There's nothing like an English oak-wood in spring, not even another English oak-wood: no two are the same because of their age, soil and species mix. In the wet west we have sessile oak-woods, which may be dwarfed and windswept but have a host of bird and insect species that are not found in the pedunculate oak-woods over here in the dry, flat east. In the West Country you might find pied fly-catchers, redstarts and wood warblers in the oak-woods but we rarely see these birds in the east. All the same our eastern woods have their own specialties, particularly in the form of butterflies and wild flowers.
This week we visited Hayley Wood near Cambridge, which is run by the local Wildlife Trust. It's not very big, but it is very old and has a lot of features you would expect to find in a medieval woodland that has been managed for its forest products. Between the oaks that were probably planted to provide timber for houses and ships, there are ash trees that have been cropped for poles and acres of hazel coppice that are managed for charcoal. These woods let in a lot of light, especially in spring, so the woodland floor is a carpet of wildflowers such as wood anemones and bluebells, which is more typical of old ash woods really.
We had been told that this was the place to go and see Oxlips. In the books, they look like a cross between a primrose and a cowslip, having big, showy, yellow flowers atop tall stems, but these are the real thing, not the more common hybrids which are called False-Oxlips.
We are experiencing very dry conditions here, but the wood was quite wet with some puddles and large ditches holding water. Badgers were very much in evidence and their latrines were filled with fresh grey dung so the recent rain must have brought earthworms to the surface. The badgers love them and suck them up like spaghetti.
In the tree-top hide
The woodland floor was cross-crossed with neat deer runs made by introduced muntjac, despite there being high fence around the outside to keep them out. We came across two metal "high seats" which are used to shoot deer from.
Woods like Hayley Wood are scattered around East Anglian farms but, unless they are part of a conservation scheme, most are no longer managed for forest products, but they are still used to rear pheasants so the landowners like to keep the public out. However, many of the best woods are open to the public at Easter week-end; the result of a law passed long ago to give villagers access at blue-bell time.