Enjoy spotting a wealth of wildlife on a walk around the National Trust's Wall Wood near Bishop's Stortford in Hertfordshire
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
Over the last few years I have visited Wall Wood, adjacent to Woodside Green, on a couple of occasions but never spent much time studying the natural history. Last week I rectified this with a four-hour visit on the sweltering Tuesday, before returning early on the Wednesday morning.
Upon parking the car near the wood in wonderful weather – top temperature 23C – I could immediately hear a great spotted woodpecker drumming, a nuthatch and chiffchaff calling and, from the top of a nearby horse chestnut tree, a song thrush in full voice. This tree was just breaking into leaf and the well-known 'candles' were just emerging.
I had purposefully set out later than usual as I wanted the temperature to be high to encourage butterflies from their hibernation and I wasn't disappointed. Plenty of male brimstones, the bright yellow ones, were on the wing, as were several smart peacocks.
Wall Wood is an ancient woodland, now managed by the National Trust. There has been extensive coppicing, evident in two areas, which has cleared many trees to permit sunlight to encourage wild plants to flourish. The wood is fenced off, with entrance gates permitting access to the well-marked paths. The plan is/was to keep the fallow deer out as they would graze many of these emerging plants. However, plenty of evidence of them being present as I noted many slots in the muddier areas of the tracks. The gates are lockable so, when visiting, please do make sure that you close and lock the gates after entering.
I had the whole afternoon to study this area so just found places to sit and wait to see what came along. Frequently halting by wood piles meant I saw plenty of wrens that would pop up and call very loudly before busying themselves back in the pile of logs and brash wood. Chiffchaffs called from all around the wood and, in the far corner, near Wall Wood Cottage, a blackcap warbled merrily away. Both these birds will have recently arrived from sub-Saharan Africa, with the males singing to establish a territory as well as attract a mate. Another nuthatch burbled into song from the top of an oak whilst jackdaws and magpies clacked away.
One bird I was keen to get some photos of was the treecreeper and it wasn't long before I spotted one heading up a tree trunk. I moved closer every time it went around the other side of the trunk, enabling me to get some pleasing shots. And, on the forest floor, common dog violet and primula were in flower as well as copious stands of dog's mercury.
As the sun climbed higher I took another wander around the path that follows the perimeter along the southern border. A muntjac darted for cover into a stand of brambles while skylarks ascended from the wheat field, both on the other side of the fence. Blackbirds and song thrushes sang perpetually as great tits and blue tits flicked through the canopy of emerging hazel and hornbeam leaves. Some of the hornbeams looked very old indeed with their smooth yet twisted bark.
Throughout the woods are useful signs giving details of the natural history as well as a little background information about the history of the wood. I noted that in one area a pond was marked on the map. I had checked this before in high summer to discover it bone dry but went off to investigate. Plenty of water this time but, sadly, my wish to encounter amphibious species was not granted.
Another drumming woodpecker had me searching tree trunks whereupon I caught a glimpse of two jays. A common buzzard took to the wing before I could fire off a camera shot. Bracket fungi were noted upon several birch trunks and, nearby, a wonderful fern species grew through moss that itself was growing on the bark of an old oak tree.
By now the temperature was reaching its highest for the day, so I found a place for my picnic and just enjoyed the symphony of so many birds singing. Having completed my lunch, I crossed over the road to have a brief wander around the western area of Hatfield Forest. The warmth had certainly encouraged more insects to be active. Plenty of Bombus terrestris (buff-tailed bumblebee) were either hunting out primula and lesser celandine for sustenance or otherwise scouting around in leaf litter looking for a nest site.
As I entered the forest, a cronking call informed me that a raven was nearby although this remained unseen. I flushed two pheasants as I went in search of trees with blossom, preferably blackthorn or other species of prunus, but there was little to be found in this patch of the forest. A dead, upstanding tree was being carefully investigated by another treecreeper and a green woodpecker yaffled in the distance. I came across a stand of wood anemone that was also attracting buff-tailed bumblebees before I decided to head back to the car.
I walked along the lane back to Woodside Green. On the grass verges, peacock butterflies rested upon muddy patches taking minerals from the soil, but, again, were very active and flighty. I checked a cherry tree just breaking into flower, but too early to attract insects. However, nearby was a good patch of coltsfoot, its yellow flowers showing well for even more bees. Here, both Andrena bicolor (Gwynne's mining bee) and Bombus hypnorum (tree bumblebee) were busy feeding.
As I arrived at the car I noticed a territorial dispute between two butterflies – a peacock and a small white, my first of the year for this species. Soon after, a small tortoiseshell, also a year first, darted by. A little further along was what I had hoped to discover, a blossom-clad blackthorn in the hedgerow. Flying underneath, searching the leaf litter, were several Bombylius major (dark-edged bee fly.) A splendid insect which displays a fearsome spear-like proboscis. This is no more than a glorified straw through which it feeds upon nectar. As with all flies, it only has two wings, as opposed to bees that display four. These insects will be looking for the nest sites of solitary bees. Once they discover one, the female flies over the entrance hole and flicks her eggs towards it. The eggs remain nearby until the larvae emerge, whereupon they crawl into the nest to feed upon the bee grubs. Clever stuff.
Also upon the blossom were more bumblebees and a single Eristalis pertinax, a hoverfly. Again, my first of this species for the year. By now I really was becoming very warm, carrying with me all my camera gear as well as binoculars. Plenty of folk were making the most of the glorious conditions by setting up deckchairs upon the green and just enjoying the outdoors on what transpired to be the hottest March day for 53 years.
Wall Wood is a super place to visit. The tracks are still very muddy in places presently, but once these dry out fully it will make it easy for those with mobility issues to follow the paths and look out for the plethora of wildlife that is on offer.
Finally, a word of warning. Presently, car park restrictions are in place along the lane near the Woodside Green entrance to Hatfield Forest, especially by the gate opposite Wall Wood. This has been a free car park area for many years, off the road, but at the moment a £70 fine will be issued for those who do park there – on Tuesday afternoon the parking wardens were very evident all along the road.
Parking is permitted by Woodside Green, but signs indicate not to actually park on the green. The best place appears to be near the cattle grid on the left as you approach Hatfield Forest from the green. Do look out for the signs saying if parking is permitted. They are not hugely conspicuous.