One of the most spectacular sights in the Forest in Summer is an active ant hill. There can be hundreds of thousands of wood ants scurrying around, all intent on bringing food or adding to the sticks and bracken stalks which cover the nest. The structures can be massive, great sprawling mounds which stand a good metre above the forest floor. This one, on the side of the gravel track we use for our Anderwood walks, was on the small side, but there was still a constant stream of ants over my boots as I tried to get close enough for a picture. What a still picture can't capture is that the whole ground seems to be seething and writhing with ants, a great, if somewhat scary, sight. It was a really warm day at last, and as well as the ants, we saw large red damselflies, and had good views of some of the best summer woodland birds, including Woodlark, Wood Warbler, Redstart and Tree Pipit, all singing
This tiny pink flower is out now, in small groups in the heart of the heather moorlands, particularly in boggy areas. Our guests on Saturday's Walking Picnic asked me what it was called, and I didn't know, so took a photo and looked it up online. This, it appears, is the lousewort. How on earth did a pretty little flower end up with a name like that? It doesn't seem fair. I suppose our ancestors used it to get rid of lice, and the name stuck (which is slightly better than the louse sticking). So, as the incidents of louse infestation in the populace of the New Forest are now mercifully few, let's call it something more pretty - how about the Pink Bonnet?
There are some wonderful ancient oaks in the New Forest, and I recently started to wonder how old they are. There are several guides online on measuring, what they don't tell you is how much fun it is. All you need is a tape measure, preferably one which doesn't reach all the way, so you have to someone to put a marking finger down to mark where to start the second run of the tape. We had a go on our recent Walking Picnic from Abbots Well, with two children in tow. The oldest oak in Pitts Wood is the beauty pictured left, which we calculated is probably about 290 years old (give or take the width of a finger). Christine and I were walking the Anderwood route earlier this week, and did the same exercise with the Eagle Oak, which we reckon is about 380 years old. We hadn't done the Anderwood route for several weeks, and the difference now that the new leaves are covering the trees is amazing. If you have never let a branch of new larch needles brush through your hand, or stroked the softness of new beech leaves, you have still to discover the wonders of Spring in the Forest.
When I got an enquiry a few weeks back, the caller asked - "would your walks be suitable for my two children, they are 5 and 7?" I thought about it, and then reassured him that, if they were used to walking, they would be fine. Then I had time to think it over, so by the time we met for the picnic, I was wondering if it was going to work, particularly as I had decided on a four mile route which included a couple of uphill stretches.
As soon as I saw the kids, I was a lot happier - they were full of energy, and really up for it - asking questions, and making the whole walk so much fun. There was a point where the five year old dashed off in front of us, so to keep him from straying too far from the path, I shouted "watch out for snakes!" - that brought him back quick enough. So, I explained that, yes, there are snakes in the Forest, but our chances of seeing one were very slim, as they could feel our huge feet crashing along the path, and would easily get out of our way.
So, I was amazed when a high pitched scream alerted me to the fact that the kids had seen a snake - a small grass snake which was hurriedly taking to the heather beside the path as we walked towards Hampton Ridge. It was my first sighting of the year, and really unusual to see one when we were sticking to the beaten path, and in a party of 7 people and a dog. I'm not sure all the adults were pleased to see it, but it certainly made the childrens' day (and mine!).
For many years, I have celebrated the coming of summer by getting up at sunrise on 1st May, but I can safely say that I have never had better conditions for walking. The sun rose bright, clear and warm, with not a cloud in the sky, and no wind to cool us down - although there had been a slight frost overnight, so it was still cold when we started.
As I would be out bird watching around my local area anyway, we decided to arrange a Bird Song and Breakfast Walk, and five villagers met me at 6am at Abbots Well, and did a two hour walk through Latchmore, Alderhill and up onto Hampton Ridge. We stopped to hear the willow warbler near Ogdens, and were greeted by up to five different cuckoos. I was particularly pleased to see wheatears in Latchmore, and also a tree pipit singing, but the best bird to find, as ever, was the Dartford Warbler. The last few winters have definitely taken their toll on the local Dartford population, and it is rarely an easy bird to see. It has a short body and long tail, and doesn't seem to fly too well at the best of times, and is very reluctant to fly if it is windy. It also has a habit of retreating into the middle of gorse bushes, rather than try and balance on the top of the gorse so we can see it. So, it was a brief showing, but enough to recognise it, and we strolled happily back along Hampton Ridge towards Christine and the croissants and home-baked muffins.
Forest donkey with nest building friends
It's the time of year when all the birds are building nests, but this season's "must have" material for nest lining is obviously donkey hair, as these two jackdaws can't get enough of it. The donkey doesn't look too fed up with the arrangement, although they never look pleased at anything.
This donkey is one of the small herd which wander free on the open Forest near Abbots Well, in our home village of Frogham. They usually congregate outside the Forester's Arms pub, but the pub is currently closed for refurbishment. It is due to re-open early in May, and I have every expectation that I will have to shove my way past a crowd of donkeys to get to the bar.
Yesterday's Walking Picnic was a glorious, sunny affair, with the Forest alive with new growth and birdsong. We not only heard, but also saw, a cuckoo, as well as buzzards, willow warblers, a redstart, peacock and brimstone butterflies and a couple of common lizards.
Back near the car park at Vereley, we were mid-picnic when one of the New Forest ponies came to see if it could scrounge some scraps. We don't feed the ponies, as it only encourages them to seek out people and cars for food. Some of the ponies and donkeys near here have learned that standing in the middle of the road, and waiting for a car to stop, can often get them something to eat, so that, far from being scared by cars, they walk into the road when they see you coming. This one was heavily pregnant, so I was more concerned that we would be delivering a foal, than losing a picnic!
Lots of the standard text books on the New Forest have dire warnings about the danger of getting stuck in one of the numerous bogs, mires and marshes. Until today, I hadn't really paid them much attention. All that has changed, as I suddenly found myself up to my thighs in mud this morning.
One problem of finding suitable walks is to try and create a simple circular walk which is not just a procession on forestry gravel tracks, but is also easily walkable. Another problem is keeping the timing right. One of my favourite walks does a complete circuit of Ridley Wood, a small but beautiful patch of ancient woodland in the middle of wide open heathland near Burley. However, it is a bit on the long side for the usual two hour Walking Picnic, so that is why, this morning, I took off over the heather in search of a short cut. The route is marked as a path on my latest edition of the OS map, and, encouragingly, shows a footbridge to cross the stream at the foot of the valley. I was closing in on the footbridge, working my way down a slope full of marshy patches, and keeping, more or less, to the main track, when it happened. I planted my right foot confidently on a smooth layer of light grey sand, and suddenly I was up to the trouser pockets in a bog. What looked exactly like a washed out sandy stream bed turned out to be a thin crust, under which was a pool of thick oozing mud. Having dragged myself out, I squelched slowly onto the footbridge, and wondered how that had happened.
I turned round, walked very carefully back up the slope, and completed the walk, and was nearly dry (but very crusty) an hour later when I got back to the car. And the lesson is ... short cuts very rarely work out.