Grassland Paintbox

There is colour, and then there are waxcaps: the jewels of autumnal meadows, sparkling after the rain.

Golden waxcap1 30 Oct 20

The UK is internationally important for waxcaps. In a similar vein to wildflowers, these strange and beautiful fungi are dependent on ‘unimproved’ grassland – that is, fields which have not been damaged by fertiliser, reseeding, horse grazing or the other problems of modern agriculture. Some of the best waxcap displays are in the west but we do have a few good places here in the south-east as well.

Golden waxcap is the most common.

Golden waxcap2 30 Oct 20

Blackening waxcap can start off as a similar hue.

Blackening waxcap2 30 Oct 20

But it soon changes.

Blackening waxcap 30 Oct 20

Scarlet waxcap does not – a tiny, impossibly vivid ruby in the grass.

Scarlet waxcap 30 Oct 20

There are green waxcaps. There are white waxcaps. There is even one species that is pink. But they are all sensitive to pollution, and if grassland is damaged, they can take decades to recover.

Meanwhile, back in the shelter of the trees, fly agaric reach preposterous sizes.

Fly agaric 30 Oct 20

What is a fungus? The bright caps catch our attention, but are only the fruiting body. The actual organism, which is neither plant nor animal, exists as strands of white threads – mycelium – in the soil or other substrate. Many species form symbiotic relationships with plants, supporting them with nutrients. Fungi are essential to life, but they are also patient: in any given year, a field will not have all species in fruit, and discovering all the fungi that actually live there can take a good part of a lifetime.

Patience. A good word to remember in this uncertain year.

Labels, Labels Everywhere

It’s the British way of protecting places, and it’s confusing. Huge areas of the country are green on the map but the designations vary in value for wildlife. To complicate things further, they frequently overlap – but given there’s currently talk of increasing the protected areas, here’s a guide. 

Area of Outstanding National Beauty (AONB)

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

AONBs are an acknowledgement that a landscape is special: rich in history and character. I live on the border of the Surrey Hills, one of the oldest AONBs; they quietly protect much of the countryside, from the Yorkshire Wolds to the North Norfolk Coast.

AONBs offer protection against development and save our rural heritage, so are invaluable, but there is no duty on landowners to do anything for wildlife. While some AONB land supports many rare species, other areas are intensively farmed or used for pheasant shooting. I would like to see AONB status come with a basic duty of care for the environment.

Cotswolds AONB

National Park

Focus: landscapes. Ownership: usually private.

Very different to the North American meaning; English national parks are basically AONBs with their own planning authority and notably more access for outdoor recreation. They sprawl across the uplands and occasionally elsewhere, conserving some of our most spectacular landscapes. 

Yorkshire Dales National Park

Yorkshire Dales

Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: usually private.

These are the ones that really matter for wildlife. They cover 7% of England and range from abandoned railway tunnels to vast moorlands and estuaries. All of them come with lists of ‘notified features’: the special wildlife, geology or habitats which triggered the notification. Depending on the SSSI, this can be anything from nightingales to red squirrels or chalk cliffs. 

They are bewilderingly varied, like the wildlife and geology they protect, but this is one of the strangest (and smallest) of all: Orielton Stable Block and Cellars SSSI in Pembrokeshire. Yes, we have a SSSI that is indoors. It was designated to protected lesser horseshoe bats!

Babylon Hill SSSI (Dorset) – notified for Jurassic geology

Babylon Hill

Thursley, Hankley & Frensham Commons SSSI (Surrey) – heathland habitat and species

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

National Nature Reserve (NNR)

Focus: biodiversity or geology. Ownership: public, or public-private partnership

Our ‘real’ national parks, NNRs are the high point of British nature conservation. They are often underpinned by SSSI status and almost always provide public access and good scientific research opportunities. 

Hickling Broad NNR, Norfolk

Hickling Broad

Special Area of Conservation / Special Protection Area

Focus: landscape-scale conservation. Ownership: various

SACs and SPAs are often called European sites, but actually derive from the Bern Convention. Together with Ramsar sites, SACs and SPAs are designed to protect habitats and species of international importance. Nobody can undertake a project in one of these sites without first proving that it will have no likely significant effect on the environment. For good measure, all British examples are also SSSIs.

Woolmer Forest SAC / Wealden Heaths Phase II SPA

Woolmer1 6 Sept 2018

Scheduled Ancient Monument (SAM)

Focus: historic landmarks. Ownership: various

Finally, there is the human factor. People have been living and working in Britain for many millennia, and every generation has left thought-provoking traces in its wake. A SAM is to human work what SSSIs are to wildlife.

Belas Knap SAM – a 5,000 year old Neolithic longbarrow.

Belas Knap1

The Elders

What would they say to us and our hasty lives?

Yew forest2 Oct 20

No one knows how old the yews of Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve might be. Local legend says that they were planted after a battle with the Vikings in the 9th century; other estimates vary from 500 years to 2,000. In country where most ancient yews haunt churchyards as solitary wardens, in a continent where the 15th century craze for longbows drove a insatiable demand for yew-wood, a grove like this is exceptional.

Yew forest1 Oct 20

Age adds to the atmosphere of tangled boughs and trunks that bulge and burst into impossible shapes, like a clay pot being worked on a very slow wheel.

Yew forest3 Oct 20

The yew has special significant to us; people have been building with its wood since the Palaeolithic. Their presence in churchyards may date to the bubonic plague – they were allegedly planted on the graves of victims to purify them. It is also said that they were a deterrent to locals looking for a place to graze cattle; their extremely toxic fruit is deadly to livestock and to much else.

Birds get by with the yew, however, swallowing the fresh and excreting the stone. Their dense structure gives protection to small species like goldcrests. But a yew grove can be silent, still, a place where thoughts grow and are left to hang in the air.

Yew forest4 Oct 20

Beyond the yews, Kingley Vale opens into chalk downland.

Kingley Vale

A riot of colour in the summer, but the flowers are sleeping now. They will return.

The yews have seen it all before.

A Different Sort of Somewhere

The Broads may be boggy, but another corner of Norfolk stubbornly turns steppe. Modelled piecemeal by ice ages until hard chalk was topped with sand that varies from a skin to full-blown dunes, it is patterned now with a truly bewildering array of wild things. Breckland is dry, cold, haughty and mysterious, the sort of land that grew the likes of Queen Boudicca and buried 17th century villages in roving sandstorms.

It was helpful to prehistoric people, however; it supplied them with flint. I’m not qualified to say if this flake is manmade but it is a reminder, like the rabbits introduced by the Normans, that humanity and the Brecks have known each other for a while, and still aren’t quite sure what to say.

Flint Brecks

You know when you are in Breckland, but like the geology, the landscape is a riddle to describe. Heathland, ice age formations like pingo ponds, sandy warrens, flowers that grow nowhere else in the country – it’s also ended up supporting lowland Britain’s largest coniferous forest, planted in the 20th century to supply timber. 

And the rabbits keep watching.

Rabbit Brecks Oct 20

But it was the fungi that stole the show last week. There is fly agaric, which looks like it belongs in a fairytale.

Fly agaric Brecks

There is death cap, which has found itself in many tales, generally of a rather dark kind involving assassinations of unpopular royalty.

Death cap Brecks

We have given many species ill-fitting names, but not the death cap – it is precisely what it claims to be. It is packed with amatoxins and just half a cap can be fatal. I don’t often come across it, but like deadly nightshade and grizzlies, it is a reminder that nature has rules and needs to be treated with respect.

More innocent, perhaps, are the fungi that decorate a pine cone.

Cone fungi

And finally, shaggy ink cap or lawyer’s wig.

Lawyer's wig

Its fame is that it self-dissolves into a gooey ink, which some say was used to sign the Magna Carta, although I’ve been unable to trace the source of that claim. A touch of unknowable seems requisite for residents of the Brecks.

Sabretooth of the Marshes

Everywhere in England is unlike everywhere else. That’s a gift in part from our absurdly complicated geology, crafted further by six millennia of rural activity. But even in a land of difference, the East Anglian peninsula stands out: sprawling, soaked, sandy and spacious.

Strumpshaw 15 Oct 20

Acle rainbow

Its heart is routinely under water. East of Norwich, a spider’s web of rivers and channels wind through reedbeds – windmills started turning there when Henry III was on the throne, but alder and willow have had wet feet for longer, and it is in their company that you might spot something very odd. Who left these lethal daggers in the marsh?

Chinese water deer tusk

Or tusks, technically. Their owner is not a big cat, although it’s easy to imagine hikers stumbling across one of these monstrous canines and fearing that Norfolk is home to a relic population of cave lions. They actually belong to a rather cuddly-looking deer.

Water deer1 15 Oct 20

Water deer are England’s mystery mammals. Few people have heard of them, and they’re not easy to approach. 

Water deer2 15 Oct 20

This is a heavy crop, but you can just see the tusks.

Water deer3 15 Oct 20

They have humans in their history. We only have two surviving native deer – the red and the roe. Water deer hail from China and Korea, but have been present in the UK for a century or so. While releasing non-native species into a different ecosystem half way across the globe is generally a very bad idea, not so in this case. Water deer are now vulnerable in their homeland, so the British population is important to their survival. Unlike introduced sika deer, they do not cause any ecological problems in the UK.

And they keep wading through the reedbeds, learning the marshes, watching their neighbours go about their own business.

Grey heron 15 Oct 20

And the skies keep tripping over themselves.

Hickling Broad