The winter woods at Mereworth would be quiet but for the chainsaw renting the air. The team of woodsmen coppices the young sweet chestnut when the trees are about as high as a house; the lean timber poles are stacked and carted away to make fence posts and charcoal; the clearing or coup emerges from the forest with a few mother trees, oaks, yew and Scot’s pine, left as perches for birds. Across Kent, these familiar, patchwork monocultures were carved centuries ago out of ancient woodlands to provide hop poles for a rapidly growing beer industry.
The winter light still finds some autumn gold and winter greens. Mereworth woods sits on an undulation close to the North Downs within the Weald of Kent and is a cap of greensand above the heavy clays of the Medway valley. The mosaic of woodlands and clearings have always held churring nightjars and roding woodcock; the former floats and twists over the glades on long wings and the latter, no more than a long beak on a fat chestnut brown body, flies straight as a die across the tree tops giving intermittent twi-sick calls. This summer the nightjars were still present but there was no sign of a woodcock, which were much the commoner bird here 40 years ago.
Today, a more likely sight is a circling goshawk or a wintering blackcap in the broadleaves or firecrest in the conifers. In another 40 years, the bird populations will have changed again even if the sweet chestnut woodlands are managed in just the same way.