RICHARD WILLIAMSON: Why we should treasure our old wooden enemies

Wooden enemies, my children used to call them.

So did thousands of children across England. It was just a way of remembering the name.

We always pointed out the names of flowers and birds in the hope it would catch on.

My daughter, Bryony, was ever grateful for the flowers, my son Brent for birds.

She treasures her garden in Baldock while Brent can tell a hawk from a handsaw in Portugal.

“Hamlet, handsaw, harnser, Lufthansa, heron,” he dutifully trots out now and then.

“By the way, the storks are back on their nests on the electricity pylons,” he then reports over the telephone.

“Same sort of bird,” Bryony said once. “Would any money be forthcoming if I remembered the name of those little white flowers in the wood?” Easily worth sixpence, I said.

Wood anemones are worth gold, not silver, but I didn’t let on.

When the snowdrops have faded, they replace them, like the winter stars by the summer constellations.

We are lucky not to have light pollution here in the woods, and we are lucky to live in a wood whose centuries of specialised management for the bygone coppice industry has not lost its integrity as have so many Kent and Sussex hazel woods these days.

Wood anemones are a sure sign of ancient woodland.

This is because they spread only by slow root creep, at the rate of half-an-inch a year.

The seeds are usually infertile. Snowdrops move with the speed of sleepy snails, too.

Most hazel woods in Sussex have now been shamefully neglected by their owners and the resulting dense shade kills off wood anemones.

No doubt you have noticed how they love the early bursts of spring sunshine and open wide like daisies do.

They get their business over before the leaf canopy closes, but they can’t be saved if the coppice is never cut as it should be.

Another spring flower we enjoyed finding was downy violet, Viola hirta, which unfolded its pale blue petals on the warm slopes of the valleys in March, ‘the downland violet’ we called it, which was another name linked to something familiar in the brain.

Flitting nearby were often small furry ginger insects with long tongues sticking out.

“They be flies,” my son would repeat most years as the bee-flies hovered a few inches above the ground.

What about all the springtime birds that came into the woods in March?

Not everyone can tell the songs apart.

The kids got the chiffchaff pretty quickly because that was all the bird sang, day after day.

But willow warblers which looked just like them but sang a different song altogether were not so easy to grasp.

“Just whistle willow-warbler-willow-warbler on a descending scale,” and they got it, though like their mother they found whistling a wee bit tricky and would end by blowing a raspberry at each other instead.