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Decline of an Empire


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#1 Vagabond

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 08:28 AM

High up near the top of the Ashdown Forest  lies the Five  Hundred  Acre  Wood.  The wood  is now criss-crossed by foresters’ tracks, many of which are public footpaths,  but it was not always so.  When I was a boy, over seventy years ago, there were very few trails in the wood, as access was forbidden.

Forbidden access was no obstacle to determined small boys, however, and we knew and traversed every inch, not only of the “Five Hundred” , but the Ashdown  Forest and its surrounds for a radius of ten miles.

 

Thus it was that we came across “The Empire of the Ants”   Not just any old ants, but wood-ants, which build large mounds  in Southern heaths and woods.  You can smell the formic acid-based odour the mounds  give off from several  yards away.   The ants themselves  look terrifying, half an inch long, long  legs and fast moving.  They can squirt poison a few centimetres, and prêy on oak caterpillars and pine-moth grubs, climbing trees to get at them.  Thus  the mounds are found near oaks and pines.   On open heathland the ants favour bracken.   However, despite their  fearsome appearance, in seventy years on the forest, I  have never been bitten by a wood-ant, nor come across anyone who has.    I’m not brave enough to test  the hypothesis  that they don’t bite humans ,  so  normally I give them a wide berth.

 

Which brings me to the “Empire”     In the “Five Hundred “ wood  there used to be a small pond  containing small tench and surrounded by oak-trees and several large wood-ant mounds.  Having found it, and being a fan of H.G.Wells,  I named the water “The Empire of the Ants”    All along the banks of the pond wood-ants scurried to and  fro – there was not a square foot anywhere near the pond that was ant-free.   In those days very few local ponds held tench.  In fact, this was the only such pond within walking distance (ten miles) of my home. There was thus a conflict between wood-ant phobia and my desire to catch tench.     So imagine a ten-year-old fishing for tench in this pond, not sitting down  with angling accoutrements scattered around the swim, but standing, carrying everything about his person,  and slowly “marking time”,  like a soldier on parade, as he fished, with anxious glances at his feet every ten seconds

 

The tench were small – small enough to go in a two-pound jam jar – and were transported to and released into other (reasonably ant-free)  ponds in the area (there was no Section 30 in those days).   Incidentally, I cannot remember ever re-capturing a tench from any of the ponds thus stocked -  unlike other ponds we “seeded” with other species  such as roach, rudd, perch, gudgeon and crucians.

 

A year or so ago I mentioned the “Empire” to Norma, and her bird-watching interest was immediately aroused.  Green woodpeckers (Yaffles) love wood-ants for lunch,. Norma hoped to find  some yaffles feeding  upon wood-ants,  so I promised to show her the “Empire” when we were next in the area.
What a change !  Nothing there but birch scrub and brambles.  Over sixty years worth of falling oak leaves had filled the pond,  so not a drop of water to be seen,  just a miry patch of silt and rotting vegetation.  The oaks had gone  (forestry ?) and with them the wood-ant mounds.  In fact not a wood-ant in sight. 

Hic transit gloriae mundi.   Not one of life’s prime angling spots, but I was saddened to find it gone.




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#2 Andy_1984

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 09:00 AM

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#3 Tigger

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 09:25 AM

I know places similar to that but without the wood ants, or at least I can't remember 'em, usually red or black ants round here.  



#4 Vagabond

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 09:36 AM

I know places similar to that but without the wood ants, or at least I can't remember 'em, usually red or black ants round here.  

Yep, wood-ants are common in the south-east, rare in midlands and north - absent from Scotland.   There is some other sort of mound builder in Scotland but a different species.

 

We get the smaller black and red ants also - they DO bite - usually after 300 have already got up yer trouser leg !




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#5 Ken L

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 10:22 AM

Plenty of wood ants and green woodpeckers in the Wyre Forrest and along much of the middle Severn. Not many pools about though except those that are man made and coveted. The only smattering of small natural pools that I can think of (allegedly containing tench and crucians) are now contained within the boundary of the local safari park.


Species caught in 2017: Siamese carp. Striped catfish. Rohu. Mekong catfish. Amazon red tail catfish. Arapaima.  Black Minnow Shark. Perch. Chub. Brown Trout. Pike. Bream. Roach. Rudd. Bleak. Common Carp.

Species caught in 2016: Siamese carp. Jullen's golden carp. Striped catfish. Mekong catfish. Amazon red tail catfish. Arapaima. Alligator gar. Rohu. Black Minnow Shark. Roach, Bream, Perch, Ballan Wrasse. Rudd. Common Carp. Pike. Zander. Chub. Bleak.
Species caught in 2015: Brown Trout. Roach. Bream. Terrapin. Eel. Barbel. Pike. Chub. 
Species caught in 2014: Striped catfish. Pacu. Giant gourami. Clown knife fish. Rohu. Siamese carp. Amazon red tail catfish. Arapaima. Roach. Bream. Perch. Rainbow trout. Chub. Common Carp, Ide. Brown Trout. Barbel. Mekong catfish. Jullen's golden carp. Alligator gar. Java barb.
Species caught in 2013: Mangrove Jack. Barramundi. Blubberlip snapper. Baracouda. Malabar grouper. Yellowfin Trevally. Chub. Brown Trout. Perch. Roach. Pike. European Eel. Bleak.
Species caught in 2012: Northern whiting. Moray eel. Barramundi. Snakehead murrel. Silver razorbelly minnow. Deccan Mahseer. Malabar mystus. Deccan rita. Spotted Malabar Grouper. Mangrove Jack. Indian sea catfish. Brown Trout. Chub. Perch. Roach. Rudd.
Species caught in 2011: Indian sea catfish. Sardine. Barramundi. Mangrove Jack. Deccan Mahseer. Humpbacked Mahseer. Yellow Fin Trevelly. Giant Trevelly. Chub. Brown Trout. Perch. Pike. Atlantic salmon. Dace. Minnow. Roach. Gudgeon. 
Species caught in 2010: Barramundi. Giant Trevelly. Moray eel. Indian sea catfish. Mangrove Jack. Deccan Mahseer. Humpback Mahseer. Chub. Brown Trout. Perch. Bass. Pike. 
Species caught in 2009: Chub. Perch. Pike. Pacu. Thai Striped Catfish. 
Species caught in 2008: Barramundi. p-i-k-e-y sea bream. Indian sea catfish. Guitarfish. Mangrove Jack. Mahseer. Squid (Not strictly a fish but it took a lure !). Emperor Sweetlip. Black Spot Snapper. Moray eel. Spangled Emperor. Bluecheek silver grunt. Yellow striped emperor. Vanikoro sweeper. Pike. Perch. Brown trout. Chub. Atlantic salmon.


#6 ayjay

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 12:08 PM

I see plenty of Wood ants and their mounds in the New Forest:  there's no shortage of Green Woodpeckers either but I've yet to surprise one off of a Wood ants nest, it's something I've commented to the wife about before now.

 

There are some routes I regularly take where it's almost impossible not to tread on a few as they are so numerous. I've never been bitten or squirted by a Wood ant and I've got pretty close a few times taking pics of them.

 

 

Red ants are another story, I got bitten by one of those little blighters on the inside of my thigh once whilst walking across a field, I dropped my trousers right there and then to deal with it.



#7 Tigger

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 12:11 PM

Yep, wood-ants are common in the south-east, rare in midlands and north - absent from Scotland.   There is some other sort of mound builder in Scotland but a different species.

 

We get the smaller black and red ants also - they DO bite - usually after 300 have already got up yer trouser leg !

 

 

Thinkin' about it Dave I have seen some anty type mounds round here, just can't think where.  I know i've seen some seriously large anty type mounds 20 mile across to Ainsdale at Southport.  They're in the pine forests and i'm sure they where made from sand and pine needles. Next time I go over there i'l have a kick at one and see what comes out to attack lol.   I know it's full of red and black ants on those dunes round there as when i've been sat down waiting for the ferret to bolt a rabbit they've done exactly what you posted....gone up your trouser leg!

 

One thing that sticks in my mind from being a kid about ants was when I was walking home from infant school one day, I was walking down a dirt path down the railway sidings (it was normal back then to walk home as you never seemed to hear about molesters back then) and noticed a genuine ant battle (honestly)....it was a huge war between red ants and black ants.  I actually stopped and watched for ages as they fought and if I remember rightly the red ones won and proceeded to carry off the black ones.  I got a right ****in' when I got home as me dad had been out frantically looking for me.  He wasn't impressed when I tried to tell him why i'd been held up lol.



#8 chesters1

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Posted 14 March 2017 - 03:34 PM

Plenty of wood ants here one mound as long as we have and probably long before ,spotted the odd bird "bathing" in one but the green woodpeckers are usually digging holes in my lawn than eating the far easier victims off the nest ,perhaps the eggs are easier to get or red ants taste like ginger?

Edited by chesters1, 14 March 2017 - 03:34 PM.

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#9 Newt

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Posted 15 March 2017 - 07:14 AM

Had to do a bit of Google searching since your wood ants are called  carpenter ants on this side of the pond.  Interesting little critters.


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#10 Steve Walker

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Posted 15 March 2017 - 02:13 PM

Nicely written, Dave. If one fishes for as long as you have, the ephemeral nature of ponds is revealed first hand.


I've got plenty of sodding ants in my garden, I'm always slicing off the tops of their hills with the lawnmower. Gives the slow worms something to eat, I suppose.