Help solve our mushroom mystery

AFTER our recent post about toadstools and mushrooms flourishing in Burnham Beeches, we’ve been back out in the woods uncovering an even wider range of fascinating and beautiful fungi.

And what an amazing range of shapes and colours we found. The only problem is that we still couldn’t tell a tawny grisette from a glistening inkcap – not to mention a horn of plenty, velvet shank, parrot waxcap or weeping widow.

The names alone are enough to want to make you find out more – from the stinking dapperling to the charcoal burner, golden scalycap, grey knight or wrinkled peach.

But even armed with the Woodland Trust’s fungi identification guide and those of Wildfood UK and First Nature, the only mushrooms we could identify with any real confidence were the foul-smelling stinkhorn (Picture 15) and the beechwood sickener (Picture 11).

So we put out an appeal to our friends on Twitter and Facebook to help us complete our captions – and the response was terrific.

All 20 pictures were taken on a single afternoon on a short woodland walk at Burnham Beeches.

Within minutes our friends in the Wild Marlow facebook group were pointing us towards the Buckinghamshire Fungus Group – and overnight, group secretary Penny Cullington was able to fill in a lot of the gaps in our knowledge.

If you have similar problems in identifying specific species, check out the group’s detailed alphabetical picture guide – look up the name in the list to locate the photo, with helpful tips about identification.

‘Mushroom man’ John Harris from Leicestershire also has an incredibly useful blog that can help with all aspects of mushroom identification, not to mention a pocket guide for those wanting to investigate further.

And sincere thanks to all those who helped in our quest and commented in forums on Facebook or on Twitter.

PICTURE 1: just a rotting fungus past its sell-by date?
PICTURE 2: our friend @PipsticksWalks helped to pin this down as upright coral fungus (Ramaria stricta). Apparently there are an incredible number of species of coral fungi, but this one is pretty common in our Chilterns woods
PICTURE 3: too little detail to identify this one?
PICTURE 4: Penny from BFG pointed us towards Tricholoma sulphureum, the poisonous Sulphur Knight, once known as the gas works mushroom because of its pungent odour
PICTURE 5: Lycoperdon pyriforme, the stump puffball, says Penny from BFG
PICTURE 6: too many possibilities to choose from here?
PICTURE 7: a faded Amethyst deceiver, Laccaria amethystina, we are told
PICTURE 8: probably the common rustgill or Gymnopilus penetrans, we now believe
PICTURE 9: too far gone to identify?
PICTURE 10: Penny from BFG identifies this as the birch bracket or Fomitopsis betulina (formerly known as Piptoporus betulinus)
PICTURE 11: the poisonous beechwood sickener (Russula nobilis) is known for its bright colours and crumbly gills. It plays a vital role in the woodland ecosystem since beech trees rely on fungi in the soil to pass minerals to them in exchange for sugars from the tree
PICTURE 12: maybe a dappled webcap, but other angles needed for a confirmed identification
PICTURE 13: Penny from BFG suggests the bonnets in the foreground may be saffrondrop bonnets (Mycena crocata) with common stump brittlestem in the background (see below)
PICTURE 14: Psathyrella piluliformis or common stump brittlestem is common and widespread in woodlands, we discover
PICTURE 15: the stinkhorn (phallus impudicus) is recognisable by its foul odour and relies on flies and other insects to transport its spores
PICTURE 16: a species of webcap, we believe
PICTURE 17: clustered bonnet (Mycena inclinata), known by some as the oak bonnet
PICTURE 18: like Picture 4, Penny from BFG believes this is another Sulphur Knight
PICTURE 19: very old honey fungus (Armillaria mellea)
PICTURE 20: probably a shaggy parasol (Chlorophyllum rhacodes), says Penny from BFG, but hard to be sure without seeing the gills and stem

Woods come alive with autumn colour

CHILLY nights and rainy days can turn your favourite walk into a muddy morass and take some of the fun out of autumn rambles.

But brighter days in October and November are a perfect time to capture autumnal colour when the sun breaks through the clouds and turns local parks into places of wonder and mystery.

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Nowhere is more inviting in the sunshine that Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

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Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

This is also a very different world from your visits back in the spring (below), with so many of the vivid greens replaced with russets, reds and golds.

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There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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And if the landscape looks familiar, it might be because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

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Mind you, the same can be said for nearby Black Park, another perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

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Although the area round the 14-acre lake and popular cafe tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

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Nearby Langley Park is another favourite autumn retreat, offering a peaceful oasis of colour and tranquillity looking out towards Windsor Castle.

This is a world of pooh sticks and Eeyore houses, where toddlers decked out in bobble hats and wellingtons are kicking leaves and splashing in puddles like generations before them.

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For those wanting an even more spectacular vista, there is also the sprawling Cliveden Estate, 376 acres of magnificent Grade I listed formal gardens and woodlands with panoramic views over the Berkshire countryside.

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Owned, managed and cared for by the National Trust, the dog-friendly grounds slope down to the River Thames and feature a number of woodland walks suitable for families, as well as perfect picnic spots for when the rain lets up.

This estate was the meeting place for political intellectuals in the 1920s and 30s, and in the early 1960s was the setting for key events in the notorious Profumo sex scandal that rocked the Macmillan government.

In 1893, the estate was purchased by the American millionaire William Waldorf Astor, who moved to Hever Castle and left Cliveden to his son Waldorf when he married in 1906.

The young Astors used Cliveden for entertaining on a lavish scale and it’s not hard to see how the spectacular location made it a popular destination for film stars, politicians, world leaders and writers of the day.

Witty, glamorous and fashionable, Nancy became a prominent hostess among the English elite and followed her husband into politics, in 1919 becoming the first woman to sit as an MP in the House of Commons.

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That sense of history is all about you here, on the banks of the Thames – memories of autumn walks across the centuries where the timeless beauty of the trees has provided a backdrop to countless human dramas, hopes and fears…

For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website. For Black Park, visit the park’s website and Facebook page or call 01753 511060. For Langley, visit the website or call 01753 511060. For more information about Cliveden, see the National Trust website.

Check out our nature guides page for things to do in the woods and our What’s On page for other local attractions and special events.

Mark’s ultimate birdsong guide

MARK Avery knows a thing or two about birds.

He worked for the RSPB for 25 years until standing down in 2011 to go freelance and was the wildlife charity’s conservation director for nearly 13 years.

WALK FOR WILDLIFE: Mark joins Chris Packham in Hyde Park in 2018

He’s also an author and blogger living in rural Northamptonshire, not to mention a tireless environmental campaigner, pictured above at Chris Packham’s 2018 People’s Walk for Wildlife in London.

Back in February his casual blog post about birdsong was meant to be a timely reminder about the wonders of the dawn chorus.

He wasn’t to know, of course, that within weeks the country would be in lockdown – and more people than ever before would be finding the sound of their local birds more reassuring and important than ever before.

DAWN CHORUS: a blue tit pictured by Yorkshire-based naturalist Tim Melling

In the first post he wrote about making his first cup of tea of the day at around 6am, taking a step outside the back door and hearing birdsong: a robin or two, a bunch of song thrushes and the occasional blackbird.

“Knowing the songs and calls of birds is a blessing,” he wrote. “I feel at home because I know those sounds, they are recognised, familiar, and loved.”

February is the time to start learning bird songs, he suggested, because there aren’t many bird species singing at this time of year so it’s not too confusing. “Start now. Start today,” he urged.

TWO-NOTE PHRASE: the great tit has an easily recognised refrain PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Try it and see – it’s fun,” he added. “All this stuff has been going on around you all your life but you may never have stopped to listen. Give it a try.”

Perhaps it was inevitable that his first choice of bird to focus on (and one to which he repeatedly returned in subsequent blogs) was the great tit. As a junior research assistant in the zoology department in Oxford he produced scientific papers about the two-note tee-cher, tee-cher phrases that make this one of the easiest birds for novice ears to identify.

Song thrushes, dunnocks and blackbirds followed, and by March 20 it was the turn of the chiffchaff to take centre stage, just days before lockdown.

CLARION CALL: the chiffchaff signals that spring is unfolding PICTURE: Tim Melling

“Whenever I hear that first chiffchaff, even on the grottiest day, I know that spring is unfolding, as it always does, and that sunnier days and over the coming weeks a more or less predictable succession of other summer migrants are on their way back. And as a clarion call for spring, what could be better than the song of the chiffchaff?” Mark wrote.

A lifetime of listening has helped him accumulate a recognition of a range of different songs, and his blog entries encourage newcomers to make a start, ideally in February before the chorus grows, swelled by less familiar migrants.

To help the uninitiated, his posts link to recordings on xeno-canto, a website dedicated to sharing bird sounds from all over the world.

GARDEN FRIEND: the robin can be vicious to other robins PICTURE: Tim Melling

Mark advises newcomers to try to spot the songster first: then listening to some songs on the website can help to identify the most common species.

His blog introduces birds one by one, including the sparky robin – “lovely eyes but they are vicious little b*ggers” – along with the greenfinch, chaffinch, wren, skylark, willow warbler and cuckoo.

CANDID CAMERA: Tim Melling sees himself first and foremost as a naturalist

Accompanied by some glorious photographs from Tim Melling, “a naturalist who happens to take photographs of wildlife rather than a proper wildlife photographer”, Mark’s guides started taking on a life of their own, growing to more than 20 by the middle of April:

Introduction
Great Tits
Song Thrush
Songs and calls
Dunnock
Blackbird
More on Great Tits
Chiffchaff
Even more on Great Tits
Yet more on Great Tits
Robin
Great Tits again
Greenfinch
Chaffinch
Wren
Skylark
Blackcap
Sonagrams
Willow Warbler
Cuckoo

SMALL WONDER: the wren is a small bird with a very loud voice PICTURE: Tim Melling

The positive feedback might have been due in part to the fact that lockdown encouraged many families to take a new look at the world around them, exploring local lanes close to their homes and discovering some of the small delights of nature perhaps for the first time.

It’s the same kind of explosion of interest in the natural world that made the Self-Isolating Bird Club such a success, with as many as half a million viewers turning up to watch the “home-made” live show hosted by Chris Packham and stepdaughter Megan McCubbin.

Back on Mark’s blog, the entries grew rapidly during April and May, boosted by early morning walks in the countryside near his home and by the enthusiastic exchanges with followers.

Accompanied by more evocative pictures from Tim Melling, the April and May entries extend the scope into much less familiar territory, featuring yellowhammers and whitethroats, curlews, turtle doves and wood warblers: “This bird’s song is sublimely evocative for me. Hearing it, anywhere, even sitting here at my computer, takes me immediately back to the Welsh oakwood on the RSPB Dinas nature reserve.”

SUBLIME SONG: the wood warbler evokes fond memories for Mark PICTURE: Tim Melling

Starling
Black Redstart
Garden Warbler
Sedge and Reed Warblers
Blue Tit
Yellowhammer
Why a dawn chorus?
Common and Lesser Whitethroats
Goldfinch
Nightingale
Oystercatcher
Golden Plover
Curlew
Lapwing
Snipe
Black-tailed Godwit
Dunlin
House Sparrow
Corn Bunting
Turtle Dove
Mistle Thrush
Bittern
Woodlark
Corncrake
Nightjar
Common Crane
Meadow Pipit
Wood Warbler
Grasshopper Warbler
Some favourites

UPLANDS FAVOURITE: the meadow pipit PICTURE: Tim Melling

By May, Mark had reached his half-century of posts about birdsong, a singular achievement and a project that has brought a great of pleasure to so many.

With lockdown restrictions starting to ease, he signed off with a message to subscribers which read: “It’s summer. I wonder what summer will bing in terms of wildlife to my garden and to my locality, and where we will all be in terms of coronavirus in another three months. It’s a bit difficult to tell isn’t it?

“But nature is a source of solace in these times of uncertainty. I just hope that the last few weeks and the coming few months will embed the importance of nature around us in more minds, in more actions and in more government policies. That is one way that we can try to build a better world after this period of reflection.”

MELODIOUS SONG: the blackcap PICTURE: Tim Melling

His followers probably share the same emotions. As one, Bimbling, put it: “I think the series has been wonderful and a great idea. Some of the blogs have prompted nostalgia, others desire. All have been interesting while some have been fascinating. So thank you so much for both the inspiration and effort to put them together. Much appreciated.”

Now we just need to wait to February for the dawn chorus to start again in earnest for a chance to make the most of Mark’s labour of love: his extraordinary 50-part audio-visual journey through our heaths, hedgerows and woodlands might mean listening to the birds outside on a spring morning is never quite the same again.

Trees remain in tune with the past

IT’S a  perfect day for a walk in the woods…not totally airless, not too hot, but warm in the sunshine and even the darker glades are dappled with light.

But here at Burnham Beeches we are in a place where one can feel pretty insignificant, especially when wandering round a tree with a startling past like the Druid’s Oak.

The old-timer may not look so majestic these days, but this tree is around 800 years old, dating back through the reigns of some 35 kings and queens to the era of King John, when the Magna Carta was being drawn up.

This is a time of the crusades and Marco Polo’s travels. It’s hard to believe the same oak will be standing here in later centuries to witness the Spanish Armada, Gunpowder Plot or Great Fire of London.

But time stands still in Burnham Beeches, where ancient sentinels silently recall generations of Victorian schoolchildren coming here for Sunday outings or the war years when the woods were awash with service personnel, with some 65 huts and other buildings hidden among the trees.

Wander down this path and you’re at the site of an Iron Age hillfort. Take that route through the trees and you find a small plaque commemorating the poet Thomas Gray, who wandered the woods in the 18th century and completed his famous poem ‘Elegy in a Country Churchyard’ in 1750 amid the peaceful graves surrounding St Giles’ church in nearby Stoke Poges.

The past is all around you here – and at no time is that more obvious than on an August afternoon when the dragonflies are flitting around, the wood ants are on the march and the cattle are lazily munching their way through the undergrowth.

Helpful Wildlife Trust contacts are able to suggest my fuzzy picture is a male ruddy darter, and a magnificent video from Roger Havercroft on the Wild Cookham facebook page soon confirms this.

At the other end of the size spectrum are the British white cattle casually sun-bathing on the grass. They, along with other traditional breeds such as Exmoore ponies and Berkshire pigs, have been used to bring grazing back to the reserve – a practice which helped to create this ancient woodland.

Back in the woods, the rowan berries are out, the first leaves have fallen and the ancient beeches rustle a little as the evening breeze begins to pick up.

It really is an extraordinary landscape: beautiful, haunting, ever-changing and intimately in tune with the past.

Snakes alive! It’s a nadder…

MEET Norris. I’m not sure that’s his actual name, because he disappeared a little too quickly into the gorse to indulge in idle chatter.

But then it’s notoriously difficult to get close to an adder without scaring it away, even though local ramblers and rangers blithely talk about spotting them basking in the early morning sun as if the moor was awash with the wrigglers.

Nonetheless, after a couple of long years of scouring the local heath, we are delighted to get to meet our first adder at long last. (To see him in action, see the video below.)

Why not Anthony the adder? Or Adelaide, for that matter? Well, as you probably know, the snake’s common name is the result of a historical pronunciation error. Back in the day, this was a “nadder” in the same way that people once spoke of naprons, noranges and numpires.

In historical linguistics they call this metanalysis or rebracketing, when we break down a word or phrase into segments or meanings different from the original, so Norris the nadder it is for now, with a nod to Old English.

We are wandering amid the gorse and heather of Stoke Common, but this is our first encounter with its most formidable resident, one of Britain’s most exotic native species and our only venomous snake. And without doubt there’s a visceral thrill about seeing that distinctive diamond pattern and frankly scary wriggle.

“There’s nothing madder than a trodden on adder,” said Spike Milligan, but these are actually very shy, timid snakes that tend to bite only in self-defence, usually when someone is attempting to capture them or has inadvertently stepped on them.

After the recent storms, it’s a blustery day on the common, which may be one reason we have managed to get so close to our new friend before he makes a dash for it.

Each adder is unique and the patterns on their heads are as individual as a human fingerprint, apparently, although the markings are also amazing camouflage, making them difficult to spot in this ancient heathland landscape where they can hide among the scrub and gorse and venture out to bask, thermoregulating by moving between sun and shade, since they need to raise their body temperature before they become fully active.

As Shakespeare warned in Julius Caesar: “It is the bright day that brings forth the adder, and that craves wary walking.”

Like other members of the viper family, the eggs hatch within the mother and the young are born live. Hence that ‘viper’ name, derived from the Latin for ‘live birth’.

They love rough grasslands, heaths and moorland like this: anywhere with sunny spots for basking, dense cover for shelter and plenty of prey like small mammals, ground-nesting birds, reptiles and amphibians.

So how nasty is that bite? Pretty bad, apparently. Some 50 to 100 people every year get bitten, and a similar number of dogs, although human deaths are rare, with only around 14 recorded fatalities from adder bites since 1876, the last almost half a century ago.

That’s not to make light of the potential injuries, though. It’s only a month since a distraught dad was warning about the excruciating pain suffered by his three-year-old son when he was bitten at a family picnic in a country park.

Pet dogs have certainly died from adder bites and, since this is the only venomous snake in much of northern Europe, perhaps it was inevitable that myths and misunderstandings would surround the snakes, including a widespread belief that its “sting” lay in its forked tongue rather than delivering venom through their hinged, hollow fangs.

Legends and folk tales span the centuries and it’s hard to tell which are the more gruesome of the many and varied medical cures and traditions surrounding the poor snakes, many of which are recounted on Tim Sandles’ Legendary Dartmoor website.

Would you prefer to rub the bite wound with a dead snake, toad skin, the foot of a dead owl, a live pigeon or the straw from a swallow’s nest? Honeysuckle leaves are a slightly more palatable alternative.

Watching Norris wriggle off into the undergrowth, it’s hard not to shiver at the sight. It certainly doesn’t do to think too much about him and his mates hibernating together during the winter in large groups, as many reptiles do.

They can survive for months like that, it seems, emerging in the spring when it’s warm enough for them to bask in the dappled shade of a gorse bush before mustering the energy to start hunting again.

Our folklore is riddled with stories and superstitions relating to the snakes, and adders are often attributed with powers of wisdom or a sly nature.

But if they were sacred to the druids they were also much persecuted: killing the first adder of spring was supposed to bring the perpetrator good luck and bashing one with an ash stick before sunset would also supposedly neutralise evil sprits.

Wearing the skin of an adder inside a hat could ensure the wearer never suffered from headaches, a skin worn around the leg would banish symptoms of rheumatism and one hung over the fireplace would attract good fortune.

Noawadays it is illegal to kill one: since 1981 adders have become a ‘protected species’, although it was not always thus. Tim Sandles’ recalls the letter written to the Western Morning News in September 1925 when the Reverend Hugh Breton recounted: “I always kill them if I can, as they are dangerous to man and beast…”

Even the famous adder dance, in which pairs of snakes entwine themselves around each other and wrestle energetically, is frequently misinterpreted, it seems. Instead of being a courtship ritual, it is actually a duel between territorial males.

Poor old Norris. So many misconceptions! Still, mugging up on adder folklore has at least uncovered one certain way to spot an adder, according to Dartmoor legend at least.

Find a dragonfly, because if you see one hovering there will be an adder basking below it; many believed the dragonfly was put on the moor to warn mankind of presence of the poisonous snake. Sorted. Now we know how to find one in future…

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

The word adder comes from the Old English word for the species, naeddre. Over time this became ‘nadder’ and reference to “a nadder”, soon became “an adder”. In the development of language this process, whereby a letter is added or subtracted because of a nearby word, is called metanalysis.

It’s a similar story with napron norange and numpire but works in reverse with newt and nickname.

Parishes protect our common past

THREE cheers for our parish councils.

They may not get much recognition, but they play a crucial role in protecting open spaces and common land across the Chilterns.

Parish and town councils are the most local level of government in England and they vary massively in size, from tiny villages with only a few hundred voters to larger towns where they may look after everything from street lighting and cemeteries to war memorials and markets.

PARISH PUMP: The Vicar of Dibley cast PICTURE: BBC / Tiger Aspect Productions

If the Vicar of Dibley left a lasting impression of parish council meetings being archaic and bumbling, it’s a little unfortunate because the reality is that these grass-roots councils are responsible for a huge range of important community functions.

Originally created in 1894 and called community councils in Wales and Scotland, they can represent from 200 to more than 30,000 people with budgets ranging from a few hundred to hundreds of thousands of pounds, levied through the council tax.

COMMON GROUND: Southdown Ponds on Harpenden Common by Andrew Keenleyside

Parishes have numerous powers to provide community facilities – from clocks, bus shelters and litter bins to toilets, sports centres and playing fields. But for many local people it’s their role in protecting shared community land that is of most importance, looking after our commons, open spaces and local nature reserves across the Chilterns.

OPEN OUTLOOK: much of Dunstable Downs is managed by the National Trust

From Dunstable Downs to Ivinghoe, Pitstone and Ibstone, some of our most eye-catching Chilterns scenery is common land, from Chesham Bois to Chinnor Hill and Marlow to Chorleywood.

In fact there are 170 different commons within the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and another 88 within 3km of the AONB boundary. 

WELCOME OASIS: Gerrards Cross common, once the haunt of highwaymen

Some, like Stoke Common, managed by the City of London Corporation, may cover 200 acres or more, whereas others may be smaller but much-loved oases of green or wooded land much cherished by dog walkers, runners and picnickers, like Gerrards Cross common, maintained by the local town council.

COMMUNITY ORCHARD: Temple Dell at Farnham Common

Some common land may date back to medieval times, whereas some local initiatives are more recent, including a range of millennium projects across the region – or the community orchard planted in 2011 at Temple Dell and maintained by Farnham Royal Parish Council .

The Warren nature reserve in Wooburn Green is one of around 16 such reserves in Buckinghamshire and looked after by the Wooburn and Bourne End Parish Council.

GO WITH THE FLOW: the River Wye flowing through Wooburn Green

A number of other small reserves, like that at Homefield Wood near Marlow, are managed by the local wildlife trust.

WILDLIFE HAVEN: birds, butterflies and moths find a welcome at Homefield Wood

District councils have a crucial role to play in waste disposal, while county and unitary authorities spearhead tha battle against fly-tipping.

But on many of our open spaces across the region it’s the humble parish council that’s on the front line in protecting our ancient open spaces – and coping with problems like litter, vandalism and anti-social behaviour along the way.

Why are we so scared of spiders?

SPIDERS are the stuff of our nightmares, it seems.

From the giant spiders Bilbo Baggins and his dwarf companions encounter in Mirkwood on their quest in The Hobbit to the enormous, sentient Aragog in Harry Potter, fiction writers have been only too eager to play on our fears.

Bilbo Baggins faces a giant spider

But why are we SO scared of spiders when the vast majority are harmless to humans and most are actively beneficial, gobbling up household pests?

Their silken webs are things of beauty on a dewy morning, as Roy Battell captures in startling images from his Moorhens website (below). And yet fear of spiders is just about the most common phobia in the world.

If that’s the case, you’d expect it to be because we have suffered some sort of trauma involving spiders.

But although spiders could bite if they feel threatened or endangered and most are venomous, in the UK we have little to actively worry about, even if there are literally hundreds of different species living here…and more than 35,000 known species worldwide.

But unlike the Americans, we don’t have to worry about the black widow or brown recluse, never mind the Sydney funnel-web spider, the most dangerous spider to humans in the world, which is native to Australia.

In fact very few of us have undergone any real spider trauma – so why is arachnophobia so prevalent, with children identifying fear of spiders as their biggest terror?

Back in 2015, spider expert Chris Buddle explained in The Independent some of the potential causes, although maybe it’s their sheer ‘legginess’ which gives us the shudders, coupled with cultural beliefs about the nature of spiders.

But if it was an evolutionary fear of animals which posed a threat to ancient humans, why do we not worry more about tigers or crocodiles?

Autumn is a good time to appreciate spiders, when they reach full maturity, and early morning walkers find their webs fascinating, gloriously backlit by the early morning sun.

Numerous online articles provide pictures of the most common types, with UK Safari highlighting 65 species, starting with the 16 about which they receive most queries.

You can also take your pick from guides published in Countryfile, local wildlife trust or even The Sun to get a better idea of the exact species you are looking at.

For those intrigued by the delicate webs, there’s much more to discover, though. All spiders have two claws on their feet, but web-spinning spiders have three. They are used not only to pull the silk but also to grip and release the web’s threads and provide traction as they move around it.

Spiders spin two kinds of silk: sticky strands used to capture prey which make up the spiralling threads of the web and non-sticky or “dragline” silk used to provide structural support, and which spiders walk on to avoid getting caught in their own webs.

Female spiders build the webs and there are three main types: orb webs, funnel or sheet webs, and the irregular webs of common house spiders.

But not all spiders make webs: flower crab spiders alter their colour like chameleons to ambush their prey, the wolf spider leaps out on its prey like its namesake, the wasp spider disguises itself as a wasp to keep it safe from predators, the raft spider can walk on water, and the water spider even lives under water, building a bell-shaped tent between plant stems.

The nursery web spider rather cutely does not spin a web to catch food, but builds a silk sheet in the vegetation to act as a tent for her young, sheltering them until they are old enough to leave on their own.

On heathlands the gorse bushes can often be seen enveloped in huge gossamer webs. These webs are made by  tiny animals known as  gorse spider mites – bright red mites which live in large colonies and are used in countries like New Zealand to control the spread of gorse, which is regarded there as an invasive weed.

Welcome splash of summer colour

BUTTERFLIES are among our most beautiful summer visitors – and the only insects that we universally love to welcome to our gardens (unless you grow cabbages, perhaps).

But how well do you know the most common species? We have become so removed from daily contact with the countryside that many of us are unfamiliar with all but the most iconic or instantly recognisable, like the peacock, small tortoiseshell or painted lady.

It doesn’t help that they flit about so quickly that it can be hard to study them closely, though Butterfly Conservation have produced a handy series of spotters’ guides as part of their ongoing Big Butterfly Count, as featured on our Nature Guides page.

Britain has about 56 species in total, with about three dozen in the Chilterns, as captured in a colourful charity wallchart by members of the Chesham Wildlife group.

With many families exploring their local lanes and footpaths during lockdown, there’s been an upsurge of interest in the natural world, and TV programmes like Springwatch have helped spread the word – along with enthusiastic young naturalists like Rebecca’s Butterfly Farm on Twitter and Youtube.

Habitat loss is a major problem for many butterfly series, especially specialists like the marsh fritillary which can be extremely fussy, and if their food plant or habitat becomes scarce, so do they.

Some specialists, such as the high brown and pearl-bordered fritillaries, are near to extinction in Britain, while other wider countryside species have also declined in areas where agricultural activities have turned much of the countryside into an ecological desert.

Although many factors have contributed to butterfly decline – a changing climate, pesticides and habitat loss – some species have increased in abundance, so it’s certainly not all bad news.

More than 72,000 citizen scientists have been taking part in the annual butterfly count, with a million butterflies spotted – the top five being the large white, small white, gatekeeper, peacock and meadow brown.

But did you immediately recognise the species featured on this page? From the top they were: a gatekeeper at Stoke Common, a peacock at Woolman’s Wood, a silver-washed fritillary at Black Park and a cinnabar moth caterpillar at Stoke Common…

Heath comes alive for summer

AS THE July afternoon sun falls across Stoke Common, there are some welcome splashes of colour to grab the eye.

There are times of the year on a drizzly day when this patch of ancient heathland can seem a little bleak and featureless, but it’s surprising how different it can look on a summer’s day.

The butterflies are dancing in the light breeze, the blackberry blossom is blooming and there are splashes of yellow and purple among the gorse and heather.

Many of the plant species recorded at Stoke Common are considered rare, at least in Buckinghamshire, and there are times when it looks more like a Scottish heath than somewhere that’s a stone’s throw from Slough.

Nowadays this is one of the rarest habitats in Britain, but these 200 acres of land represent the largest remnant of ancient heathland that was once extensive across Buckinghamshire.

Created by a combination of poor, acidic soils and land management which includes grazing, it is home to some  very rare plants, animals and insects that are quite different from those of grassland and woodlands and account for its status as an important Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

A score of burnished brown Sussex cattle are currently doing their part to protect the heathland and look smooth, velvety and very healthy on their prickly diet.

Nowadays owned and run by the City of London Corporation, with the help of volunteers and supporters like the Friends of Stoke Common, the common is pleasantly quiet for walkers and runners trying to get away from it all.

But is the splash of yellow broom or gorse? What type of heathers grow here, what type of thistles are these – and what are all those other yellow flowers popping up here and there across the heath?

Pocket guidebooks can sometimes seem more confusing than helpful on such matters, offering you more than 20 pages of similar-looking yellow wild flowers to choose from, all with ever more exotic-sounding names, from creeping jenny and tufted loosestrife to yellow archangel and common fleabane.

Broom and gorse should be easy enough to distinguish, even though both are members of the pea family, have bright yellow flowers and tend to grow in the same kind of places. Gorse is the prickly one whose flowers smell of coconut, whereas broom stems are long, flexible and smooth.

Common broom’s old Latin name, planta genista, is said to have lent its name to the Plantagenet kings because they wore sprigs of it in their hats, while the Glasgow songwriter Adam McNaughtan based his song Yellow on the Broom on the hardships of the Scottish travelling community.

The song was inspired by a book of the same name recalling the memories of Perthshire traveller Betsy White, who wrote of her childhood and the feelings of her mother who, accustomed to travelling all year, married a man who wintered in town.

The hostility of the townsfolk towards the travellers and the unkindness of the other children at school towards her own made her long to see the broom start to flower in the spring – a sign that it was time to be back on the road:

I’m weary for the springtime when we tak’ the road aince mair
Tae the plantin’, and the pearlin’ and the berry fields o’ Blair
When we meet up wi’ our kinfolk fae a’ the country roon’
And the gaun-aboot folk tak’ the road when the yellow’s on the broom

If it’s easy to understand how the flowers of the broom would have lifted the hearts of many a traveller, gorse is not without its fans too.

Pioneering 18th century botanist Carl Linnaeus was so taken with it that he tried to grow it in his native Sweden but found the winters there too harsh for it to survive. On a visit to England in 1736 he is said to have wept with joy at the sight of it flowering on London’s Putney Heath.

Anyone who has come into direct accidental contact with gorse is less likely to be so impressed. We have three native gorse species in Britain: common gorse, western gorse and dwarf gorse, the latter restricted to the south and south-east.

Birds like the stonechat and Dartford warbler love this sort of environment, as do lizards and adders, though the reptiles are pretty good at keeping well hidden.

But sitting astride a gorse bush, the stonechat has no such reservations about issuing its distinctive call, which sounds like two pebbles being rubbed together.

Perhaps that confidence stems from the fact that in country folklore this little cousin of the robin, with its blood-red breast, was seen as the devil’s bird and therefore protected, its call representing a constant conversation with the devil, who would break the back of anyone foolish enough to take a stonechat’s eggs.

The abundant flowers of gorse and heather at Stoke Common are valuable sources of nectar and pollen for insects. Pollinated mainly by bumblebees and honey bees, they are valuable both as a food plant and as habitat for many invertebrates including moths and spiders.

But then the same is true of plants we regard as weeds, like thistles and ragwort. Despite its weed status, the spear thistle seeds are attractive to birds like goldfinches and the flowers are a nectar source for butterflies like the small copper.

The much-maligned ragwort (or “stinking willie”) is even more remarkable, providing a home and food source for at least 77 insect species, 30 of which rely on it exclusively for their food source, including the very distinctive cinnabar moth.

These insects are remarkable looking both as moths and caterpillars: the moths have distinctive pinkish-red and black wings, as shown in Charles Sharp’s magnificent photograph on Wikipedia, while newly hatched larvae feed from the underneath of ragwort leaves, absorbing toxic and bitter tasting substances from the plants, becoming unpalatable themselves.

The bright colours of both the larvae and the moths act as warning signs, so they are seldom eaten by predators.

Initially, the larvae are pale yellow, but later develop a jet-black and orange/yellow striped colouring. They can grow up to 30 mm (1.2 in) and are voracious eaters, with large populations able to strip entire patches of ragwort clean.

There is no more controversial and divisive flower around, it seems. Ragwort contains chemicals that are toxic to livestock and has been blamed for deaths of horses and other animals. Yet conservationists say it’s a native wildflower vital for pollinating insects.

The nature poet John Clare was firmly in the positive camp. In 1832 he wrote:

THE RAGWORT

Ragwort, thou humble flower with tattered leaves
I love to see thee come and litter gold,
What time the summer binds her russet sheaves;
Decking rude spots in beauties manifold,
That without thee were dreary to behold,
Sunburnt and bare — the meadow bank, the baulk
That leads a wagon-way through mellow fields,
Rich with the tints that harvest’s plenty yields,
Browns of all hues; and everywhere I walk
Thy waste of shining blossoms richly shields
The sun tanned sward in splendid hues that burn
So bright and glaring that the very light
Of the rich sunshine doth to paleness turn
And seems but very shadows in thy sight.

Who would have thought a poisonous weed would become the stuff of poetry? But then, as they say, beauty is always in the eye of the beholder…

Lazy days on the Beeches Way

AS long-distance paths go, the Beeches Way is a minnow among leviathans.

Many national trails are more than 100 miles long, and some greatly exceed that – with routes like the Greater Rideway, Pennine Way or South West Coast Path being measured in hundreds rather than tens of miles.

But however modest the Beeches Way may sound at a mere 16 miles, it cuts a picturesque route through some magnificent Chilterns countryside, taking in a top trio of local country parks and sites of special scientific interest along the way.

It runs from Cookham on the Thames to the Grand Union Canal at West Drayton, a route developed by the Iver and District Countryside Association in conjunction with Buckinghamshire County Council.

It also links up with other long-distance routes, including the Berkshire Loop of the Chiltern Way and the Thames Path from Cookham.

Several walkers have chronicled highlights of the route and you can see full details on the website of the Long Distance Walkers Association and Pete Collins’ informative website, which also includes links to other connecting walks in the area.

Tim Bertuchi is another walker to provide a step-by-step guide to the route back in 2009 and if, like him, you find the section around Iver feels insufficiently picturesque, you can easily pick up the path in Langley Park, once a deer park that was the scene of royal hunting parties into the Middle Ages.

Since the war the park has been council owned, and although it’s only a stone’s through from Slough, you wouldn’t know it from the rural setting, with the heath and woodland of Black Park to the north and agricultural land to the south and east.

Walkers might want to linger here a while, watching the wildfowl round the serpentine-shaped lake, a landscape feature influenced by Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown during the mid-1700s.

There’s an arboretum too, and in the spring the rhododendrons of the Temple Gardens are alive with colour.

From here it’s a short step across the busy dual carriageway into Black Park, a spectacular 530-acre network of 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to explore.

Thread your way past the grazing Sussex cattle and you face a short descent into Fulmer, where the Black Horse might prove tempting if you feel you have earned a pint or bite to eat.

Cross the road and you are entering Stoke Common, the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England, also currently graced with its own visiting herd of Sussex cattle to help with the grazing.

If you’ve come all the way from West Drayton this is around the halfway mark. You may even want to take the weight of your feet to appreciate the new benches produced by Gina Martin and inspired by artwork by local pupils at nearby Stoke Poges school.

Among the heather, ling and purple moor grass and gorse you may hear the distinctive scraping sound of a stonechat or even catch a glimpse of a lizard, adder or slow worm.

From here you are heading to Farnham Common and another glorious swathe of ancient woodland, Burnham Beeches, a national nature reserve and conservation area that is another site of special scientific interest. It’s worth making a date to take this trip in the autumn too, when the woods are a blaze of colour.

The route is shown on the OS Explorer map 172 and is waymarked and signposted in both directions, but it’s easy to get distracted in Burnham Beeches and find yourself wandering away from the route. Try to get back on track to make sure you pick up the path to Littleworth Common and on towards Wooburn.

The Beeches Way links up with the Berkshire Loop near the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub.

From here, the path leads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas at Hedsor and on to Hedsor Wharf, where the old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames.

Anyone travelling by train can pick up the path at either end, either from West Drayton station, close to where the Grand Union Canal meets Yiewsley High Street, or in the picturesque Berkshire village of Cookham on the banks of the Thames.

More ambitious walkers can pick up the Thames Path here, or even diverge onto the Berkshire Loop of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, a more ambitious ramble through the characteristic Chilterns landscape of woods, downland and pretty old villages.

It may even inspire you to tackle some of the further-flung national trails or themed routes, which may take their name from historical or literary figures like Shakespeare and Bronte.

But there’s nothing wrong with savouring a short stretch of the route either, or diverging from it to take a lazy village wander like those around Cookham Village or a short local detour into the woodland paths around Wooburn.

Small is beautiful, they say – and as long-distance walks go, that’s certainly true in the case of the Beeches Way.

Ferns and foxgloves set the tone

AT LAST the welcome relaxation of lockdown restrictions has allowed scope to roam a little further afield – and after the bluebells of April, it’s foxgloves and ferns which provide the focus of woodland forays in June.

What a joy to be able to escape into the trees of Denham, Langley and Black Park again. And after the hawthorn blossom and horse chestnuts putting on a show earlier in the year, now it’s time for the foxgloves to provide a welcome splash of colour amid the glorious greenery.

We may have missed those startling May displays of rhododrendrons in the Temple Gardens at Langley, but the wildflowers are out, the wildfowl are busy on the lake and the arboretum provides a welcome escape from face masks, shopping queues and worries about illness.

Once a hunting ground for medieval monarchs, this is part of a network of green spaces which make up the huge Colne Valley Regional Park, formed in 1965, which stretches from Rickmansworth to the Thames, Heathrow and Slough and provides the first proper taste of countryside west of London.

Cross the road from Temple Gardens and you are immediately in Black Park, another woodland oasis with more than 600 acres to explore.

From miniature mariners to unusual wildfowl, there’s always something to see on the lake, and with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, this is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, but although the lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

Need to get even further away from the family fun? Footpaths lead from here to Stoke Common, and the largest remnant of Buckinghamshire’s once extensive heathland, one of the rarest habitats in England.

Theres less for youngsters to do here, but for walkers wanting room to breathe, the 200 acres are a Site of Specific Scientific Interest (SSSI) which provides home to some very rare plants, animals and insects – although it may take a sharp eye to spot some of them.

A lot easier to spot are the 20 Sussex cattle currently being used to graze heathland plants on the common, which has been managed by the City of London Corporation since 2007, with friends and volunteers helping to restore it to its former glory.

The site has small areas of birch, pine and mixed woodland, with several ponds, and like nearby Burnham Beeches was grazed by livestock for centuries.

The only difference is that the wood pasture at Burnham is being grazed by seven British white cattle, along with Exmoor ponies.

Due to the they way they graze, livestock help to create a diverse plant structure which is great news for the local wildlife – although stumbling across a beast of this size behind a bush can be quite a surprise, despite their normally placid natures.

Like Black Park, Burnham Beeches is a marvellous haunt for families, and with 500 acres to get lost in, its ancient oak and beech pollards provide a perfect backdrop for those wanting to get back to nature after spending too long indoors.

Ramblers wanting to get a little further off the beaten track don’t have to look far in the Chilterns, of course. Footpaths criss-cross the area, including long-distance paths like Shakespeare’s Way, opened in 2006 from the great man’s home town of Stratford-upon-Avon to the Globe Theatre in London, passing through Marlow and Burnham Beeches on its way.

Or there’s always a chance to walk a section of the 134-mile Chiltern Way, particularly well signposted by the Chiltern Society and offering some particularly scenic sections around here, whether through the Marlow woods and on to the Hambleden Valley or sweeping north from the Chiltern Open Air Museum towards Chenies, Sarratt and beyond, in a huge circle heading towards Dunstable Downs.

Closer to home those foxgloves are still beckoning, this time just off the Chiltern Way at Homefield Wood, another SSSI owned by the Forestry Commission and managed by the Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust.

The nature reserve is made up of beech, ash, sycamore and whitebeam with glades and open grassland.

Wild orchids flourish here, including the rare military orchid, and the place is a haven for butterflies such as the marbled white, white-letter hairstreak and the silver-washed fritillary – not to mention hundreds of species of moth.

Resident and visiting species of birds include chiffchaff, cuckoo and blackcap. Tawny owls can often by heard calling during the day. Fallow and roe deer are also regular visitors to the reserve.

If open vistas and sweeping views are more appealing than woodland wanders, check out some of the local National Trust common land like the pastures at Winter Hill with their breathtaking views over the Thames, or the hay meadows at Pinkneys Green, where a rich variety of grasses, flowers and buzzing insects have made their home.

The grasses in these open, unfenced meadows are left to grow tall all summer, with a wealth of wildflowers adding specks of colour across the open expanse of meadow, from delicate yellow cowslips and kidney vetch to bright white oxeye daisies and purple field scabious.

On a sunny day, walkers pause for a lazy chat under the trees, but on a windy evening there’s something invigorating about the gusts sweeping over the meadow and the clouds scudding across the sky, making it a perfect place for kite-flying too.

From Pinkneys Green to Dunstable Downs, the freedom to get out and about across the local areas is such a blessing after the dark days of lockdown. And who would prefer a packed south coast beach at Brighton or Bournemouth to the fresh air and open countryside of the Chilterns?

Lose yourself in the woods

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THERE aren’t too many country parks where it’s easy to get lost.

But with 10 miles of footpaths through woodland, heath and open space, Black Park Country Park near Slough is one of those places where it really does feel possible to lose your bearings – for a short while, at least.

And with that amount of room to explore, it really does have something to suit everyone.

It’s the perfect escape for families needing some fresh air, with a big adventure play area for youngsters wanting to let off steam and an extensive network of surfaced tracks to walk, cycle or run.

The surfacing is subtle and non-intrusive, so it still feels as if you are at one with nature, but it does make the park a little less muddy in winter than most footpaths.

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And since the park is spread over 530 acres, it allows older teenagers and more ambitious walkers to lose themselves for a little on the less well-trodden paths.

Although the 14-acre lake area tends to be packed with families and dog walkers at weekends, it’s still possible to get away from the crowds – especially during the week or early in the morning, when many of the pathways through the towering trees can be virtually deserted.

As part of the historic Langley Estate, Black Park was first mentioned in 1202 and has been in the ownership of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I, although it is now one of three country parks in the area managed by Buckinghamshire County Council.

While the lake is a haven for waterfowl – ranging from grebes, coots and moorhens to the pretty mandarin ducks or even Indian runner ducks – under the water bream, pike, roach and perch swim. The other habitats provide a home for an intriguing cross-section of wildlife, from grass snakes to lizards, although you may have to be sharp-eyed to spot them.

A number of information boards provide a “habitat trail” with information about some of the less familiar flora and fauna which visitors can look out for.

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A year-round attraction with accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities, in normal circumstances the park hosts a range of special events and activities from night walks to Easter Egg hunts.

There’s seasonal fishing on the lake, off-road cycling and Go Ape adventures for more ambitious souls wanting to take to the treetops. The park is also home to the Black Park Model Boat Club, whose lifelike models can often be seen bobbing around on the water.

This is a perfect place for children to let off steam, and you only have to go down to the lake entrance to find a new generation of children playing Pooh sticks over the small wooden bridge there or snatch a glimpse through the trees of youngsters building a small den of the sort that Eeyore might well call home.

One-off events are publicised on the park’s website and Facebook page. Picnics are encouraged but fires and barbecues are not permitted.

The park is open daily from 8am and closing times are seasonal and displayed in the car parks and on the main website.

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For more information use the links above or call 01753 511060.

Relearning a lost language

IS IT really only a few short weeks since we started to learn this strange new upsetting language about ventilators and self-isolation, social distancing, R numbers and PPE?

It seems an age – and it’s all been doubly disorientating because this sudden flurry of unsettling medical terms coincided with our plunge into lockdown, depriving us of all normal social contact.

And yet, despite all the scary language, grim statistics and huge toll of personal grief and suffering, there’s been another new language people have been learning in terms of their relationship with the natural world.

We’ve been forced to get out walking, explore our local patch, get on our bikes and spend time alone in the great outdoors.

Roads usually busy with traffic have become peaceful byways….and the walkers, joggers and cyclists have been out in force.

For those of us struggling to identify the most common plants and species, that’s meant quite a steep learning curve, so unfamiliar have we become with the insects, butterflies, flowers and trees around us.

Thankfully, there have been plenty of people able to come to the rescue, from TV naturalists like Chris Packham or Steve Backshall to ramblers, birdwatchers and wildlife enthusiasts sharing their pictures and queries on local forums (like the Chesham Wildlife facebook group whose butterfly pictures are featured below).

We’ve seen museums offering virtual tours and live talks, rangers organising online forest schools and parks hosting nature quizzes.

It’s been an extraordinary time to rediscover nature and re-examine our relationship with the natural world because there has been so much time to savour the experience of getting to know the local landscape better, as Lucy Jones mentioned in a recent Guardian article:

I’ve found that my local natural areas feel like new destinations each day, even by the hour, for nature is in constant flux. Bird songs are richest at dawn and dusk. The wild garlic smells stronger when the soil is warm. The nettles glow Kermit-green when the sun is low in the sky. The scarlet pimpernel shows itself when light and humidity are just so.

Like Lucy, slowing down and having the extra time to look around us means we have been discovering treasures we would previously have overlooked and savouring those small precious things, from the smell of petrichor the scent of the earth after it has rained to eye-catching hedgerow blossoms or unfamiliar wildflowers or insects.

But often that opportunity for closer scrutiny has raised more questions than answers, especially for someone only really familiar with half a dozen of our most common wildflowers and only barely able to pick out a horse chestnut or oak at 20 yards.

Suddenly the big question of the day might be how to tell hawthorn from blackthorn, do horse chestnut candles really change colour when pollinated, and how do you distinguish between poison hemlock and yarrow or elderflower?

Lucy’s timely new book Losing Eden explores how crucial the connection with the living world is for our minds – and how being deprived of easy access to the living world around us can be a public health disaster.

During the height of the UK coronavirus lockdown, thousands have turned to nature as a balm for dealing with loss and loneliness.

And the timing of the crisis, coupled with some unseasonally warm spring weather, meant that the limited allowance of daily exercise was a perfect opportunity for many to watch the natural world unfolding outside, savouring the intensity of the dawn chorus, the first blossom appearing, the bare tree branches suddenly cloaked in green.

When the news feels overwhelming, there could be no better way of keeping a grip on reality, clearing away the cobwebs and banishing the fear and anxiety among the bluebell woods and country paths of the Chilterns.

Even a short trip outside becomes an adventure into the unknown. But unlike our ancestors, many of us are no longer familiar with the flora and fauna on our own doorsteps.

Thankfully, help is at hand from a variety of sources. Through the worst weeks of the lockdown, Chris Packham and step-daughter Megan McCubbin provided a daily ray of sunshine with their Self-Isolating Bird Club which boasted 51 broadcasts, 132,000 comments and 7.7m views during its eight-week run, as well as bridging the gap until the BBC’s May Springwatch series.

But of course there’s no shortage of expertise to be found on the internet, from Butterfly Conservation or Woodland Trust to the British Beekeepers Association or the Bumblebee Conservation Trust.

You want to tell the difference between a honeybee, red mason bee and a buff-tailed bumblebee? No problem. Or what about the marvellously named white-tailed bumblebee or hairy-footed flower bee?

You could even print off a handy guide to some of the most common types from the website Wild About Gardens, set up by the Wildlife Trusts and the RHS to celebrate wildlife gardening and to encourage people to use their gardens to take action to help support nature. 

Many of our common garden visitors – including hedgehogs, house sparrows and starlings – are increasingly under threat and much of our wildlife, from bats and barn owls to stoats and badgers, can be quite elusive, making it hard to spot during a normal daytime walk in the woods.

But getting to know the natural world better is a great way of engaging young people’s interest – and that in turn is vital if they are going to grow up as a generation respecting the natural environment.

That’s where a greater working knowledge of nature can help to win hearts and minds. The more flowers, insects, birds and animals we can spot and recognise, the more likely it is that we can fully engage with the wonders of the natural world.

For many families, lockdown has been a nightmarish experience. But for those able to share their nature notes, photographs and queries – on Twitter streams or Facebook groups like Chesham Wildlife, Wild Marlow, Wild Cookham and Wild Maidenhead – relearning the lost language of the natural world has provided a welcome respite from the doom and gloom.

Losing Eden: Why Our Minds Need the Wild by Lucy Jones was published in February 2020.

Amazing antics of the humble ant

ACID-SPRAYING giant ants with a brutal bite sound like the stuff of horror movies.

But at Burnham Beeches these formidable predators are actively encouraged and cared for, so they can’t be as terrifying as they sound.

Unwary visitors to the stunning Buckinghamshire nature reserve might not feel quite as warmly disposed to the mound-building woodland forager, especially if they inadvertently stumble over a nest.

But this site of special scientific interest is particularly well suited to support colonies of formica rufa, with its ancient oak and beech pollards and welcoming mountains of rotting wood.

More alert ramblers won’t take long to spot the small armies eagerly transporting building materials and prey back to their nests, which might support more than 100,000 ants.

They may not be as immediately likeable as the 56 species of birds which inhabit these woods, but they are fascinating creatures, and with numbers decreasing across the country it’s important to pay more attention to the role they play in our ecosystem.

Wildlife film maker Tom Hartwell’s film for Woodlands TV takes a closer look at the life of wood ants with the help of Helen Read, conservation officer at Burnham Beeches for nearly 30 years.

Helen explains how the woodlands provide the perfect location for these insects as they use rotting wood and tree stumps for their nests, collecting pine needles, twigs and other woodland debris to create a “thatch” exterior which acts like a sun trap for their ant cities.

Farming aphids for their food, the ants are known for the strong smell they emit when disturbed, spraying a pungent formic acid to protect themselves from predators. But it has been found that some birds visit wood ants nests to be deliberately sprayed, as the acid helps to repel lice and mites.

It’s said that there are more ants roaming the world than any other creature on the planet and it’s certainly not hard to believe that on a sunny day here at Burnham, where they can be seen scurrying everywhere with their burdens – up to 100 times their own weight.

The combined weight of all the ants on earth would total more than the combined weight of all the humans. Relative to their size, ants have the largest brain of any insect, with someone calculating that an ant’s brain has more processing power than the computer controlling the first Apollo space missions.

To hear the sound of a colony in action (above), tune in to a recording made at Burnham Beeches by Mark Wilkinson in 2017 and featured on The Badger’s Eye website.

Find out more about wood ants from the website of the National Wood Ant Steering Group and more about Burnham Beeches in this short video produced by the City of London Corporation:

Listen to the buzz on the street

EARLIER than last year, the laburnum outside the bedroom window is suddenly in full bloom after the bare twigs of winter have reclothed themselves – and equally suddenly, it’s abuzz with life, literally humming with bees.

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The yellow cascades are dramatic, pristine, eye-catching waterfalls which will be gradually turn into drifts of yellow husks on the grass, as if some benevolent monster has been eating a LOT of sweetcorn.

With World Bee Day looming on May 20, those schoolday poems suddenly seem very vivid – particularly Tennyson’s onomatopoeic “murmuring of innumerable bees” and Yeats’ “bee-loud glade”.

Standing under the hanging blooms, this is no distant drone, but a frenzied flurry of activity and a very welcome one after all the negative publicity about bees becoming increasingly endangered.

GOLDEN RAIN: The Laburnum Tree by artist Tim Baynes

Without bees, we cannot strive towards a world without hunger – and that’s the underlying message behind the World Bee Day project, as Boštjan Noč, author of the initiative and President of the Slovenian Beekeepers’ Association, says:  “It is time for everyone to listen to bees, in particular, leaders and decision-makers.

“I believe that – with the proclamation of World Bee Day – the world will begin to think more broadly about bees, in particular in the context of ensuring conditions for their survival, and thus for the survival of the human race.”

That’s an enthusiasm shared by campaigner Amanda on her website BuzzAboutBees which also includes just about everything you could want to know about the thousands of different types of bees and their habits.

Even the Woodland Trust has got in on the act, with its easy guide to telling the difference between different types.

Even far from home, you can still hear them. As Yeats said (albeit in the context of the lake waters lapping), the sound tends to haunt you: While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey, I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

This post was updated from a blog entry originally posted in May 2019.

Time to go down to the woods

WORRIES about coronavirus may have brought chaos to the supermarkets, but with 500 acres to get lost in, Burnham Beeches should be an ideal place to put social distancing to the test – although gathering in groups to socialise in the park totally defeats the whole purpose of the Government’s strategy.

Few places are more welcoming on a sunny day than this national nature reserve on the doorstep that is also a site of special scientific interest and special conservation area.

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Much of Burnham Beeches was once wood pasture, with a mix of young and mature trees standing in open grassland or heathland. This type of habitat has been created by land use going back thousands of years, where the trees or pollards harvested for timber and the grassland beneath would be grazed by livestock.

A pollard is a tree that has been cut to just above head height, forcing the tree to send up new multiple shoots and preventing livestock grazing among the trees from eating the tender new shoots.

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The constant regrowth encouraged by oak and beech pollarding extends the lives of the trees and older trees often have features such as hollow rotten stems, dead or decaying branches and loose bark which can be a great habitat for animals, plants and fungi, some of which are very rare.

Dog walkers and families out for a weekend stroll quickly disappear into the 500 acres of beech woodland, and a map of paths and trails offer the opportunity to escape from other visitors, especially on weekdays and out of season.

However the Mother’s Day weekend also brought government warnings that young people in particular were not taking social distancing seriously – and across the country there were concerns about crowds inundating beaches, parks and other public spaces.

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The tarmac roads around the site are mainly closed to cars, so are ideal for cyclists and buggies, although the sensitive habitat here limits the scope for off-road cycling.

There has been woodland here since the last Ice Age and people have used the site since at least the Iron Age, as evidenced by the Seven Ways Plain hill fort located in the south west part of the Beeches.

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If the landscape looks familiar, it might because the proximity of Pinewood, Shepperton and Bray studios have made this a perfect filming location, with everyone from Robin Hood to Harry Potter and James Bond using the Beeches as a backdrop for their woodland adventures.

Filming is restricted to no more than 20 days per year and is banned in environmentally sensitive areas, but the revenue goes directly to fund the upkeep and management of the site.

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For more information about Burnham Beeches, visit the City of London website.

Nature lovers needed now

NATURE enthusiasts across the Chilterns are being invited to help monitor and protect local species on their patch.

A four-year citizen science project has started to recruit volunteers who can study how birds, butterflies and plants across the area are coping with climate and habitat changes.

WHAT’S OUT THERE?: a Duke Of Burgundy butterfly and cowslip PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The Tracking The Impact project is part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board.

Volunteers will survey the state of nature in the Chilterns and benefit from training courses in species identification and surveying techniques, with enthusiasts and experts joining forces to “own their patch”.

The data will then be used to track trends across the landscape and inform practical woodland, grassland and farmland habitat management projects.

To deliver the project the CCC has teamed up with Butterfly Conservation, British Trust for Ornithology, Centre for Ecology and Hydrology, Plantlife, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust and the Buckinghamshire and Milton Keynes Environmental Records Centre.

Following on from the recent State of Nature report the project is calling for amateur surveyors to work with the experts across 50 1km survey squares to tell the story of the landscape, through understanding the relationship between different species groups.

BIRD IN THE HAND: a corn bunting PICTURE: Roy McDonald

The project will dovetail with existing national recording schemes (Breeding Bird Survey, Wider Countryside Butterfly Survey and National Plant Monitoring Scheme) to bolster coverage in a ground-breaking new partnership.

Unique to the project is its mentoring programme for those who can identify quite a few birds, butterflies or plants but want to learn more about surveying these local species.

The project will last initially for four years, starting in spring 2020. Volunteer surveyors are needed during the spring and summer.

To register an interest or find out more, contact the project lead, Nick Marriner, at nmarriner@chilternsaonb.org.

Chalk, Cherries & Chairs is an ambitious five-year scheme which aims to connect local people to the wildlife and cultural heritage of the Central Chilterns through 18 interweaving projects.

The Berks, Bucks and Oxon Wildlife Trust (BBOWT) is one of 46 Wildlife Trusts working across the UK to protect .wildlife and special places for generations to come.

The British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) is a UK charity that focuses on understanding birds and, in particular, how and why bird populations are changing.

Butterfly Conservation (BC) is the UK wildlife charity dedicated to saving butterflies, moths and our environment.

Help chart the Chilterns sound

IT MIGHT be a barn owl, steam train or buzzing insect.

But whatever the sound, young people across the Chilterns are being encouraged to “listen to their landscape” in a unique project designed to promote mental health and wellbeing.

The ‘Echoed Locations’ project encourages 16- to 20-year-olds to get out into nature and urban spaces which are significant to them and contribute to the first sonic map of the Chilterns. 

As part of the five-year Chalk, Cherries and Chairs Landscape Partnership Scheme funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and spearheaded by the Chilterns Conservation Board, the project will provide free sound recording workshops and online resources to empower youth groups and schools to map the sounds of the Chilterns.

Echoed Locations wants audio recordings from across the Chilterns, from the hoot of an owl to the first songs of the dawn chorus or the morning rush hour.

As the world becomes noisier and yet increasingly focused on the visual, Echoed Locations aims to reconnect people with their local wildlife and cultural heritage through the medium of sound.

Sometimes we can forget to listen to the world around us in an active way, and the project encourages residents to record the sounds around them and help create a sonic legacy of the Chilterns today.

Sound recording workshops help to hone people’s ability to disconnect from the hubbub and distractions of day-to-day life and enjoy the natural sounds all around them.

Anyone can participate by adding audio recordings via the Echoed Locations website page and schools, local community groups and youth groups are encouraged to reach out to book a free sound recording workshop in 2020, although spaces are limited.

Volunteers willing to act as ‘Sonic Champions’ in High Wycombe, Amersham, Aylesbury and Princes Risborough (or the surrounding areas) will help promote the project and be given full training.

Contact Elizabeth Buckley on lbuckley@chilternsaonb.org to sign up for a sound recording workshop or as a volunteer, or with any other questions about the project.

Feast of light in the darkness

WRITING in The Independent a few years ago, then environment editor Michael McCarthy pondered on how many people today know what Candlemas is all about.

One in a hundred, perhaps? Maybe even fewer than that. But as well as explaining the background to the Christian holy day he also painted a marvellously evocative picture of what this day would have looked and felt like in the Middle Ages, when everyone in the parish brought their candles to church to be blessed by the priest.

On that gloomy February day the dark interior of a medieval church would become a sea of light when the candles were lit and set before the statue of the Virgin Mary – making it literally the brightest day of the year and a welcome reprieve after the gloom of January.

February 2 is also the day of snowdrops, with windowsills of monasteries, abbeys and churches decorated with the pure white flowers, or Candlemas bells as they were once called.

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SYMBOL OF PURITY: snowdrops in bloom [PICTURE: Presian Nedyalkov, Unsplash]

As flawless symbols of purity, they were the perfect flowers for the feast, and even today many of the country’s best snowdrop displays are clustered around churchyards and ancient religious foundations, ruined abbeys and priories, where they were planted with Candlemas in mind.

This year’s warm January has meant plenty of snowdrops have flowered early, along with primroses, winter jasmine, gorse and other splashes of January colour, despite the old rhyme which says: “The snowdrop, in purest white array, first rears her head on Candlemas day.”

And there are numerous locations where sheets of the small white blooms provide dramatic displays for visitors braving the chill January air, including great houses like the National Trust gardens at Cliveden.

EARLY ARRIVALS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

A powerful symbol of hope since biblical times, Galanthus nivalis means “milk flower” in Latin and the “drop” is not a drop of snow but a “drop” as in eardrop, the old word for earring – although legend has it that after Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden and Eve was despairing that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared and transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers to prove that even the harshest of winters eventually give way to spring.

Snowdrops are popular among gardeners and galanthophiles are avid collectors of different snowdrop varieties. But it’s not just the simple beauty of the snowdrop which appeals.

CANDLEMAS BELLS: snowdrops at Cliveden PICTURE: National Trust/Hugh Mothersole

As McCarthy argues in his Independent article it’s the timing of the flowers’ appearance that is symbolic too: “They’re the very first sign of something else, the Candlemas bells, an undeniable signal that the warm days will come again; and I’m sure they fill me with elation because what I am looking at, against the dead tones of the winter earth, is Hope, suddenly and unmistakably manifest in white.”

Get up early to catch the choir

JANUARY brings the first signs of spring – and along with the early snowdrops and primroses, that also means the first echoes of the dawn chorus.

You have to be up early to catch it, but from now until July, the volume is steadily growing, from those first wintry warbles early in the New Year to the most spectacular natural orchestra on earth.

As the first snowdrops start to peek through the frosty January soil and the birds swarm to the birdtable to squabble over scraps of food, the slow increase in daylight means that love will soon be in the air, which means staking out your territory and trying to attract a mate.

During the dark days of winter, life has been all about survival, trying to find enough food during those bleak chilly days to survive the night to come.

But as the days start to slowly lengthen, songbirds start to switch into breeding mode, timed to coincide with the warmest part of the year when food is plentiful and days are long.

The first songsters of the season are residents such as robins and great tits, joined later on by migrants like chiffchaffs and blackcaps to make May and June the peak time to enjoy the chorus.

But listen out early in January and you can already hear them, with the noise growing day by day and more than an hour of daylight being added between New Year and the end of the month.

The collective chirps and tweetings start to grow in volume as the year progresses, starting about an hour before dawn with a few songs from the robins, blackbirds and thrushes before the rest of the gang join in and the chorus gets into full swing.

As with an orchestra, there’s a set sequence. Skylarks, song thrushes, robins and blackbirds are among the earliest risers and their songs are complex and detailed, full of meaning and uttered from high perches.

Then the pre-dawn singers are joined by woodpigeons, wrens and warblers, while great tits, blue tits, sparrows and finches only add their voices when it’s light enough for them to see.

The most formidable defenders of territory, the robin and wren, are well into their flow by the turn of the year, soon to be joined by the blue, great and coal tits, dunnocks and chattering starlings.

Stars of the show are the loquacious song thrushes and glorious blackbirds, their music a clear signal that winter is giving way to spring.

If you’re prepared to get up early and head into the woods with a picnic, the singing last right through until July, but reaches its peak during May and June.

Early mornings are too dark to search for food, and too dark to be spotted by predators. That makes it the perfect time to sing, and because there’s less background noise and the air is still, sound carries around 20 times further than it would later in the day – an important consideration when you are looking for a mate.

Singing is hard work on an empty stomach and after a chilly night, so it will be the strongest, best-fed males who will produce the loudest songs. As the light strengthens food becomes easier to find, so hungry birds begin to move off and the chorus gradually diminishes.

There is another chorus at dusk, which is considered quieter, though some birds – like tree sparrows and blue tits – seem to prefer to sing at this time of day.

The best days to listen are fine, clear mornings with little wind. Dawn chorus peaks half-an-hour before to half-an-hour after sunrise, but the variety of song can be confusing by then so why not get into position early to savour the arrival of the performers as each takes their turn on stage…

Sunday 7 May is International Dawn Chorus Day. All pictures for this article are reproduced with the kind permission of Roy Battell, whose Moorhens website chronicles an extraordinary rewilding story.

Going nuts about squirrels

IT’S Squirrel Appreciation Day, apparently, so a suitable occasion to be celebrating the agility of our furry grey visitors here in the Chilterns.

Sadly my camera can’t really do justice to the incredible acrobatics of the pair doing their best to steal the peanuts and seeds from the blue tits and robins outside our kitchen window.

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Nonetheless although the grey squirrel has plenty of detractors, it doesn’t seem a bad idea to have a day dedicated to the little rascals, bearing in mind the extraordinary variety of squirrels, with more than 200 species around the world, many of them capable of some quite extraordinary feats.

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Squirrel Appreciation Day is observed annually on January 21, it seems, thanks to Christy Hargrove, a wildlife rehabilitator in North Carolina who launched the day in 2001.

But the true extent of squirrels’ talents was revealed in a 2018 BBC Natural World documentary The Super Squirrels, which introduced us to such exotic variants as the Malabar giant squirrel in India and put some home-grown varieties to a gruelling hazelnut-laden assault course to help demonstrate just how clever, ingenious and adaptable they are.

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Of the various species, Christy confirms these fall into three types – ground squirrels, tree squirrels and flying squirrels.

The former include the rock squirrel, California ground squirrel and many others which blanket the prairies and deserts of North America.

Tree squirrels like our own red and grey squirrels make their homes in the trees and can be found all over the globe. The third type of squirrel leaps farther than the others with flaps of skin between the legs.

Flying squirrels glide greater distances giving the impression they can fly. When they leap from tree to tree or building to building, they spread their legs wide and float on the breeze to escape predators.

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Thankfully there are plenty of better photographers around to do justice to the cheeky visitors, including the wonderful Roy and Marie Battell (or the Moorhens), whose weekly newsletter contains a host of high-quality images like the one above, taken in their own miniature nature reserve near Milton Keynes.

Their most recent round-up of visitors to their back garden includes not only squirrels, but deer, a tawny owl, sparrowhawks, chaffinches, woodpeckers and fieldmice.

To sign up for the Moorhens’ newsletter, visit their website. And check out the BBC to catch the Super Squirrels while you can. You can also look up the programme on Facebook to find out more about the tiny orphaned red squirrel featured in the programme and named after Scottish comedian Billy Connolly.



Tales from the riverbank

IT’S hardly surprising to hear the mental health charity Mind saying how time spent surrounded by nature benefits both our mental and physical wellbeing.

It’s almost self-evident that nature heals, connects and gives us a clearer sense of perspective, not to mention all those measurable bonuses in terms of blood pressure, heart rate and reduction of stress hormones.

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Half an hour out of the house and striding through open meadowland with only the whistle of the red kites for company, I’m already feeling the benefit of escaping from the computer, the news feeds and the endless soul-destroying political intrigues about Boris, Brexit and our relentless destruction of our beautiful planet.

Apart from the startling view over the valley and the site of the soaring kites riding the thermals, there’s also a flurry of activity among the wild flowers as a handful of small heath butterflies flutter about in the breeze.

I wish I could accurately identify more of the insects and plant life around me, but for once, this one hung around long enough for me to see the markings…

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I’m nipping across the fields to explore a section of the ‘Berkshire Loop’, an extension to the Chiltern Way created in 2010 by the Chiltern Society to mark the 10th anniversary of the opening of the 134-mile circular walking route.

As explained by Pete Collins on his excellent walking website, the 28-mile loop starts near Penn and branches south from the Chiltern Way, passing just west of Beaconsfield to cross the Thames at Cookham.

It then heads west through Cookham Dean, before re-crossing the Thames at Henley and eventually meeting the southern extension of the Chiltern Way at Harpsden Bottom.

From my lofty perch in the meadow on the climb up to Kiln Lane, it’s a picture of Buckinghamshire peace – although in times past from here you might have spotted a puff of steam across the valley from a train taking the old Great Western line from Maidenhead to High Wycombe.

Nowadays the rails stop at Bourne End, but they used to run through single-platform stations in Wooburn Green and Loudwater, closed with the line in 1970.

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I pick up the Berkshire Loop in Wooburn Common just past the Chequers Inn, a 17th-century coaching inn which has been transformed into a welcoming modern hotel and pub with an interesting menu which will provide a welcome venue for my evening meal at the end of my six-and-half-mile ramble.

For now, open country is beckoning and I’m heading down a road marked as unsuitable for motor vehicles before taking the picturesque path through the woods which heads down towards the 12th-century church of St Nicholas.

The footpath leading across the field up to the church is particularly inviting – a real flashback to a bygone era and a well-trodden path across the centuries.

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Given the spectacular location, there may well have been a Saxon church on this site – or even an earlier Pagan temple, as an old Roman road from Silchester to St Albans is rumoured to have crossed the Thames at Hedsor Wharf close by.

Hedsor Wharf is the where the route heads next, past a field of what look like coal-black dragonflies dancing in the breeze as the path leads down to the Thames at Cookham.

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It’s not hard to see why this area has known different civilisations across the past 4,000 years. There is a small Bronze Age settlement between Marlow and Cookham, signs of a Roman settlement to the southern end of Cookham Rise, and crossing points were always crucial on a great river like the Thames.

Here, the stylish Ferry pub harks back to earlier times, before the building of a bridge in 1840 provided an easier crossing point. The current single-track road bridge dates from 1867 and was a toll bridge until it was bought by the council in 1947.

From here, after the briefest of encounters with the traffic queueing to cross the old bridge, it’s a pleasant and much less polluted riverside ramble west to Bourne End, accompanied by swans, coots and geese, and still pleasantly warm in the late-afternoon sun.

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The narrow boat and cruiser owners are out tinkering with their mooring ropes, the dog walkers from Cookham are taking the air and there’s more of a bustle on the footpath than on the deserted sections north of the river.

But then this is a popular saunter down to Bourne End, and a more conventional route would be to cross the river there on the railway bridge and continue to take the Thames path on the other side on into Marlow.

Past the rail bridge, families are chilling out in the terrace of The Bounty pub at Cockmarsh, and an alternative option would be to follow the four-mile National Trust circular tour back across Cock Marsh to rejoin the Chiltern Way near the Winter Hill Golf Club.

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Or you can stick to the riverside path a little longer before cutting away at an angle towards Winter Hill, another section of National Trust land where the terraces are known to have been colonised by the nomadic hunter-gatherers of the Old Stone Age (350,000 – 10,000 BC).

Habitation at the site has continued ever since, as is evident from the Bronze Age burial mounds at Cock Marsh, and huge amounts of Roman pottery were removed from the foot of Winter Hill in 1906, which is thought to have been the site of a ferry across the River Thames.

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For now the marshy terrain looks slightly less welcoming, although it’s a very pleasing outlook over the valley and runners and dog walkers are out on the main paths, where the National Trust is working to maintain what it can of the surrounding chalk grasslands.

It makes a perfect hunting ground for a sneaky heron, however, whose hungry stance is a reminder that it’s time to get a move on and complete the final lap of the journey towards Marlow and dinner…

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The weather becomes a little duller for this stretch, as I depart from the Chiltern Way again and make tracks towards Marlow, utilising part of the 11-mile Cookham Bridleway Circuit and being side-tracked through Longridge and Bisham before finally emerging onto the welcome last leg.

The historic bridge beckons, along with the equally iconic image of All Saints Church. From here, it’s an easy wander through the town’s picturesque back streets to the station, from where the weary traveller can still catch the “Marlow Donkey” back to Bourne End or Maidenhead.

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It seems likely the nickname was actually bestowed on the little Great Western Railway 0-4-2 saddle tank locomotive which used to provide this service back in the early part of the 19th century rather than the two-coach multiple units which run the service today, but the name lives on the local Greene King pub and is too atmospheric not to treasure.

Back at the Chequers Inn for dinner, there’s  time to ponder an earlier form of transport. What must it have been like travelling in these parts three centuries ago, when the first regular stagecoach services began?

By the mid-18th century, England was crisscrossed with coach routes, and hundreds of inns were spread out at seven to 10 mile stages across the land. The coach stopped at the end of each stage to change horses and allow passengers to refresh themselves.

From the 17th century onwards, a stage coach service was well established from London to Oxford, passing though Uxbridge, Beaconsfield and High Wycombe. By the end of the 18th century as many as twenty coaches might come by in a day – and as Clare Bull explains on the Beaconsfield & District Historical Society’s website, those early travellers must have been glad to reach a place of safety, as well as comfort.

Whether coming from London or Oxford they had to pass through some of the most notorious highwaymen’s haunts, it seems.

From Oxford, the steep climb out of the marshes of the Wye Valley up the hill to Holtspur presented ideal conditions for attacks on slow-moving coaches with tired horses. The wood through which the road passes just before reaching Holtspur is still known as Cut-Throat Wood, and The King’s Head at Holtspur had a reputation as one of the marauders’ favourite drinking dens.

On the Oxford Road the most notorious marauder was Jack Shrimpton, a native of Penn who was hanged in 1713. Earlier still, Claude Du Val, renowned for many stories of his gallantry, was hanged at Tyburn in 1670 at the age of 27.

The last man to be condemned to death for highway robbery in the area was tried in 1800 for holding up a coach at Beaconsfield and stealing thirty shillings; he was hanged at Gallows Road, Aylesbury – a suitably gripping fireside story to regale the weary traveller before a welcoming bath and bed.

It’s high time to build an Ark

PAUL Kingsnorth has chilled out a lot since the days when he was chaining himself to bulldozers and saw direct action as the best way of changing the world.

We saw this very clearly in the recent documentary by the Dutch TV channel VPRO, which visited him at home in Ireland for a few days to make a film themed around his essay collection Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist.

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But that doesn’t mean the writer and environmentalist has given up fighting for what he believes in – as a recent post from his Facebook page shows. And since it speaks for itself, here is Paul’s post in full, complete with links to his own website and that of Mary Reynolds, whose project he is discussing.

It’s by no means an isolated project, and the theme has been repeatedly reflected in other Beyonder stories and Tweets, as well as on the most recent series of BBC’s Springwatch. But that doesn’t make the story any less important, so over to Paul:

“Here is something entirely unrelated to my books, etc, which I want to tell everyone about, because I think you should all hear of it.

People often ask me ‘what can I/we do?’ about the ongoing grinding-down of life on Earth by industrial humanity. My twin answer is: nothing. And also everything. My other answer is: action, not ‘activism.’

What I mean by this is: future climate change is inevitable, and we are unable at this point to halt the momentum of the industrial machine, which needs ‘growth’ in order to sustain itself. ‘Growth’ in this context translates as ‘mass destruction of life.’ The human industrial economy is like cancer: literally. It metastasises, it must grow in order to survive, and it grows by consuming its host.

At some stage, this thing will collapse; I would say this is already happening. This creates despair in many people – as does the inability of ‘activism’, argument, campaigning, rational alternatives presented in nice books by well-meaning people, etc, to make any dent in the greed, destruction and momentum of this thing we all live within.

So far, so depressing. And yet, on the human scale, and on the non-human scale too, everyone reading this has the power of rescue. Everything I have just written is, to some degree, an abstraction. Reality is what you live with, and live within: grass and trees, hedgehogs and tractors, people and pavements. Reality is land, and how it is used. The planetary crisis is a crisis of land use. We are using it disastrously, as if it were a ‘resource’, not a living web. We think we own it, and can control it. The Earth is in the process of showing us just how wrong we are.

The alternative is to do the opposite: to build an ark, in which life can thrive. Or rather: a series of arks, all over the country, and the world. Here is a new initiative, set up and run by an Irish woman, Mary Reynolds, who calls herself a ‘reformed landscape designer.’

It is beautifully simple – home-made, very local, accessible to everyone. Its aim: not to ‘save the planet’, but to build small ‘arks’ in our own places – and then to tell people about them. To spread the word, and the idea. Whether you have a field or a window box, this is possible and inspiring and entirely doable. It is real action, and it has real, deeply valuable results. Best of all, it mostly involves doing nothing: just leaving things alone. Which, in my humble opinion, is probably the best way to ‘save the planet’ in the end.

I’d encourage you all to look at Mary’s website, and to ask yourself how you can build your own ark – and tell the world it exists.”

Time to give pigeons their due

I HAVE to confess that I’m feeling a little guilty.

There’s me thinking I love all our feathered friends equally, and it seems I have a secret prejudice against one particular garden visitor.

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I’ll gush over the antics of visiting robins, blackbirds and blue tits, and chuckle at the acrobatics of the thieving squirrels. But I have been rather less than generous in my welcome to the local pigeon population.

We relish the friendly quacking of the hungry ducks, the cute scuttling of the moorhens and the bewildered meandering of the stray pheasant, so why do the ubiquitous Percy, Woody and their tubby pigeon pals – who mysteriously all have stolid names like Stan, Clive and Norm (from Cheers) – not get the same red-carpet treatment?

The real extent of my subconscious discrimination was brought home to me last year when we stumbled across an injured pigeon. Doubtless indoctrinated by press references to pests and vermin, not to mention the disdain for the birds expressed by the shooting fraternity, I presumed we would be leaving the limping victim to its fate, and natural selection.

Partner Olivia had other ideas and after a quick call to the RSPCA our injured friend was duly delivered to the local vets’.

So where does this prejudice of mine stem from? Don’t I harbour dim memories of Jack Duckworth cooing over his beloved pigeons in Coronation Street, and weren’t many of these birds hailed as heroes during the war?

Our Buckinghamshire visitors are wood pigeons (columba palumbus) rather than the feral pigeons of the grimy London streets, and to be fair their purple and grey colouring is quite gorgeous in its own way, with those striking white neck patches.

But although they do tend to waddle round the neighbourhood like burly gangsters, there’s also something cute about the way they collectively roost in the local hedges, and a soothing reassurance in their constant cooing.

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But then even their grubby London counterparts have their supporters, despite being dubbed flying rats or being persecuted as pests, as Steve Harris explains in a feature for the Discover Wildlife website.

Oddly enough, the ancestors of these city slickers were the first birds to be domesticated, thousands of years ago in the Middle East. Since then, the rock pigeon (columba livia) has made an astonishing contribution to human wellbeing.

To help with background research, I turn to Aimee Wallis from the Corvid Dawn wild bird rescue sanctuary, remembering her enthusiasm for the birds from our visit there last May.

She says: “After corvids, pigeons were the second bird I completely fell in love with, mostly because I’d never paid them much attention before, but since rescuing them and working with them closely, I realised just how remarkable they are.

“Not only were they calm whilst being stitched up or glued together, like they knew you were helping them. They never forgot you: even as adults you can build a strong bond with a pigeon.

“They recognise faces, but not only that, they are extremely loving. They also pair for life. They will happily sit on your shoulder, preen your hair and try and follow you to work if they could.”

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Back in the day, a dovecote, rabbit warren and carp pond were the three essentials to provide fresh meat throughout the year, and in addition to food, pigeons produced guano so rich in nutrients that it played a key part in agricultural development.

Perhaps best of all, there was no need to catch and breed the birds. Just providing an alternative place to nest, usually a dovecote with rows of ledges or clay pots along its internal walls, was enough – and some designs could accommodate thousands of sitting females.

Typically producing about 10 squabs a year, pigeons were a perfect source of protein until chickens emerged as being better suited to mass production.

But Darwin devoted much of the first chapter of On The Origin of Species to pigeons, and Aimee is full of respect for pigeons as parents. “The male bird produces crop milk as well as the mother and they share parenting equally,” she says.

“They make wonderful pets, you can free fly them and they will greet you from a long day and show up at your window in the mornings cooing away. They really are very special birds, with bags of character.”

Though pigeons were still an important food source in the 1800s, they were stolen from lofts in large numbers as live targets to supply the newly fashionable sport of pigeon shooting. When the practice was made illegal in 1921, clay pigeon shooting was invented.

Even those who use pigeons largely as training tools for bird dogs are quick to praise their stoicism and endurance – even if the idea of surviving numerous retrieves “mangled and bloody” does not sound like the perfect life.

Writing in Outdoor Life in 2015, Scott Linden wrote: “But watching them roost, calmly ruffling feathers on a nest, elegantly circling the loft, even pecking the ground for grit, they are in many ways like our horses. Both exude a calming influence, a soft and peaceful aura enveloping nearby humans. There is therapy in being near them.”

Says Aimee: “One thing people aren’t aware of is these grey street birds are descendants from the war. Pigeon lofts were popular back then and people would eat their eggs and keep a flock in their garden, but sadly that died out and the lofts were brought down.

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“Many pigeons couldn’t be caught so they were left to fend for themselves. Once family pets and companions, they had to learn to scavenge around humans that once fed and housed them.

“Thankfully they managed to survive even as domesticated as they were. They stayed among humans in towns as they have no wild instincts as such, only their racing skills that help them escape the city sparrow hawk.

“I continue to crave raising these gorgeous Jurassic little babies each spring and love their speaking voices.”

What about pigeon racing, then? Although the pastime of rearing and racing pigeons is waning in popularity, this year saw an extraordinary story about the “Lewis Hamilton” of racing pigeons selling for over £1m at auction.

The headlines revealed how the sport had become a multi-million pound enterprise in China, with millionaire enthusiasts struggling to outdo each other with extravagant coops and outlandish bets.

But Aimee believes the story behind the headlines is not such a happy one.

“Sadly this industry took off in the wrong direction,” she says. “The pigeons turned from an idealistic garden hobby to a huge money-making business.

“They use the term ‘necking them’ if they don’t come home to their mate on time, which is ringing their necks: this is very common. They exhaust the birds and hundreds over the last seven years have turned up tired and skinny. Nine times out of 10 the owners don’t want them back.”

The sport has been associated with flat-capped pensioners ever since Coronation Street’s Jack Duckworth and workshy cartoon character Andy Capp first expressed their enthusiasm for pigeon lofts.

Yet racing has also attracted devotees as diverse as Walt Disney, Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands and Pablo Picasso, who loved the birds so much he named his daughter ‘Paloma’, the Spanish word for a pigeon or dove.

Pigeons are probably most famous for their ability to find their way home and deliver messages. This was first exploited 3,000 years ago and by the fifth century BC Syria and Persia had widespread networks of message-carrying pigeons.  Pigeons carried the news of the winners of the first Olympic games, while Julius Caesar used them to send messages home from his battle campaigns.

In 1850, Paul Julius Reuter’s fledgling news service used homing pigeons to fly between Aachen and Brussels, laying the foundations for a global news agency, and the birds’ homing ability was extensively harnessed in the two world wars.

There’s even a display at Bletchley Park telling the extraordinary story of pigeons in wartime, when the avian secret agents saved countless lives – of 54 Dickin Medals (the animal’s VC) awarded in World War II, 32 went to pigeons.

The exhibition has been organised by The Royal Pigeon Racing Association, which also offers advice on its website for anyone interested in the sport (although animal activists PETA kicked up a storm in 2013 with claims of cruelty and calls for the sport to be banned).

The birds’ achievements are also recognised at the moving Animals in War memorial at Brook Gate on Park Lane. Along with millions of horses, mules, donkeys and dogs, some 100,000 pigeons served Britain in the First World War and 200,000 in World War II.

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They saved thousands of lives by carrying vital messages, sometimes over long distances, when other methods of communication were impossible, from behind enemy lines or from ships or aeroplanes.

Stars like Ewan McGregor, Ricky Gervais, John Hurt, Hugh Laurie and Rik Mayall teamed up to tell something of the birds’ story in the 2005 animated film Valiant, but it was something of a box-office flop and reviews were mixed.

Amazingly, despite decades of research, we are still not precisely sure how pigeons find their way home over terrain they have never seen before with such apparent ease.

How extraordinary. They have played a vital role in medicine (one study even trained pigeons to detect cancers), they have saved countless lives in wartime and they continue to entertained tourists in their millions, from Trafalgar Square to Venice’s Piazza San Marco, yet they are still widely regarded as a nuisance.

It seems wrong, somehow. Sorry, Percy, Woody and friends. You have been much wronged, but I for one will be looking with fresh eyes and a new respect at the “small blue busybodies” of Richard Kell’s poem, “strutting like fat gentlemen/With hands clasped/
Under their swallowtail coats…”

Still not convinced? Check out this guide to some of the world’s most beautiful pigeons.

Past casts long shadows at Penn

MUSHROOMS, snowdrops and spaniels with floppy ears – spring is in the air at Penn Wood.

Youngsters are out building Eeyore houses, the February sunlight is streaming through the branches of the ancient beech and birch trees and the sound of birdsong is everywhere.

What better way to blow away the cobwebs than to take a wander into this Woodland Trust enclave which used to form part of Wycombe Heath, 4,000 acres of heathland and woods with a surprisingly rich and varied heritage.

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Back in the 13th century this was where commoners would pasture their pigs, but the Romans roamed these woods centuries before that, with artefacts like brooches, dishes, coins and tools indicating the presence of a settlement here from 100 to 300 AD.

There is also strong evidence of iron smelting in the woods, with some pottery remnants discovered which could pre-date the Romans, indicating they were simply continuing the iron production that had already been established in the Iron Age.

From as early as 500AD the wood was used as a deer enclosure and the parish of Penn takes its name from this saxon enclosure, or ‘pen’. As in other areas of the Chiltern countryside, by the reign of Henry I (1100 – 1135 AD), the woodland was used as a hunting ground for the citizens of London.

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Pigs were an essential part of the medieval woodland economy with commoners exercising their right to pannage, the entitlement to put pigs out to eat the acorns and other nuts found in the wooded areas of the common, to fatten them up in autumn.

Dry hollows found throughout the wood may show where flint, clay, sand, gravel or chalk have been extracted. Clay from this area was used to produce distinctive decorative flooring tiles which could be seen in royal palaces, churches and manor houses across England.

In the 19th century, the Enclosure Acts changed legal property rights to land that previously permitted communal use and in 1855, ownership of Common Wood and Penn Wood passed to the 1st Earl Howe, forcing many local people and their livestock off the land and sparking years of unlawful protest where poaching was rife.

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During the Second World War, Penn Wood was used as an army training camp, complete with an assault course and a rifle range. Later it was used as a prisoner-of-war reception centre and then as a holding base for Polish soldiers.

Wandering through the woodland today, it’s easy to conjure up vivid echoes of different times in the history of the place amid the busy drumming of a woodpecker and the chirps and chirrups of the other woodland birds.

When Earl Howe took private ownership of the common land, he removed the livestock and set about arranging the re-forestation of the land with oak, beech and conifers.

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He laid out ornamental drives and avenues lined with rhododendrons and azaleas, cherry laurel and spineless holly for the benefit of the Countess who was fond of driving in the woods.

The branches are bare at the moment and the ornamental species have yet to flower, but the memories crowd in: of aristocratic shooting parties visiting the estate in Victorian times, perhaps, or the bodgers who lived and worked here for centuries, fashioning chair legs and spindles for the furniture trade.

By the middle of the 19th century Hgh Wycombe had become a centre for furniture production and there were a hundred factories in the area, many using Penn and Common Woods as a source of timber, with tall narrow beeches being planted to replace more traditional oaks.

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For two centuries, wood-turners called bodgers worked in shacks in the woods, cutting and shaping the wood into legs and spindles and drying them in piles before taking them to the factories to sell – with a small number continuing to work in the woods right up until the 1950s.

Over time, the once ancient pasture changed to privately-owned forest, although public access was not restored until 1999 when, after a long campaign to prevent the site being turned into an 18-hole golf course, Penn Wood was acquired by The Woodland Trust. Public ownership of Common Wood returned in 2002 when it was bought by the Penn and Tylers Green Residents’ Society.

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The wild boar and wolves may have gone but grazing cattle have returned, helping to maintain open pasture by trampling down thickets and fertilizing the ground, with the aim of encouraging an array of flora and fauna to return to the site, including butterflies and other insects, nesting birds and wild flowers.

Birds to be found here range from tawny owls to kestrels and buzzards, while those lichen-covered dead branches provide welcome hiding places for a dozen scarce beetle species.

Butterflies range from the purple hairstreak up in the high canopy to the marbled white in the wide sunny glades.

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But our leisurely February ramble is almost at an end as we retrace our steps towards the wonderfully peaceful churchyard of the ancient Holy Trinity church, which squats at the edge of the woodland.

Every generation for over 800 years has left its mark on this church, from the 12th century through the persecution of the Reformation to the present day, and emerging from the trees into the wintry evening sunlight, this feels like a place where the past casts long shadows.

As a pheasant scuttles for cover amid the silent gravestones, it feels a suitable place to pause a moment and ponder the moving individual stories recounted by each monument, from those of the landed local gentry to that of the most short-lived child.

Inside the church there is a great deal more to discover about the history, monuments and memorials of Penn – but that, as they say, is another story.

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Quarry lake teems with life

THERE’S a lovely autumnal chill in the air as we return to Spade Oak quarry for the first time in a few months.

This time we leave the car at Little Marlow and cut across the fields to the top edge of the quarry before circling round the gravel pit to the railway line and back up the other side of the water.

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The sun’s out but the temperature’s dropping as evening approaches. Although we only find out later, this is a good slice of Walk 16 of the Chilterns AONB website, which takes walkers on a three-mile level ramble from Bourne End station to Little Marlow and back, savouring the picturesque village and nature reserve on the way, along with a very pleasant stretch of the Thames Path.

Our circuit of the lake is uneventful and a little on the chilly side; the last time we were here, the rabbits were lolloping around in the evening sunshine and the lake was busy with all kinds of birds, from cormorants to moorhens.

There’s a lot less going on today, it seems – at least that’s how it appears on the surface. But with a little help from the Buckinghamshire Bird Club it’s possible to piece together a more detailed picture of what you might be able to see here, especially if you come armed with binoculars and know what to look for.

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At this time of year, gull and cormorant numbers are beginning to build up and just before winter gets under way redwings and fieldfare start to appear in the hedgerows, particularly along the railway bank.

Winter is one of the more interesting times to visit for bird enthusiasts, it seems, with good numbers of the commoner ducks including wigeon, teal, gadwall and shoveler.

The biggest concentrations of birds can be found around the large sand spit, best viewed from the west bank, with better views of the main island from along the south bank by the railway line.

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The list goes on, with buzzards and red kites over the fields and woods to the north of the lake. while the riverside meadows may attract geese, pipits, wagtails, various migrant passerines and sometimes waders.

Having made a mental note to return with binoculars, we nod our way past the anglers who are taking advantage of a similar amount of life under the surface of the lake.

This is one of nine venues frequented by members of the Marlow Angling Club on the look-out for carp, pike, tench, bream, rudd, roach and perch. Busy place, this quarry.

The waft from the sewage treatment works is a little riper than usual as we round the south side of the quarry, but the smaller gulls love the place amd sometimes there can be thousands of black-headed gulls gathering on the lake during the last hour or two before dusk.

Back in Little Marlow, the 12th century St John the Baptist Church has provided a picturesque backdrop for the antics of such famous fictional detectives as Poirot, Miss Marple and Lewis.

It also provides the focal point for a conservation area that incorporates the 16th century manor house and a score of other listed buildings: not to mention a couple of welcoming pubs for thirsty ramblers eager to take the weight of their feet.

Secret wonders in the woods

BACK in 1990 the bare field next to Roy and Marie Battell’s house didn’t look too promising as a potential nature reserve…

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But anyone sceptical about the couple’s plan to transform around two acres of cow pasture north of Milton Keynes would be amazed to see just what can be achieved when you undertake a labour of love.

Flash forward more than a quarter of a century and today there are around 800 trees – plus four ponds and meadows attracting a huge cross-section of wildlife. What’s more, over the years the ‘Moorhens’ website depicting life in the Battells’ nature reserve has developed something of an international reputation.

Moorhens were the first waterbird to adopt the ponds that were dug to encourage wildlife – hence the name chosen for the website.

“They successfully raised one to three broods each year from 1991 to 2011,” Roy explains on the site.  The delight of all that activity earned the shy water birds the URL ‘dedication’ for the website – which since then has attracted more than 94,000 visitors intrigued by different aspects of the project the couple were undertaking.

“Planting, digging and caring for this lot has provided more, and more interesting, exercise than ever before in our lives,” says Roy.

Roy and Marie in front of Round Mound(r+mb Sample@576)

When the couple started to dig out the ponds they vaguely anticipated that this would attract the sort of visitors – ducks, coots and dragonflies – that they had been used to seeing at their previous homes, from Watford to Welwyn Garden City.

A then-and-now picture sequence chronicles the development of the reserve from early 1991 to the summer of 2007 – starting with fencing and hedge-planting and moving on to plant bare-root stock and digging out the ponds.

“The first 10 years were very slow with basically a sea of plastic tree shelters in grass that needed endless mowing,” Roy recalls. “But the trees suddenly took off and have become a dark canopy in summer.”

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The hedging is predominantly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, dog rose, elderberry and blackberry, but the native hedging of the area includes a lot of elm, which shoots and dies in rotation.

“Of the 50 or so chestnut and hazel trees we planted on the site, the squirrels do not leave us a single nut!” says Roy. “However nothing can decimate the blackberries we hack back each year and Marie makes gorgeous jam from the crop.”

‘The Field’ quickly evolved into an intriguing wooded area providing a surplus of wood for willow wands and similar coppice products, as well as offering home to all types of birds, wildlife and insects, from bluetits and swallows to foxes, badgers and the tiniest insects.

“The sky too is full of interest with breeding by corvids and occasional visits by buzzards, red kites, sparrowhawk and kestrels,” says Roy. “Of course we are delightfully infested by tits, finches, thrushes, robins, sparrows and in recent years tawny, barn and little owls.”

An avid photographer, Roy has not only posted a series of animated sequences showing the landscape and flowers changing through the seasons, but has been systematically chronicling visiting wildlife in a weekly newsletter distributed to dozens of loyal followers

His archive of daily wildlife pictures – including birds and insects in flight – dates from 2005 and has attracted more than 2,500 visitors since 2016.

His latest selection is pretty representative, it seems – from a young magpie with downy feathers to a hungry badger, a little owl, bustling butterflies and dragonflies, clustering rooks and feeding woodpeckers.

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But the event of the week was the repeated appearance over one night of a polecat on the hunt – possibly moving a kit in her mouth and then then carrying two dead rabbits back into her burrow.

It’s the quality of Roy’s photographs, coupled with his painstaking attention to detail in chronicling and recording the animals’ movements, which has attracted the interest of enthusiasts and academics around the world.

He sends these out every week to around 100 subscribers, some of whom are in regular contact. The couple also receive numerous requests from around the world for the original pictures.

“Our pictures are in about 10 wildlife textbooks,” he reveals. The couple are also in regular contact with the Bucks RSPB and other local enthusiasts and supply images to a variety of non-profit organisations and for use in museum displays and educational spreads. There is usually no charge, although those making commercial use of the images are asked to donate to the RSPB or Woodland Trust.

Vegans since 1972, the couple used to grow much of their own food in an allotment area: Marie is a painter who is also mad about gardening – as well as “collecting scruffy old books about the world before it was shrunk by modern communications”.

In recent years that became a little too much to maintain with all the rest of the maintenance and photographic work, and a third of the area has become a little apple orchard using 100 unwanted trees rescued and replanted from a nearby farm.

“We have a little salad bed near the house that used to be a huge cage for a golden
pheasant and his girls (that we inherited with the house 27 years ago),” says Roy. “We enjoyed their company for a couple of years before a fox tunnelled in and killed them.”

The Battells’ website is a modest one, but the archives provide an invaluable day-by-day record of the natural world around them – and an inspiring pictorial backdrop to the extraordinary transformation they have achieved on their doorstep.

Perfect site for red kites

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HUNGER PANGS: a red kite drops in for a snack [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

RED KITES have become virtually synonymous with the Chiltern Hills over the past 20 years, but it wasn’t always that way.

Once a common sight in the towns and cities of medieval Britain, the birds had become virtually extinct by the end of the 19th century after a couple of centuries of human persecution, with perhaps as few as a dozen pairs surviving against all the odds in a sparsely populated region of central Wales.

Nowadays the Chilterns is one of the best places in the UK to see red kites, thanks to a successful re-introduction project between 1989 and 1994 – and it was that re-emergence of the species which prompted Emmi Birch to set up a Facebook group for people to share photographs of the magnificent birds.

“The group was created in May 2016 to purely enjoy photographs and film of the red kites,” Emmi recalls. “Living in Buckinghamshire, I have had the pleasure of seeing the red kite population grow rapidly.

“Years ago, we would very occasionally see one and everyone would stop what they were doing and rush outside just to get a glimpse. We now have the privilege of seeing these incredible birds every day in the skies above us.”

Indeed the Chilterns Conservation Board nowadays publishes a leaflet about where to see red kites in the Chilterns, where there are now more than 300 breeding pairs.

Emmi is not alone in her appreciation of the birds, it seems. When she set up the group Red Kite Sitings UK she hadn’t anticipated that it would soon have more than 1,000 members.

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SPLASH LANDING: a Welsh sighting in Ceredigion [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

On the site’s welcome page, she wrote:  “I’m hoping that this group will allow others to post their photographs and film of red kites from around the UK, so that those who aren’t familiar with these magnificent birds can enjoy them and those, like me, who never tire of seeing the kites can just indulge themselves looking at yet more photos and film of these beautiful birds of prey.”

Fellow enthusiasts haven’t been slow to share their pictures of kites soaring on the breeze all over the UK, a reflection of the extraordinary success of this conservation movement, which had its roots in the foresight of some pioneering visionaries in the early 20th century who realised how close the birds were to extinction.

Contributors to the website include Fife-based enthusiast Allan Brown, who has posted a number of stunning pictures of the birds on the wing north of the border.

Allan Brown's stunning shot of a red kite at Argaty, Perthshire

ON THE WING: a red kite at Argaty in Perthshire [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

Describing himself as an “enthusiastic amateur” photographer, Allan says: “I am interested in all raptors, but I particularly like red kites for their agility, acrobatics and colours.

Another enthusiast who describes himself as “just an amateur with a camera” is Alan Ewart in Wales. He says: “I took up photography less than two years ago and I’m lucky enough to have two feeding stations both within an hour’s drive. Once I’d been once I was hooked on these magnificent birds.”

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WELSH WONDER: a red kite at Bwlch Nant yr Arian [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The full story of the birds reintroduction is told in detail by Elfyn Pugh in an article for the online birdwatchers’ magazine Birds of Britain.

By the turn of the 20th century the remaining population were clinging on in their Welsh stronghold, having been plagued by unscrupulous egg collectors,  shot for their skins and mounted as stuffed birds in glass cabinets.

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PHOTO BOMB: Emmi’s site has contributors from all over the UK [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

A determined group of individuals and landowners were appalled at the continuing destruction and formed the first kite committee in 1903 to start protecting nests, with the RSPB becoming involved a couple of years later.

But it wasn’t until the 1980s, with the red kite identified as a globally threatened species, that the RSPB and Nature Conservancy Council got together to discuss reintroducing the red kite to England and Scotland.

The programme has continued ever since, with colour-coded wing tags identifying the different places of fledging or release, from Yorkshire to Aberdeen and the Black Isle.

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MAJESTIC: on the hunt at Glen Quaich [PICTURE: Allan Brown]

But the Chilterns remains a major stronghold and a perfect place to photograph the birds soaring on the thermals above Stokenchurch and Radnage.

Says Emmi: “My interest started around 13 or 14 years ago when I saw my first red kite fly over the garden. I was absolutely amazed by the size of it.”

In Wales the kite is a national symbol of wildlife and was voted the country’s favourite bird in a public poll run by the RSPB Cymru and BBC Wales poll and announced by Iolo Williams in the final episode of Iolo’s Welsh Safari.

He said: “The red kite is an extremely deserving winner with a hugely uplifting story of recovery from the brink of extinction. We can be proud that, when red kites were facing such a difficult time elsewhere in Britain, they hung on in Wales and have since gone from strength to strength.”

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FEEDING TIME: Bwlch Nant yr Arian visitor centre [PICTURE: Alan Ewart]

The enthusiasm is not universal – the tabloids do run occasional stories of residents complaining about being dive-bombed by birds of prey, but Emmi’s page followers are sceptical about such lurid claims, pointing out that the birds are natural scavenger, not hunters, and tend to gather to feed on carrion, mainly dead rabbits, mice and pheasant, and animals killed on the road.

An RSPB spokesperson was quoted in one Daily Mail article reassuring people: “They are not the fearsome predators that people in the Victorian era thought them to be and they are not like a sparrowhawk or kestrel, which would go for a live prey.”

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NATURAL SCAVENGER: kites prefer to feed on carrion  [PICTURE: Emmi Birch]

Outside the breeding season the kite is a gregarious species and can be found in communal night time roosts, with up to 100 being counted in Britain and some 500 birds being counted in Spain, where large numbers of European kites spend the winter.

As Elfyn Pugh writes in his 2005 article: “It is a sobering thought but it is now clear that the remnant “native” British population of the red kite came perilously close to the brink of extinction. If that had been the outcome then we in Britain would have been deprived of one of our most magnificent and majestic birds of prey.”

That’s a sentiment Emmi and her fellow red kite enthusiasts would endorse. The distinctive whistling call of roosting kites is echoing loud and clear across the Buckinghamshire countryside these days – and long may that continue.

 

Lakeside path comes into bloom

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NATURE RESERVE: spring sunshine transforms the quarryside path at Spade Oak

SPRING has sprung with a vengeance at the Spade Oak Lake in Little Marlow – and not before time after the unseasonal March snowfalls and recent riverside flooding.

For weeks, the path round the border of the former gravel pit has been a mudbath, deterring even the hardiest of anglers and birdwatchers.

But with the sudden April rise in temperatures, the site has been transformed and the nature reserve has come into its own again.

It was here during the 1960s that aggregate was extracted that would be used for the M40 and M4 motorways. But the restoration of the site saw the creation of a remarkable nature reserve comprising the lake and surrounding woodland.

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DEEP WATERS: nowadays the lake is a sanctuary for water fowl

Much of the restoration work focused on encouraging birds to use the site as a breeding sanctuary, and breeding birds include little ringed plovers, kingfishers, reed warblers, great crested grebes and terns.

Alongside these are the ducks, gulls and geese who provide a cacophony of background sound on a still evening as the bats come out to flit and flicker around in the gloaming on the permissive path which runs around much of the lakeside perimeter.

This is one of nine fishing venues operated by Marlow Angling Club and is said to host carp, tench, bream, pike, perch, roach, rudd and eels.

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GONE FISHING: Marlow Angling Club members fish at selected spots around the lake

It was back in 1966 that the Folley Brothers began to dig the former farmland in Coldmoorholm Lane to extract the valuable flood plain gravel that was in great demand for the motorway building program. Gravel is no longer dug from Spade Oak but the area is used by the current owners, Lafarge, as a depository for gravel dug elsewhere.

In 1999, Little Marlow Parish Council and Lafarge began discussing a permissive path around the lake to celebrate the millennium, and the official opening took place in 2002.

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IN FULL BLOOM: the lake path through the trees towards the Spade Oak pub

And a very pleasant waterside ramble it is on a spring or summer’s evening, with the gulls and geese shrieking in dismay at some temporary disturbance and the gentle clank of the two-coach train lazily meandering its way from Bourne End to Marlow alongside the lake path.

Ah, bliss! Nature has been quick to reclaim the former quarry, and the millennium project has proved a wonderful resource, not just for the villagers of Little Marlow but for all those tempted to take a waterside ramble on a warm evening.

Hedgehog numbers ‘halved’

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HEDGEHOGS are continuing to decline in the UK, according to a new report.

Surveys by citizen scientists show hedgehog numbers have fallen by about 50% since the turn of the century.

Conservation groups say they are particularly concerned about the plight of the prickly creatures in rural areas.

Figures suggest the animals are disappearing more rapidly in the countryside, as hedgerows and field margins are lost to intensive farming.

But there are signs that populations in urban areas may be recovering.

David Wembridge, surveys officer for the conservation charity, People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES), said two surveys of the number of hedgehogs in gardens and one of numbers killed on roads show an overall decline.

But he said there is “a glimmer of hope” that measures to create habitat for hedgehogs in urban areas are paying off.

“Numbers haven’t recovered yet but in urban areas at least there’s an indication that numbers appear to have levelled in the last four years,” he said.

In rural areas, the number of hedgehogs killed on roads has fallen by between a third and a half across Great Britain, The State of Britain’s Hedgehogs 2018 report found.

Emily Wilson, Hedgehog Officer for the campaign group, Hedgehog Street, said the apparent decline in the rural population of hedgehogs was “really concerning”