Enjoy the sights and sounds of nature on a walk through the woodlands of Much Hadham in Hertfordshire
Jono Forgham covers your fortnightly look at nature around Bishop's Stortford...
Early last week I set off for a local walk, in keeping with present restrictions, parking the car near to St Andrew's Church in Much Hadham. Churchyards can be great places for nature as they are invariably quiet and unvisited sites with areas of wild growth.
Upon entering, the first things I noticed were the array of coniferous tree species, including the customary yew. The berries are highly toxic when ingested by grazing animals such as sheep and cattle. By planting them in churchyards, the area became a no-go zone for the common villagers wishing to graze their livestock for free. A quick search through these conifers realised a few species of birds, but not the hoped-for goldcrests that frequent evergreens. A few coal tits were heard calling from deep inside the tightly-packed needles.
Splendid stands of snowdrops were in full flower, always wonderful to witness, before my attention was drawn to the variety of lichen species upon the gravestones. The common two were a yellow/orange type, probably Xanthoria parietina, whilst the white ones, often circular, remained unidentified. The patterns of their growth were certainly intricate and for many of these species, of which there are more than 2,000 in the UK, detailed notes and microscopic study is required to finalise the identification. Another spot was noting plenty of mistletoe tangles growing high in the trees all around the church. Far too high for harvesting at Christmas!
I wandered off down the lane towards the village hall. Great tits and blue tits accompanied me whilst a common buzzard mewed overhead as I arrived at the ford at the end of Oudle Lane and Malting Lane. I crossed the footbridge over a fairly fast flowing River Ash and crossed the field towards Sidehill Wood. As I went through the gate, a large flock of chaffinches rose from the mud and flew over into the adjacent garden. A quick check through to make sure they were all the same and that there wasn't a brambling lurking in with them, which can happen and is a bird that is regularly overlooked. Chaffinch in size but more orange and grey with no wing bars and a white rump visible when in flight. There were no bramblings, so I took the path heading south through the wood.
Like many deciduous woods in East Herts, growing on clay soils, the predominant tree species were oak and hornbeam. Occasionally a beech was noted, hinting perhaps at a slightly more gravel-based sandy soil. Nuthatches burbled as more blue tits took interest as I wandered along, stopping for regular chats with dog walkers. My hat seems to be becoming rather well known as people tend to recognise this from my byline picture in the right-hand corner of these pages. Invariably the locals who stop to chat have some useful nature information for me and today was no different. I was informed about woodpeckers, told where a buzzard had nested, and one kind gentleman pointed me in the direction of a regularly-seen little egret. I would check this out later.
Moorhens screeched out of sight on large ponds on the meadows and winter parties of long-tailed tits flicked through the lower branches, trilling constantly. Another nuthatch fired off his song as I passed through two gates on to the muddiest part of the path. Here, on the left, a field between the wood I had just left and Mill Wood, which I was about to enter. Three common buzzards circled high and distant and, in the hedge, I noted several small insects on the wing. I carry a small hand net with me and some glass tubes for potting insects. I took two species of these winter gnats. They showed different patterning on their wings. Identification job for when I returned home.
More long-tailed tits, with several posing for photos, before I came to the pond on the right. Just two mallards here, the water muddy and covering a much larger area than I have seen before. A concrete structure, now covered in mosses with trees growing from it, looked worthy of a search. I presumed it to be a Second World War pill box, but it had sunk so much and was so covered in growth that there wasn't too much to give away its original purpose. Here, several early plants were in leaf: Lords-and-ladies and dog's mercury. The latter is unusual in that it is one of only a handful of flowers in the UK that shows green petals. A few primulas were just coming into flower too.
A treecreeper zipped from an oak trunk, upon which a huge tree burr was growing. This growth upon the side of the tree is usually caused by a fungal growth under the bark, but can also occur if the trunk becomes damaged in any way. The tree next door to this specimen contained a dead bough on which both jelly ear and a honey fungus species were flourishing. A dead branch upon the ground also showed fungal growth, this time chicken of the woods, so clearly an undisturbed and damp habitat here.
At the end of the path out of the wood there are stands of recently-planted trees as the wanderer heads towards Bourne Lane. A path on the left was taken, up an incline and into a large open meadow. A bullfinch creaked from the new trees and more tit species bounced through the trees.
The meadow is an ex-landfill site and contains many concrete circles filled with gravel to permit any build-up of gases underground to dissipate. A grey heron eased its way south as I noted large numbers of jackdaws and carrion crows enjoying the standing water on the grass, most likely bringing subterranean insects to the surface on which they would feed. Four red kites appeared at the same time. Although I see these majestic birds every day, they still hold my attention as they move about with nothing more than a flick of the tail.
In the distance, a large Henry Moore statue rose above the horizon. I checked a series of owl boxes along the edge of Mill Wood, two for barn owls and another designed for tawny. No inhabitants and a check underneath each one failed to show any discarded owl pellets, so I presume not in use at present. I'll pop back later in the year to see if they have been taken up for nesting purposes as the meadows here and the scrub field between the woods look perfect for owl hunting.
The calling of redwings and fieldfares from trees near the statue had me wandering towards them, a flock of 100-plus, before I headed back down to Sidehill Wood, but not before taking a short detour to the River Ash for the reported little egret. No sign as I stood on the bridge, just a couple of hundred yards from the gates and muddy stretch, but a goldcrest hovered momentarily by an elder tree. Far too fast for the camera.
Back at the ford, I heard a commotion. Several great tits, four blue tits and a pair of blackbirds were alarm calling constantly around several tree trunks covered in ivy. I approached carefully as this habit is often associated with mobbing a bird of prey, particularly an owl species. I searched as much as I could through binoculars, but I couldn't find the bird, so well hidden was it. A wren was probing around an old log pile of flotsam, washed down the river when it was recently in spate. Back at the car, a green woodpecker called and my first drumming great spotted woodpecker of the year.
I arrived home and checked the gnats. To do this I pop them in the freezer, still in their glass tubes. Not a popular move with my wife! Even after years of her opening the fridge to see a row of insects grinning at her, or opening the freezer to find gnats and midges waving hello, she just hasn't come to terms with it! Placing them in the freezer turns them torpid, making them easier to handle and photograph. Both were about 2.5mm in length. One showed a dark spotting on the wing, hinting at it being Sylvicola punctatus, whilst the second specimen had no dark marks and a different wing venation pattern and will require dissection at a later date to identify the specific species. A fiddly but not too difficult procedure. The former of these two is very common, flying on warmer winter days and attracted to light after dark.
A really pleasurable walk with plenty seen and even more heard. The path is flat and, in drier conditions, would be okay for those with mobility issues. However, I would strongly recommend starting from the Bourne Lane end of the path and heading through Mill Wood. Bourne Lane can be found on the left between Much Hadham and Widford. Turn left into it and after a few hundred yards there is a house with a large metal gate and places for a couple of cars. The path, after a short while, forks: straight on for the crow meadows and left for the wood. A good surface that will take mobility scooters. If you need any further details, contact me via the Indie as this is certainly a good wander.