Nature Diary: Beggarspath Wood, 10th April

It is the first time I have walked in these woods – my ‘local patch’ – since February, having arrived home from New Zealand the day before. Having expected a carpet of bluebells and  simmering sunlight reflecting off lime-green leaves, fresh from the bud, to an ecstasy of birdsong, the revelation of it appearing much the same as I left is curious and somewhat disheartening. When I look ahead, there is no mosaic of different greens, yellows and purples, but the same grey-brown wall of bare trees of a wood still in it’s winter slumber. A winter that has continued throughout my absence, no doubt due to the profound effects our fossil fuel-vomiting way of life has had on our climatic processes. Normally, the gulf stream pushes up West across the Atlantic, bringing with it the warmth that sparks the bursting of this season of renewal by mid-March – but melting ice and its desalinating effects are slowing it’s progress. Such things only serve to remind us of how we are still dependent on nature for our wellbeing and what we term as ‘everyday’ in our lives, and just how fragile it is to our ignorance.

This state of being in the woodland’s year is beautiful in it’s own way. Edward Thomas described a February woodland-walk brilliantly in his long-rambling book  The South Country; “The Earth lies blinking, turning over languidly and talking like a half-weakened child that now and then lies still and sleeps though with eyes wide open… It is not spring yet. Spring is being dreamed, and the dream is more wonderful and blessed than ever was spring. What the hour of waking will bring forth is not known.”

Unfortunately, that dream is still on-going when the woods should be wide awake. As I drift under the bare canopy, I can sense nature’s protests around me. The woodland floor among the more ancient strands of oak and hazel is pea-green with the shoots of the bluebells I had been looking forward to seeing upon my return, but instead they remain in a half-grown state, frozen like agonised racers crouched at the start and awaiting the gunshot-signal of just a few more degrees warmth.

The chorus of birdsong is far greater than when I left it two months ago, when the woods remained silent bar the mumbled twitterings of mixed-species feeding parties, as tits, wrens and goldcrests weeved as one cautious wave through the treetops, picking out the few morsels of food whilst relying on each other for predator protection in the exposed environment. But by now they expect the food to be bounteous, and their song is like a plea of discontent at such shortcomings. Whilst this wintered spring may be little more than inconvenience to our eyes, it is life and death to them. The thought of how many chicks will be successfully raised when the cold and subsequent lack of food is lingering into the nesting season is not something I am keen on dwelling upon.

A spot of white bouncing above the woodland floor some distance to my left betrays the presence of a roe doe. She stops and turns her head towards me, fixing me in her gaze to ascertain whether I pose a threat. Then, just a few metres to my right, a woodcock that had been  resting in the leaf litter has already decided not to hang around, and shoots from the ground in a blurred clap of wings. Its exquisite camouflage and long, straight beak for probing mud for worms making it look as if a couple of dead leaves attached to a twig has magically flown off the ground and gone shooting through the trees. The sight of such an enigmatic & shy bird in the day fills me with child-like excitement, but still brings me back to the out-of-sync seasonality; bar a declining few that stay to breed, most woodcock in the UK fly here from Scandanavia to over-winter. It’s not surprising then that this individual would want to remain here a little longer.

5 thoughts on “Nature Diary: Beggarspath Wood, 10th April

  1. This article is an absolutely refreshing reminder of not to be too engrossed in ‘everyday’ minutiae of human life. It emphasizes that there is a huge world to be explored beneath the sufrace. It brings an insight into the dichotomy of the wasteful and destructive aspect of human species versus the desperate attempt of wildlife to preserve their sheer existence.
    The oddity is quite stark: on one hand, mankind continues wreaking havoc and avoids its responsibilities towards climate change, whilst animals strive to preserve their mere existence.
    And of course, it is a long shot to readdress the balance and bring back sanity to us all, humans and animals. Very enjoyable to read.

  2. Thanks for the reply, Pete.
    A nicely-written piece, which brings back memories of 30 years ago when I did my early birdwatching, as a Mountbatten schoolboy, in that wood. I never saw a Roe Deer in those days, although, when I returned for old times’ sake in the nineties, I saw several.
    One of my last, and best, memories is of watching a Barn Owl hunting on Spring evenings in 1984, up by the rookery on the other side of the wood, and sometimes along the margins of the fields that stretch down from the wood to the Test Valley below. Reading online, I gather that this area has been earmarked for development – sad. I’ve lived in Wales since 1986, and I don’t think I’ve seen a genuinely-wild Barn Owl since then.
    Any Barn Owls still there?

    • Went to Mountbatten too, leaving 3 years ago (thankfully, hated the last two years) would get home by crossing the playing field and would often take a longer detour through the woods. There’s about 2 or 3 roe does in there currently, at least one with a fawn, and a very handsome and pumped-up buck who I’ll always here barking in the evenings when I go badger watching. I got remarkably close to him recently just sitting still with my dog, whilst he went about marking his scent on any trunk he could find.

      I presume it would’ve been one that nested in the barns/cemetery? My uncle and aunt who’s house faces the old whitenap barns certainly remember owls which nested there, then there was a long absence before they finally returned in 2011. I would regularly watch the female hunting in the horse field and eventually saw her two chicks fledge – they’d even perch over my head and stare down confused, not sure what to make of me. Unfortunately they moved cows back into that field at the beginning of last year, grazing down the tussocks, and the barn door was opened for the first time in years, so I suspect they were illegally disturbed – never saw or heard them after that.

      The Princes’ Trust has earmarked the land for massive development – 1300 houses – which was initially rightly rejected, but test valley borough council seem more keen this time round. As town councillor my Dad’s one of the key people in the fight against it, so we’re trying our best.

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