Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Walk 23: Fungi and Small Mammals - Detcombe Woods (revisit)

This is my second walk in Detcombe woods and my last opportunity for a while, because the requirements of pheasant rearing will put the woods out of bounds to casual visitors in the next few weeks.  Last time I was looking for the first appearance of the Slad Brook and following its course through the woods, but this time the walk is about the woods themselves as well as the stream.  It's a cold, sunny morning with a little frost.

Once again, as I walk down the steep track into the valley, I have the sense of stepping away from the 'real' world.  The noises of the road and the scrapyard above fall swiftly into the distance, to be replaced by birdsong. The valley is very steep here, and though it's already 9.30 am, the sun is only just reaching the eastern rim, lighting up the very tops of the trees and throwing long, high-contrast shadows.  Three deer, a stag and two hinds, erupt from somewhere nearby and dash across the path in front of me.  Further along the path, a tiny rustle in the leaf litter catches my attention just in time to see a vole, or possibly a woodmouse, zipping into a hole.  Funny how even my untutored ear can pick out unexpected animal noise from the general background noise.

The track follows the lowest point of the valley and trees sweep up the hill on either side of me.  To see the wood from a different angle, I veer off the main track following an animal path.  Most of the trees at this end of the wood are young, slim and straight, as if all planted at the same time, and not so long ago.  Mostly beech, some sycamore, and here in particular, a bunch of trees with small cones and lacy branches, of an evergreen sort of build but obviously not evergreen, since they haven't currently got any leaves.  My tree-knowledge, shaky at the best of times, throws up the word 'larch' as a possibility.

I love this time of year, when you can focus on single plants and hear the voices of individual leaves on trees, before it all melds into one huge summer shout of mixed greenery.  Mind you, a lot of the green around here is currently emerald-green moss, growing on trees, stumps and ground indiscriminately like green fur.  And talking of voices, I can hear a woodpecker in the background, and a squirrel scolding.

The path leads me to another track, the highest of a trio of tracks which radiate out from the sharp end of the valley.  Last time, I followed the middle one, which stays at the lowest point, tracking the stream.  This new one winds through the woods on the western side, keeping to a higher contour, and the topography of the valley is very visible from up here as a sharp v-shape cloaked in trees.

I'm glad I began thinking of the valley in terms of sounds as well as sights.  Just now, for instance, I'm aware of several things going on around me, none of which I can see.  Small scurrying-away sounds in the underbrush suggest small mammals, or maybe blackbirds.  A squirrel is 'chucking' quietly but persistently in a tree nearby.  A jay shrieks in the distance.  I can also hear bluetits, great tits and wood pigeons.  So I know that all these creatures are somewhere around, even though I can't actually see them.

Here are several clumps of curious green, bell-like flowers.  Stinking hellebores, I think - I know this, because someone from the Wildlife Trust told me they were one of the Iconic Plants of the Slad Valley so I went and looked them up. This is the first time I've actually seen them on the ground.  They look slightly strange, in their big, pale-green clumps, the flowers heavy-headed and extravagant, like something tropical that escaped,or a sci-fi plant with malign intentions.

The track climbs almost to the level of the road, and I can hear cars, but not see them, because the screen of trees remains intact.  The hillside is so steep here that I wouldn't want to go off the path without crampons, but with so little undergrowth that I can see all the way down to the middle path where the brook runs.  A pair of pale brown flies are scrapping - or possibly mating (don't know fly body language) - on the path in front of me, rolling over and over, with lots of buzzing.

The beeches hug the upper part of the valley; downhill of me is another patch of evergreens and larches (if that's what they are).  The beeches are mainly small saplings but a few big old trees, too, particularly along the edge of the track.  One of the things I love about beeches is the smoothness of their bark, and the way it wrinkles like skin around lumps and bumps and where branches emerge.  It gives the trees a sinuous, animal look, whereas on other varieties of tree the bark is more like a hard carapace.

Taking photos of the trees, I'm reminded again of the limitations of my five-foot-six viewpoint.  Most of the time, I pay attention only to the first four feet of the tree trunk, noticing interesting root shapes and bark patterns.  I pay much less attention to the canopy.  Even if I remember to look up, my perspective is compressed; if I get far enough away to see the whole tree, it no longer looks so impressive.  I think again about small animals and trees, wonder if a vole, like the one I saw earlier, is even aware of the tree having a canopy?

Returning to the intersection of the tracks and picking up the middle one, I'm surprised by how the temperature drops appreciably as I drop down and leave the sun behind.  I had forgotten that on a section of this middle path there is a whole grove of evergreens in straight lines, in the middle of which is now a pheasant pen, sporting a rash of little lean-to constructions. I guess they are shelters, but can't help thinking they look more like runways for teaching young pheasants to fly...

I've arrived at the small pond where the Slad Brook effectively makes its first appearance.  It's a lot less overgrown than when I last saw it, and the water is still and dark, carrying tremendous reflections of everything around it.  I pause to make a colour sketch.  As so often when I stop and concentrate on drawing, the bird activity around me increases.  There is a lot of fluttering of wings, and suddenly a little marsh (or possibly willow - can never tell the difference) tit alights on a branch almost beside me, apparently unaware of my presence.  Suddenly noticing me, he gives a stage start, utters a tiny squawk and takes off again in a hurry.  Or it may be the buzzard circling overhead that has spooked him.  Another buzzard comes swooping in, flying quite low.  I'm pleased to see, when I get up to go, that there is a big patch of frogspawn in one part of this pond.

The stream is there, but it's a small oozy ditch, though rather more visible than when I was here in summer.  I zigzag across it to investigate the evergreen grove.  More tall, slim trees, but these with needles and cones.  The ground is soft underfoot with accumulation of needles.  I don't know if it's the shape, but these slim trees don't half attract ivy.  They are green on top with their own needles, then green all the way down the trunk with newly-leafed ivy.  Ivy is also growing across the ground.  Given half a chance, I suspect that ivy could take over the world.

Here is a good reason for getting off the path now and then - I've come across some fallen branches with clusters of startlingly bright red and orange fungi growing on them.  I have never seen these before, and they are quite stunning.  And further on is a fallen silver birch on which are growing some tiny peach-coloured toadstools, smaller than my fingernail, and also some massively chunky bracket-style fungi, with pie-crust crimped edges, larger than my spread hand.  I never suspected the wonderful variety of colours and shapes of fungi until I started walking this valley.  While circling the fungi trees, I disturb another little vole-like animal, glimpsed as no more than a tail and a furry backside disappearing into the leaf litter.

What with all this zigzagging across the hillside, it's lunchtime by the time I reach the lake, so I stop to picnic. This feels like good place to be alone in, to listen to the quietness, without other human noise getting in the way of natural noises. While I'm sitting still and talking softly to the sound recorder, another little mouse/vole appears within a foot of me and trots off fast through a patch of baby nettles, apparently not particularly alarmed.  I sit tight, he reappears, scampers off again like a clockwork toy and vanishes into thicker undergrowth further down the bank.  I try to sketch what I remember of him - he's about 3 or 4 inches nose to tail, buff coloured on top and pale underneath, and moving too fast to get idea of what sort of tail he has.  That makes three small mammals I’ve seen in one morning, and I’ve not been particularly quiet.  I suppose it's easier to spot them at this time of year, when the undergrowth is all much thinner and lower, but it reinforces my impression of this as a place that people don't come too often.

Below the lake is anarchic country, no paths, lots of fallen wood, no stream for a while until it suddenly reappears in a steep little gully. Someone has removed great swathes of ivy from trees on the western side of the stream and left it lying, which adds to the general air of untidiness.  This west side of valley has more grass and moss and ferns growing under the trees than the other side, which I suspect is because this side gets more sun.  I progress crabwise up the hill like a herd of baby elephants (beech leaves do not make for quiet walking), finding little clumps of the wonderful scarlet fungi everywhere, including in the brook.  A pair of jays seem to be dogging my footsteps, to be replaced by a pair of woodpeckers as I return to the level of the stream.  Their staccato drumming is joined by the bass thump-thump of the two rams and the 'ching' of the ram pipework - the whole Detcombe percussion section.

One last foray into the woodland around me - this time up a sort of small side valley in which a grove of sapling beeches gives way to a patch of pines, then a patch of mixed trees, and a patch of very impressive molehills.  A track appears, leading up into an area of mixed beech and fir.  Many of these trees are large and elegant, and this has the air of being an older bit of woodland, longer established.  It's more like my picture of what woodland should be, with trees of various ages, sizes and species.  There's less lying wood, possibly because the hillside is so steep here that anything that isn't actively holding onto the ground probably rolls down to the bottom, as I will if I don't watch it.

A spring oozes out of the ground part way down this side valley and finds its way down to the main brook, which, with sunlight glinting off the water, is much more of a personality in this winter-minimalist landscape than I remember it being in summer.  Then this area was all shade and undergrowth so that the water almost disappeared.

At last, I've reached the end of the shooting consortium's land and have to head steeply back uphill to reach the beech-lined track which leads to Bulls Cross, stumbling across a big badger sett under the roots of a hazel tree as I go.  The leafless shapes of the big beeches along the track are even lovelier, I think, than the summer version. I imagined this walk would be mainly about trees, but what I will actually remember are three glimpses of small furry beasts and those amazing scarlet fungi.

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