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.

Measles & Macbeth

Hello everyone! I hope you are all celebrating the season of Mabon in the best way possible. My mind goes back to our wonderful Crowhurst Arts folk concert when three brilliant groups played to a packed village hall; all vastly different to the misery and uncertainty that has blighted the world this year. Nevertheless, Ma Nature, with admirable fortitude and forgiveness for our treatment of her realm, continues to provide us with her seasonal bounty. As you sit there, reading your Crowhurst News from cover to cover, jars of Bramble jam are being stored away for forthcoming seasonal hampers, bottles cleaned, awaiting the annual batch of Sloe gin, ‘Penny Buns’ fought over and many weather eyes are focussed on the ripening chestnuts adorning our local C. sativa trees. It may have been three years since the lovely ladies of Rattlebag gave us a rousing rendition of Gather Up, but the message remains the same.

Now, predominately because this is one of the best adventure stories ever written, here is a quote to ponder: –

“Bill, sit where you are,” said the beggar. “If I can’t see, I can hear a finger stirring. Business is business. Hold out your right hand. Boy, take his right hand by the wrist and bring it near my right.” We both obeyed him to the letter, and I saw him pass something from the hollow of the hand that held his stick into the palm of the captain’s, which closed upon it instantly. Treasure Island – R. L. Stevenson (1883)

Who can fail to shudder at the memory of Blind Pew tapping his way up the track to the Admiral Benbow Inn to deliver the feared Black Spot to the doomed Billy Bones? However, before you start wondering if my mind has wandered off ne’er to return, let me confess to introducing another of my tenuous links to a topic, leaf spots!

As you stroll through the woods on one of these glorious autumnal days you cannot help but have leaves on your mind. The slightest breeze seems to cause a mini blizzard of them, those remaining on the trees are eye catching in their shapes and hues. If you look closer a number of the leaves will be marred by spots, lumps and bumps which also vary in size and colour.

Much like R. L. Stevenson’s doom-laden coded signs, these spots are not good news for the recipient. They are a sign that the leaf is being targeted by a pathogen, whether it be bacteria, insect or fungi.

Such attacks at the end of the year are not going to be problematic for the tree as the leaves will have fulfilled their photosynthetic role of ‘sugar production’ throughout the summer months (see Building with Light, July 2009). Indeed, depending on the species and given the right conditions, leaves can pay back their own ‘construction cost’ in as little as ten days, though it could be a month or more in a shady part of a forest. Just to prove how effective leaves are at their job, studies have estimated that, even in the worst light conditions, the payback period is estimated to be less than the half the lifespan of the leaf. Infections that occur early in the year can be more of a concern to a tree. It is true that if a leaf becomes so diseased that it drops off, more may grow in its place. Nevertheless, repeated infestations of the leaves will result in a loss of photosynthesis and prove detrimental to the health of the tree.

However, never let it be said that ma nature is short of a trick or two! When a leaf is infected by a pathogen it triggers a Hypersensitive Response which results in a complex arrangement of Programmed Cell Death (PCD). This involves systematically killing off the cells around an area of infection to slow down or stop it spreading though the leaf altogether. This enables the leaf to continue photosynthesising while still carrying an infection. So next time you look up at a tree and see that the leaves are suffering from the arboreal version of the measles, just think about those chemical defences springing up allowing them to function that little bit longer and carry on ‘Building with Light’, arguably the most wonderful and important chemical reaction on the planet.

There is nothing like a fleeting reference to the Kingdom of the Fungi to conjure up images of walks in our little reserve scanning the undergrowth for the weird and wonderful species that literally pop up overnight. Yes, they may be associated with disease and decay, but they are stunning to look at and of course the edible delights are much sought after during the wild harvest season.

Last week we came across two fine specimens of the aforementioned Ceps or ‘Penny Buns’ (Boletus edulis) which are standard fare for a forager’s table. Unfortunately for anyone looking to have a feast, the wildlife had beaten them to it!

Glimpses of white among the brambles and ferns indicated the return of either the False Death Cap (Amanita citrina), something that would not usually grace a harvest festival, or the Death Gap (Amanita Phalliodes) which definitely should not! We were pleased also to see a golden clump of Spectacular Rustgills (Gymnopilus junonius) in the dry area where our pond should be.

Unfortunately, and unusually for this time of year, we had to declare the pond officially empty again. At least this should give us the opportunity to clear some of the trees that have fallen in over the last year or so. We may get round to clearing some more brambles from the fernery too. The large fronds may have a brown tint to them now, but they are still magnificent as they stand aloof, reaching for the heavens. Finally, and with another nod of appreciation to the woodland fungi, we are delighted to announce that our Fungi Dome has started to live up to its name. It may involve many of the posts crumbling away but the effect should be a masterpiece of natural art! Do go along and see how many different species you can spot.

Talking of which: –

Out, damned spot! out, I say!  – Macbeth – William Shakespeare (1606)

Fear not Lady, the leaves will return!     Put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson


Image credits: Img 2: Leaf mite galls by S. Rae used under Creative Commons 2.0; Img 3: King Bolete by Bernard Spragg used under CC2.0; QW photography: L Neville.

Dancing on the brink

Hello everyone. Here we are in the meteorological autumn of this rather surreal and, possibly, life changing year for many people. The language has certainly changed! Even the record-breaking summer temperatures, strong winds and short monsoon-like showers have not precluded every other sentence from containing the words, lockdown, virtual or bubble.

As I sit here tapping away on my keyboard, listening to the trees being shaken by vociferous gusts of Storm Frances, I am thinking what a significant day this is in our species’ calendar. For today, 22nd August 2020, is Earth Overshoot Day (EOD), the date when Humanity’s demand for ecological resources and services in a given year exceeds what the planet can regenerate in that year. The concept was conceived by Andrew Simms, Research Associate at the University of Sussex, and Fellow of the New Economics Foundation, in 1987 and the date is calculated by the Global Footprint Network.

The first EOD was 23rd October and it has been getting earlier with each progressive year until today which is three weeks later than 2019. The reason for this blip in the trend is our ongoing C-19 pandemic and lockdown (there, I said it!) resulting in a minor improvement in the carbon footprint and slight decrease in the world timber demand. Clearly, given the scale of the operation, calculating the very date when we go into debt cannot be an exact science and the concept has its detractors. However, a drift of such magnitude in one direction is indicative and the idea that we are literally living beyond our means should definitely be one of the many alarm bells calling people around the world to action.

Another alarm bell situation is the huge decline in biodiversity and the suggestion that we are heading towards the sixth mass extinction event in the history of the planet. This is something we are witness to in a noticeably short space of time, perhaps even during our own lifetime.

Water Vole

With this in mind, the summer has seen a series of highs and lows for our native fauna and flora. The first official Red List for British Mammals was produced in July and it made disturbing reading. It showed that 11 of the 47 mammals native to Britain are now classified as being at imminent risk of extinction. These include our fastest disappearing mammal, the Water Vole (Arvicola amphibius), our iconic Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus), the nocturnal Hazel Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), the Wildcat (Felis silvestris), now confined to the Scottish Highlands, and Grey Long Eared Bat (Plecotus austriacus), found in just a few areas in southern England.

Hazel Dormouse

There have been a few exceptional cases where we can allow ourselves to be cautiously optimistic. The reintroduction of the Eurasian Beaver (Castor fiber) in areas of Scotland, Devon and Cornwall has been deemed a success despite some very upsetting reports of a few beavers being shot.

Eurasian Beaver

The benefits of having Beavers back in the country after an absence of 300 years or so are immense. As they say in Wales:-

A landscape with wild beavers re-established is wonderful to experience. Small, insignificant streams are transformed into cascading mosaics of dams, pools and wetlands, all providing new homes for all sorts of native wildlife, from dragonflies, fish and frogs to water voles, otters and water birds. Beavers would bring our streams, rivers and wetland habitats back to life, managing them perfectly for wildlife and people.
Adrian Lloyd Jones, Welsh Beaver Project / Prosiect Afancod Cymru

Red Kite

Birds of prey have also been in the news. The Red Kite (Milvus milvus) has been of concern ever since the first Kite Society was formed in 1903 and nest protection schemes initiated. However, things only got worse for the bird throughout the 20th century and by the 1980s the Red Kite was one of three globally threatened species in the UK. It was decided that breeding pairs were so few that reintroduction was the only solution to give them a chance in this country and in 1989 an ongoing programme using Kites from Sweden, Spain and Germany was started. Nowadays the lovely Milvus can be seen in many areas of the UK, the heaths and moorlands of Scotland and Wales, swooping over the energetic rowers at Henley and Reading and in our corner of the world where they have been spotted over the local marshes!

White-tailed Eagle

That leads me nicely to another extraordinary sighting over our little village, where a few lucky ‘Crowhursters’ had a glimpse of Britain’s largest bird of prey in July. A White-Tailed Eagle, or Sea Eagle to use another common moniker, (Haliaeetus albicilla) soared over our rooftops as it perused the Sussex countryside. It was one of six eaglets reintroduced to the Isle of Wight last year, four of which survived and are now exploring the territory with trips covering hundreds of miles. Another six young birds were added this year and you can read how the programme is progressing, and about our visiting Eagle, named G274, on the Roy Dennis Wildlife Foundation website. I, for one, am thrilled at the prospect of these giants of the air gliding around our skies with their 8ft wingspans for the first time in over 240 years.

Those of you who took part in our brilliant Crowhurst Book Swap might have come across one or two from master of sci-fi John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Beynon Harris. Who? I hear you ask. Well, knock off the last four of his names and you may recognise the author of The Day of the Triffids, among many others.

Gypsywort

I mention this only because the local marsh walks are lined with our very own Triffids, many of which are bursting into flower at the moment. Not the 7ft tall, stinging killers that perambulated on their three legs throughout the pages of John Wyndham’s novel, but a much smaller plant which, fortunately, cannot follow you on a stroll.

Commonly mistaken for Gypsywort (Lycopus europaeus) in its early stages, the Trifid Bur-marigold (Bidens tripartita) has a number of subspecies and varieties and it takes an acute botanical eye to identify them to that level. Those of you with a keen eye will have noticed the older spelling of the name Trifid, taken from the Latin trifidus, meaning to be split in three. In the case of this interesting flower the name refers to the leaves often having three lobes, though Ma Nature in her more playful moments will often furnish them with five or more, just to keep us guessing.

Another plant very much in evidence along the stream banks of our marshes is a foreign invader which, in conservation circles, is as welcome as one of Wyndham’s killer plants. Not as obviously dangerous as a man-eating Triffid, but the pink and white flowers of the Himalayan Balsam (Impatiens glandulifera) are spoken about generally with a fair amount of vitriol and a great deal of energy is spent trying to remove it.

Himalayan Balsam

It was first brought into the country from the mountain range it was named after in 1839. We have to accept that those intrepid Victorians could not have foreseen how many of their imports would affect the landscape and the native species of this country; it was the Golden Age of Discovery and knowledge of the big, wide world was paramount. Possibly no other generation collected as much information on the natural world, history, and cultures from around the globe, much of it coming at a price that we are still paying to this day.

In the case of Himalayan Balsam, they introduced a plant that soon escaped from the gardens and hothouses into the wild and established itself with admirable vigour and tenacity along Britain’s watercourses. It grows to between 6 and 10ft tall, successfully shading out smaller native plants before dying back annually, leaving large patches of bare soil that are prone to erosion. The carefully sculpted flowers are shaped for the maximum amount of bee contact as they brush in and out, and the copious amounts of nectar they produce, more than most other native European species, ensures the attention of pollinating insects to the detriment of other plants. Individual plants produce up to 800 seeds which explode out of their pods in all directions up to a distance of 27ft, often to be carried downstream to colonise pastures new. Pretty it may be, and many bee keepers love it, but in terms of biodiversity, it is a candy-coloured menace. No wonder it is on the country’s least wanted list!

 

And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.

John Wyndham,
quote from The Day of the Triffids (1951)

 

 


Image credits: Img 1: Water Vole by Peter Trimming, used under Creative Commons License 2.0; img 2: Hazel Dormouse by Frank Cassen CC2.0; img 3: Eurasian beaver by NTNU Faculty of Natural Science CC2.0; img 4: Red Kite by Michael Brace CC2.0; img 5: White Tailed Eagle circling by James West CC2.0; img 6-12: original TQW: Lorna Neville; img 13: Himalayan Balsam by Mark Robinson CC2.0

Unsettling times

Hello everyone. With half of this eventful year under our belts, I am looking forward and wondering what else the Universe is going to throw at us. Last month I chatted about our wildlife having a beneficial break from species H. sapiens. As is ever the case, perfect as it sounds, it is not the full story.

While Ma Nature’s denizens have enjoyed a brief interlude in much of human activity (which I notice has been coined as the Anthropause), in the UK and many other countries, there are some parts of the world where the wildlife has not been so fortunate.

[read in full…]

Ma Nature’s holiday

Hello everyone. Many apologies for the silence over the past few months, along with the rest of the world the TQW team have been coping with the necessary restrictions imposed upon our lifestyles. Amidst the horror and unmitigated misery that thousands of people are enduring there has been a single message that has shone out like a guiding light, that the environment has enjoyed a break from the battering it normally takes from anthropic activity. The virtual channels feeding into the oceans of social media information are awash with reports and images of wildlife attempting to claim back some of their land. Whether it is elephants swaying down quiet streets in Indian cities, wild goats treating back gardens in Wales as assault courses or lions basking on South African golf courses, the message is the same. While the people are away wildlife are ready and more than willing to take back what is theirs.

[read in full…]

The Quarry Wood Fungi Dome

The Towner Art Gallery in Eastbourne had a remarkable exhibition of wood sculptures by David Nash recently. Some of them small, some of them huge, a breathtaking display.

Nash’s artwork is exquisitely simple, enhancing and spotlighting the intrinsic beauty of the wood, creating shapes that juxtapose natural curves and artist’s carving, opening the timber to put light on expanses of internal surface area, and arranging pieces to provoke awe and inspection.

One of the installations was called “Red Dome”. It was an arrangement of orange/ochre Yew posts in concentric circles, about a metre high in the centre, with rings of decreasing height, perhaps four metres across, creating a dome effect. In each post the tree’s lines and notches and knots could be seen, each independently rich in colour and character. And then, together, in the overall shape, they created a new vision, an echo of the tree-that-was, an exposure of its inner life.

It was striking. It was inspirational.

And so, inspired by David Nash, we decided to create our very own environmental art installation… the Quarry Wood “Fungi Dome”.

It has turned out even better than we imagined – grand in scale, delicate in detail. Beautiful, natural, playful, educational. A slow-mo self-destructing artwork that will showcase all sorts of different fungi side by side.

Separated at birth!

All 180 posts are from trees that have come down here in the last few years; a mixture of sizes and species and stages. There, at the very centre, do you see the Heart of Oak? That is from the huge Oak bough that crashed across the path heading north. The medium-sized smooth-barked Willow? That was the “cross-legged” tree that snapped a couple of years ago, revealing the unexpected orchids. The ones with ancient gnarly ivy wrapped round? From the Old Lane. The Silver Birch? Look all around the birchy glade.

Peer in and you will see curves of bough and knots and gnarls that create beguiling features in their own right.

Over time, we should see lots of fungi, taking over, doing their job… breaking down the wood, taking the nutrients back to the ground. At any one moment, we should see different species at different stages on different wood at different levels of decomposition. As the years pass, we expect the dome to disintegrate. It is going to slowly crumble in front of our eyes, some of the posts rotting quickly, some of them taking longer. Entirely as it should be.

Truth be told, what we weren’t entirely expecting was to see so much fungi already. Candlesnuff, King Alfred’s Cakes, Scarlet Elf Cup, Green Elf Cup, Bleeding Oak Crust, Jelly Ear, lots of Brackets, and quite a few still to be identified. 

Green Elf Cup (stain of fruiting bodies); Cobalt Crust; Scarlet Elf Cup

We also discovered something that we have never seen before… because it turns out when you are collecting dead wood for an art installation, you are more likely to see the underside! There, hiding on the bottom of a piece of old Oak, we found the rich blue velvet of Cobalt Crust, seemingly rare in this part of the country, although perhaps just rarely recorded. A rather fabulous splash of unusual colour.

The next phase of the project is to prepare a set of Fungi ID cards to help all the eager fungi spotters… we’re working on it!

For now, enjoy the visual impact of the Dome and the characterful wooden pillars; let your eyes wander and hone in on the fungi that is already there.

Then stand back and relish the beautiful birch glade, the sandrock backdrop, the newt-filled pond, the emerging primroses and wild garlic, and the insects and birds all about you.

Lorna Neville

Photography: Lorna Neville