2012 saw many new wildlife initiatives starting to take shape here at the Sanctuary, and winter is a good time to get out into the woods and take stock of their impact. On one such foray earlier this month, I was literally stopped in my tracks when I spotted something completely unexpected.
I was scratching about under some old hazel coppices in a little copse known as Westernhill plantation. The hazel has not been managed in at least 20 years and the profusion of nuts strewn amongst the flint beneath each tree shows how well this plant can thrive without any intervention. I was busily looking for nuts that had been eaten by dormice and, while most showed the hallmarks of grey squirrel feeding, there were huge drifts of dormice-nibbled nuts under a couple of the hazel trees!
I was thinking to myself that I couldn’t remember rootling about in a woodland that wasn’t strewn with flint nodules when one flint caught my eye. Whether it was the smooth rounded outline that first caught my eye, or the star-shaped embossed mark, I knew immediately that this stone was something rather special.
Fitting perfectly in the palm of my hand, I cupped a heart-shaped rock, a fossilised cast of a sea heart and something you could find on the Exe Estuary today. The amazing thing is that this urchin was alive when the flint, and chalk in which it was forged, was formed in the Cretaceous era between 140 and 65 million years ago!
The detail that has been trapped in the petrified rock is quite stunning. The radial pattern of pores which form what are known as petals are clearly visible, as is the peristome, or mouth of the urchin. This little echinoderm would have spent its life in the Creataceous sea, buried in the soft sand or mud, feeding in exactly the same way that its 140 millionth successor would today. How flint is formed is still unknown, but it is theorised that gelatinous material, such as rotting squid bodies, oozes into spaces – just like the test of a recently dead urchin – and over time this silicates into the glass-like substance we know as flint.
An amazing find, which capped an amazing afternoon in the woods and serves to remind me to always expect the unexpected when spending time in the countryside!