By John O’Sullivan
Hatley is a great place for wildlife, and the key to this is its variety of habitats – the places where plants and animals live.
Within a short walk of any house in the village, you can find lakes and ponds, thick hedgerows and plantations, old churchyards, parkland with specimen trees, plus a good mixture ofarable crops and grazing land. In fact, there may be no need to leave the houses, as the village buildings and their surroundings are very attractive to wildlife.
All that said, the outstanding local sites scientifically speaking are definitely the two woodlands, Hayley Wood and Buff Wood, and this page looks at them in more detail.
Forming a long, low line on Hatley’s northern horizon, Hayley Wood is one of the best known of its kind in Britain. Indeed, it is the subject of a book of its own – see More information below. Hayley is a substantial area by measures old and new – 370 acres or 150 hectares.
By contrast, Buff Wood (below), which actually touches the south side of Hatley, is only a fraction of the size. Despite the difference in area, the two woodlands have a lot of wildlife in common. This is not actually so surprising, since they share two key characteristics – their great age (at least seven hundred years) and their similar types of soil.
If you visit either in April, you will soon be struck by the sticky clay of paths still wet from the winter rain. Slip and slide a little further on, however, and you will be even more impressed by the show of spring flowers. Most notable is the oxlip, a striking bright yellow primula. Hayley has one of the largest populations of this flower in Britain, and there are plenty in Buff Wood too.
It’s good fun to spot which are the true oxlips and which the false – the latter are hybrids with the primroses which also grow in these woods, and you may see all three within a few feet of each other.
In May, the bluebells make a stunning sight under the leafing oaks, and – whether you are an expert in plant distribution or a botanic-dyslexic – what could be more wonderfully and satisfyingly British? There are numerous other plants of interest; unless you are confident, it may be best to take a good field guide with you and work on a few species at a time.
The mammals of these woods are, as always, tricky to see, but badgers dig their setts here, and fallow deer and the smaller muntjac leave their distinctive tracks or ‘slots’ in the mud. The fallows occasionally venture into the open, even into the fields around the woods, when their handsome spotted colouring and the elegant broad antlers of the males may be visible if you are lucky.
The muntjacs are more likely to be heard than seen: the male has a single gruff bark, like a large dog. When they cross a path or road, they look rather small and squat, and higher at the back than the front. Grey squirrels are common and easy to see, but most of the smaller mammals – voles, mice, shrews – are hard to get to know.
Birders will see something at any time of year. In the spring, levels of song may be near deafening, with males of thirty or more species proclaiming their territories. All three British species of woodpecker are here, but the smallest of them, the sparrow-sized lesser spotted woodpecker, is as hard to find as ever.
At any season, you may catch a glimpse of a russet-coloured woodcock dodging away among the tree trunks. Once again, the mud may prove a benefit to the trackers amongst us: look, there are the holes where the woodcock has driven its long beak down in search of worms.
Bug life in these woods is rich and colourful: try the blackthorn blossom in April, the hawthorn in May, and the brambles in June for a selection of butterflies, beetles, bees, and all manner of other insects. Ivy flowers in September are a late source of nectar and darting colour in the shape of hoverflies and the fearsome-looking but unaggressive hornet.
A short piece like this can only scratch the surface. Why not go out and see for yourself what lives in our famous local woodlands?
Common ragwort, along with spear thistle, creeping or field thistle, broad-leaved dock and curled dock, is considered by Natural England, the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Environment Agency to be a harmful weed and a danger to livestock, particularly horses and cattle.
You can read more about ragwort in this article The dangers of ragwort.
The book Hayley Wood: its history and ecology by Oliver Rackham, was published in 1975 by the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Naturalists’ Trust, ISBN 0-902708-04-X, 236 pp (and revised in 1990 by the Cambridgeshire Wildlife Trust). It is probably available at local libraries.
The website of the local Wildlife Trust has more on Hayley Wood, and the many other reserves of this energetic organisation – www.wildlifebcn.org. If you are not sure, enquire of the Trust about access arrangements for both woods – phone 01954 713 500.
First published on the original Hatley website in May 2011; minor changes made on 15th June 2018.