My Father in Law, a farmer, can reliably be heard at this time of year issuing gleeful warnings of the Blackthorn Winter. He's not wrong as it turns out, for the Blackthorn is out on the bough and this week the weather has changed. The temperature has dropped a few degrees and it's cold and raining.
Being a Hardy Outdoors type, this doesn't interfere overly with my day, whether it be dog walking or running, so this morning the dogs and I headed off to the woods through the rain for a walk.
This is an ancient place, managed by the National Trust who've been bringing it back into coppice rotation. I haven't been for a while and right now it looks dreadful with huge tracts of trees cuts down and muddy ruts of tractor wheels digging up the earth. They have replanted new hazels and if you look beyond the mess you'll find that wood anemones are blooming in the open spaces....
and Early Dog Violets too....
You can tell these are Early Dog Violets rather than Common Violets by the pointed nature of the spur sticking out at the back of the bloom. In the Common Violet this is blunted and shorter.
Violets are the food plant for the caterpillars of many Fritillary butterfly species which lay their eggs in the trees above the violets and the pillars then pop down to munch on the plants. The Silver Washed Fritillary is a creature of ancient woodlands who needs Common Violets which grow on our lane (once an ancient woodland, many moons ago). Last summer you may remember a small success I had with our local council who agreed to delay cutting the verges until after the butterflies had pupated, sometime in July. It's really worth having a look for these violets in your local area (they'll be in flower from March to May) and seeing if you can get your council to do the same. Silver Washed Frits are primarily a South UK Species and their numbers are falling so they need all the help they can get. They are big orange butterflies with black streaks and have a beautiful gliding flight. The adults are on the wing in July and August and they do venture out of woodlands on occasion (we get them in our garden).
Both the Early Dog Violet and the Wood Anemone are ancient woodland indicators. Their presence on the woodland floor, along with primroses and dog's mercury, mean that this woodland has been here since at least 1600, and in all likelihood much, much longer. The wood forms part of the Mottisfont Abbey Estate, which is itself on the site of some ancient Springs that were once sacred to the Celts (as indeed in Romsey Abbey, a few miles away). These springs rise in what is now the Abbey grounds. The water has an other-wordliness to it: the colour is something else and whenever I stand next to the Spring I get the urge to jump in it.
I started off following the human path through the woods on our walk this morning, but as so often happens found after a time that I was pulled to the Badger Paths that criss-cross the understory. Badgers find much more interesting places to walk than humans. They meander and amble and trundle through their woods. I am never bored when following a badger track. And I am always surprised at where they lead me. In the past I've found Orchids in these woods because the Badger Track ran past them. Thanks to the badgers, when it came to coppicing that area of the wood I was able to tell the ranger that the orchids were there, and this morning I see that they've coppiced that area and left the section where the orchids are alone. Coppicing is a winter occupation so any and all trace of the orchids would have vanished long before it began, so had the badgers not shown me the plants were there the habitat for the plant would have been lost and there would have been no more Orchids.
Here is Pop helpfully pointing out where the Badger Path runs between the conifers. Incidentally, although I am generally not a fan of conifers, it is worth noting that Sparrowhawks will choose them over broad-leafed trees to nest in, so perhaps they are more worthwhile than we sometimes give them credit for. This is especially true of young (under 50 years old), conifer plantations with open paths between them. I've seen Sparrowhawks in this wood before. Last summer a male nearly flew in to me, so intent was he on exploding out of the undergrowth with his prey clutched in his talons. Those yellow eyes. They are something else up-close. I got out of his way fast :o).
This morning, I followed the Badger Paths for a while then thought to turn off them and head back to the main path, but I got a very strong sense that I was meant to continue on it, so I did, and I found sulphur tuft mushrooms growing out of a tree stump....
As well as the Early Dig Violets and a patch of Wood Anemones. I wouldn't have found them had I been on the People Path. When you see a woodland from the eyes of the Wild Ones who inhabit it you get a very different view. All the people-related stuff falls away and what's left is the Land, pure and simple, as it has always been.
Hope you're all well? I'm going to embarrass B from Coastal Ripples now by saying a HUGE WELL DONE on running her first twenty-minutes-non-stop section of the Couch to 5K programme. It's a great achievement and she's a fab example to us all.