Monday, 15 August 2022

Pleasant encounters with man and beast and an intriguing plant find

Pleasant encounters with man and beast and an intriguing plant find

BLACK-HEADED gulls are scattered wantonly across the sky like drifting, discarded food wrappers.

Only their squeaky utterances and purposeful formation give them away from flying litter.

They will be gone soon, heading away from exposed rubbish tips, the refuge of local ponds and riverbank feeding stations down to the south coast.

They will be replaced by our smaller, tuneful, migrants, our summer visitors from Africa and southern Europe, whitethroats to blackcaps, swallows to willow warblers and many more.

I love to see this transparent change as the months progress.

I am sitting in our back garden admiring the emergent buds on our trees and shrubs and watching the primary forays of bumblebees.

I am happy to report my first sighting of a brimstone butterfly (Gonepteryx rhamni) flitting about.

I hear one of the first chiffchaffs, which is reassuring, and a magpie settles high above in our Lombardy poplar.

While many dreadful and sinister things are going on in the world right now, nature carries on regardless. Maybe more attention should be paid to such beautiful simplicity rather than brazen, human aggression and rank stupidity.

Years ago we had very distinct seasons. When I was a boy, winter, spring, summer and autumn were quite distinct. Not so now. All seem curiously blurred; nature seems confused.

Today, we are going to check on the state of a beloved woodland at Highmoor, part of the impeccably maintained Nettlebed Estate, between Henley and Nettlebed.

We want to see how the trees have weathered the recent destructive, blasting winds. Rosemary is most concerned about some ancient beech trees that I showed her a few years back. We slide along a narrow, potholed lane that was once the entrance to the Dog and Duck pub and leave the car on a leafy side of the metalled track.

We meet a chap called Mike wearing hi-vis clothing who works for Oxfordshire County Council. He is using a white spray to mark some of the deep potholes that will need to be infilled.

He shares our admiration for this superb remnant of ancient Chiltern forest. It is always a pleasure to encounter like-minded individuals.

As we stand admiring our cherished beech trees, we are alerted by a huge head of fallow deer, all does, about 100 yards away to the north under tree cover.

There must be about 80 adults at least. It so difficult to count.

Halting as one, they stare at us and then run towards the main road with a clatter but thankfully turn back again as we stand still.

After a few moments one takes the lead and the herd races across the narrow lane into a wide field towards Holly Grove to the south. They stop, look back and then slink into the trees.

When Rosemary suggested our visit, I had hoped to see some deer but never this many. What a treat.

The fallow deer was introduced to Britain from the far reaches of the Mediterranean about 1,000 years ago for hunting and is now one of our most common medium-sized species.

It is variously coloured, often bearing white flank spots in summertime, but not always.

Primarily a grazing animal, it will eat acorns and other nuts that it finds on the forest floor. It is mostly active by day.

We don’t see any males, or “bucks”. Outside the rut, near the year’s end, they hang around in “bachelor groups”.

The bucks shed antlers in April to grow a new set by the end of August. Quite distinctive, the antlers are palmate, flattened towards the tips and sharp too.

I’m so happy to have seen such a healthy looking herd and hope to encounter it again.

Overall, the woodland has survived the latest storms with minimal damage. What a relief.

We come upon a long, dead beech with a broad, hollow interior and I take a peek through it.

On the floor lesser celandines shine like tiny suns. There will be competition very soon as the first woodland flowers vye for what sunlight is afforded before the trees above shade them out.

A little further on, Rosemary indicates an odd-looking holly on the woodland edge to our right.

Strangely, it bears bright yellow berries. The leaves appear normal, akin to our native holly (Ilex aquifolium), the fruit not.

Rosemary suggests the plant may be a garden escapee, which is possible, but it is a good distance from any habitation. I do not know what to make of it.

Rosemary takes some photographs which later I send to a friend who is a botanical expert.

I check a reference book which suggests that it may be a yellow-berried holly (Ilex f. bacciflava). I’m not sure as every photograph I find online has many more berries in huge clumps.

Have we found something new, I wonder? I await my friend’s expert analysis and a reply.

Another encouraging aspect of the woodland is the continual drumming of great-spotted woodpeckers, the spontaneous and unexpected movement of flocks of colourful bramblings rising from beech leaf litter, the resident chaffinches, the gentle hum of newly woken bumblebees and the determined rise of a myriad of ephemeral, woodland annual plants.

Then there are the green pincushions of mosses that resemble minute rainforests. We love it and it smells good too.

Beech and oak trees rise high in curious arrangements.

Way below, saplings search and compete for the light that will give them the opportunity to fill a parent’s place when it falls. This is the way a woodland works.

A litte further on we turn back towards our vehicle after a lovely walk along this sinuous lane.

We then visit one of favourite pubs, the Black Horse at Scot’s Common, near Checkendon.

We sit down with a couple of pints in anticipation of bacon sarnies. A black pub Labrador seems to know what we have ordered and looks imploringly at Rosemary.

A man pops round the corner to say how he enjoyed last week’s column. I thank him.

A few minutes later we are joined by two couples with another handsome dog who enquire where we have been and what we’ve seen. Such a friendly place.

Back home, we open one of our back doors to allow our young cats outside for the first time to explore the extensive rear garden.

They are tentative, not knowing what to make of it all, and cautious as they explore what they have only seen through windows over the past few months.

Then litte Cobweb charges back inside wet from a sudden downpour and yowls, urging his siblings to get inside.

Spooky climbs a tree without a care in the world. I wish I could do that.

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