By Jan Freedman, Curator of Natural History
Ham Woods is one of Plymouth’s hidden gems. Hidden in the north east of the city, an area the size of around 36 football pitches is home to dozens of species of plants and animals. And it is there for all to enjoy and explore.
The woods would not be here today if it wasn’t for Ham House. Built in 1639, Ham House was built for Robert Trelawny, and stayed in the family for over 300 years. Attached to the house was a large estate, which was covered in managed woodland and lots of exotic interesting plants around. Today you can see a wonderful variety of animals and plants in the woods.
Our Wild about Plymouth October event took a group of enthusiastic families around the woods. Starting at the giant pine tree next to Ham House, we headed down the gentle slope towards the woodland. The entrance to the woods welcomed us with trees, shrubs, flowers and lichen. We turned left, along the path following the leat.
With magnifiers and pots at the ready the families began to explore under stones and rotten branches for mini-beasts. And they were rewarded with dozens of species. Orb web spiders, harvestmen, millipedes, flies, wriggly worms, and beetle larvae crawled around inside the pots. A beautiful Lesser Stag Beetle (Dorcus parallelipipedus) as long as my thumb was the highlight of the search, with its large jaws, and beautiful shiny back. This is quite a late sighting for this beetle, which is normally seen during the summer months.
Walking on to the bridge heading up to the meadow the group stop for a quick paddle. Along the bank of the river the families look at the yellow lichen, and lift up rocks to see ground beetles scurry away. Keen eyed youngsters try to spot freshwater eels in the shallow brook without success.
We walk up, through the wild meadow, green and luscious. Just a few years ago, this meadow was a fortress of brambles, meters high, and filling the whole area. Dedicated volunteers organised by the Friends of Ham Woods slowly hacked back the wild brambles and managed to open this area up as a wild meadow. In summer, the meadow is a sea of colours teeming with mini-beasts.
We trundle through the meadow, and someone spots a field vole scurry into a nest in the grass. Too quick for most people to see, but it pumps fresh enthusiasm in the group.
At the top of the young orchard, we sit and look out at the woods. All around is green. Down below, the young apple trees will soon be big enough to produce lots of apples for the picking. To our right, trees move gentle in the autumn breeze. We sit, in silence listening to the sounds of the woods. What is magical about it, is the opportunity to sit in silence. So often we are running around, crossing busy streets, yet here, in the middle of a city, we are sitting in the grass, and can’t hear a sound. No cars whizzing by. No televisions. No chatter of people in a shopping centre.
That’s what makes a walk in the woods so special: to enjoy the beauty of nature around us, and the quite stillness. How lucky we were to see a field vole, a lesser stag beetle and a whole army of mini-beasts. If I head there a little earlier, I may hear the call of a blue tit, or a robin.
There are ten nature reserves in Plymouth, free to use. Take a break from the city life and have a walk around. Listen to the sounds and you will find yourself more relaxed. What is really wonderful is that these nature reserves are in the middle of the city. Yet it seems like you have escaped.