Spring is on the move.
In recent decades, signs of Spring have occurred earlier and earlier, indeed the early flowering of crocuses and daffodils in our gardens is one such sign. Now a detailed analysis of such ‘signs’ has been undertaken by using the information held in Nature’s Calendar. This is an enormous database * of records of seasonal changes; it has records of some 400+ species of plants, from trees, to shrubs and herbs. Nature’s Calendar includes records from organisations like the Royal Meteorological Society, plus those of scientists, naturalists and gardeners. Recording when things happen (such as when horse chestnut and ash trees come into leaf, or when the first swifts or bumblebees are seen) is known as phenology. These timings vary from year to year. Phenology is not a new discipline. One of the first phenologists was Robert Marsham, who recorded ‘indications of spring’ starting back in 1736. He catalogued some 27 different natural events on his family’s estate in Norfolk. In 1875, the Royal Meteorological Society set up a national recorder network. Nature’s Calendar includes thousands of these historical observations and enables scientists to look for trends and see if they correlate with changes in temperature, rainfall, weather phenomena. The research team from Cambridge University looked at FFDs - first flowering dates and temperature records. They found a difference in flowering dates from the 1750s and the most recent years of almost a month. Professor Ulf Büntgen has said that rising global temperature has brought Spring forward by several weeks. This raises concerns. For example, if a plant grows and comes into flower earlier in the year what happens to insects that are dependent upon it? For example, some bees collect from only one species of plant. Or to put it another way, suppose the plant flowers earlier but its pollinating agent (an insect such as a hover fly) is not about, has not emerged from its over-wintering stage? What if there is a ‘late’ frost? * Nature’s Calendar : The Woodland Trust joined forces with the Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to collate phenology records into Nature’s Calendar; this has some 3.5 million records- some going back to eighteenth century.
Home to roost : an owl box.
In late winter, it’s good to put up new nest boxes and clear out existing ones, in time for the breeding season. In Ellekers Wood, as part of our management plan, we've been making lots of new boxes for birds and bats. Bats are currently having problems finding food to eat, plus many of their natural roosting places have disappeared. Building a bat box offers them :- somewhere safe to roost, a place to raise their pups and Sleeping quarters during the day. Our biggest boxes are the two tawny owl ‘chimney boxes’. Tawny (or brown) owls (Strix aluco) ‘own’ the classic owl hoot. They will nest in large gardens with trees, but woodlands are good for them. Their diet ranges from worms to rabbits. Tawny owls like a north east facing entrance, with a clear route. Our boxes are made from 1" thick, rough sawn larch planks. We followed the RSPB design. Each box is approximately 800mm long (measurements / specifications available here). Fortunately, Dan has a head for heights and he has installed the boxes in mature oak trees at a height of approximately 6 metres. The tawny owl typically makes its nest in a tree hole where it can protect its eggs and young against potential predators. They will occupy / nest in smaller cavities than barn owls and the design of the box reflects this. As tawny owl chicks start to explore their surroundings before fledging, it is important that the boxes are placed with easy access to nearby branches, so that they can climb over. As with many species of birds, tawny owls are sensitive to disturbance when incubating their eggs, and should not be approached as they can be aggressive. It is important that consideration is given to the siting of any box [embed]http://youtu.be/RfXIHXCyTNk[/embed] Full details of RSPB nest boxes for various birds can be found here : https://www.rspb.org.uk/birds-and-wildlife/advice/how-you-can-help-birds/nestboxes/nestboxes-for-owls-and-kestrels/
The lost trees of Dartmoor
Certain upland areas of the UK , such as Dartmoor, have experienced long term grazing. This has lead to soil compaction, which in turn means that water run-off is greater. Instead of percolating into the soil, rain water runs over the surface and into rivers. This can lead to flooding during extreme weather events. Dartmoor (National Park) is a large upland area, which historically was dominated by oak woodland. Oak woodland now covers a very small area. The region is now dominated by blanket bog, heathland and acid grassland. The number of grazing animals (sheep, cattle and ponies - deer) increased significantly between the 1950s and 2000, resulting in soil compaction. Researchers at the University of Plymouth have investigated areas of upland pasture on Dartmoor, and the potential for the establishment of native oak saplings. Working with test sites, they were able to show that significant improvements in soil properties could be observed with 15 years of sapling establishment. The most effective location (in terms of flood prevention) for sapling / tree planting was on steep hillside on the edge of upland areas. Their initial work on the planting of woodland has since been expanded to determine the factors that affect the establishment of the tree (oak) saplings. Their most recent paper notes that the presence of livestock meant that fewer oak saplings survived and those that did were smaller. However, the effects of cattle and ponies was not always negative in that their trampling could reduce the growth of bracken - allowing more light to reach young tree saplings. [caption id="attachment_34391" align="aligncenter" width="650"] A southern upload moorland - Exmoor[/caption] The research team formulated a number of recommendations relating to the creation / establishment of woodlands in such upland pastures. Livestock should be excluded in areas where there are seedlings and young saplings (1 - 3 years). This exclusion should last for some 12 years. Larger oak (4 - 7 yrs) saplings can be planted into areas of dense vegetation, as this protects the saplings from livestock. Livestock could be allowed to graze in the vicinity of mature oak trees as this would reduce dense, competitive vegetation, allowing seedlings to grow / develop. Strategic planting and management should be considered / encouraged for upland slopes where drainage is poor - to allow for soil recovery and development of ecosystem services (flood mitigation). Whilst natural tree colonisation is a low-cost and environmentally sensitive mechanism to promote woodland expansion (working towards government targets on climate mitigation, carbon sequestration etc.), it is likely that the expansion of oak woodland into upland pasture systems will require strategic planting and informed livestock management. [caption id="attachment_37920" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Exmoor Ponies.[/caption] Full details of their paper can be found here : https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2688-8319.12126 (Thanks to Art for images of exmoor and ponies).
The loss of animal species, and the effects on fruit and seed dispersal.
Sadly, the world is losing species, both plant and animal, at a significant rate. Indeed, some claim that we are now experiencing the sixth mass extinction. In contrast to previous extinctions (the Permian extinction is thought to be due to an asteroid impact), the present loss of species is largely associated with a mix of direct and indirect human activities. These include :- destruction and fragmentation of habitats, Exploitation fishing stocks and hunting (think dodo), chemical pollution, invasive / introduced species, and human-caused global warming The loss of animal species has knock-on effects in terms of food chains and biodiversity. Plants are also affected as many rely on animals for the dispersal of their fruits and seeds. In times of global warming, it is essential that plants can reach new areas that are suitable for their growth. If not, they are stuck in areas where they may not be able to survive in the changed / changing conditions. This could mean that plant species are lost, together with the ‘ecosystem services’ that they provide (be it food, timber, carbon storage, flood mitigation etc). Seed dispersal is also important in terms of recovery from ecological disasters, like wildfires. Natural forest regrowth usually happens through seed dispersal. If an ecosystem is rich in species, it is generally more resilient to environmental change. The relationship between fruit / seed dispersal and animals has been significantly affected by the creation of roads, motorways, farms, and the development of cities - essentially habitat fragmentation. Animal dispersal is often associated with fleshy fruits. Whilst this is particularly true / obvious for many tropical fruits, it is also the case for many plants in temperate regions. Berries, hips and haws are dispersed by animal means, with birds being particularly important agents. Several pines produce large seeds and attract corvids such as nutcrackers and jays. The birds, sometimes called scatter hoarders, collect seeds and bury them in areas away from the parent trees but in habitats suitable for the next generation of trees Mammals also play significant roles. In Africa, elephants are important seed dispersers for numerous species; they have an extra-ordinary sense of smell and will search out ripe, fleshy fruits. Some seeds have been shown to be distributed 60+ kilometres from a parent plant. Not only this, but the journey through the gut of the elephant seemingly increases the chance of germination, and being deposited in the dung reduces the chance of the seed being eaten by beetles. Some monkeys in South and Central America eat as many as fifty different types of fruit in a day. carrying some off in their stomachs and dropping others to the ground. In Britain, as part of their diet, foxes will eat various wild fruits, like blackberries; squirrels eat nuts; and mice / voles eat grass and other seeds. Even invertebrates, like ants, disperse seeds. This may be through the activity of harvester ants, which, like squirrels and other ‘gatherers’, forage the ground of the wood or forest (collectively) gathering large quantities of seeds and then transport them back to their nests / colonies. As they transport the seeds, some get dropped or lost on the way. Others may be ‘cached’ in or near the nest for later consumption but then are ‘forgotten’ or ignored. Some fruits contain seeds covered with a sticky substance as is the case of Mistletoe. When birds feed on the fruits, the seeds often stick to the beaks of birds. Then, they may wipe the sticky seed off on a branch; or it may be eaten and pass out in the bird’s droppings. The ‘glue’ (viscin) around the seed helps fasten the seed in place. Even humans carry seeds far away for plants, for example, by taking an apple on a picnic and throwing the core with its seeds into the bushes. Or seeds may transported in the mud sticking to boots and shoes, or indeed on tractors, cars or other machinery. The loss / extinction of animal species from any given habitat will sooner or later effect the plants. We are only beginning to fully appreciate the interdependence of life. The loss of any species - plant or animal - will undoubtedly have unintended and unforeseen consequences which can only be to the detriment of all life on earth.
February’s Fungi Focus : Mycophilia and Recording the Fungal Diversity of the United Kingdom
Fungi seem to be enjoying something of a field day in the popular media at the moment. The 2020 documentary Fantastic Fungi, for all its faults, has fanned the flames of fascination in its subject since its appearance on Netflix last year. Startling stop-motion sequence of mushroom growth also made it into several episodes of Sir David Attenborough’s recent BBC series The Green Planet to highlight the centrality of plant-fungi symbiosis to our living ecosystems. This aspect has been thoroughly detailed in the field of popular science writing, with the highly-recommended Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds & Shape Our Futures seeing the emergence of its author, Merlin Sheldrake, as the thinking man’s Paul Stamets when it comes to discussions of the Fifth Kingdom. There’s been a 3-part series, Fungi: The New Frontier, broadcast on Radio 4 in January, and a volley of no less than three articles appeared in The Guardian in November 2021: ‘The earth’s secret miracle worker is not a plant or an animal: it’s fungi’ by Giuliana Furci; ‘A powerful and underappreciated ally in the climate crisis? Fungi’ by Toby Kiers and the aforementioned Merlin Sheldrake; and the announcement of an exciting new project in the report ‘World’s vast networks of underground fungi to be mapped for first time’. [caption id="attachment_36822" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Ectomycorrhizal species like this eye-catching Fly Agaric perform a vital ecological role in our woodland eco-systems.’[/caption] Rather than a focus on a specific species this month, I wanted to offer a few thoughts, observations and suggestions about the hows, whys, and wherefores of learning more about the world of mushrooms and toadstools. As these examples demonstrate, the importance of fungi and both preserving and mapping its diversity is rapidly becoming a discussion point in the mainstream media, and as in other areas of nature recording such as butterflying surveying and birdwatching, the Citizen Scientist can play an important role in this. Reporting ones finds on wildlife observation websites such as iRecord or iNaturalist can provide invaluable information that can highlight how common a species is, both regionally or nationally, its favoured habitat, and how this might be affected by factors such as changing land use and climatic conditions. For example, I have covered a number of species in these blogs, such as the Crimped Gill or, more ominously, the Hymenoscyphus fraxineus fungi behind Ash Dieback, that were barely reported a decade ago but are now commonplace. [caption id="attachment_36823" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Crimped Gills have become increasingly prevalent across the British Isles over the past ten years, but are still considered “rare” on the recording website iRecord.’[/caption] There is a major obstacle in all this though, namely that the domain of common knowledge about fungi is tiny compared with other areas of the natural world. Records with accompanying photographs submitted to these wildlife observation websites of birds, insects, molluscs or mammals are often quickly verified by those entrusted to do such things. Fungi recordings can go for many years without confirmation due to the lack of knowledgeable experts capable of undertaking such a task and a consequently mounting backlog of unverified recordings. [caption id="attachment_36824" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Tiny mushrooms such as this Bark Bonnet (Phloeomana speirea) can be throughout our woodlands all year round, but it often takes incredibly close inspection to confirm your identification.[/caption] Of equal, if not of more concern is the danger of the amateur nature spotter misidentifying and mis-recording their finds. It is better not to submit a record at all than an incorrect one, but as these posts have probably shown, identification is often a tricky business. A number of smartphone apps have arguably compounded the situation. Many fungi require close, even microscopic, examination to identify properly, something an app is never going to be able to do. Most only list the most common species, and no matter how powerful the algorithms powering them, they can often be miles off the mark. None, for example, would be able to distinguish from a photograph alone the difference between a Velvet Shank (Flammulina velutipes), and the other two Flammulina species that have been reported in the UK, Flammulina elastica and Flammulina fennae, nor the common Sulphur Tuft (Hypholoma fasciculare) with the Conifer Tuft (Hypholoma capnoides) or the Brick Tuft (Hypholoma lateritium). You would be on a hiding to nothing attempting to identify one of the numerous crusts of tiny disc fungi using such tools. [caption id="attachment_36825" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘A mushroom identification app will tell you this is a Velvet Shank, but only a microscope and a look at the host tree will tell you if it is Flammulina velutipes, Flammulina elastica or Flammulina fennae.’[/caption] Ready-fix solutions like phone apps have the drawback that they discourage people to put in the legwork of poring through identification guides, such as my 'go to bibles', Thomas Laessoe and Jens H. Petersen’s two-volume Fungi of Temperate Europe or Geoffrey Kibby’s 3-volume (with a fourth one pending) equally impressive Mushrooms & Toadstools of Britain & Europe, and of handling, smelling and generally scrutinising your specimens to really get to know your mushrooms. Accumulating a library of books such as these can be an expensive business, but if you’re serious about getting into the subject, then the investment soon pays off (at least in terms of personal satisfaction rather than financial reward; mycology is alas a woefully underfunded area at the moment). If you are just getting started, there are also websites such as First Nature, and numerous Facebook groups with people willing to help out with your identifications. That is not to say I personally eschew computer-based solutions completely. The ‘Atlas of Danish Fungi’ website, affiliated with Laessoe and Peterson’s publication, has probably the best ‘Name Suggestions’ from a photograph feature I have come across. I have found it very useful when it comes up with a handful of candidate species to check against more thoroughly in the printed guides. [caption id="attachment_36826" align="aligncenter" width="650"] ‘Sulphur Tufts may be one of the most commonly found woodland fungi, but how many records have failed to distinguish it from Conifer Tufts or Brick Tufts?[/caption] What the recent flurry of media interest in fungi highlights, perhaps, is the huge disconnect between the scientific knowledge base and research, and the hive or folk knowledge exhibited by field recorders, many of whom have been at it for decades. In fact, so steep is the learning curve, getting newcomers interested in mycology and overcoming the mythologising and misinformation surrounding the subject is a real challenge. If your curiosity has been piqued and you wish to explore the subject further, firstly I would advise joining the British Mycological Society, and more specifically, contacting your local BMS affiliated Local Fungus Recording Groups, a full list of which can be found here. As the BMS themselves explain, “They are run on a voluntary basis by enthusiasts seeking to share their knowledge of wild fungi and improve your identification skills. Groups offer a welcoming environment for current and new members to enjoy exploring the world of fungi.” Joining up to your local group offers the chance to learn quickly what’s what in this fascinating field, as well as providing a nice social day out, and a chance to make your own contribution to a subject that is in much need of further exploration. [caption id="attachment_36827" align="aligncenter" width="650"] Never underestimate the power of smell - Angel's Bonnets (Mycena arcangeliana) have a distinct whiff of iodine about them.’[/caption]
When we first had our wood, we didn’t worry about a toilet. “Go behind a tree” we told visitors. And the campers went off into the woods “prospecting” with a trusty spade. No problem. But the years went by and we started to have visits from little girls, and older ladies, and we realised we were in trouble. So we dug a hole. And over it we placed a large strong box, upside down, with a round hole in the top. And over the hole we fixed a toilet seat. On a post at the side, we hung a toilet roll. Simple, really. The rhododendron bushes were pretty thick just there, but for added privacy we erected a screen of dark cloth from the market, supported by poles. And since that day, I have been collecting ideas from other woodland owners on the best way to do it: to be hygienic, civilised, and environmentally friendly. The best advice I had was to buy from the Centre for Alternative Technology a wonderful book called “Sanitation without Water” by Uno Winblad and Wen Kilama. Tens of millions of people, to this very day, are surviving and flourishing, day in, day out, without toilets as we know them. And although none of us woodland owners expects to be in this sort of situation, the book has some very useful tips. “People need to choose the latrine that is best for their area and for their traditional culture.” Hence the toilet seat, which transforms the very primitive arrangement of just squatting instantly into something fairly acceptable. Though, as a ten-year-old said to me the other day, “That’s the weirdest toilet I ever saw”. The book recommends sprinkling dry ashes over excrement to prevent flies from getting to it, and this also much reduces the odour. We collect the old ashes before lighting the new fire, keep them dry in a big pot with a water-tight lid, and sprinkle them with a soup ladle. Apparently, the mixing of urine with faeces inhibits the rotting which will naturally render the bacteria harmless. So we now follow the advice of the book, and spread a layer of vegetable waste, or just leaves, in our toilet each time we visit. Of course, the hole gets filled up, and when it is near the top, we cover it with a good layer of earth, and dig another hole. Moving our screen is fairly easy. Other people have told me they use a pail inside their box: one of those straight -sided containers used in wine making. Then they empty it in a hole far from the clearing where they picnic or camp. They actually have walls and a roof on their toilet; when it rains we just hold up an umbrella! Getting closer to the natural scheme of things, another owner showed us her “compost toilet” with logs arranged in walls round the four sides of the hole, and a nice smooth round one to the front for sitting on. She assures us it is very comfortable. Her screen is simply poles, tepee style, clad in branches. A friend who visits frequently is slowly replacing our dreadful curtains with fine traditional hurdles, made from our own hazel. And for a lock, a simple branch on stilts across the track leading to the toilet will suffice - after all no toilet in our own culture is complete without a lock, however notional! This blog was originally published in 2006, but is often searched for - so we have brought it forward. Below is a link to another offering on the subject, from a woodland owner: https://www.themoonandthefurrow.co.uk/blogs/news/building-a-compost-toilet
On buying a woodland
Recently, woodlands.co.uk asked me some questions about ‘buying a woodland’. So here goes : How did you find your woodland? As a local, I found the woodland by walking with my partner and our dog. My partner’s family lived in the village for a number of years. Were there surprises you found in the first few weeks of owning your wood? The biggest surprise for me in the early weeks was the expansiveness of my woodland, every time I would visit I would find something different. This could be a different tree species,a path or a bird. Did you set up a campsite and how did that go? One of my goals was to camp at least once a month, starting with my first month of ownership in January! Camping has given me the opportunity to spend more time in the woods, not just mornings / afternoons and appreciate the peace and quietness. How have you managed the woodland? Management so far has been cutting overstood hazel coupes for regeneration and collecting good firewood for home. Rotten or poor-quality wood has been collected and stacked for wildlife habitats, especially oak! The hazel rods have been for craft activities ,with the brush piles being left for insects. What are your future plans for the woodland? Future plan for the woodland is to introduce different native species of tree. I have around 20 saplings I have potted on at home, that will eventually be moved into the wood. With the regeneration of hazel, the crop I intend to use to create deadwood hedges for protecting young trees from deer. How have various members of the family got involved in the woodland? All of my family have visited the woods and helped in some way. Whether it be firewood, coppicing or bringing food to have with a hot drink! What practical projects have you done or planned for your woodland? How did you do these? My partner and I both enjoy wood craft such as pyrography and woodturning. A lot of oak limbs that have come down during storms have been used to make presents for friends and family, and decorations for our home. What advice would you give to someone buying a small woodland? My best bit of advice would be to wait for the woodland that has what you want. Woodlands come in all shapes and sizes; and getting the right patch can make your experience a lot more enjoyable. In terms of flora, what have you learnt in the woodland? I have learnt that woodlands like mine (broadleaf) provides a home for hundreds of plants, flowers and insects. The humid conditions in oak woodlands provides ideal conditions for rare / hard to find flowers such as orchids and so many types of fungi and lichens. David
Veteran trees and veteranisation.
A thousand years ago, significant areas of the country were devoted to wood pasture, that was grazed by livestock. As time passed, much of this became royal hunting forest - a mixture of woodland, coppice, open land and farms. As the woodlands were managed (through traditional techniques such as coppicing and pollarding), many of the trees were able to grow to maturity. They became veteran trees. Trees such as beech reach maturity after some 200 years, oaks take 400 years and yew 900+. Such veteran trees can be seen in areas like the Savernake (south of Marlborough) and Sherwood Forests. Saverrnake has veterans like the Big Belly Oak, and Sherwood has the Major Oak. Sadly, since the nineteenth century many veteran trees and ancient woodlands have been lost due to the expansion of agriculture, housing development and road & rail creation. Veterans have also been lost from hedgerows, many of which were grubbed out to enlarge fields to allow for increasing mechanisation. As oaks and beeches age so they change, they expand, trunks hollow, cracks and holes appear, heart rot develops and dead wood appears. Each tree offers a myriad of micro-habitats. Bracket fungi feed on the dead heart wood, as do stag beetle larvae. Mosses and lichens live on the bark, attached to crevices that channel the rain down the trunk, bats, woodpeckers and nuthatches inhabit holes. Other birds (like redstarts) nest in the branches and twigs. The decaying leaf litter beneath the tree offers sustenance to a variety of beetles, and fungi (e.g. oakbug milkcap). English oaks are associated with more than two thousand species, and more than two hundred are directly dependent on the trees. The loss of so many veteran trees has resulted in an international project to determine if these trees can be ‘replaced’. It involves a technique termed veteranisation. Younger trees are damaged in order to start the process of decay and ‘ageing’. The process may include Creating woodpecker-like holes Creating nest boxes for birds / bats Breaking branches Damaging the bark / trunk - to simulate deer / animal damage Inoculation with fungi It is being trialed at some 20 different sites in Norway, Sweden and England. The project started in 2012 and will run for some 25 years. It is hoped that such ‘techniques’ could be used to accelerate the formation of veteran trees status with its associated biodiversity. Thanks to Angus for tree jpgs. For further information : https://naturebftb.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2021/09/Introduction-to-Ancients-of-the-Future-Jamie-Robins.pdf https://www.gov.uk/countryside-stewardship-grants/creation-of-dead-wood-habitat-on-trees-te13 https://www.woodlandtrust.org.uk/media/1798/wood-wise-ancient-trees.pdf (opens PDF)