Staverton Thicks

I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?

“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”

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One of the mighty old oak trees within Staverton Park.

Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.

Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.

From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.

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One of the might oaks which parts the path in The Thicks, Staverton Park

The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.

But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!

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One of the amazing tall holly trees within The Thicks, Staverton Park

Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor,  providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.

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One of the holly trees arising from an old coppice stool in The Thicks, Staverton Park

Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.

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The dense holly enclosing the path through The Thicks, Staverton Park.

Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.

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Walking out into the parkland at Staverton Park is like stumbling across a gathering of ancient beasts

Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.

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The mighty bole of an ancient pollarded oak with the fresh white trunks of the birch in the background.

Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!

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One of the standing dead oaks within Staverton Park

Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.

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Another of the mighty idiosyncratic oaks within the Staverton Parkland.

My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.

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One of the boundary oaks of Staverton Park at sunrise.

Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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Vancouver – Skunks, Squirrels and Stanley Park

After an amazing 10 days in the wilds – from the mountains of Squamish; the temperate rainforests and pacific beaches of Tofino; and the whales off Victoria – it felt a little strange to be heading to a city to finish. But Vancouver had plenty of wildlife delights to offer us.

One of the highlights of any trip to Vancouver has to be Stanley Park. Straight across the water from downtown, you can hike the 8km  around the seawall or explore the trails through woodlands, gardens and grassland in the centre. We were hoping to see sea otters and racoons – both of which are common sightings apparently – but we instead settled for the black squirrels which were to be found in abundance. We even found a guilt-free way to feed them – the ground was strewn with conkers, and although they were there for the taking, the squirrels seemed unable to resist one which had been picked up and rolled towards them!

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Black squirrel with a horse chestnut in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

These squirrels are black forms of the invasive eastern gray squirrels – Sciurus carolinensis – the same species which have largely deposed the reds from the UK. The population in Stanley Park is said to have originated from breeding pairs given as a gift from the Mayor of New York in 1909 and released into the Park.

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The progressing shades of autumn shown in the maple leaves in Stanley Park

As with any big city, the feral pigeons were to be found everywhere. These are easily vilified and despised by many city residents, but they are a perfect example of a species whose niche overlaps with the habitats we create for ourselves and which thus thrives alongside us. These birds originated from rock doves which were birds of sea cliffs and mountains – I always wonder whether they would be seen differently if it were puffins who had made the leap into the mainstream.

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A local offering help to a tourist…. or more likely angling for food!

Herons were abundant around the city – as you might expect for a seaside conurbation – and as in other urban environments, they seemed easily at ease with the bustle of passers by and barely registered your presence. We saw them motionless in the waters off Stanley Park; perched on boats in the harbour; or stalking the boardwalks of the marina.

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Grey heron stalking away from a coke machine on the marina in Vancouver

Cormorants were another species which made use of the urban infrastructure in close proximity to the sea to roost between feeding.

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A cormorant having a scratch – this one was perched on Granville Island Bridge

Amazingly, Vancouver is home to some rather impressive mammals such as the coyote. You can see recent sightings on an interactive map which shows their pawprints across the city.

Whilst we didn’t see a coyote, a nice surprise on our last night was a skunk which wandered out across the road and pottered along the sidewalk foraging for morsels. It was only after it had gone that I remembered the cartoon stereotypes from childhood and wondered if I’d been a little blase! This skunk had the swagger of an old hand who’d been around a few years and was fairly unconcerned with a little attention from passers by. We left it ambling off down a side street, disappearing to a white stripe in the darkness between the streetlights.

On our very last day in Canada, we went to see an exhibition of Emily Carr’s paintings before catching our flight home. I’d never come across her work before but her forest pieces were captivating. They are impressionistic without being abstract and give an overwhelming evocation of the life and flow of the BC forests which we had become familiar with over the two weeks. You can read more about the exhibition and find out more about here work here.

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Autumn leaves turning orange in the streets on our last day in Canada.

Victoria: Humpbacks to Hummingbirds

Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.​

​The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.

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Members of a transient pod of orcas

After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.

On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!

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Steller sealions seen on the way back to harbour in Victoria

I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.

The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.

The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.

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Humpback whales spouting off Victoria, BC with the mountains of Olympic Park in the background.

One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.

The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.

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Anna’s Hummingbird settled in a street tree in Victoria, BC.

The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!