Caught by the River

The Circling Sky

15th April 2021

In ‘The Circling Sky: On Nature and Belonging in an Ancient Forest’, published by Tinder Press, Neil Ansell explores the histories — natural, social, and his own personal — tied to Hampshire’s New Forest. Read an extract below.

On the heaths where I have been spending much of my time, the most visible birds have been the meadow pipits, larks and fuzz-jacks, but here in the heaths of the far south of the forest, I seem to have arrived in linnet country; they are everywhere. I cannot immediately see anything different in the habitat, but there must be something; the acidity of the soil must be
different, or the balance of heather and grass, or the dominant species of grass. It is not just linnets either, but seed-eaters all round. Close to the pinewoods are siskins and redpolls, in the gorse brakes are parties of goldfinches and bullfinches, and at the edges of the oak woods are the inevitable chaffinches; I am pleased to see my first greenfinch here.

It may seem odd to be happy to see a bird that I would once have seen every day, but the greenfinch is no longer as commonplace as it once was. A parasitic disease called trichomonosis has arrived, spread, it is thought, largely through bird-feeders. It causes their throats to swell so that they can no longer swallow, and they starve to death in the midst of an abundance of food. We are killing them with kindness. Their population has been devastated. I spot a pair of yellowhammers, another bird that was a continuous presence during my childhood, but is now in steep decline and has been red-listed. As with so many of our farmland birds, it has been badly affected by agricultural changes. And in the mire and thick vegetation at a stream’s edge I flush a reed bunting from her nest. I back swiftly away, splashing through the sodden moss. After my last visit, I have come slightly better prepared, and am wearing wellies.

Out on the heath a kestrel is hovering. They are not all that numerous here, because the small mammals that are their preferred prey are also only present in low densities. The heavy grazing means that there is not the thick ground layer that voles and mice prefer. In fact, apart from the deer, the forest is not all that generously supplied with mammals. The acid soils mean fewer earthworms available for shrews and hedgehogs, so these are not plentiful here. Even badgers rely heavily on earthworms to eat, and are also a little less numerous than you might expect. Squirrels are the most common mammals here, then rabbits, though even those are much less frequently seen than they were before myxomatosis, which was first brought to Britain in the 1950s. Weasels rely mainly on small mammals for their prey, and stoats on rabbits, and foxes on both, though they perhaps do a little better as they are more adaptable. Predators survive well here if they can turn to birds for their needs. Buzzards, which elsewhere will feed on rabbits and even earthworms, have crows as their most common food item. The kestrel on the heath is probably more likely to catch a pipit than a vole. One family of small mammal thrives spectacularly well, however –bats. Almost all British species are found here, including some great rarities, such as the barbastelle and the Bechstein’s.

In all my visits to the forest I have seen just one fox, and that was a freshly killed one, lying in the middle of the road. Yet when I get home to the inner-city council estate where I live with my daughters in an old tenement block, it is odds on that I will see one there, for they are constant visitors. Neighbours regularly hand-feed them; if they offer them a tempting morsel of food, the foxes may even allow a cautious stroke, though this is perhaps not to be recommended. They have been transformed from country-dwellers to townies, much like most of us. It is my hope that one day I may once again live in a place where I can step out of my front door and straight into nature, but for the time being I shall have to make do with the foxes, fox-trotting along a brick wall at dusk, nose to the ground, in search of a tasty treat. And there are not only foxes in the city. In winter I can regularly watch the starlings gathering in their thousands to murmurate. I often see sparrowhawks circling over the estate. There are pied and grey wagtails, and winter blackcaps. Walking home from the library with my daughter, I spot a peregrine soaring right above us, and point it out to her. Nobody else has stopped; nobody else seems to have noticed it. I tell my daughter that it is the fastest bird in the world, that it has been timed in a dive at over two hundred miles per hour. She is impressed. I have watched this bird from my balcony, stooping on an unsuspecting pigeon; it was heart-stopping.

The New Forest is an environment that is depleted in some forms of life, but incredibly rich in others. Besides being a haven for many species of birds and rare flowering plants, there are other highlights that might escape the casual observer. The continuity and persistence of primary forest, with an abundance of fallen trees, means that this is the best place in Britain for the entire community of invertebrates that rely on dead wood, such as the spectacular stag beetle, now in steep decline in much of the country. The forest is home to more than four hundred species of beetle, and two hundred species of fly, whose life cycle is entirely dependent on fallen wood. And above our heads, above the reach of grazers, is a whole other world; just as in the rainforest, the greatest diversity of life is up in the canopy, rich with plants and animals that never touch the ground. This forest is home to the richest community of lichens anywhere in Europe. There are hundreds of species up there, many found hardly anywhere else other than in the New Forest, and some of them new to science, discovered during surveys in the past few years, and recorded nowhere else but here. Lichens are slow to disperse; even the oak woods planted hundreds of years ago may be relatively poorly supplied with them compared to the pasture woods that have been wooded continuously since the retreat of the glaciers.

And yet while this landscape has been to some extent shaped by man over the course of hundreds, if not thousands, of years, land management need not necessarily be hostile to nature. In her book Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer looks at the relationship between people and plants, and comes to reconcile her scientific training as a botanist and her cultural understanding of plants as a member of the Potawatomi Nation. In examining the decline of sweetgrass, traditionally gathered by indigenous people of America, she found it still had healthy populations close to the reservations where it continued to be used, but was dying out where it was left untouched. The native tradition was only to crop no more than half of what was found, and to leave the rest for the future. By experiment, she showed that, if was left uncropped, colonies would become choked and would die out, but constant thinning caused them to thrive with continual fresh growth. It stands to reason that plants that have evolved alongside grazers might benefit from grazing pressure. Of course, if we adopt a culture where, each time we find a new resource, we dive in and use it all up mercilessly, then the story will be very different.

One of the groups of animals that particularly thrive here is the Odonata – the dragonflies and damselflies – of which almost three quarters of species known to Britain breed in the New Forest. It is due to the wide diversity of wetland habitats: the fast- and slow-running streams; the boggy mires and seeps; the heathland pools and the woodland ponds. These are creatures that only emerge as adults during the long hot days of summer, and summer seems to be running a little late this year. I head to a stream on the heath that is a well-known site, sit on the bankside and wait, but none seem to be forthcoming, not yet. At least I have the calls of the curlews around me to lift my spirits. Finally, I spot some, where the trail crosses a seep that is not even marked on the map, and a small pool has formed. The water is visibly healthy, filled with tadpoles and pondweed, and broad-bodied chasers are skimming the surface. A stumpy, dull-coloured female is laying her eggs, one by one. She dips her tail into the water and delicately plants each egg onto pondweed that lies just beneath the surface. Above her hovers an azure-bodied male, guarding her. He darts away to drive off another male that approaches a little too close. They seem to lead a life of relentless skirmishes. Then I spot a tiny, needle-thin damselfly – a small red, a rare species that is a speciality of the forest. That is my lot for the day, but I am satisfied.


We have three copies of ‘The Circling Sky’ to give away on tomorrow’s newsletter, courtesy of the publisher. Make sure you’re signed up to our mailing list for details of how to enter.