Hilly Wood

An erudite local botany blog tells of a wood full of brilliant yellow, cyclamen-flowered daffodils Narcissus cyclamineus. Now is the time to visit and so we head for Hilly Wood near Cranbrook. N. cyclamineus is an introduced and naturalised species from northwest Spain and northern Portugal, where five daffodil species are endemic, according to a local nature conservation NGO from Galicia.

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The well-wooded Weald of Kent.

Around Staplehurst and Cranbrook, the woods of the deep Weald drape the hills, dense and still, enveloping small pasture fields and occasional orchards and vines. The hilly landscape is intimate and interesting, but it is wet ground, where pedunculate oak Quercus robur and hazel Corylus avellana dominate with sweet chestnut Castanea sativa coppice, silver birch Betula pendula and pines Pinus sylvestris on outcrops of Greensand; very different from the bare chalk downs to the north and south where sheep pastures have long swept away the ancient ash Fraxinus excelsior and yew Taxus baccata and in turn have given way to empty arable. Pretty weather-boarded and tiled cottages sit still in the valleys and ample houses hide up private lanes.

Blackthorn flower; currant flower and honeysuckle racing for the light.

We walk one such lane hearing loud advertising nuthatches and finding a garden-escaped currant Ribes sanguineum bush with flowers in bud and ready to burst, then drop down through a woodland of silver birch, dead heather Calluna vulgaris and tall ‘mother’ pines passing copious honeysuckle Lonicera periclymenum bursting into life; fresh leaves on dead stems and new leaders heading for the sky. At the bottom of a wood near a small plantation of tall Douglas fir Pseudotsuga menziesii (or are they Norway spruce Picea abies I can never tell) that looks perfect for a sparrowhawk nesting territory, there is a golden swathe of daffodils on the gentle wooded slope just above a small stream. This is a most elegant and captivating garden escape that has taken over the otherwise dead spring woodland. On the ridge above the main spread, patches of the daffodils share the ground with the draping, dark green fronds of hard ferns Blechnum spicant. The two go well together.

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The old sweet chestnut coppice at the bottom of the valley in Hilly Wood with a carpet of Narcissus cyclamineus.
Narcissus cyclamineus.
More Narcissus cyclamineus.

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The dun woodland floor of dead sweet chestnut leaves brought to bright life by N. cyclamineus.

We walk the wet paths and try to find a nest of long-tailed tits hidden deep in a enormous patch of dead bramble; they easily outsmart us. Buzzards circle in the blue sky, great tits advertise their territory with a loud spring repertoire and woodpeckers yaffle and drum.  In a famous paper published in 1977,  John Krebs (now Lord Krebs) hypothesised that great tits chased round their territory, pretending to be super abundant to dissuade non-territory holding competitors from venturing in. The so-called Beau- Geste hypothesis is a lovely and plausible idea but its predictions have been repeatedly falsified and so it gathers dust in the large, dead-end section of the science library.

Given their propensity to occupy nest boxes and thus the ease with which to study their breeding biology (and to capture and ring them), great tits have been on the receiving end of all manner of observations, interventions and experiments by Oxford zoologists in Wytham Woods every year since 1947, including the song repertoire research by Krebs. The ‘Wytham great tits’ are the longest running continuous species research project in the world. On a warm, sunshine-filled spring day, this bright little bird with its brash songs is every inch the smart, hard calculating machine but then so is every other bird in the wood.

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Great tit

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