Half-Penny: how things have changed

To those familiar with this blog, you will know that I owe my passion for nature almost entirely to my Grandmother. The lady who first introduced me to the joys of a life outdoors and who, through no end of weekend adventures, provided my first insight into the world of trees, birds, bugs and bees. An insight gained through regular forays into the dappled, imperfect depths of the Half-Penny Wood – located a mere stones throw from where my Gran once lived on the fringes of Bedlington.

It is been a long time since these early visits to the wood; a long time since I gathered conkers and marveled, absent care, at the beauty of fruiting Fly Agaric under the watchful gaze of my childhood walking companion. Despite the passing of time, however, my relationship with the wood remains the same: I still visit Half-Penny, I still enjoy its wildlife throughout the seasons and I still, despite visiting the site near constantly for two decades, find myself continuously surprised by new and unusual finds. My attitude to the wood itself has not changed either, it remains a place of wonder, a retreat of sorts to which I venture whenever time allows; though I cannot say that the wood itself has remained the same. Much has changed over the years.

Since my earliest visits, Half-Penny has changed beyond recognition: a shift reflected not in its general appearance, size nor shape, but in its very foundations – in the cast of creatures that now call the wood their home and together, form the green, beating heart of this special place. Indeed, some prominent fixtures of my early years have been lost entirely from the wood and her surrounds. The song of the Cuckoo, once an eminent fixture of springtime outings, has fallen silent in the wood – the result of the increasing scarcity of cuckoo across the local area. Red Squirrels too have disappeared, for the most part; while in recent years, once reliable Redstarts appear to have vanished. Poof.

Given the absence of the aforementioned species, you would be forgiven for thinking that my visits to the wood now must take on a somewhat mournful tone, though this could not be further from the truth. As for every species lost from the wood, for whatever reason, another one appears to have found a foothold. Little Egrets are now a daily sight on the river where a mere decade ago the sight of the pristine white herons would have been thoroughly out of place. Green Woodpeckers have colonised too, as have Spotted Flycatchers; while other once scare fixtures of life here have risen to such heights as to now be labeled as common and widespread. Tree bumblebees, Comma’s and Willow Tits: all give cause for celebration. As do the otters which can now be seen regularly, but never often, by dusk within the woods more secluded reaches.

Of course, not all new arrivals in the wood are to be cherished, and I have previously covered the growing presence of various invasive species in Half-Penny. These, the balsam, knotweed, snowberry and grey squirrels that now grow and scamper widely across the wood, do give cause for concern and, in some cases, warrant action. Although all can be seen as a clear and apparent sign of the times in which we live.

Taking pause to assess the changes currently rocking the very foundations of Half-Penny, it is easy to draw parallels with the wider changes currently taking place across Britain. Changes born of our own actions as a warming climate spurs range expansion in certain species, and hinders the good fortune of others; and as conservation actions strengthen some wildlife populations at the same time as human ignorance facilitates the spread of non-natives across the landscape. The decline of the Cuckoo and Red Squirrel, the good fortune of Little Egrets and Otters, and the creeping advance of Himalayan Balsam, all indicative of nationwide trends. Half-Penny, to me, stands as a microcosm of wider-Britain: rife with both the highs and lows that come cheek by jowl with a life in nature. As certain species flourish and others fade while we watch, worried and intrigued in equal measure. It’s all very educational.

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