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The pace of nature

PUBLISHED: 05:28 26 January 2015

Veteran iced oak  by Neville Yardy

Veteran iced oak by Neville Yardy

© Richard Osbourne

A visit to Thursford Wood puts time in perspective for Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s wildlife evangelist Nick Acheson.

It is grey and cold today; that cold that lingers in fingers and clasps faces in a raw embrace. The tops of the trees are lost in this midwinter gloom; I too lost in a mind-winter of my own. Even pugnacious robins keep their thoughts to themselves today, saving their sad songs for happier days. The home of these unwontedly silent robins is NWT Thursford Wood, in the valley of the River Stiffkey in north Norfolk. In this ancient pasture wood are oaks believed to have grown here for more than 500 years, and possibly much longer still. Today’s cold is of small moment to them.

In a centuries-ago past the acorns which became these trees were missed by the inquiring snouts of spotted sows, brought here by herders exercising their autumn rights of pannage. Spared by the sows, the acorns broke their leathery cases and began the slow, meditative mission of becoming an oak. Impossibly unlikely though it seems, they dodged the many perils which may befall a flimsy seedling oak: The rubbery lips of deer, the light-stealing spread of bracken and bramble, the knife’s flick of an idle boy. Impossibly unlikely though it was, they became oaks.

They have stood, these oaks, if they are 500 years old, through 180,000 nights and days in Thursford Wood. Tens of thousands of frosts have crisped their hard, tan buds. Tens of thousands of mists have hung over them in this quiet north Norfolk valley. Five-hundred times they have shed their tired leaves in autumn and retreated to the mute contemplation of winter. Today’s cold, though it shreds my throat with each breath, is of small moment.

A sense of landscape, its genesis and, sadly in the case of much wildlife, its exodus, is fundamental to Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s management of nature reserves today. And not just of nature reserves. A reserve has no meaning to a centennial oak, whose genes arrived encoded in an acorn in the crop of a post-glacial jay, some 10,000 years ago or more. Since that time, soils, climate, wild animals, domestic animals, people and their economies have shaped the landscape of our Norfolk and influenced the movement of our oaks’ genes across it.

So it is across landscapes, within nature reserves and without, that Norfolk Wildlife Trust protects wildlife and advocates conservation today. These are landscapes stretching back through hundreds of years of human history and millions of years of landscape history; and they are landscapes stretching miles along the courses of rivers or across farmland between isolated nature reserves. This is a vision of a reconnected landscape; with connections re-established between old, wild places orphaned by modern landscape management; connections re-established between isolated populations of rare species, and, crucially, connections re-established between people and their landscape.

Our sow-herder in Thursford Wood in the Middle Ages knew who he was in the context of a landscape. The oaks had a meaning for him, economic, social and most probably mythological. His sows roamed with the seasons through a landscape quick with connections and meanings and values; as genes, seeds and wild animals roamed too. And this is the landscape which Norfolk Wildlife Trust envisions for the future: A Living Landscape, in which ancient oaks and their flimsy seedlings, and thousands of other species, offer meaning – genetic, artistic, economic and spiritual – to numberless generations to come.

NWT Thursford Wood is part of Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s North Norfolk Woods Living Landscape, which also includes NWT Foxley Wood, and NWT Brett’s Wood. For more information about this scheme, and the other seven Living Landscapes in Norfolk visit www.mylivinglandscape.org.uk

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