Hatfield Forest’s fritillaries

The little, flint church at Bush End was built in the 1850s; a medieval pastiche that has aged well under magnificent trees full of noisy jackdaws. The church was constructed at the edge of the perfectly preserved Royal Hunting Forest established nearly a thousand years ago. Hatfield Forest is part ancient wood pasture and part woodland enclosures accessed by long rides. The small lake, an 18th century embellishment by Capability Brown, is now the focal point for the many visitors.

The landscape is flat, providing uninterrupted perspectives of unimproved grasslands peppered with great oaks and hornbeams and grazed by a herd of red poll cattle. Beyond, there is the continuous, dark backdrop of tall woodland. The verdant landscape is a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous, golden fields of wheat and barley that carpet much of North Essex. The only intrusions on the Medieval scene are the passenger jets taking off every few minutes from nearby Stansted Airport; these rise above the trees in a blast of noise, circle slowly round the Forest before heading south towards their holiday destinations.

Hatfield Forest’s wide rides and damp ditches are rich in flowers; banks of bramble and thistle spill from the woodland edge, with hemp agrimony, willowherbs and meadowseet in the ditches. The unimproved grasslands appear calcareous and flecked with dwarf thistle, lady’s bedstraw, agrimony and lesser stitchwort. The woodlands are managed as coppice, some fenced and some open and heavily grazed by deer.

At dawn, the birds are vocal and various. Green woodpeckers laugh and jackdaws joke. The latter are often in pairs and sit together in the trees like contented couples.

The butterflies are various but the undoubted star is the sliver-washed fritillary which is today a common sight on the bramble banks. These declined in the Twentieth century to a core area in the south of England but have steadily spread in recent decades and recolonised Hatfield Forest in 2006. The reasons for these fluctuations are not well understood. The male is a bright orange; a female is duller but not, I think, grey enough to be the valezina variation.

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