The hazel coppice with scattered oak standards is a relic of ancient sylviculture stretching back goodness knows how far.
The Romans imported different species of hazel from the Mediterranean and used the whippy stems (which became inbred with native species) for all sorts of uses, from hurdles, road building, ropes, and cups.
The industry continued throughout the Middle Ages and on into Elizabethan times when the forests were denuded to make timber for ships and iron foundries. So it went on until suddenly in the 1950s, plastic was invented and cheap pine wood from Scandinavia was imported by the shipload.
All that time the coppice woods had built up a bank of wild flowers, butterflies and birds, moths and beetles, wild bees and rare fungi into one of the richest ecosystems on the planet.
That’s what we still have at West Dean woods and May is the time to see it all in action.
Three hundred different species of flower live here and we shall hope to show you several. Thirty different butterflies have been recorded here and some of those will be flying if the day is dry. If wet we’ll just look at the orchids and hear the birds singing.
I have over 40 years recorded 56 species of birds here in spring, most of them breeding.
Blackbirds, song thrushes, chaffinches, willow warblers and nuthatches should sing together with about 25 others.
We shall try to find the rare adders’ tongue fern, listen for siskins in the willows, watch orangetips laying their eggs on the flowers of maids-in-the-meadow. We might hear a cuckoo, or see buzzards soaring high, maybe watch a sparrowhawk sky diving, walk around the famous daffodil colony – though it failed to put up more than 100 flowers from its three million bulbs this year.
You can visit the Sussex Wildlife Trust display, hear from RSPB experts, watch coppice workers making produce. I shall be selling my new Walks book.
Mainly I hope you will enjoy a properly-managed wildlife wood, one of the best in the UK, and if you happen to be a landowner with derelict coppice on your land you can see the potential for building a bank of wildlife, that is still just about ticking on, for your own enjoyment and as a lasting asset to our heritage.
The experts here will tell you how.
** Details for this open day, where to go and when, are all in this week’s Country Walks. See the May 3 issue of the Observer for a map of this walk.