Forest Sangha Newsletter January 1993

Living with Dying; Ajahn Munindo
Questions & Answers with Luang Por Chah: II
Dhamma Notes from Thailand; Ajahn Santacitto
A Buddhist Kingdom; Aj Pasanno & Jayasaro
Ten Rains; Sister Candasiri
First Rains; Ven. Sunnato
Wildlife in Hammer Woods; Mike Holmes

Signs of Change:


Wildlife in Hammer Woods

Much of the area of Cittaviveka (Chithurst) is taken up by forest, where a few Sangha members live from time to time. Mike Holmes, the Warden of Hammer Wood, reports on the other beings that inhabit the forest.

Many people are interested in the wildlife of the Hammer Woods and I often get asked questions about it. One of our aims is to encourage it in all forms and make the area as environmentally suitable as possible. This is how a nature reserve is managed.

The term 'wildlife' covers all plants and animals; the necessity for their existence being a food chain and the correct habitat. A food chain requires a basis of native plant life. The insects which depend upon these then thrive and the predators will be there in their turn. However, much of the Hammer Woods has been artificially planted with only commercial interests in mind. The non-native tree species and the manner in which they are grown creates an environment in which our native wildlife cannot exist. For example, there are many areas of sweet chestnut - which is an important source of forest products, but non-native. Very few insects are dependent on sweet chestnut and plants do not grow on the forest floor. So there is no food chain.

Bio-diversity - to have as many different species as possible - is also important. An area planted with commercial sweet chestnut coppice or Scots pine is a mono-culture; in these areas, the overall wildlife count is low. One part of the Hammer Woods consists of hazel coppice and oak standards. This would have been managed until the Second World War in the traditional way, which created the cycle upon which our native wildlife depended. With no management over the last fifty years, the forest floor has become shaded and the area has become overgrown. Wildlife has decreased.

Bramble is important.

We are doing our best to gradually change all this and to bring the wildlife and native plants back. I have been able to clear our plantations of non-native conifers as markets for the timber arose. These areas are being replanted with native broadleaved species. Some areas of sweet chestnut have also been cleared and re-planted with native broadleaves. It will take many years for a broad-leaved forest to grow, but meanwhile, there is light on the forest floor. Seeds germinate and a food chain has been started.

We also have small corners where native plants have survived. They are easily seen by the profusion of butterflies there on summer days. The best places for wildflowers are parts of the forest roads which catch the sunlight and have grassed over. Trailing St. Johnswort grows in a number of such places; a mass of bugle flowers bloom early in the summer; Tormentil is common, and Herb Robert and Scarlet Pimpernel may also be found.

Bramble is important. The flowers produce nectar for bees and other insects and their blackberries are food items for foxes and badgers as well as some birds. There are also small patches of wild daffodils, but the best show comes from the masses of foxgloves. Their seed remains for years in the soil and germinates when light strikes the forest floor after chestnut is coppiced. As the chestnut grows once more and the canopy closes, they no longer appear.

Occasionally I see Admiral butterflies, but our star is the Pearl-bordered Fritillary, of which we have a small colony. Together with the Silver-washed Fritillary, the food plant of their caterpillars is wild violet. I sow this seed whenever I can get hold of it. Another important plant for butterflies is the nettle. Nettles are a necessity for Peacock and Tortoiseshell butterflies; they are their caterpillars' food plant. Nettles should never be cleared. However, they are an anathema to gardeners and on two occasions, well-meaning gardeners staying at the monastery have got into the forest and cleared my beautiful nettle patches!

The Hammer Pond is disappointing. The Hammer Stream which feeds it is the runoff from the Milland Valley so the water is high in farm chemicals. The lakeside is also overshadowed by trees. This means that few water plants grow and thus it is poor for insects. Nevertheless, the habitat is good for some species of duck. Numbers of mallard grow to about forty each winter and those of teal to about half that; two winters ago, over fifty mandarins were in residence. They did not turn up last winter, but a few have arrived this autumn.

Nest boxes for owls, kestrels, woodpeckers and other hole-nesting birds have been put up and many are used. Kestrels usually spend the winter in the vicinity of their nests, but have ignored them in the breeding season so far. Altogether, the number of bird species logged is a little over sixty. This is not very many, but reasonable for the habitat available.

The real success story has been the creation of a circular pond about fifteen yards in diameter. This had been an area of boggy ground amongst derelict ash and alder coppice. Many trees including a fairly large oak had fallen across the wet patch and had to be cleared out. The coppice was cut to form an open space about fifty yards wide. This brought light to the forest floor and thus seed germinated. Also, the coppice cycle was re-started, which was a good thing in itself.

The muddy patch, having been cleared, became a pond. Plants and water produce insects, so throughout the summer there were many damsel flies about and dragon flies came to hunt smaller insects. Larger predators arrived. A colony of pipistrelle bats homed straight into the clearing. They hunt there every night. (Daubentans bats hunt over the Hammer Pond and there is also a colony of Whiskered bats in their vicinity.)

A few Roe deer live in our woods. Unless good protection is given, they cause a great deal of damage to our young trees and first year coppice growth. However, it is worth it to see them.

Badger digging and baiting are on the increase through the South East so we must always be on our guard against this. Having people in the kutis and about the woods all the time is a great help.

Some years ago, we had hoped to have otters re-introduced into the Hammer stream. An otter survey is being carried out through Sussex at present and an initial survey has been made in our area. We will get advice from the experts before doing anything more about re-introduction. Although feral mink are fairly numerous, the only threat that they present to otters is the conflict for available food.

Autumn is the time for fungi. This year, with the help of a friend, I am trying to list all the species that I can identify. Mushrooms and toadstools are popping up in profusion. The beautiful red and white Fly Agaric is appearing under the birch trees, but its cousins, the deadly Death Cap and the Panther are more common.

If we work at the basis of the food chain and at habitat improvement, we will increase our wildlife population. It will take many years to make an appreciable difference, but we are slowly having an effect. It will be worth it and it will counteract the effect that intensive agriculture is having on the countryside.