Harewood Ancient Forest in Winter

David Beeson, December 2022

There is usually a good reason for any current land use. In Harewood’s case, it is the underlying geology. A view of the geology map will indicate the current woodland is an exact copy of the areas of clay and gravel, and the 1810 OS map will show that the current outline is the same as in 1800. In essence, the soil was too difficult to plough with oxen, or too nutrient-poor to deliver a reasonable crop yield. Better then to leave the area as woodland – itself an amazing resource, providing structural timber, coppice stems, herbs and deer meat.


Oak and bracken line the footpath from the B3400 to The Middleway

The soil is suited to English oak trees, although they grow slowly and are not long-lived. Where gaps in the canopy occur silver birch trees thrive – for about 60 years, then they succumb to old age and fungal attacks, giving easier access to woodpeckers. Along the old Saxon boundary (ditch and bank) the disturbed soil allows ash trees to become dominant and, where spoil from Victorian railway cuttings has thrown up deeper deposits, the sycamore tree thrives. Occasional ancient yew trees can also join the canopy, especially along the old boundary.

Oak and birch trees

Occasional other tree species will be encountered – a few horse chestnuts exist and beech trees have been planted along the Test Way path. Wild cherries have been planted along one footpath and are much appreciated by the summer’s avian residents.

For those familiar with the forest, you’ll have sighted the more-recently planted conifers. These are mainly from the 1970s, while the huge Douglas Firs north of The Middleway are probably a decade earlier.

Beneath the canopy grow woody shrubs. Never strong enough to compete with the canopy species, these plants have to make do with any light not grabbed by their bigger neighbours. You’ll spot wild apple, plenty of hazel, hawthorn and blackthorn, while holly is slowly becoming more widespread. Added to these are shrubby privets and dogwoods. You would be an Eye-Spy expert to see the bird cherry in flower early in the year, as I know of only two plants.

Harewood is probably named from the Saxon word for grey – Hoare. With grey trunks to the oaks it was called Greywood Forest. Harewood today.

Wild hops are absent from Harewood, yet the calcium-loving wild clematis (Old Man’s Beard) climbs high and outstrips honeysuckle.

Nearer the ground, there is a good diversity of herbaceous plants, with bluebells often dominant along the southern boundary. Near Longparish are wild daffodils to liven up the view in March; soon after wood anemones, dog’s mercury, bugle and a woefully low number of orchids show themselves. In many spots, where the oaks are dominant, bracken is advancing and in May covers the wild primroses that feed the immature Duke of Burgundy Fritillary butterflies.

But, now, in December, the vegetation is comatose. Several harsh touches of frost have hit the remaining green deciduous leaves and is sending them scurrying to reside on the soil. Many are still green, and were hopeful of absorbing the little sunlight that reaches them, but the temperature has stopped that and the plant decided that these leaves were more parasites than food producers. They have been terminated and their borrowed resources have been donated to the soil organisms. Recycling will begin and soon the leaves’ resources will be spread to the fungi, bacteria and soil fauna.

The plants are obvious in winter, while the animal life is less easily seen. Sure, I spot some tits and eventually a herd of some twenty fallow deer, but little shows itself. Many small, insectivorous birds have migrated and the incoming red wings and fieldfares are not around in numbers so far. Today, even the woodpigeon flocks are elsewhere and our residents are out of sight. It’s too quiet and even a breeze has neglected to say hello.

If one was to circumnavigate the woodland one would follow the old, now diminished, Saxon boundary. It’s still there, separating woodland from what would have been pasture, for it must only be recently that these fields have seen a plough. Without fertilizers, the ground would have given a poor return to the farmers, so better to pass the scarce vegetation through some cattle or sheep. The energy return from animals is but a tenth of that from the vegetation itself, but that is better than nothing and easier to crop. Yet animals need to be killed early; once they have stopped growing they give no extra value. This is why birds (Chickens, turkeys, wild pigeons) are good value – they grow to full size in weeks whereas cattle take years. If you ate humans, you would ‘crop them’ as mid-teenagers!

As food passes along Food Chains the energy is ‘used up’ in living (movement, respiration). It comes off as heat. And, there is little energy there to start with! The most efficient plants only trap 5% of the input light energy. Most hit only 0.5% over a year. Why? Well, look at the farmers’ fields now … almost no greenery to trap the light energy, much soil is bare and, with cool temperatures, photosynthesis is barely happening. For many crops, they are only efficient energy trappers from spring until harvest in July or August. Natural ecosystems beat them easily, with wetlands the best. Even a natural coniferous forest beats agricultural energy gain. With fuel prices increasing the future of energy-absorbing ploughing must be in doubt. Re-wilding can make more sense on marginal soils, and soil scientists would argue that ploughing is counter-productive to agricultural efficiency.

Meanwhile, I’ll enjoy the play of sunlight on this crisp winter’s day on the grey, oak tree trunks; on the bright green of mosses and lichens, the mosaic of fallen leaves that enliven the ground and the delightful grace of silver birch trees – always my favourites.

Some hazel leaves still hold on to life, but many have been nibbled over the year.

Hazel catkins – pollen producers.

Harewood Forest covers some 5 square miles in north-west Hampshire. It is just west of Andover – a Saxon market town. In ancient times Harewood joined to other great ancient forests and animals could move unhindered far to the west, to Windsor and to Kent. Now it is isolated by agriculture to its boundaries and genetic exchange has been halted. Perhaps in a more enlightened time wildlife corridors and an ecological approach will be established … but do not hold your breath. Until then we have to ‘put up’ with Harewood being a killing field – a ‘sporting’ playground for those with nothing more constructive to do.

My Dormouse site in the foreground. (See the previous article.)

http://www.nwhwildlife.org – is home to over 150 ad-free articles. Go to the homepage and check out the articles.

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