Genevieve and Peter at Walcot Wood
An ancient woodland, once part of Sir Robert Clive's estate, Walcot Wood is an important environment for many species - including veteran oaks - rare lichens and invertebrates - and it's a wonderful place for a walk as Genevieve Tudor found out.
One of life's quiet pleasures is a walk in the woods. There are few nicer ways of passing a couple of hours… unless of course it’s a guided walk, a walk with an expert to tell you what all the trees and flowers are and how the woodland got to be that way.
Genevieve Tudor, CSV Action Desk producer, took a wander with the National Trust's Peter Carty.
A walk in Walcot Wood
Once owned by Clive of India and part of the 18,000 acre estate attached to Walcot Hall. Today's wood is a tiny, but vitally important remnant.
The walk is mainly along what we would think of as old cart tracks, but they are actually old coaching and hunting routes associated with Walcot Hall.
They say that an oak is 300 years growing, 300 years resting and 300 years gracefully expiring. Trees in this final stage of their lives are known as veteran trees. Walcot Wood features 30 or more veteran oaks, and Peter Carty explained how they provide a habitat for many other forms of life.
Not only are there many holes for birds and small creatures, but there are lots of rare lichens and deadwood beetles.
Veteran oak in Walcot Wood
The trees date back to the time when Elizabeth I was on the throne. At the time the wood was a kind of open parkland. A lot of the branches are horizontal and low to the ground, suggesting that there were also small grazing animals – pigs, not cattle. They would have thrived on the acorns.
The woodland has survived probably because it's on a steep bank and would have been difficult to plough. The National Trust is managing the wood and trying to restore it to its former glory.
Of course there have never been any chemical fertilisers or pesticides used. Genevieve spotted violets, wild strawberries and primroses. The broom was in flower as it will be in May, but there will be bluebells too and even more primroses in subsequent months.
Violets in Walcot Wood
Parts of the wood have been cleared as part of the management programme, opening the wood up more to look after the veteran trees and allow more light to penetrate the canopy.
On that April afternoon, there were willow warblers singing – a lovely song, cascading down the scale. Just arrived from Africa, they are among the commonest summer birds in Britain. Throughout the spring and summer more birds will arrive here – possibly even pied flycatchers. The pheasants, whose raucous call accompanied Genevieve and Peter throughout their walk, will probably still be here.
Chiff-chaffs were singing. They are almost identical to willow warblers, but they repeat their name. Genevieve was listening for the one that goes "teacher, teacher, teacher?" Peter said that was a great tit. Then there's the chaffinch, coming down the scale a bit like the willow warbler, but it increases in pace a bit like a bowler running up to the crease. Except when there's a microphone nearby.
The banks alongside the track are old fashioned grassland, where the wild flowers outnumber the grass. This is very rare now. Organisations like the National Trust spend a lot of time fussing over them, in Peter's words.
Cowslips in Walcot Wood
The Trust would like to move a flock of sheep to Walcot for a week, which in agricultural terms is ludicrous. No commercial farmer would want to put sheep on a bank like that, but the National Trust is trying to negotiate with DEFRA to allow their own 'flying flock' of hardy Hebridean sheep to graze this and other sites. Hebrideans are an old breed that would happily work their way through the unwanted seedlings and brambles - the art is to ensure that they're not left on any one site for too long.
Genevieve was intrigued by the Good Friday grass - quite widespread but easily overlooked because it's quite small. It's supposed to flower on Good Friday. Later on there will be fairy flax and bird’s foot trefoil or egg-and-bacon plant.
In a rare moment of drama, ravens chased a buzzard away from their nest. Diamond shaped tail, central feathers longer than the outer ones, big head and long bill – but the raven is usually recognised by its call before you see it.
In the time of Queen Elizabeth I, banks like this would have been common, and hay fields would have been full of flowers. Agriculture would have been lower in intensity in those days. In fact flowers were part of the crop, they would have been fed to the animals with the hay.
There would have been hundreds of species of flowers in the hedgerows and local people would have been far more familiar with them than we are today.
They would have known which plants would cure which ailments, which could be twisted to make string. There were plants that would tell them the time of day, and plants that would indicate the condition of the ground and when animals could be grazed there. This was an everyday dependence which simply no longer exists.
While a trip to the chemist or supermarket may be more convenient these days, many people still regret 21st Century man's fractured association with the environment.
Ancient hedgrow in Walcot Wood
Today we've lost much of the natural heritage bequeathed to us in the 16th Century. 98% of our wild-flower grassland is gone. In modern day Walcot Wood there is a lot of open woodland around the veteran oaks, where the growth has been deliberately thinned, and that’s where many primroses are found catching the sunlight.
Peter said it is thought that before the war, this was open parkland with a scattering of veteran trees. Sometime around the war, grazing stopped and the open spaces were filled with scrub – hazels, oaks and ashes and of course dense bramble.
But the clearing can't be done too quickly – there is a danger that the oaks might die of stress. They don't like sudden large-scale changes. They are trying to 'peel back' the scrubby woodland at the same rate it grew up. Each of the 30 or so trees has its own management plan worked out by a specialist forester and an expert in rare lichens which are as important as the trees themselves.
The end of the walk
Within the wood is an old hedgerow which has somehow been incorporated into the wood along the line of an old track or lane. It has branches laid well over a hundred years ago, so the hawthorns are veteran trees in their own right – trees in their dying phase with all sorts of fungi and invertebrates living on them.
The veteran trees in Walcot Wood are all oaks and the new oak seedlings are being looked after, but the next generation of veteran trees – the hundred year-old ones are all ashes. It isn't ideal that some of the species living in the wood will have to make the jump from oak to ash, but the healthiest looking ashes are being selected and the scrub is being thinned around them in the hope that they will last a few hundred years.
Sometimes, to stimulate new growth in a dying tree, specialist foresters have simulated a lightning strike, blowing apart the crown of the tree and releasing new buds. This dramatic technique was devised in Windsor Great Park where much of our knowledge of veteran trees has been gained.
Past a brook gurgling over an old fence, the walk ended, but the wood will still be there for many years to come for us to walk through and explore.
last updated: 18/10/07