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.