My name is Duncan Thatcher and I work for the Conservators of Ashdown Forest as part of the Countryside Team. I joined in September 2017 and since then I have started to get to know the Forest, its scenery, its wildlife and its people.
It has been six months of wonder. After five years of trying, I am finally in my dream job. Working in a landscape of grandeur – sometimes having to pinch myself that I’m actually still in the South East of England. The landscape in winter is so wild, so gloriously bleak at times it reminded me of the moors of North Yorkshire or the foothills of the Cumbrian Mountains. We are lucky to work in this landscape, to live here or even just spend a few hours in a truly wild open space.
Although it’s been hard work coming up to speed and learning “the way we do things here”, I have enjoyed some inspiring life affirming moments although there were times when I felt winter would never end!
We are a small team but we put our backs into whatever task we were assigned. Ride clearance was the first major task of the Autumn. It was wet muddy back breaking work, but it provided me with a tantalising glimpse of the Forest. I saw the last Red Admiral of 2017 in the weak November sunshine as we sat on a felled beech to eat our lunch. Shortly after that the frosts came and our boots crunched through iced over puddles in the ruts. I saw the last sunset of autumn come creeping through the pines with a defiant glare before December fell on the Forest like a blanket of dusk.
After that we moved on to clearing scrub from the heath. I found myself waist deep in heather removing birch and pine as the light faded under thick December cloud, saw the colours change in the deepening gloom. We lit bonfires to dispose of the cut scrub, hot with birch crackles, or stubbornly smoking with thick pine sap that never really got going despite our best efforts.
I saw the sun set on the Winter Solstice from Bunkers Hill. Looking south west the sky turned to rosy fire over Kings Standing while Dartford Warblers called their weird metallic buzz across the gorse.
Finally the snow came at the start of spring, which was late, a long frigid close to the wet windy winter. Wych Cross was the coldest spot in the South East at one point. I went out with the grazing team during the worst of the weather to give hay to the plucky hebridean sheep who would lamb within days of the cold snap. I broke the ice on a pond so the Exmoor Ponies could drink. They seemed grateful and pleased to see us.
But now finally the spring has come and we see with relief the greening of the forest and the arrival of the migratory birds. We finally heard the chiff chaff one day in late March and then the floodgates opened. Before long we noted the welcome return of the blackcap, willow warbler, cuckoo and swallow. Their distinctive calls and songs ring around the forest as we work on repairing the fence around the grazing enclosure. The trees show us their green flowers—the hop like elm flowers stand out on the roadside. The hazel catkins stood for ages as a sign that one day the rain and wind will give way to sunshine a warmth…Now the oaks are out we really are in the halcyon days of spring and when the sun shines we can feel its power it sends us to the shade for lunch.
In the months to come I’ll drop by now and then to share with you some of my experiences working in such a special landscape. Bye for now.