The feeling of spring

Primroses

Primroses

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Early Mining Bee on Willow Catkin

Spring is here at last, and what a welcome thing it is. It started when I was cooped up in a hospital room for two weeks, watching the crocuses on the balcony bloom in their tubs, and the first small tortoiseshell butterfly flutter past my window. But I could not go out and enjoy it.

Coming out of hospital, the first thing I noticed was the wind on my face. Cold, for sure, but very welcome, and something that had been sorely missed.

They seemed almost imperceptible at first, the signs of Spring at the woods. It was very subtle. One week, you could see through the understorey, through the woods to the fields beyond. Then a few days later, you couldn’t. Just a few buds bursting here and there and the woods were transformed once again.

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Birch Leaves and Catkins

Daffodils

Daffodils

The daffodils came out in great numbers, followed by the lesser celandine, primroses and cowslips. This last weekend the first bluebell buds appeared, the blossom was profuse on the blackthorn, and the first cherry blossom also came into flower. Snakeshead fritillary are also in flower, and the smell of wild garlic hits you before you see the emerging leaves.

Cowslips

Cowslips

Ladybird on the edge of a leaf

Ladybird on the Edge

Within a few days, tiny green leaves were all over the birch trees, like little jewels, backlit by the sun. Catkins cover the willow trees, leaf buds bursting, early bees feasting on the pollen. Comma, small tortoiseshell, brimstone and peacock butterflies are everywhere in the sheltered parts of the meadow. Chiffchaffs are calling. The first blackcap is in song.

Surprisingly, for most birds are still building their nests, we even have a robin feeding her young, the nest precariously perched in an empty log bag thrown onto the top shelf of our log store.

Robin Feeding Young

Robin Feeding Young

This is the feeling of spring. The wind on your face. Some warmth in the sun. Frantic bird activity, flowers on the woodland floor, and the delicate sight of new leaves and catkins. A feeling magnified by my release from captivity. A glorious feeling. A joyful time of year.

Blackthorn

Blackthorn

Lesser Celandine

Lesser Celandine

Comma Butterfly

Comma Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly

Peacock Butterfly – shame about the background but lovely butterfly all the same.

Cherry Blossom

Cherry Blossom

A Day with the Tree Surgeons

First tree showing weak area

The first tree showing the weak area

Yesterday, we had Mike Daniels and his team from Arborcare, come to the woods to deal with two large oaks. Both of these needed to be pollarded for safety. It was a privilege to spend the day with these lovely guys, watching them at work.

The first tree had a branch fall off leaving a large scar a few years ago. This was healing, until it was seriously eroded by hornets, leaving a very unstable situation with a heavy branch on a weak base. The other branch of the tree had a crack (not easily visible). Both branches were overhanging a path used by visitors, so something had to be done. The aim was to preserve the tree and the habitat, but make it safer.

The second tree was again, very hollow and weak, and overhanging a path. We tried moving the path but it didn’t work out, so the tree needed reducing. This second tree may not survive, but it will remain as standing dead wood and fantastic hollow habitat for birds.

None of the brash was wasted: most of the holly brash from our coppicing, together with all the brash from this pollarding work was chipped to surface our paths. The rest was left as habitat piles.

Brash chipping going on the path

Brash chipping going on the path

I am totally in awe of people who can do this wonderful work. The photos show some of the process and the skill involved.

Our thanks to Mike, Paul, and John from Arborcare, and to Keith, who turned up to help us. We were all working flat out all day – I was helping to cut up the branches cut down and stack the logs and brash, and the others were chipping the massive pile of brash and delivering it to our paths.

A wonderful day.

At work high above the ground

At work high above the ground

Removing a branch

Removing a branch

Removing the top of the tree

Removing the top of the tree

A new pollarded oak

A new pollarded oak

Climbing the adjacent tree

Climbing the sound tree next to the weak one that will be pollarded

Swinging across

Swinging across

Phew!

Phew!

Cutting more branches

Cutting more branches

Gradually cutting back

Gradually cutting back

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

All done, and Mike lets himself down on the rope

Mystical Winter Light

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

As a photographer, I am always interested in light.  So it might seem strange that I love the winter, because it tends to be dark and grim, at least in the UK.  However the quality of light at this time of year can be absolutely magical.  We all know of the golden hour near sunset and sunrise, when the light is warmer and more gentle, lighting subjects from a low angle.

Angled Shadows on path

Angled Shadows

However in winter in the UK, the light is always coming from a low angle because the sun never gets very high in the sky – and while it may not have the intoxicating warmth of a summer evening, it does have a lovely gentle and watery quality that simply isn’t available at any other time of year.

frosty-walk-102

As well as a low angle and gentle watery quality, winter light is also enhanced by the cold weather bringing mist, frost and occasional snow.  The other day I was privileged to walk round the woods at just the right time of day.  There had been a very heavy overnight frost which was melting in the sunshine, adding water vapour and mist to the sense of wonder.  There was also mist rising from the ponds and canal and settling in the flood plain where the woods are situated.

Sun on the boundary

Sun on the boundary

So we have the wonderful quality and angle of the light, frost, mist and the wonderful bonus of the trees without leaves.  The form of the trees can be clearly seen at this time of year too.  In summer, all is lost in the confusion of leaves, but right now, you can see every detail, every shape.  The shadows also have much more form than in summer.  The combination of light and form is quite intoxicating.  The beauty gives me a squeezy feeling in my stomach.

Winter light in the plantation

Winter light in the plantation

I took a series of landscape shots as I walked round, trying to capture that squeezy feeling – the mystical beauty of mist, light and trees.  You don’t get the mystical winter light every day, but when you do, it can take your breath away.

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Winter colour in the plantation

Winter colour in the plantation

Yet more amazing sunsets

Painted Sky

Painted Sky

This year seems to have been a really special one for sunsets at the woods. Following on from the unreal skies I posted a short while ago, we had another stunning and unexpected sunset just before Christmas.

Not a promising start

Not a promising start

I had actually just gone to the woods to feed the birds, and only took my little camera with me.  As I hung up the last of the feeders, I thought that the light was looking quite good, so I decided to go for a little walk.  The sunset was not that promising, and a bank of cloud was coming over, but I decided to wait a few minutes longer.  And then the sky started to turn pink and orange.

Starting to go pink

Starting to go pink

More and more colour

More and more colour

The colour started to develop until the whole sky was scarlet.  I headed down to the ponds to try and catch some reflections in the surface of the water.  I was rewarded with some great colour and photos.

Red sky

Red sky

Reflections

Reflections

The colour started to turn from orange/red to magenta, pink and purple as I walked round the bottom of Betty’s Wood and up through the meadows back towards the main woods.  Even as I arrived at the main clearing, there was still some pink in the sky, and I caught the last rays of the sun before heading home.

Getting darker

Getting darker

Pink and purple

Pink and purple

Sun setting

Sun setting

The colours were totally unreal – as if a child had some pots of bright-coloured paints and mixed them all up and threw them across the sky.  Winter is a really special time of year for sunsets.  What has been most interesting this year is that the best colour has been in the north-east, and not in the south-west where the sun is actually setting.

I hope you are not bored of seeing pictures of winter sunsets – I never tire of their beauty.

The last rays

The last rays

Wonderful Winter Sunsets

Pink Clouds and Glowing Trees

Sunset from the edge of our woods

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

Dark and glowing clouds as dusk falls

The first frosts have been late this year, but winter seems to have arrived at last, and with it comes the wonderful, clear and low light that casts eerie shadows within the woods and across the landscape, and brings those amazing sunsets that simply don’t occur during summer.

We’ve been gifted with a few beautiful sunsets over the last few days.  The first came while we were working away cutting up, moving and stacking logs from a willow tree that had fallen into our neighbour’s field.  It was an absolutely miserable, rainy, drizzly, damp day.  But as we were walking back up from repairing the fence with some dead-hedging and stakes, the cold front finally passed, and a sunset started to happen.  I always have a camera, even if working, and I put my little EOS-M to good work along the edge of the woods, capturing the light, clouds, colours and shapes of sunset.

Yesterday, I had to take a few photos of trees on which we are planning to have tree surgery work done later during the winter.  Because our woods has a Tree Preservation Order on it, we have to submit an application for this work to the Council, supported by photos.  While I was there, I could sense the light getting better and better for photography.  First there was the sun-dog or false rainbow caused by ice crystals in the atmosphere refracting the sunlight.  Then there were the golden leaves remaining on the birch trees, backlit by the setting sun.  Finally there was the cold wait by our entrance as the sun started to set opposite.  Subtle colours, and few clouds, but spectacular none the less.  Although I guess a few passing motorists wondered why there was a mad woman shivering in a puffa jacket with a camera round her neck by the side of the road!

Low light is the real gift of winter.  It makes this time of year special.

Birch trees glow gold in Betty's Wood

Birch trees glow gold in Betty’s Wood

Sun Dog over Betty's Wood - the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sun Dog over Betty’s Wood – the rainbow is not a photographic artefact

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

Sunset over the hills opposite the woods

The sun setting right opposite our entrance

The sun setting right opposite our entrance as I was leaving.

 

Maybe I spoke too soon – more fungi

Sulphur Tuft and Moss

Sulphur Tuft and Moss

As soon as I wrote my last blog bemoaning the lack of fungi at the woods, we have had a lot of rain and the fungi are starting to emerge in some numbers.

Last weekend, I found a wonderful stump covered with tiny little fungi.  It looked like a tiny fairy city.  Other logs were showing the sulphur-tuft fungi usually seen during October.  And there are a few clouded agaric in the woods, as well as some massive jelly-ear fungi on rotting elder stems.

It seems I spoke too soon.  The fungi are fruiting at last!

Fungi Forest

Fungi Forest

Fungi and Oak Leaf

Fungi and Oak Leaf

Magic Mini-Forest

Magic Mini-Forest

Tiny Toadstools

Tiny Toadstools

More Tiny Fungi

More Tiny Fungi

Miniature Toadstool

Miniature Toadstool

Scrub is Special – Save our Scrub

Scrub habitat in Betty's Wood - home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub habitat in Betty’s Wood – home to whitethroat and yellowhammer

Scrub, as a habitat, is nearly always followed by the words “clearance” or “eradication”. How often do we read the words “it’s only scrub,” as if this is some kind of second-rate habitat to which we must do something.

A brief Google search reveals countless pages relating to wildlife groups, country parks and nature reserves, all talking about “scrub clearance”. Not to mention countless contractors offering their services, machinery, manpower and chemicals to clear scrub.

Scrub has a bad name. It has become something to be controlled, eliminated, pushed to the corners of our fields and woodlands. It doesn’t seem to be wanted, valued or loved.

Scrub is usually regenerating woodland, although in certain special situations, it may be the final, or climax, plant community. Woodland may be regenerating on a woodland site that has lost its trees, through felling, coppicing, or natural disaster, or on a previously open habitat which, for some reason or another, has ceased to be managed and is reverting to woodland. In pre-history, areas of woodland were cleared by humans, used for a while, then the people moved on, leaving the woodland to recover and regenerate via a scrub stage. Before humans made their mark, woodlands were cleared and reverted to scrub after grazing by large mammals, such as elephants. Wildwood has areas that become denuded of trees, and which regenerate. Scrub is always present, although not always in the same area, but there are always patches of scrub into which wildlife that prefers this habitat can move.

Regenerating scrub in Betty's Wood

Regenerating scrub in Betty’s Wood

Scrub will also form rapidly on almost any land that is left for any length of time: heathland, fen, coastal dunes, uplands, bogs, agricultural land and even on urban or rural habitation or industrial sites that have become abandoned.

The problem we have now is that people are not itinerant – they lived in fixed communities. Almost all land has an owner, and a defined use. Woodland is not free to regenerate where it will because land is almost always designated for a purpose – be it generation of timber in woodlands, or preservation as high forest as a nature reserve, or be it arable farmland, pasture, heathland, moorland, bog, fen, coastal dunes and other habitats deemed also to be of great value. There is precious little room for scrub to squeeze into, and people don’t want it. Because other habitats have become vanishingly rare, encroachment of scrub onto these habitats becomes something that threatens them. In towns and cities, we don’t want scrubby parkland, with ever-changing areas of wood, clearings and scrub – we want nice tidy places for people to walk, sit and play – manicured habitats, effectively over-sized gardens. Scrub is perceived as providing cover for anti-social behaviour. So it must be cleared. It doesn’t look pretty.

Even in woodland, there is little room for scrub. Coppicing produces a scrub-like regrowth from the cut stems, or stools, albeit with a more uniform height and species structure. Most of our woodland species are not species of the deep forest, they are species of the forest edge, and of scrub and coppice.   Our wildlife is adapted to the cycle of clearance and regrowth. But this is a cycle that we have broken. Coppice management has disappeared from many woodlands, leaving over-stood coppice and high forest – the familiar woodland that many of us visit and many think is the only way a woodland can or should be. We manage timber-producing woodland by clear-felling and re-planting in dense, ordered stands that produce a uniform structure. Scrub has barely a chance to grow before being overtaken by the faster-growing, more useful and more profitable softwood conifers. It is relegated to small strips around the edge and along woodland rides, if it is allowed to grow at all. Coppicing does survive, as does continuous cover forestry with natural regeneration, both of which help. But many woodlands are simply unmanaged.

Scrub in Betty's Wood

Scrub in Betty’s Wood

If this were wildwood, it wouldn’t be such a problem. Areas would naturally fall in high winds, succumb to fire or grazing, or be felled by itinerant humans or large animals. But it isn’t wildwood, and hasn’t been since humans appeared on the planet. Even worse, most areas of woodland are such small remnants of our forest cover that they are simply too small to support a mosaic of habitats, including scrub, as they stand. They are left to become high forest, with no mechanism to support regeneration, no mechanism to support a cycle of regrowth.

In addition, scrub is not allowed to develop anywhere else. Pieces of woodland are simply not allowed to “contaminate” farmland, river edges, heathland, moorland, fenland or urban and suburban parks and gardens. They are cleared up – sometimes with good justification but very often without. Agricultural stewardship schemes usually require the removal of scrub. Woodland schemes also fail to recognize the importance of scrub, or allow for its management.

So does this actually matter? Well, yes it does, because many important, declining species are actually species that prefer scrubland, and enjoy the variety of species, height of vegetation and density of vegetation that scrub can provide. These include plants themselves, lichens, bryophytes, insects, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles. The pearl-bordered fritillary butterfly, the adder and common toad, mammals such as dormice, and birds such as blackcap, bullfinch, linnet, reed bunting, song thrust, willow tit, yellowhammer, dunnock, goldcrest, nightingale, tree sparrow and turtle dove. Many of these are disappearing as we over-clear scrub habitats and under-manage woodland.

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

Regenerating Birch Scrub on site of old building

The problem is that scrub does need some kind of management, whether you want to keep it or not. This can include resumption of coppicing within woodlands or at the woodland edge to create scrub, cyclical cutting of scrub to ensure a steady supply for scrub species, selective conservation grazing of low intensity by relatively hardy livestock, or by leaving small areas of scrub to develop around the edges of other habitats. Keeping scrub as scrub, and developing a good mosaic requires management, or it will revert to woodland or coppice – so attention needs to be paid to ensure that a wide variety of species, density and height are achieved. This is not easy to do, and there is a lot of debate about how to do this, or whether to do it.

In our own woods, we have some good areas of regenerating scrub at the edge of Betty’s Wood. And into this scrub we have attracted willow tit, whitethroat, yellowhammer, bullfinch, linnet, song thrush, goldcrest, dunnock, woodcock and others. Coppicing will, in time, produce a rotation of scrubby habitats for species to move into, as well as allowing the next generation of mature trees to emerge, and producing a sustainable crop of wood for crafts and firewood.

Our Coppice - varying ages and densities

Our Coppice – varying ages and densities

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The problem is that management of scrub has been seen as synonymous with clearance or eradication, despite it being quite clear in the Scrub Management Handbook, and the JNCC Report, that this is only ONE option, and even then, where possible a patchwork of scrub areas should usually be allowed to remain. Maybe this is because the focus has been on removal of scrub, so there has been more research into, and thus the handbook provides more information on this aspect of management. Certainly the other options given in these documents – create, enhance, preserve – seem to have been forgotten.

In addition, on woodland nature reserves and other public wooded spaces, the public perception is that these should be left alone, and that high forest is best. There is undoubtedly an argument for leaving some areas wild, and ancient woodland and veteran trees undoubtedly support a very biodiverse ecosystem, but leaving everything alone will result in a closed canopy woodland with lower diversity than a managed woodland that includes ancient and veteran trees.

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring – ancient and diverse high forest habitat

People don’t like to see trees being cut down, so managers of public land don’t cut them down – it is the easiest option. It would be lovely if areas of woodland were extensive enough to allow natural processes of regeneration to take place – but few sites are large enough. The average size of a piece of woodland in England is about 8ha. So the management methods that create scrub are not being carried out, nor is scrub being created naturally. At the same time, people are receptive to the idea of clearing scrub – the combined effect is that scrub is reduced in extent and diversity, and often confined to margins of roads and railways, and to derelict urban sites awaiting development.

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

High Forest – the popular perception of what woodland should be like

We hardly ever see the word “scrub” in management plans for nature reserves unless it is followed by the word “clearance”. There are clearly habitats where scrub needs to be cut, or it will overwhelm other valuable and vanishing habitats, but it is really important to ensure that an area of scrub is left, and managed on rotation, so there is always somewhere for scrub species to go. There is a need to question whether complete scrub removal is required. Areas of scrub also need to be left in urban and suburban green spaces. They are amazing places for children to explore, and learn, as well as being repositories of wildlife. They may not look tidy, but neither do uncut road verges – yet many councils are taking up Plantlife’s campaign to leave some area of verge to grow wildflowers, so why not take up the cause of scrub, and leave some areas of urban parks to develop as scrub habitat?

There seems to be a real need to educate people as to the value of scrub, and the related woodland coppice habitat, so that they can understand the need to keep some scrub, and to create coppice. To do this, the mindset that cutting down trees is “bad” and clearing scrub is “good” needs to be changed. In addition, there needs to be support for scrub habitat – not just the specialised communities in rare scrub habitats, but good old-fashioned lowland scrub – within stewardship schemes, woodland grant schemes and within urban and suburban green spaces.

Not all scrub is bad. A lot of species depend on scrub, and on an ever-changing and evolving patchwork of vegetation from open meadow to high forest, and everything in between. The in between bits are important. Scrub is important. Save our Scrub!

Willow tit

Willow tit – a red-listed species that depends on scrub habitat

Resources:

JNCC Report 308: Mortimer, S.R., Turner, A.J., Brown, V.K., Fuller, R.J., Good, J.E.G., Bell, S.A. Stevens, P.A., Norris, D., Bayfield, N. and Ward, L.K. – (2000) – The Nature Conservation Value of Scrub in Britain – Available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2445

FACT in conjunction with English Nature (2003) The Scrub Management Handbook – ISBN 1 85716 745 7 – Available from http://publications.naturalengland.org.uk/publication/72031

Fuller RJ and Warren MS (1995) – Management for Biodiversity in British Woodlands – Striking a Balance – from British Wildlife (1995): 7; 26-37 – Available from http://www.britishwildlife.com/classicarticlesview.asp

Fuller RJ and Warren MS – Coppiced Woodlands: Their Management for Wildlife (1993) – available from http://jncc.defra.gov.uk/page-2640

Gough SJ and Fuller RJ (1998) – Scrub Management for Conservation in Lowland England: Practices, Problems and Possibilities

BTO Research Report No. 194 ISBN 0 903793 96 2 – available from http://www.bto.org/sites/default/files/u196/downloads/rr194.pdf

See Also

A great album of photos of scrub regenerating on Exmoor – by Hen

 

Special Trees

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

We were recently privileged to visit some friends in Devon.  While we were there, we were privileged to meet some wonderful tree people, including Pip Howard and Rob the Treehunter.  http://europeantrees.wordpress.com.  They are part of a wonderful European-wide project looking at trees, landscape and people called HERCULES.

We were already keen on trees – we really have to be since we own a woodland containing quite a lot of them – but this was a real eye-opener to the presence of and meaning of special trees in the landscape.

South Devon has some very special trees and landscapes.  First of all there are the amazing sunken old roads, now become paths or bridleways between steep hedge banks, with overgrown trees.  Then, in the fields and in scattered places around the landscape, we find the most amazing old pollards, hundreds of years old, growing slowly and magnificently, hollow and full of wildlife habitat.  Finally there are the trees that mark certain routes, or certain waypoints.  I was not aware, although I am now, how Scots Pine was used to mark roads and waypoints, making them easy to identify in the landscape, and thus helping drovers and others to navigate.

The challenge is to photograph these magnificent trees and show something of their character. I felt that monochrome images helped to keep the eye on the tree and its form, and avoid being distracted by colours.  This is a small series of monochrome images that I took while I was there.

Field Trees

Field Trees

Grand tree on bridleway

Grand tree on bridleway

Tree from below

Viewed from below

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ancient ash pollard in field

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Ridgeway pines

Betty’s Wood – Three Years On

Young woodland path

Young woodland path – trees 2-3 metres tall

In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.

Planting young trees

Planting young trees

Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.

Betty's Wood from adjacent field

Betty’s Wood from adjacent field

We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.

Mowing the meadow

Mowing the meadow during the first summer

It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.

Young trees in the landscape

Young trees in the landscape a few years on

It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.

Young trees with woodland ride

Young trees with woodland ride – trees now over 2 metres tall

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Ponds are now vegetation rich