I often bemoan the fact that despite being fantastic in pretty much every other way and a place I am proud to call my other home, Cornwall is lacking in ‘proper’ woods. As a woodlander in spirit, raised crashing through bracken, climbing trees and dined upon by ticks in the great ancient woodlands around Romsey and in the New Forest, the offering here is more limited. The coastal, blustery nature of this peninsular county makes it difficult for any tree higher than a Shetland pony’s shoulder to grow, and any spots of woodland that may have managed to survive this and the chop-chop attitude of Neolithic farmers are battered and have a distinct ‘will that do?’ quality to them. The wild and rugged setting may suit Ross Poldark getting his shirt off and smouldering out to sea, but it’s bloody irritating if you’re an oak tree.
The exception to this rule can be found in the river valleys, and a quick scan of a satellite map will reveal these perusing across the agricultural green quilt like moss-green blood vessels towards the sea. These woodlands were pointless to deforest and cultivate given the steep-sidedness of the slopes, and the shelter from the cold and wind creates warm and humid microclimates, leading to temperate rainforests distinct enough to be classed as ‘Atlantic Oakwoods’. As their name suggests, these climes are exploding with life and colour in comparison to the relatively barren pastoral fields around them, and yet they frequently remain conspicuous and unassuming on the outside. It’s a bit like stumbling upon a psychedelic music festival in the middle of greyest, bleakest Birmingham*.
One such wood is my own ‘secret’ location. I initially found it some three years ago while staying in a B&B nearby, and later returned there after moving to Cornwall for university. Accessed from a standard Cornish country lane narrow as a tractor, the wood isn’t public access and I suspect I’m probably trespassing, but that just makes it even better. I’ve never stumbled across another soul while out here; this is the closest I feel to entering a world devoid of civilisation in this Western corner of the country.
Spring’s well settled, and the bluebells are centre-stage. Perhaps not quite at their peak, with several green-purple heads just beginning to unfurl into the purple crowns we are familiar with, but enough to emanate nature’s sweetest perfume that takes precedence over all woodland aromas.
On the Eastern valley slope, a clear trail splits through the bluebells – a badger road. Following it leads me to the edge of the wood, where under a scattering of ivy-clad hazels so low growing I have to duck and shuffle beneath them, I have to watch my step as the ground is swiss-cheesed with tiny craters of badger poo, some still fresh enough to be attracting flies. This mass latrine is like a stationary facebook for the local badger population, and is likely to mark the territorial boundary between two groups’ turf. Useful information such as who’s dominant, who’s fertile and what you thought of last night’s Game of Thrones is convened here simply through sniffing excrement (for the badgers that is, not me). Badgers are a bit of an enigma in terms of their social skills – despite living in large groups, they feed individually and aren’t particularly bothered about helping their fellows out; more like individuals crammed together in a hostel than a happy family. While male badgers will get edgy if others venture onto their patch, females are quite happy to go see the boy next door and then return to their sett to birth his cubs. Latrines therefore may serve different purposes for different sexes – a ‘keep out’ sign for the boys, and Tinder for the girls.
I set up my camera trap nearby, hoping to capture some of this social networking over the next couple of nights, and head deeper into the wood. Following the classic bubbling brook as it cavorts, swerves and dances over irregularly spaced moss-soaked rocks, crowds of wild garlic gather in shaded circles, looking like a tiny garden party of Georgian aristocrats, their pale powdered wig-like flower heads providing a stark contrast to the surrounding green and purple. On the river, a ‘seep’ and a flash of brown and white in the air gives away the presence of a dipper. These specialists of the fast-moving, rocky rivers prevalent in Cornwall appear like much portlier versions of their robin cousins. Yet their apparent ungainliness on land is quickly dispelled by the sight of one suddenly plunging from a mossy rock into the watery deluge, and emerging not long after with tasty goods such as a caddis fly larvae.
The valley plateau widens, and the wood with it. The River grows deeper and wilder, and the sides steeper and increasingly ravine-like in places – here the fairytale forest becomes a tulgey wood, full of unknown corners and paths that apparently lead nowhere and everywhere. Old rock walls, barely recognisable as crafted works so punched and engulfed by nature they are, stand as the only ancient signature of man’s hand – perhaps there was a time when Neolithic peoples tried to make some use out of this setting, but whatever it was, it is now long forgotten. This is a wood of enigmas, and one such enigma has recently passed through. I know this, once again, because of poo.
A fallen tree in the river would create an obstacle for an otter paddling its way along here, and following this logic I work out where it would haul onto the bank and romp around this barrier to save precious energy. The ground is too hard to find prints, but at the point where the river becomes clear once more, a worn slide in the bank and a young ash growing out over the water give away its calling card. This prominent place has been tokened with a single spraint, a tiny parcel of fish bones and scales smelling of fruit tea. Much like the badgers, these are more communicative than territorial – a solitary animal maintaining a social network simply through it’s olfactory senses, each one unique to an individual and packed with messages in scent.
It all seems to strange to us, but nature’s built around things that don’t make sense, at least to a human perspective – indeed, it’s the things that don’t make sense that makes it perfect sense as to why I’m a naturalist through and through. If that makes any sense.
*I’ve only been to Birmingham once – for a Mammal Society conference appropriately enough. And yes, it was enough for me to pass final judgement that bleakest and greyest is exactly what this city is.