dead-nettles and the small-flowered but delightful common field speedwell.

The crab apples and blackthorn are both hanging with fruit, so I wonder how they were pollinated without insects present.

What a shame but maybe a minor miracle.

As we meet the copse, I am happy to see the wonderful diversity within — hornbeam, wild cherry, oak, healthy ash, holly, field maple, elder, silver birch, a single Douglas fir and common buckthorn.

I detect a distinct lack of scent, which is not right either.

And then we see it — a fence so strongly and fiercely constructed that nothing can get through. This must mark the boundary of Holmwood.

Rosemary spots a young fox that cannot fathom why it can’t reach the ancient watering hole that his antecedents have been using for time immemorial.

We can only peer through the toughened steel wire at the snaking, beautiful rivulet.

Local wildlife has now been deprived of a natural resource, clear, clean water from a natural aquifer. I am outraged.

We stop on the brow of a hill by a superb silver birch that I remember. We can see the traffic flowing along the Reading/
Henley road a short way off but can’t hear it so it feels much further away.

There are no birds apart from the occasional red kite, buzzard or carrion crowing high in the sky. All looks subtly lovely but so much is missing. It’s ghostly and somewhat disturbing.

On the rise below the south side of Holmwood, heavy machinery is being used to grade the land.

We wonder if this is to create an artificial wildflower meadow. Well, anything for the birds and bees, I suppose.

I indicate other woods nearby that we can explore as there are rights of way through them. I have never set foot in some of them, so who knows what we may find.

There is a wealth of natural aquifers in this area. Elegant streams pop up and then down again as the water gurgles into dark holes. Ponds, springs and wells abound.

I will be taking Rosemary to see a classic case only a short distance from where we stand — a gurgle hole (my description) just south of Bint’s Farm and Round Wood.

The water reappears next to the Flowing Spring pub and trickles into Berry Brook.

The water is filtered to purity through the local chalk. It may take generations to surface for consumption but, boy, it is sweet.

After turning our backs on Holmwood, a symmetrical edifice not dissimilar to Fawley Court, we head back and
re-enter the wood and observe the inaccessible brook once more. The fence seems so unnecessary and out of place.

To our left, a young-looking beech tree bears a horrible-looking bulbous burr. Below is part of a wood pigeon’s eggshell.

An oak forms an nhilarious bow and another lies horizontal amid large ferns. Windthrow, I reckon.

We notice that we are being followed along our right of way by a diminutive man.

Every time we turn to take a look at him he dives into the bushes, which is amusing but somewhat concerning.

We drive to Playhatch via Dunsden and visit the Crown for lunch. A real pleasure.

We plan our next foray, which will once again be nearby.

Returning home, we sit in our back garden for a sundowner and note the vast amount of wasps, hoverflies, bees, mosquitos and moths that inhabit our back garden, not to mention the industrious web-weaving spiders. It feels like a veritable ark for wildlife.

We do our level best for nature and wish more people did too. We cannot live without a biodiverse world, it is as simple as that. Just do your bit if you are able.

vincent.ruane@hotmail.com

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