Making these acres wildlife-diverse

This small handful of acres has just been purchased for the owners’ children and their friends to have somewhere to play out of doors in relative safety (given that there are always trees to fall out of and holes to catch a foot in) and they want it to be as wildlife-diverse as possible. Although they have a dream of wild flowers and birdsong, they are wise people who know this doesn’t happen by default, which is why they have asked me to take a walk round from a countryman’s point of view.

The first thing to notice is the lack of birdsong. There is plenty of bird sound, but it is all of predators. I don’t think I have ever seen quite so many magpies in one place, there are crows aplenty, and here are jays. As I stand admiring trees frilled with lichen, I see juvenile squirrels scattering among the branches above. All of these dine on eggs and fledgelings, which is tolerable when numbers are reasonable, but sometimes we have to create a balance. It is a good time of year to thin out corvids, but with the leaf just coming, squirrels will have to be trapped rather than shot; fortunately they are easy enough to trap. Fewer squirrels will help rejuvenate the woodland too, which is old and needs a lot of attention. Already the new owners have started taking out rotten trees to admit daylight in patches, and see what wildflowers come this year as a result. Dead wood is stacked high, so it is still habitat for small creatures of many kinds. For every tree taken out, one will be planted, all native types that are typical of Sussex. This is not a task for one generation, but one hopes that the children for whom this woodland was bought will come to love it and care for it in their turn, for their own children.

Something dark darts around a corner, then stands and ‘barks’ at us: roe. Foolish as most roe are, instead of keeping away from the two predators it sees, it has to tell us it is there. The dog half crouches in indecision, her training telling her that she must not, her ancestors telling her that she must. I murmur something and she comes gratefully to heel, the responsibility taken from her. She is young and I do not fully trust her, so I slip the lead over her head for a moment and she relaxes. I watch the roe circle the copse, shadow and light, and ping over the stock-fence at the boundary. Good fences make good neighbours.

Free again, the dog finds a rabbit to chase, and is cheerful. I have been asked to do something about the rabbits but in truth there are not many, although there have been, because buries pock-mark the ground, half-hidden now in new nettles. The dog sniffs at them and then turns her eyes on me to tell me no rabbits are at home. I suspect most are living above ground in the piles of brash and bramble, with the buries only used for refuge, or as breeding stops. There are scrapes, droppings, and those small burned patches caused by rabbit urine, there are runs through the grass, but not much of anything. I pull a strand of old wool from a briar, and remember that sheep used to be run in here over the winters. Sheep are good for opening up overgrown land. The new owners might consider allowing some in again: I’ll mention it to them.

My eyes catch swift movement: a fox is running hard, and the reason for its speed is arching long and low fast behind it.

When it broke cover, it was two hundred yards to the good, but the dog has closed the gap in a handful of strides. Did you know a fox can fit through one of the gaps in a stockfence, and at high speed too? Cunning devil, he has picked a place enclosed its full length by thick undergrowth, so the dog cannot follow him. Which of course is just as well, for while it is legal to flush a fox to the gun, it wouldn’t be if we hunted it. Again I distract an indignant dog before she finds a place to leap the fence, and we turn back into this fascinating scrap of land to see what else we can find.