Patrick Roper is an ecologist who has worked with the Woodland Trust for a number of years. He has recently written a book on the wonders of Brede High Woods, below is his review:
“I was very excited when the Woodland Trust commissioned me to write a book on Brede High Woods, a place I have known and loved for around 50 years. When the Trust bought the 262 hectare (648 acre) property in 2007 not only was I delighted that this very varied and beautiful area would be properly managed, but that it would be open for everyone to enjoy. The book gave me an opportunity to share a wealth of detail on this very special part of the High Weald of East Sussex.
The paragraphs below are adapted from the introduction and will, I hope, give readers a flavour of what I have tried to achieve in its 183 pages:
Thinking of the many changes in land use over the centuries, I sometimes wonder what Brede High Woods will be like in the future. Within 50 years or so I believe my book will have only historic interest and the rate of change in wildlife I have seen in the last 50 years will be just as great and probably greater. Some familiar birds and butterflies will probably have gone the way of those I knew when I was younger. In the early 1990s Brede High Woods had an abundance of pearl-bordered fritillary butterflies and five-spot burnet moths, neither of which has been seen in the last few years. We have, however, gained the buzzard and the wild boar, and the silver-washed fritillary seems to be doing well. On the plant front I will be out every June, so long as I am able, to count the splendid, brown spikes of the orchid-like greater broomrape which for nine years we thought we had lost but has now returned in small numbers. I doubt, though, whether I shall ever see the pale dog-violet once known in the woods and maybe not the marsh violet which was present until the end of the last century. Common dodder, lousewort, heath dog-violet and some other plants that had become very scarce are, however, currently increasing in response to careful management.
Many books and broadcasts are appearing about what will happen with human-driven climate change and clearly we may lose some species like the beech, which could struggle to cope with warmer, drier summers, while we are already seeing invertebrates from mainland Europe, such as the middle wasp and the wasp spider, establishing themselves here quite comfortably and moving north. As an entomologist studying some of Britain’s more obscure flies, I have been very disconcerted by the decline in their numbers and variety. Some 50 years ago woodland rides and other places in East Sussex would, on warm summer evenings, have been alive with swarming insects of many different species. These have now almost completely gone, though the reasons are not entirely clear. I have walked in recent years in perfect conditions around local woods I used to frequent and not seen a single swarm. Not only does it make me sad that I may never again come across some of the species that I knew in the past, it clearly will have an impact on the life of birds and other insectivorous animals. As well as being a feast for swallows and swifts, for spiders and bats, these short-lived creatures must have rained down when they died like insect snow, providing a feast for shrews and all manner of small carnivores. As this process slows, the natural cycle of conversion of organic material from one state to another will also slow, with unknown consequences.
Worthy though current efforts are to live more sustainably, to reduce carbon dioxide and other damaging emissions, I feel we have started too late and are still not reacting as a global society in a way that is likely to turn the tide back to the equivalent of a past when our species was more in balance with the environment. But I hope I am wrong. Though we may ultimately damage the interests of our own species irreversibly, Planet Earth is, we know, a very resilient entity and that gives me some comfort. It is thought, for example, that the planet froze over completely as ‘Snowball Earth’ more than 650 million years ago, a much more drastic event than any human-driven climate change, but life survived and one branch of it ultimately evolved into our species.
Wherever we are headed, Brede High Woods may be one of many places that act as a signpost to the destination or destinations. So let us enjoy and record the woods and their wildlife today and, through wise management and careful forethought, make such provision as we can for tomorrow. The most we can usually do in one lifetime is to be reasonable and practical, to care for people and things around us, including other species, and to try and leave matters better than we found them.
Brede High Woods is a wonderful area – a dynamic and ever-changing mixture of ancient woodland, rough grassland and heath with some areas of chestnut coppice and conifer, with wide sunny rides, deep-cut gill streams and ponds. There are many archaeological remains from medieval banks and ditches to reminders of the period when iron was mined and smelted or gunpowder made; there are the sites of the several farms and their outbuildings that were largely removed when the woods became a catchment area for the Powdermill Reservoir in the 1930s, but are now the subject of detailed archaeological investigation.
While the book refers specifically to Brede High Woods, the information it contains will help in the understanding and enjoyment of many other sites in the Weald, their ancient woodlands and wildlife, the importance of past activity to the development of Britain, as well as giving insights into how such complex and diverse areas can best be managed for both amenity and biodiversity.
In writing the book I have tried to capture this richness, using the colour photographs to illustrate some of the things like the bluebell areas that are hard to do justice to in words. I have also tried to give readers as much help as I can in understanding and enjoying the woods, where to go and what to see at different seasons and some suggested walks.”
Patrick Roper, Ecologist – Brede High Woods