30 December 2008

Some year end views in Brede High Wood

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Austford Strait looking north towards the Woodyard.  Recent clearance of the invasive alien rhododendron has created a spacious and attractive entrance to the site.

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Austford Strait looking north from close to the valley bottom.  The frost lies thickly here.

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The ride heading south through Sedlescombe Heath.  Mud and runnels of water thawed by the winter sun.

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The ride running east along the north side of Sedlescombe Heath

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Icy puddles along the path through Holman Pine.

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Bracken and frosted timber on the south western corner of Moor Wood.

29 December 2008

The first hazel catkin

Today was gloriously sunny after a hard  night's frost.  Just on the left hand side of the Woodyard Gate to Brede High Woods is a large coppiced hazel.  When I started my walk I am sure all the catkins were tight closed, yellowish grey lamb's tails.

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By the time I cam back just one had expanded in the warm sunshine above the rime.  Maybe I did not notice it on the way out but I like to think it crept open to its full yellow, pollen-filled length during my two hour ramble.

Hazel catkins often start as early as the first week in January, but I have rarely seen them in this area in late December.

28 December 2008

Coppice stool lichens

Where coppice stools receive a large amount of sunshine (on the north side of a wide ride, for example), they tend to grow a coat of lichen rather than moss.

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The chestnut stool here is thickly clothed with one of the 'pixie cup' lichens (Cladonia coniocraea), sometimes known as the 'powderhorn lichen' because of the shape of the slender, tapering, spore-bearing podetia that rise from the leafy bases of the plants.

23 December 2008


The word 'saproxylic' is from the Greek sapros meaning 'rotten' and xylon meaning 'wood' and the saproxylic fauna and flora is a major element in woodland ecology.

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A large log of wood, half a tree trunk, in an advanced state of decay like the one shown above will contain hundreds, maybe thousands of different species.  These include various moulds and fungi, woodlice and centipedes, snails and pseudoscorpions, the larvae of flies beetles and other invertebrates feeding directly on the decaying wood or plant life associated with it.  Many of the invertebrates have parasites and predators and the wood itself will attract different suites of species as it goes through the processes of decay.

It is salutary to think that before the arrival of Homo sapiens trees and branches just lay where they fell unless there was a forest fire.  Today wood is harvested and removed, the brash is often burnt and material that has fallen naturally is cleared away.  This has caused an enormous reduction in the dead wood habitat with profound consequences higher up the food chain to birds and bats and the things that prey on them as there simply is only a fraction of the invertebrate food that would naturally have been available.

The Woodland Trust (and other conservation-minded organisations) are, of course, fully aware of this and will try to ensure the balance, insofar as it is possible, is redressed.  While some of our rarer saproxylic species may have been lost for good, an increase of this resource should quite rapidly produce results as the quantity and quality of dead wood biodiversity increases.

21 December 2008

Winter brown beech leaves

At this time of year some of the beech trees (Fagus sylvatica) in Brede High Woods retain their dead, brown leaves.

20081215 BHW Cpt 6c & 7a dead beech leaves

When I was young my mother and aunts always used to preserve beech leaves with glycerin for indoor flower arrangements, though they used fresh younger leaves for doing this.

I was pleased to note that there are many sites on the Internet that explain how this is done, so the tradition has not been lost.

Although most beech trees lose most of their leaves at the same time as other trees, when they are pruned into hedges the leaves are retained much longer - a valuable feature of a garden beech hedge in winter.

17 December 2008

A mystery ditch

About 250 metres south east of the main car park in Brede High Woods I discovered a substantial dry ditch running through the broadleaf plantation to the north of the footpath.

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In this picture it runs from the right hand lower corner to the top centre, but is rather obscured by brambles and leaves.

It might be a drainage ditch put in when this part of the area was afforested in the middle of the last century, or it might have been made much earlier.

Some interesting ferns grow on the banks including the soft shield-fern (Polystichum setiferum) below.  This is similar to the male fern I wrote about yesterday, but the leaves are softer and matt.  There are also clear differences in the shape of the leaflets and the spore cases.

20081215 BHW Cpt 6c ditch & soft shield-fern

16 December 2008

Male fern (Dryopteris filix-mas)

Some of the evergreen or semi-evergreen ferns are much more obvious at this time of year.  This is a male fern, a species common throughout Brede High Woods.

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An extract from the rhizomes of male fern was regarded as "one of the most potent remedies for tapeworm ever recorded in the annals of medicine."  The active ingredient was thought to be piperazine, but properly conducted experiments with this showed that, while it did expel tapeworms it did not expel all of them and was therefore nowhere near as good as other antihelminthics.

Another use for male fern was in Father Künzle's Oil.  This was used as a rubbing oil for muscular pain.  Five fronds were dried, the leaflets stripped off and macerated for a month in 200ml of olive oil.

Father Johann Künzle (1857-1945), a Swiss, was one of the pioneering modern herbalists famed for his book Herbs and Weeds (Chrut und Uchrut).  Some consider his work to be of great value, others that he was a charlatan - so often the way with alternative medicine.


15 December 2008

Midwinter mud

My first walk in Brede High Woods after a bad cold which has kept me indoors.

The woods were cold, wet and muddy, but there was much to see.  Pools full of bright green water starwort and floating sweet-grass, wonderful displays of fern; mosses, lichens and even some unusual toadstools.  And on the bank by the main car park a nearly opened flower bud on a barren strawberry plant.

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It is a commonplace to long for spring at this time of the year, but there is much to enjoy in the woods that could easily be overlooked in the warmer months.  The cold and the quiet is also a good antidote to the Christmas queues and other seasonal pressures.

Over the next few days I will talk about some of the things I discovered on this walk.

12 December 2008

Surveying for dormice

A concerted effort is being made to get a better understanding of any dormouse populations that may occur in Brede High Woods.  As a start nest boxes have been put up in what seems to be a favourable area, but these will not, of course, be used until the animals come out of hibernation next year.

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The picture shows the dormouse group about to set off to put up the boxes.

The Sussex Mammal Group is also undertaking a major survey into dormouse populations across East and West Sussex with the Sussex Dormouse Nut Survey.  In addition to putting up nest boxes or tubes, the presence of dormice can be established by searching for hazel nuts that have been opened in a characteristic way.  For anyone who would like to get involved, details of how to do this and much more on dormice in Sussex can be found here.

9 December 2008

Beech woodwart (Hypoxylon fragiforme)

These hard, round fungi occur quite frequently on dead branches of beech.  These were in Greenden Wood on the western side of Brede High Woods.  They are almost certainly H. fragiforme, but there are one or two rarer lookalikes that can only be told apart by microscopic examination.

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A chemical compound has been isolated from H. fragiforme that is said to be effective in inhibiting the development of HIV and AIDS.  The fungus also contains compounds with antibacterial and antifungal properties.

4 December 2008

Candle-snuff fungi (Xylaria hypoxylon)

These very common saproxylic fungi that grow on dead and often buried wood are having, like many other fungi, a good year.

20081121 BHW Xylaria hypoxylon

The name 'candle-snuff' has been explained by likening the (unforked) fruiting bodies with their white tops and black bases to extinguished candle wicks.  But some authors say it is because a smoke-like cloud of spores sometimes arises if the fungi are tapped.

Despite its attractive and distinctive appearance, this fungus seems to have found little use in folk medicine.  Recently however a chemical (19,20-epoxycytochalasin D) has been isolated from the fungus.  This compound is, apparently, a strong cytotoxin and may have some value in dealing with tumours.  It underscores the point that many compounds with useful properties must only be found in particular species, compounds that will be lost in nature if these species become extinct.

Winter midges

During these cold spells, as soon as the sun has gathered strength and started to melt the frost, small clouds of tiny midges can often be seen dancing in the cold woodland air.  They are often a non-biting midge, or chironomid, called Gymnometriocnemus brumalis.

20081121 Gymnometriocnemus brumalis 1

The male and female shown above illustrate the marked sexual dimorphism of this species.  The male is black with candyfloss antennae, while the female is yellow with brown stripes on the thorax.

Often this species, which always occurs as an adult in the colder months, will settle on pale surfaces such as cut stumps or, in the case above, the lid of a new dormouse box.  I have also seen them hitch a ride on the back of one of our dogs (now long dead).

This tiny insect occurs in millions in England's winter woods and is found across Europe and in North America as well as in Brede High Woods.  It seems to me to be just as common as it used to be, whereas many other members of its family (Chironomidae) have declined alarmingly.  The larvae and pupae of the species have never, so far as I am aware, been described but probably occur among wet dead leaves.  All stages must represent an important food resource for insectivorous birds and animals in the winter.

I suspect the reason for its continuing success is that the fallen leaves in our woods are less affected than other habitats by the polluting chemicals that are now so prevalent.  Many other Chironomidae breed in rivers, streams and ponds and these have, of course, been severely damaged by chemicals over the past fifty years or more.

Although it sounds more like summer than winter, this species must be one of the few Chironomids that has featured in a poem by, in this instance, the anonymous writer of the Reading is Dangerous blog:

At the lake,

when I wasn’t swimming

or playing petanque

or rescuing gymnometriocnemus flies stuck in my body hair

or picking up plastic bottles from the beach or playing chess

or playing mafia at night with 12 kids

or drinking Kilikia beer (great taste because of great Armenian water)

or pondering on the problem of what's Right and what's Wrong

or just sleeping late,

I was meditating by the waters and studying wave patterns.

Gymnometriocnemus brumalis 2003a

1 December 2008

Brede High Woods buildings 3

One of the less impressive structures from the recent past left behind at the Wood Yard are a couple of corrugated iron portable toilets now beginning to rust into oblivion.  Sadly this one isn't an ageing Dalek or a second hand Tardis.

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I include the picture of one here to ensure as complete a record as I can.  Not exactly the Taj Mahal, but not as often photographed I suspect.