Nor­folk wildlife

Why Nick Acheson loves this leafy sea­son

EDP Norfolk - - Inside -

WHEN I was a child my mother would tell us in au­tumn that we had to catch 12 fall­ing leaves, one for good luck in each month of the com­ing year. I now see that this was a ruse to keep her small herd of chil­dren har­ing hap­pily around the damp gar­den for an hour or two, minded as of­ten as not by a beam­ing golden re­triever. In those days we chased leaves in Oc­to­ber, by which time they were cop­pered and spent. To­day’s trees of­ten keep their leaves, and con­tinue to pho­to­syn­the­sise, even later, drop­ping them in Novem­ber or De­cem­ber.

Sev­eral gen­er­a­tions of golden re­triev­ers later, I hope to see our fam­ily dogs mind­ing my wild swarm of neph­ews and nieces this Novem­ber, as they catch leaves and make their wishes for 2018. I shall prob­a­bly catch leaves with them. For my­self, I would like to do more: I would like catch leaves this Novem­ber as they tum­ble from twelve species of Nor­folk tree.

This will un­doubt­edly take ded­i­ca­tion. Even on a wild, wind-worn au­tumn day it can be hard to catch leaves be­fore they hit the ground. Catch­ing twelve leaves of twelve species will re­quire con­cen­tra­tion, strat­egy and — more than likely, 40 years af­ter I be­gan chas­ing leaves — the odd evening with a bag of frozen peas on my an­kle. This will be no mean feat.

I am lucky, where I live by a north Nor­folk river, to nes­tle among trees. Five min­utes’ walk from my door is a lovely river­side green where catch­ing an alder leaf will re­quire only time. Down­stream four na­tive species of wil­low grow along a river­side path. It is muddy and slip­pery here, and my run­ning will be lin­ear, as to one side is the river and the other a reedbed, but I fancy my chances of catch­ing white wil­low and crack wil­low leaves. Sal­low and goat wil­low will be harder. Oc­cu­py­ing the no-plant’s-land be­tween bushes and trees, these smaller wil­lows drop their leaves from just three or four me­tres above ground. It will take a day of heroic gusts to lift their leaves high enough for me to catch them be­fore they fall to the mud, as I too shall no doubt fall in the mud. A short way up­stream there are osiers, but these suf­fer the same squat shrub­bi­ness that will con­found my task.

My near­est an­cient wood is Thurs­ford. By Novem­ber all traces of blue­bells have gone and the bracken is tou­sled and tired, so I can freely chase the fall­ing leaves of pe­dun­cu­late oak. An oak is an oak is an oak, we may think, but, in ad­di­tion to Tur­key and holm oaks which are in­tro­duced and

widely nat­u­ralised, Nor­folk is home to two na­tive oaks. Pe­dun­cu­late, also known as English oak, is com­mon. In­deed it is our com­mon­est wide­spread hard­wood. Ses­sile oak is treach­er­ously sim­i­lar at a ca­sual glance and, be­ing more a tree of wooded up­lands, it is rare in Nor­folk. I shall be hunt­ing the leaves of pe­dun­cu­late oak and have high hopes of catch­ing one.

For scarcer wood­land trees I shall rove to Fox­ley Wood. This is the largest an­cient wood in Nor­folk and it is rich in na­tive trees. For my pur­pose Fox­ley is ideal, both be­cause of its open rides, per­fect for leaf-chas­ing, and be­cause, hav­ing taught tree iden­ti­fi­ca­tion work­shops here, I know where each species grows. I can read­ily lurk in a wide ride where I have be­friended trees of wild ser­vice, hawthorn, mid­land thorn, field maple and aspen, wait­ing for the right gust to strip them of their leaves. If I lend enough hours to the task I am sure to catch a few.

For other trees I will head to the Brecks. On Thomp­son Com­mon I know an old field bound­ary where a line of horn­beams grows. Horn­beam is my favourite of all trees. I love the steak-knife ser­ra­tions of its leaves and its sea­weed seed­heads. Most of all I love its tall, sinewy trunks, their bark rip­pling like mus­cle in an ath­lete’s thigh. As these old trees grow by the edge of a grassy field, with the wind in the right di­rec­tion I can run the length of the line and be sure to catch a leaf, risk­ing only col­li­sion with one of Nor­folk Wildlife Trust’s Shet­land sheep. Not far away at Weet­ing Heath there are buck­thorns. Though stone curlews are un­en­thu­si­as­tic mi­grants, stay­ing un­til early win­ter and some­times never leav­ing Nor­folk at all, by now they will have left the heath, and the bird­watch­ers with them, so I can hur­tle un­der the pines in peace as I en­deav­our to catch a lit­tle buckthorn leaf.

And ash. Most el­e­gant of our trees, with flaw­less, slen­der trunks and swoop­ing arms, it is still com­mon across Nor­folk. Yet al­most ev­ery ash I see has the signs — the bald patches, the brown­ing, brit­tle twigs — that it has been touched by fun­gal ash dieback. It is likely that across Nor­folk, across Bri­tain, they will die in their mil­lions; and the look and shape of our land­scape will change as it did when the elms died in their turn. The old ash which stands in the hedge around my mother’s gar­den has the fun­gus. Slowly it is dy­ing. This Novem­ber I will run round the gar­den where I played as a child, two bois­ter­ous golden re­triev­ers at my feet. And if I catch an ash leaf, I will wish for re­sis­tance to pre­vail in our beau­ti­ful ashes. I will wish for this lovely tree to grace our county for decades and cen­turies to come and for gen­er­a­tions of Nor­folk chil­dren to catch their leaves with grins on their faces, the wag­ging of tails at their heels.Š

Be­low left: Beech tree

Be­low:

Oak tree

Above: Au­tumn colour, Thurs­ford Wood Nor­folk Wildlife Trust Re­serve North Nor­folk. Thurs­ford is an an­cient wood­land with some oaks thought to be more than 500 years old

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