At this time of year the wood is on a cusp, with bleak winter on one hand and portents of spring on the other: the season could go either way. On a dull, damp, cold day the mood is definitely depressing, the wood grey and soundless. Yet even then there is colour to be found: in addition to the dark greens of holly and ivy, there is the brighter green of great woodrush in patches if you know where to look for it. This plant has fairly broad leaves and is quite grass-like but, as its name suggests, it belongs to the rush family. Comparatively rare in Kent, its main stronghold is in the Blean woodlands. Nationally it is very much a plant of the north and west, growing in woods or out in the open, but Kent is really too dry for its taste, so is here more or less confined to the coolness of deep woodland shade.
There are other colours to be enjoyed at this time of year, too: we all start off drawing lollipop trees with a cloud of green scribble atop a thin brown trunk, but when you examine trees more closely you realise that their trunks are often mottled grey or grey-green with lichens and mosses, sometimes even orange, as depicted by David Hockney in his series of Yorkshire woodland paintings. Lichens are a curious mixture of fungus and alga enmeshed in a symbiotic embrace, with the fungal element extracting nutrients and water from the hostile surface of the trunk, while the alga’s contribution is the provision of sugars through photosynthesis. The chemistry of the bark varies according to the tree species and this in turn determines which lichens are able to colonise.
Maybe the downside of winter isn’t so bad after all, and the upside is certainly a joy. On a couple of mild, sunny mornings recently, several species of birds were coaxed into song, from the monotonous “tea-cher” of the great tit to the sublime tones of a blackbird. Equally welcome was the rather nondescript, hurriedly sung, and cheerful chatter of the dunnock – a ditty for which the word “jingle” might well have been invented. A regular enough bird in many people’s gardens, the dunnock is disappearing from the wood. In the 1980s I recorded 24 territories on 178ha (roughly one-third of the whole reserve) and it was common enough to occur around the car park. Now, however, there are none in the monitoring area, and the only birds we appear to have on the entire reserve are two or three pairs on the Rough Common bank (alongside the village road) and the odd pair or two in the north east corner of the wood. Why they should have vanished is, like so much that happens here, a complete mystery to me. Noting its superficially demure behaviour, a Victorian vicar was prompted to write of the dunnock:
Unobtrusive, quiet and retiring, without being shy, humble and homely in its deportment and habits, sober and unpretending in its dress, while still neat and graceful, the dunnock exhibits a pattern which many of a higher grade might imitate, with advantage to themselves and benefit to others through an improved example.
Little did he know that this is just a smoke-screen for an undercurrent of sexual promiscuity, for dunnocks are not just polygynous (one male with several female partners), or polyandrous (one female with several male partners) but unashamedly polygynandrous, whereby both males and females may have several partners. Our poor vicar would be turning in his grave if he were to learn what research has uncovered about this much-neglected bird.