Heathland

Western Surrey is a very different world to the North Downs where I live. We have ancient woodlands, flowery meadows, steep slopes of chalk downland, and traditional hedgerows linking them all.

Out there, they have heath.

Heather in bloom 18 Jul 2018

Lowland heath is a national treasure. The UK holds 20% of the world’s total, and one of the best surviving fragments is on the common land of Thursley. Now a national nature reserve, for thousands of years this landscape has been used by humanity: gorse was cut for fodder, bracken was turned into potash for glass-making. Turf was cut for roofing. Hardy livestock wandered here and there.

Thursley Common1 18 Jul 2018

The people who lived in this harsh and exposed landscape were – reputedly – the original heathens, heath-dwellers, which presumably back then had less to do with religious values and more with social class. Regardless, their agriculture and the land’s natural qualities combined to produce a tough, sandy, prickly ecosystem. Or, some would say, Bronze Age humanity provided an unexpected niche for wildlife that would naturally have thrived in heath-filled forest glades opened by our extinct megafauna.

But Britain urbanised itself, and people lost their connection with the land. Most of our heathlands were overrun by development and commercial forestry. Now they’re recognised as a priority habitat and are a major focus of conservation.

Heathland is harsh yet subtle. Gorse fires roar with depressing frequency and the sun beats hot. The soil can be pure sand, and blows into your hair and trips your boots. But in the shadows, small living things lurk.

Sand lizards are one of Britain’s rarest reptiles. 

Sand lizard 9 May 2017

And this might be our strangest plant – the carnivorous sundew, which eats insects.

Sundew Thursley 18 Jul 18

Dodder is scarcely more conventional. Sometimes compared to pink spaghetti, it is a parasitic plant that taps into the vascular system of its host.

Dodder Thursley 18 Jul 2018

Marsh clubmoss is less dramatic, but it is an endangered species in the UK.

Clubmoss Thursley 18 Jul 18

It likes heaths that flood in winter. That may still happen this year, but after months without rain, much of Surrey is looking like the Kenyan savannah. We need a good storm or two soon.

Romania: Viscri – Land of Lost Trailcams

June – August 2016

The peace is superficial. From Viscri’s high ridges, you can see the land folding higher and ever higher into the Carpathians – but something is in the foreground. It has hooves.

Carpathians from Viscri

Livestock explains a lot about Viscri. Modernisation has boosted sheep, perhaps for the wool to knit those socks for tourists. Not only is the sheep / cow ratio skewed, but the actual sheep flocks are also much bigger.

Sheep flock Viscri

More hooves to trample the meadows, and more mouths to eat it. The grass is cropped low with sharply reduced biodiversity. The only exception is within a rusty barbed wire fence: a tiny but gorgeous meadow saved by the local beekeeper for his bees.

Beekeeper meadow

With so few mammals, reptiles take over my surveys. Sand lizards are abundant.

Sand lizard3

Something doesn’t feel right. Wild boar bones litter the wood – someone has been poaching. I’ve got a bad feeling about leaving the trail cameras here.

Perhaps it’s fitting that Viscri has a signpost to Brasov, arguably the most famous flashpoint of human-wildlife conflict in Europe.

Signpost to Brasov

Because we’re about to land fair and square in conflict of our own…

Asking directions

July 15th

The cows are coming home. I can hear them mooing from my room. A less common event in town is the decorating of a gate with conifer branches and balloons. Men were playing eastern-sounding music as they worked. There will be a wedding tomorrow.

July 19th

Dogs. Sheep. East Transect.

The skies are grey with fluctuating patches of blue, painting random lighted patches on the green landscape.

Fluffy cotton wool – or rather, dirty cotton wool. Sheep are dotted on the overgrazed grass in a flock both coherent and borderless.

The track rises swiftly over what might be an esker. What is this? Heads pop up. Heads, heads, heads. Giant dogs burst forth, barking. But the numbers! There are eleven, at least, although I don’t remember counting, and each is the size of an English mastiff or bigger. They flow towards us like an army out of Narnia: white and brown, or grey, or white, with massive St Bernard heads and torn ears. Some are like Spanish mastiffs, but with longer, unkempt coats.

We have no stick. We have no pepper spray.

I don’t make eye contact with the dogs and feel nothing. Time blends into a swirl. So much barking. Occasionally I notice a passing dog with angry eyes and barking jowls – the pack has encircled us. No elk ever brought to bay by wolves was so trapped, but then, elk that stand still are those that survive.

Some while later, the shepherd ambles over. He displays no concern whatsoever. He is perhaps in his forties, with a brimless black hat, an overcoat loose over his shoulders, and a large plastic bottle of something that looks like Pepsi but is probably beer. His dogs release us. We’re out of here.

Trailcams 1, 2, 3 – we ascend the ridge, and grab them. The good news is that one caught a fleeting glimpse of a forest wildcat carrying reptilian prey. We also have a rather cute fox.

Snapshot_0

The bad news is Trailcam 4. A chain dangles sadly from where the camera used to be. It’s now in a poacher’s pocket.

With the surviving cameras and low spirits, we walk on through the wood, trying to find a route home away from the dog pack. With the utmost difficulty, we crawl through dense prickling hawthorn, only to find ourselves dangerously close to the notorious farm with the red roofed barns.

Red roof farm

New problem: cows litter the landscape. Even at four hundred metres, another pack of giant dogs spot us, and come charging, bounding into hedgerows, closer, ever closer. Baskerville would be proud. One – something like a long-haired Anatolian – closes the gap to perhaps 60 metres, barking, barking, barking…

Scratched, exhausted and overheated, we stumble back into camp. Our local friends are horrified to hear that Trailcam 4 has been taken and with an energy that would leave the CID in the dust, they vow to track down the culprit. But there’s nothing more I can do.

Roll on Malancrav. That will be all. :/