Introduction

Crowhurst Nature Reserve is a four and a half acre community-owned woodland in Crowhurst, East Sussex, known locally as Quarry Wood. It was bought by the village for the village in 1999 to protect and preserve it.

Paul Johnson is the warden and has been writing a series of articles called Tales from Quarry Wood for the village magazine since 2008. Our little reserve is the central thread and star turn, but his themes often range further, taking in ecology, botany, mycology, history, mythology, Latin and literature. All with a healthy dose of irreverence and the odd bit of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Click here for more about Paul and Crowhurst Nature Reserve; the most recent article is below  and you can explore all the previous articles through the chronological year tabs above or take a more meandering approach using the tags.

Golden Eye


Hello everyone. Who does not love the month of May? Warm weather, Bluebells, birdsong, Wild Garlic Pesto, alfresco pints of ale and Pagan Festivals, all on our doorstep! It is also the perfect time to wrap up those wildlife pond projects. Provide a suitable habitat with water and a few native plants, sit back, glass in hand, and watch Ma nature colonise it with some wonderful fauna.

Having just re-laid my own pond I am delighted to report that Pond Skaters (Gerris lacustris) are skimming over the surface while Diving Beetles, of which there are at least 350 species in the UK, nip up and down the water column. Several Common Frogs (Rana temporaria) are lurking in the nooks and crannies, occasionally emerging in a flurry of energetic kicks, and gangs of Smooth Newts (Lissotriton vulgaris) cruise around effecting nonchalance but in fact displaying copious amounts of amphibian attitude. An extremely rewarding spell of lockdown manual labour.

I have learnt from experience that it pays to be particularly cautious when digging around old ponds. Numerous frogs and newts were discovered buried in the soft silt and leaf litter and were carefully relocated to a temporary safe haven for the duration of the upgrade to their home. However, it was whilst moving some deadwood to get at the old liner that I disturbed another animal, Jeremy Fisher’s less athletic distant cousin, Mr Toad.

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The clever men at Oxford
Know all that there is to be knowed.
But they none of them know one half as much
As intelligent Mr Toad!

Toad’s Song from The Wind in The Willows,
Kenneth Grahame (1908)

Clearly the owner of Toad Hall saw himself as a cut above the rest, but the chances are that he was a Common Toad (Bufo bufo). The other rarer native is the Natterjack Toad (Epidalea calamita), found in very few places in England and Scotland where it breeds in sandy areas such as dunes and heathland. Adult toads have dry, warty skin, a rather snub nose, and startling copper or even golden coloured eyes. They have shorter legs than frogs, so no energetic hopping around for them. Instead, they crawl from the moment they lose their tadpole tails at the grand age of 85 days, when they leave their birth pools as tiny toadlets. Last year I was fortunate enough to witness this first, rather precarious, journey as hundreds of toadlets crossed the path in one of our local woods.

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After a Summer of feeding on a varied diet that includes slugs, snails, insects and even slowworms and small mice, toads overwinter buried in mud, or under dead wood, or compost heaps. They don’t actually hibernate like other animals and the recent milder winters will have seen many toads leaving their seasonal hideaways for a spot of foraging, Springtime finds them trotting back to their ancestral breeding ponds using an enviable heightened navigational and homing sense. As soon as they arrive back at the ponds the messy and extraordinarily hazardous operation of mating takes place. Numerous females will have suffered the indignity of a male jumping on her back as she makes her way to the pond and arrives at the water with a mate in situ. As if that is not bad enough, frequently a single female finds herself the centre of attention and so many males attach themselves to her that a large mating ball of toads is formed. Unfortunately, the female is often drowned amidst this orgiastic melee, which really goes against the point of the whole exercise.

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If the female survives the enthusiastic attentions of the males, she will lay a string of eggs wrapped around plants in the deep areas of the pond. A single 7cm strand contains around 4000 eggs. This has the advantage over the gelatinous clouds of spawn a female frog produces in shallow bodies of water. How often have we come across frog spawn left high and dry as a puddle dries up or a pond recedes? This has certainly been the case in Quarry Wood as our April showers failed us yet again over the last few years.

As you would expect, all this crawling around, often across open ground, and mating en masse, makes them an easy target for vigilant predators. Indeed, many toads fall prey to otters, hedgehogs, weasels, and crows to name but a few. They have learned the technique of removing the skin glands that produce a foul-tasting toxin. Empty toad skins found around a pond are a sign that a predator has successfully made a meal of the unfortunate amphibians. Domestic dogs on the other hand have not learned the skills of the wild and will often try their luck, only to suffer the bitter consequences; sadly, killing the toad in the process.

Glorious, stirring sight! The poetry of motion! The real way to travel! The only way to travel! Here today—in next week tomorrow! Villages skipped, towns and cities jumped—always somebody else’s horizon! O bliss! O poop-poop! O my! O my!
The Wind in The Willows

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It is ironic that Kenneth Grahame decided that Toad would become enamoured by motor cars as alongside habitat destruction, traffic is one of the main threats to this iconic amphibian. The Wildlife Trusts have estimated that around 20 tonnes of toads are killed on the roads each year! A depressingly familiar story with many of our favourite species (see Reynard, TQW April 2021).

Now I know I have gone against my principles and talked about our warty croakers in something approaching anthropomorphic terms. I suspect that is a result of reading Wind in the Willows when I was around five years old, and regularly ever since! So, in keeping with the flow of this particular scribble, I will finish with another verse from Toad’s song of self-adulation.

The Queen and her Ladies-in-waiting
Sat at the window and sewed.
She cried, ‘Look! Who’s that HANDSOME MAN?’
They answered, ‘Mr Toad.’

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The Queen obviously fell for the twinkle in that golden eye!

Put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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Quarry Wood – April 2021

Image credits: img 1 Bluebell in QW, Lorna Neville; img 2-3 Toad in garden, Paul Johnson; img 4 Mr Toad, E Shepherd; img 5 Walking toad by jggrz on Pixabay; img 6 Toad spawn; img 7 Mr Toad by Inga Moore; img 8 Toad close up by ekamelev on Pixabay; img 9-14 original QW photography by Lorna Neville.

Reynard!


Hello everyone! I hope you are enjoying a welcome change in the air as we enter our Spring months. Cool breezes are countered by the warming rays of Phoebus as he climbs higher and higher into our sky. Trees are budding, wildflowers are blooming, and early bees are starting their busy rounds. The Feathered Folk are in excellent voice at present and, I for one, have a go at name-that-tune as the early morning Avian alarm clock stirs me from my slumbers. This morning it was the distinctive call of the Coal Tit (Periparus ater) which stood out from the chattering of the House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) and the fluid melodies of the Blackbirds (Turdus merula).

The trees were full hazy with new leaves and the ground with sweet-smelling herbs and flowers. All the birds were singing, singing from coiled nest, from branch, from fence, from river reed and from convent spire; songs which sang of fierce life and the kindly warmth of the sun, of journeys and of journeys yet to come.

Reynard the Fox, retold by Anne Louise Avery (2020)

If you can excuse my indulgence, I will introduce the main theme of this month’s scribble with a personal anecdote, it does tie in rather nicely with the above quote. Whenever my Mum felt that I needed to be put in my place she would produce the baby and toddler photo album. One snap in particular, me trying to escape the confines of my play pen, clutching my favourite first birthday present, was given several airings to all and sundry! The gift in question was a bright red, soft toy fox, the beginning of a long association with one of my favourite animals.



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My early forays into the world of literature introduced me to Mr Todd (Beatrix Potter), The Fox and the Crane (Aesop’s Fables) and Fantastic Mr Fox (Roald Dahl); not to forget years of Basil Brush on the television!

These children’s tales certainly alluded to the mischievous qualities that have been bestowed upon our Vulpine neighbour, but they are as nothing when compared to a collection of North European folk tales dating back to the 12th century. Stories surrounding the character of Reynard the Fox, have been told, retold, and written down many times over the centuries. They may well have originated in the fabled world of Aesop himself in the 5th and 6th Centuries BC.

Ever since that unknown fox tricked the Crow out of her piece of cheese, Reynard has swaggered around much of Europe, living off his sharp wits, superb oratory and exhibiting a total disregard for nobility, the rich and the foolish. His exploits were enmeshed in the various powers struggles of France, Germany, and the Low Countries. In 1481 William Caxton, England’s first printer, put his new press to good use and produced his translation of a Middle Dutch poem, The hystorye of Reinard the foxe, done into English out of Dutch. This hilarious tale entrenched Reynard into British folklore, putting him on level standing with cultural anti-heroes such as Puck and Robin Hood. It is no coincidence that Disney chose a fox to be the thorn in the side of King John, portrayed by a rather cowardly lion.

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In the late 18th century, the German philosopher, scientist and poet, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe turned to yet another retelling of the medieval tale, Reineke der Fuchs, as a mirror of the brutal war against the French Revolutionary forces he found himself caught up in. He produced his own version of the epic poem in 1794 in which Reynard is hailed as a quick witted, shameless, and likeable character, unfettered by loyalty to church or crown. A character immensely suitable for a post revolution world!

But why a fox? Why has one animal had the same anthropomorphic qualities attributed to it for over two thousand years? The overarching question regarding Reynard’s adventures has to be, are foxes cunning, ruthless, self-serving creatures, or has that reputation come about through observing an adaptable, perfectly evolved animal that is coping well with the invasion of the human species? Well obviously, I belong in the latter camp, but even in my mind, there is little doubt that no other wild animal has been absorbed into the human psyche to the extent that our bushy-tailed neighbour has.

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Foxes belong to Family Canidae and, as you might expect, are related to wolves, domestic dogs, and coyotes. Our handsome Red Fox (Vulpes vulpes) is the largest of the true foxes. Contrary to popular belief urban foxes are not a different species to their country cousins, but, being consummate scavengers, simply take advantage of the mountain of scraps our species provides on a daily basis. Foxes will eat just about anything they find, earthworms, berries, crabs, small birds and carrion. Nothing is wasted, the accusation that foxes kill for fun may have added to the dark side of Reynard’s character, but surplus killing is in fact a trait displayed by many prey species. They are programmed to respond to the mass panic within, for example a chicken coop, with a deeply embedded predatory drive, which in a confined space often ends up with mass slaughter. Unfortunately, this has led to them being labelled as vermin and killed with even less discrimination than they themselves practice, by a species that almost certainly is guilty of wasting more food than any other on the planet.

He hath waited by night and day in such wise that he hath stolen so many of my children that of fifteen I have but four, in such wise hath this thief forslongen them.

Chanticleer the Cockerel

The History of Reynard the Fox, William Caxton’s English Translation of 1481

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Foxes will cache surplus food when they can, sometimes to the extent that adults will bury fresh kills near the den in order to hone their cubs’ hunting skills. The family group is tight knit, and cubs that are born around now will be well catered for by both parents until they are fully self-sufficient in the Autumn. Even then, some juvenile females often stay around to help look after the next generation. Unfortunately, foxes rarely live beyond three years in the wild and approximately fifty percent of foxes are killed in their first year as they start to explore new territories; road accidents accounting for most fatalities. Despite these horrific statistics, the fox population manages to remain stable in the UK.

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Is it any wonder that we have imbued so many human qualities upon Reynard and his relations over the years? The great survivor, no allegiances, but dedicated to his family and wickedly handsome. I suspect that very few of us could honestly state they are not even the slightest bit envious of such a reputation!

Paul Johnson



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A Quarry Wood fox, sauntering up the path… then turning tail as soon as he clocked me! – Lorna

Image credits: img 6 – Red Fox by Alexas_Fotos; img 7 – Wild Fox by YvetteNatuurfotografie; img 8 –  Snowy Fox by AlainAudet; img 9-10 – QW fox by Lorna Neville

Scarlet Elf Cup in Quarry Wood – March 2021

More Scarlet Elf Cup than we have ever seen before! Bursting from mossy deadwood in the middle of winter, these glorious red beauties always create a truly eye-catching fungi display on the side of the old railway line. The patch has been growing significantly in the last few years and now there is about a 10m stretch of really dense fruiting bodies, and the odd one or two popping out further along.

A photo could not do it justice, so we tried a video. Forgive the shaky camera work and the occasional glimpse of my wellies, but hopefully this will give you an idea of scale, of the simply astonishing quantity of the scarlet gems…

– Lorna Neville

Cold Feet & Wood Bine

Hello everyone! Well at long last we have had some snow in our corner of the country, albeit a very meagre dusting compared to the thick blanket my Great Niece and Nephews were sledging on in Scotland and the Northern counties. However, it was enough to transform our landscape for a little while. Lorna took some stunning photos of the Quarry Wood ferns, each frond delicately picked out by a light powdering of dazzling white flakes.

Snowy ferns in Quarry Wood – Feb 2021

The Crowhurst Marshes, still a vast expanse of surface water had a glistening layer of ice topping it. Loud retorts echoed in the chilly air as it moved and cracked under the watery Winter sun while it did its best to warm things up for a few hours a day.

Snowy floods across Combe Valley Countryside Park – Feb 2021

As I stood there wrapped in multiple layers, clumsily fumbling with my binoculars in gloved hands, I was in awe of the water fowl as they casually rested on the frozen surface. Those bobbing around in patches of open water would suddenly go tail-up and dive down into the icy depths as they looked for food. When I was not rosy-cheeked from exposure to the biting Easterly, I am convinced I was green with envy at the superb insulating quality of those duck and swan feathers!

If you did brave those icy trails, I expect, like me, you were wearing at least two pairs of socks, thick boots and you did not stand still for longer than needed. Have you ever wondered just how our feathered friends cope with cold feet? Whether paddling in icy water or perched on snow-covered branches, there are no oil-coated feathers protecting the legs and feet against conditions that would see us puny humans turning blue with the cold.

Swans swimming along snowy water channels through Crowhurst Marsh – Jan 2010

As usual, Ma Nature has provided a number of strategies and fixes to help overcome the ravages of the elements. The majority of the birds we see though our windows, such as Robins, Tits, Finches Wrens, Sparrows and even the larger species like Magpies and Crows, have small feet in proportion to their bodies, so the loss of heat from them is relatively low. Many birds simply tuck their legs up under their bodies where those fluffed out layers of feathers trap warm air and prevent them from becoming frozen.

But what about those hardy ducks, swans, geese, and various other water fowl, standing on ice or bobbing along in freezing water? Well, they, along with several other groups of birds and indeed animals, make use of a rete mirabile (Latin – marvellous net), a fine network of arteries and veins which in this case, carries blood to the birds’ feet as part of a counter-current circulatory system. Blood is cooled as it flows down the legs and warmed as it returns to the body, the result being that the feet have little heat to lose, even in the depths of Winter.

Birds on frozen water on Crowhurst Marsh – Jan 2017

The snow and ice have disappeared now, and the land is back to its soft, mire-like state. The temptation, when out for a stroll, is to try and avoid the clarty gloop by walking on the edge of footpaths or even take another route though the undergrowth. Unfortunately, this results in the erosion of verges and the woodland floor and has a deleterious effect on the wildflowers and even ground nesting birds in small reserves such as ours (see The Straight and Narrow, June 2014). We may not need that second pair of socks now, but please stick to the boots or wellies and brave the mud for a while longer, especially as the Nesting Season is well underway.

Scarlet Elf Cup & Townhall Clock in Quarry Wood – Feb 2021

In Quarry Wood Spring has started where it left off before the cold spell brought everything to a temporary halt. The Scarlet Elf Cup fungus (Sarcoscypha coccinea) survived the snow and is proliferating throughout different areas of the wood at a rapid rate and the leaf-strewn ground of the Viking Camp is turning green with the tiny leaves of the Townhall Clock plant (Adoxa moschatellina).

Alongside the gloss of the evergreen Ivy (Hedera helix), another plant is snaking its way up trees and forming clumps of dry, dead-looking tendrils on which fresh new leaves have been forming for several weeks now, Wild Honeysuckle (Lonicera periclymenum).

The ecological value of this common climber is immense. Our elusive White Admiral Butterflies (Limenitis camilla) lay their eggs on Honeysuckle leaves on which the caterpillars feed and pollinating moths are attracted to the sweet scent of the flowers at night when, as anyone who enjoys a late evening stroll will tell you, it is at its most aromatic.

White Admiral in Quarry Wood – July 2017

The food chains being what they are, many a Bat will pick up a tasty treat when patrolling the Honeysuckle entwined trees hedges alongside our little reserve; the large Elephant Hawk Moths (Deilephila elpenor) I have seen on the flowers must make a particularly satisfying snack! The red berries of L. periclymenum are devoured by bird and animal alike when they ripen in the Autumn but, as always, extreme caution is necessary if trying them for yourself as there are reports of the fruit causing sickness in humans.

We have plenty of Honeysuckle in QW and one of these days I hope to spot another, rarely seen, animal which relies on the plant, our Common or Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius). Feeding on Honeysuckle nectar as part of their diet and building nests from the bark for their young, the nocturnal Dormouse is mainly found in the southern Britain only and unlike their name are far from common!

so doth the woodbine, sweet honeysuckle entwist

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

Honeysuckle is one of our most important plants and long may it remain one of our most widespread. Do enjoy the coming of Spring, keep to the footpaths and give our fauna and flora the space they need.

Paul Johnson

Photography: Lorna Neville


7 March 2021: Update

More Scarlet Elf Cup than we have ever seen before in Quarry Wood, stretching along about 10 or 15 metres of the old railway track.  A breath taking display!

The frogspawn laid last week is now perilously close to the edge of the pond after these sunny and dry days. Unless we get a good soaking soon, it will almost certainly dry out and perish.

But the Early Purple Orchids are looking robust, and the Town Hall Clock is spreading its dainty blanket. You have to kneel to see this modest little beauty, one of the only UK wildflowers to have a green flower and one of our ancient woodland indicators.

Sherlock Holmes in Crowhurst…

Fr Michael Brydon and Paul Johnson are both massive Holmes fans, but always felt it remiss that Conan Doyle failed to send Holmes to Crowhurst in any of his stories. So they decided they should rectify this…

The Mystery of the Purple Emperor

Set in Crowhurst in 1909. Holmes and Watson are summoned by village rector and famed letter-writer, the Rev’d James Bacon-Phillips, to assist Lieutenant Colonel Papillon of Crowhurst Park, who has been receiving ominous butterfly wings in the post.

– published Dec 2016

The Butterfly Spy

Set in Crowhurst in 1913. Military hero turned original Scoutmaster, Lieutenant General Baden-Powell, has a local problem, also lepidoptery-related…

– published Jan 2019