Woodlands.co.uk https://www.woodlands.co.uk Woodland for Sale in the UK Fri, 10 Jul 2020 10:27:28 +0000 en-GB hourly 1 152210020 More on birds from Woodcock Wood : The Long-tailed Tit – a very sociable bird   https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/more-on-birds-from-woodcock-wood-the-long-tailed-tit-a-very-sociable-bird/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/more-on-birds-from-woodcock-wood-the-long-tailed-tit-a-very-sociable-bird/#respond Thu, 09 Jul 2020 23:43:15 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33661

The Long-tailed Tit is a relatively common bird. In 2020 they made it into the top ten of the RSPB's annual garden bird watch, though they are more a bird of woodlands than gardens.    Outside of the breeding season they spend their time in small family groups of about 10 birds. Female young tend to move away to join other groups. The groups are territorial and maintain extensive territories, often 20 to 30 acres or more.   The groups form tight winter roosts – sometimes in tight rows along a branch, or in small huddles, with the more dominant birds in the centre. These huddles help to maintain their body temperatures, and are critical for such small birds during cold spells.

The recent mild winters have contributed significantly to their winter survival rate and probably account for why they are now high on the garden watch bird count.   Over the last three years we have occasionally seen them in Woodcock Wood. They are unmistakable - small and round with long tails moving energetically from tree to tree in search of insects and larvae, which form the main part of their diet throughout the year. They aren't easy to photograph because they seem to be constantly on the move, searching one tree and off to the next.

In March of this year it was great to spot a pair building a nest, albeit about 20 metres up in the crook of an oak bough. They may have been a long way up, but at least they were focussed on one place.   They choose from a wide variety of site locations. They regularly nest high up in oak and ash in the fork of large boughs, like ours. The nests will be camouflaged with lichen to match the growth on the tree bark. They occasionally choose conifers, or they will choose to nest low to the ground, in blackthorn or deep in brambles. Also, if a pair need to build more than one nest in a season, because of first nest failure, they don't necessarily choose the same type of site.

The day we were at the wood watching them build, they had completed the main structure of the nest, and were at the stage of lining it with feathers. The pair would both disappear into the wood, and in a short time return with a large feather or two. One would enter with a feather, and the other pass its feather to the bird in the nest. They did this time and again over the course of the day.


Their nests are beautiful creations and totally fit for purpose. Constructed of moss, lined with hundreds of feathers, and bound on the outside with spiders web to provide huge strength and elasticity.  There can be more than 2,000 feathers in a single nest, and the insulation value is enormous - a very high tog rating!


We visited the wood about a week later. The nest was intact, and although we watched it frequently over the course of the day, we saw no activity at the nest. By the end of the day we assumed it has been abandoned. Whether or not this was the case we won't know, but on our next visit the nest was hanging forlornly from the tree - a sad end to a beautiful creation.   If the nest fails, which they frequently do, individual birds may nest again. If not, one of the birds, usually the male, may end up assisting in the rearing of young of a pair that are closely related to the helper. 

This is an extract of a longer article on our own birding website: www.woodcockwood.com. 

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Meeting the ‘queen bee’ of British Bumblebees https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/meeting-the-queen-bee-of-british-bumblebees/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/meeting-the-queen-bee-of-british-bumblebees/#respond Wed, 08 Jul 2020 23:30:21 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33543

Gill Perkins is one of those people you can't help liking - there's a smile in her voice when she speaks and we found her to be generous with her time and knowledge.  She arrived early for our woodland meeting and had come equipped - a small plastic tube with a plunger (costing about £5) allows her to catch bumblebees as they graze on flowers and she can trap them for long enough to tell us that "this one's a queen of the buff-tailed type and you can see she's very freshly minted as her wings are so undamaged ... a lovely specimen ...".    She releases the bee and it seems quite unphased as it quickly goes back to collecting nectar. Gill loves to get out into the woods and see the bees first-hand - most of the rest of the time she's in her office with the 40 or so staff employed by the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, and despite being the Trust's CEO she's often teaching groups about bumblebees and working with various sponsors including a big housebuilder and a big London law firm.

"All the work is done by the females," she explains neutrally. "The males spend their time getting drunk, sleeping and having sex. Though they do fly some distance away to do the sex because it's better for them to mate with queens from other colonies in order to mix up the gene pool.  There are 24 species of bumblebee in the UK though some of them are recent arrivals like this Bombus hypnorum which came over from France about 12 years ago."  Gill puts British bumblebees in context by explaining that there are three big categories of bee - the honey bee, the bumblebee and the solitary bees.  Of these, the biggest group is the solitary bees where there are about 200 species, but it's the bumblebee that Gill champions.

What she wants the Bumblebee Conservation Trust to do is encourage people to improve living conditions for bumblebees - less insecticide, more diversity and wider woodland tracks.  Seeing a clump of foxgloves, Gill rushes off to check it and on one of the flowers she finds a white-tailed worker bee - female, of course.  Bees, like all animals, are vulnerable to predators.  In gardens they are often attacked by blue tits who, according to Gill, will "peck off their bottoms and suck out the nectar, leaving them alive but immobile.  It's a cruel world."

Bumblebees are great pollinators, offering what people sometimes call "ecoservices".   They don't just fly around woodlands but are out there helping the farmers by pollinating tomatoes, peas and apples.  Bumblebees also increase yields in crops like oilseed rape and Gill reckons they contribute over £400 million each year to the UK economy.  The only way to stop further extinctions of bumblebee species is sympathetic land management, the trust argues.  Encouragingly they also say that even small improvements such as providing small patches of flower-rich habitat around the edge of your land can make a big difference.

Anyway, Gill's visit left us knowing much more and buzzing with ideas about how to make our woodland more bee-friendly.  In an email after the visit she checked that we'd joined as members - we have!

Click on video to play.


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LiDAR – amazing technology for tracing the history of a woodland https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/lidar-amazing-technology-for-tracing-the-history-of-a-woodland/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/lidar-amazing-technology-for-tracing-the-history-of-a-woodland/#comments Fri, 03 Jul 2020 16:12:23 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33536

Over the last 20 years there has been a revolution in understanding the history of our woodlands.  That's because a technology known as LiDar (Light Detection and Ranging) allows planes to map the forest floor to an accuracy of 4-6 inches (100 to 150mm) which means that earthbanks and holes of any significant size can be mapped accurately.  An aeroplane flies over the woodland with very precise plotting of its height and position and it bounces laser beams off the forest floor to collect enormous quantities of high-precision data.  The cleverness of the technology is that even though a beam is bounced off the ground the signals from trees and leaves can be filtered out: so it maps a detailed picture of the ground surface totally naked. This is far more useful for archaeology in woodlands and forests than aerial photos can ever be, even in winter and allows an overview of the forest floor that was not previously possible.

Principles of airborne LiDAR (Holden, et al. 2002).

Features generating a LiDAR pulse reflection return (full waveform LiDAR) (Doneus et al. 2008).

In one recent study on some land in Hampshire, owned by woodlands.co.uk, a researcher, Andrew Bowler, identified all of the following: bronze age tumuli, world War II trenches, bomb craters, ancient field boundaries, saw pits, wood-banks and the hidden traces of old trackways.  Andrew had been inspired by seeing how LiDAR has been used in Belize, South America, to detect ancient Mayan temples beneath the rainforest canopy.  He says, "LiDar data has provided a picture of how the local landscape has evolved over several millennia."

LiDAR data and aerial photograph for identical area of woodlands in East Hampshire

LiDAR images allow you to build up a chronology of changes to the woodland floor and make deductions about what happened and when.  For example this Hampshire woodland was used as a military base with new tracks crossing it,  but using LiDAR you can deduce the order in which tracks and trenches and earthbanks were dug.

Internal woodland boundary bank/ ditch, commonly constructed after the sub-division of woodland following a change of ownership.

Image generated from LiDAR data highlighting tumuli (indicated by arrows) in Hampshire woodland- possibly of Bronze Age origin.

Some of the medieval earthbanks are shallower and this may be because the passage of time has seen them erode - but clear traces remain and the field system is detectable, including lynchets.  These were man-made banks to increase agricultural output.  Actually they were probably as much woman-made as man-made from what researchers have deduced about how bronze age communities operated.  Using the LiDAR results in combination with more traditional woodland archaeology researcher Andrew Bowler showed that after the Bronze age settlements (about 2,000 BCE), with their notable funerary monuments, there was development of small field systems during the Iron age (about 800 BCE) and probably extending into the Roman period (100 BCE);  the land returned to woodland use during Anglo Saxon times.  Some of the woodland was cleared about 400 years ago leaving the landscape much as we see it today.

The LiDAR work also reveals how woodland boundaries were created, with a ditch being dug and the soil usually deposited on the side of the person digging, so that the boundary is often the ditch rather than the bank.  In a woodland with chalky and flinty soil, like the one being surveyed in Hampshire, there are few ponds because rainwater drains straight into the chalk.  This means that there is relatively little erosion so features remain for many hundreds of years.  The general principle is that any changes that were made over the years were done for a good reason because hand digging was hard work and so you wouldn't dig unless it was absolutely necessary.  But that logic still leaves us wondering "why?" about certain lines and holes in the surface and often we just have our best guess.  Maybe more new technologies will help fill in the gaps.  Have you seen features of the woodland floor where you've wondered why they were dug or how and when they were created

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July’s Fungi Focus: Death Caps, False Death Caps and other amanitas https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/julys-fungi-focus-death-caps-false-death-caps-and-other-amanitas/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/julys-fungi-focus-death-caps-false-death-caps-and-other-amanitas/#respond Wed, 01 Jul 2020 07:24:41 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33573

We are just easing into that time of year when the mushroom hunting season looks about set to kick off in earnest. No longer is the more fervent fungi fanatic forced into gazing obsessively into the undergrowth in search of tiny black dots on dried stalks and twigs and left to wonder which of literally thousands of potential candidates they might have found - you’ll have to wait until next year for that post, I’m afraid. No, now is the time when we can prepare to lay aside the camera’s macro lens and focus on the more readily identifiable and photogenic cap-and-stem-and-gills varieties we know as agarics.

May and June this year have been a bumper season for big brackets like Dryad’s Saddles and Chicken of the Woods all across the country, by all accounts. Though it might not seem it, it is actually a relatively short seasonal hop from late-Spring to early Autumn, when things really take off, once the weather begins to feel a bit more humid. During July we might already expect to see an advance guard of mushrooms appearing in the wetter parts of the country. Inkcaps and Marasmius species like the Fairy Ring Champignon could well be surfacing now or sometime very soon, weather permitting. 

Other early fruiters less reliant on heavy rains are the various mycorrhizal varieties that form symbiotic relationships with trees, their mycelium growing around the roots and downwards into the deeper parts of the ground, accessing whatever moisture and nutrients they can’t get from the soil itself with the help of their tree host partners: the boletes, the colourful brittlegills (or russulas and the amanitas ).

The arrival of these more conventional-looking types inevitably raises issues of edibility. Just like the perennial question that crops up on various online forums for identifying plants, “Is this a flower or a weed?”, similar requests for mushrooms always seem to be qualified with the question “Can I eat it?” Just as the adage “A weed is just a plant in the wrong place” provides a good general rebuttal in a botanical or horticultural context, so too we have a mycological equivalent: “All Fungi are edible. Some fungi are only edible once.”

It doesn’t seem so long ago that people would have been very circumspect indeed about putting anything that they hadn’t bought or grown themselves into their mouths, before the likes of Ray Mears, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall and Bear Grylls brought the idea of foraging to a mass audience freshly aware of their disconnection from the natural world and their hunter gatherer roots. If I seem slightly disparaging about the new fad for food for free with regards to mushroom gastronomy, it is because we should always remember the distinct dangers to getting this sort of thing wrong. One can imagine the best-selling author Nicholas Evans might have announced “Trust me, I’m the Horse Whisperer!” some 12 years ago when he served up a dish of the Cortinarius rubellus that he’d picked on a woodland wander, hospitalising his wife and the brother-in-law he was visiting in Scotland and winding up on a dialysis machine himself. A quick look at an identification guide would have revealed at least one fundamental difference between the ‘ceps’ he thought he’d found and the Deadly Webcaps that he and his family actually consumed, which is that the latter are gilled and the former have pores on their undersides.

It would be unfair to single out Evans for his unfortunate oversight, because there have been others who have not lived to make the same slip twice, some of whom you would have thought would have known better. It was the German mycologist Julius Schäffer who first alerted the world in 1944 to the toxicity of the Brown Rollrim (Paxillus involutus), a mushroom that had traditionally been believed to be edible.

The Brown Rollrim, once believed edible, certainly not any more.

It turns out that its toxic effects were cumulative – that is, the more you eat and the longer the period of time over which they are consumed, the more likely you are to suffer adversely from their effects, like a game of Russian Roulette. Schäffer might well have eaten a lot of Brown Rollrims over his life, but in the end, it was a Brown Rollrim that saw the end of Schäffer’s life and mycological career. Mushroom guides have consequently been updated with regards to the edibility of this particular species.

The problem is exacerbated in the hive-knowledge era of social media. Every time someone posts a picture on a foraging forum or specialist Facebook group about their finds, there seems to be no shortage of would-be experts weighing in with often incorrect identifications and assessments of culinary suitability. Would you eat something that may possibly be fatal because a stranger on the internet told you it was ok? Newspaper articles drawing attention to the deadliest of the deadly types, such as this piece in the Telegraph from last year, also have a disturbing tendency to mislabel the actual mushrooms depicted in their accompanying photos.

Expertise is indeed in incredibly short supply in general when we talk about fungi, and hence I feel increasingly drawn to not discussing the issue of edibility in these posts. Another reason is that despite what some might argue, it is also not entirely clearly what effect picking a mushroom’s fruitbody has on spore dispersal and the overall health of the organism.

Honey fungus.

Those who claim gathering mushrooms does no harm often point towards the famous example of the massive colony of Honey Fungus that was discovered just over a decade ago and whose mycelium stretched throughout 2,384 acres (965 hectares) of soil in Oregon’s Blue Mountains]. This is clearly an exceptional case however, with others probably nowhere near so expansive. Obviously a tiny mycena growing on a twig does not have such a substantial mycelial network underpinning it. It is equally clear that in the United Kingdom, areas of unsullied ancient woodland of similar sizes as can be found in North America, Eastern Europe, or even much closer to home across the channel, just don’t exist. We might have enough habitat to support a degree of fungal diversity in our few wild spaces left, but not if we have too many otherwise well-meaning nature-lovers descending to strip them bare of ceps and chanterelles and whatever else the guides deem edible. Just as it is now clear that our oceans aren’t bottomless food resources, we should be aware that our woodlands most likely aren’t either.

I’ve seen comments by Michael Jordan, the founder and chairman of the Association of British Fungal Groups (ABFG), that liken fungi foraging to picking wild flowers: for every common poppy or daffodil you pick, you might be destroying a unique wild orchid that only occurs in a certain habitat. There was a time too when we had a seemingly infinite array of butterflies flitting around our once abundant wildflower meadows, or when even collecting birds eggs was at one point considered an acceptable pastime. 

Nicholas Money has a whole chapter in his highly-readable Mushroom (2011) entitled ‘Satan’s Gourmand: Harvesting Wild Mushrooms’, which assesses the pros and cons of foraging in some detail. I personally would hate to come across as one of those persona-non-gratis of ‘pick-shamers’ within nature-loving circles: I certainly eat some of what I find, and I also take samples home for research and identification purposes. But I think Money is on the money when he writes of “well-meaning aficionados [who] seem to revel in posing with huge mushrooms for their friends and for the camera, even the inedible ones” and of a mushrooming magazine that “is open next to me, featuring a photograph of a middle-aged woman proffering an enormous bolete that she has loosened from the ground. The cap is as big as her head. She is grinning as if she won the lottery and evincing an almost unsustainable joy. Why did she detach this beautiful fruit body from its colony and its moisture source? Mushrooms are never going to attract the same kind of reverence as polar bears and other charismatic megafauna – I’m resigned to this – but such beautifully constructed things merit more than the ignominy of festering into slime in a trash can.”

So, to eat or not to eat? This is a dilemma I’ll leave the reader to ponder now I’ve presented my thoughts on the subject. However, I use it to introduce a category of fungi that I would advise anyone not to contemplate for the pan. These are the amanitas, characterised by the poster child for the genus, the Fly Agaric, with its vibrant red cap and white spots familiar from fairy-tale illustrations and 1990s video console games. 

Fly Agaric (Amanita muscaria).

The amanitas include some of the most deadly species out there: the Destroying Angel, the Death Cap and the Panther Cap. Not all signal their toxicity by their cap colour. The Destroying Angel (Amanita virosa) is a fairly nondescript white, for example (incidentally, this common name is used in America to describe a number of species, but in the UK it is only applied to A. virosa). And as with the russulas, and indeed many other types, we shouldn't assume that the bite or nibble marks left by other creatures means they are edible to humans, who possess very different metabolisms from bugs, slugs and squirrels. The amatoxins in Amanita virosa can lay you up in hospital for some time and leave you with permanent liver damage, assuming you survive in the first place.

Fortunately, Destroying Angels don’t appear to be so common across the UK. As Pat O’Reilly describes on the First Nature entry, they are “more plentiful in mountainous areas in Britain and Ireland. It is not uncommon in low lying areas in northern Scotland and is a very common find in Scandinavian conifer forests (of which there are many!)”. I have personally never found one myself, but the immediate impression I always get when looking at photos of them is their elegantly tall and slender form and an almost overpowering pristine porcelain whiteness.

White or just off-white gills and flesh characterise the amanitas. Peel the red skin off the cap of the Fly Agaric for example, and it’s all white beneath. Although not all amanitas are toxic, and although not all fungi with white gills are amanitas, the white gills alone should be enough of a red flag to tell you that a mushroom is potentially lethal. Amanita gills are also either free of the stem or adnexed – that is, they don’t run up to or connect with the stipe. Spore prints show “whitish or somewhat greenish spore-deposits” according to Laessoe and Peterson’s  Fungi of Temperate Europe, although my own basic research shows that under the microscope the shapes and sizes for different Amanita species aren’t particularly distinctive.

For other distinguishing hallmarks, let us turn our focus to the Death Cap (Amanita phalloides), with the sickly greenish tinge to its yellowish cap hinting that it is probably something you wouldn’t want to put anywhere near your mouth.

Death Cap (Amanita phalloides).

It is a lot more common in the UK, although apparently this species that, according to this article in The Atlantic, “accounts for more than 90 percent of mushroom-related poisonings and fatalities worldwide”, is only a fairly recent arrival in North America, transported on the roots of imported trees from Europe.

One of the most distinctive features the Death Cap shares with Fly Agarics and Destroying Angels is a very pronounced hanging ring around the stipe, remnants of the so-called ‘partial veil’ (or inner veil) that originally stretched between the cap margins and stalk covering the gills as the fruit body was growing.

The iconic Fly Agaric, whose ring around the stalk just below the cap is evidence of its partial veil and the white dot-like patches on the cap surface remnants of the universal veil.

The stems are also what we might term as floccose, with a slightly flakey appearance, rather than smooth.

A young Death Cap showing the floccose stem and the volva it has emerged from, although the partial veil is not evident in in this photo.

Not all amanitas have these rings, but they usually bear traces of the universal veil, sometimes called the outer veil or velum, which is the membranous covering the envelops a developing fruit body, making an immature amanita appear like a tiny white egg or sphere, a reason to be very wary when it comes to picking what might otherwise look like small puffballs in woodland environments – they might well be nascent Death Caps or suchlike.

The universal veil still covering much of the cap of this young fruitbody of a False Deathcap.

So this universal veil is white, but when the mature mushroom bursts through it and opens up like an umbrella, traces of it remain in the form of the volva, a large bulbous structure at the basis from which the stem emerges, and in the tatty remnants on whatever colour cap the mushroom has. The white dots on the red cap of a Fly Agaric and other species are, in fact, tiny patches of the velum.

You’ll not see such conspicuous veil remnants on the Death Cap (nor indeed the Destroying Angel, where they would be unnoticeable because they are more or less the same colour anyway). Death Cap typically possess a smooth and spotless olive-green cap. Not so for Amanita citrina, whose common name of the False Death Cap seems slightly inappropriate to my mind, because the veil remnants which radiate out from the centre of the cap make it pretty distinguishable from its deadly namesake, as does the more lemony yellow colour.

The False Deathcap (Amanita citrina) showing the remnants of the universal veil on the cap that distinguish it from the Death Cap.

Those with keen nostrils might also be able to make out the smell or raw potato that most guidebooks draw attention to as a distinguishing feature of this type. In any measure, this is another to keep well away from if you are looking at potential omelette fillers.

And that just leaves one further species for this month’s post, which is the Solitary Amanita (Amanita solitaria), so called because they tend to like growing singly, although this isn’t always the case.

The Solitary Amanita, confident in its own company, whether the velar remnants on the cap surface almost appear to form spines.

They have an alternate Latin binomial name of Amanita echinocephala, the latter part meaning ‘spiny head’, and the veil remnants on their caps are indeed a slightly pyramidal shape and a lot more pronouncedly spiny than the others I have mentioned.

A Solitary Amanita that some woodland critter has been nibbling on, although this doesnt make it fit for human consumption.

Otherwise the cap is a smooth white or cream-ish colour that might overlap with that of the False Death Cap, but the stems are fatter and the fruitbody in general seems a lot chunkier. 

The Solitary Amanita, as Pat O’ Reilly describes, is “very rare in Britain and Ireland” and “mainly restricted to alkaline soils typical of the beechwoods of southern England”, just as the Destroying Angel is more common in the higher grounds of Scotland.

Nevertheless, its favouring of chalky, calcareous soils make it locally quite abundant in some regions, which explains why I, living in the Southeast, seem to have come across it relatively frequently in such places as a small copse less than a mile away from the cliff’s edge just outside of Dover, and in a wooded valley in the South Downs near Chichester.

We should also mention that there is another species called the Warted Amanita (Amanita strobiliformis) that is larger and chunkier, but otherwise looks pretty similar. Regardless of the toxicity or edibility of any of these individual species, the point remains that there is so much scope for confusion between the amanitas that you are better off avoiding all of them at all if you want to see out the end of the mushroom season.

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Springtime at Beauchamp Woods https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/springtime-at-beauchamp-woods/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/springtime-at-beauchamp-woods/#comments Mon, 29 Jun 2020 08:30:09 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33531

My parents and I have recently purchased a piece of woodland of about 3 acres, in Devon, called Beauchamp woods. It is a mixture of semi-natural ancient woodland, larch plantation and a clear-felled area. This is the perfect mixture for us. We wanted to give something back to nature by preserving a small piece of habitat for wildlife, whilst enjoying spending time in our woods. We are loving it and find it very rewarding.

I have some knowledge of woodland management and conservation through my education and work and it is great to have the opportunity to put this into practice. My main aim is to maximise biodiversity, I want it to be the best habitat for as many species as possible. To find this out we need an idea of what is already living in our woods, so we have started to do a bit of informal survey work – simply noting down a list of species. This is great fun as it largely involves just looking closely and taking lots of photos (so we can go home and look things up).


One of the most beautiful times at Beauchamp woods is definitely the Spring. The woods burst into life, as all the trees come into leaf, bluebells emerge creating a blue carpet across large parts of the woods, and the bird song is wonderful. Unfortunately, our wood is not on our doorstep and we were unable to see this transformation in person due to the lockdown.

We were lucky enough to have left a trail camera up at the woods just before the lockdown and the batteries held out! Below are two of our first images from the trail camera - hope to offer more images as time goes by.


These, combined with some regular visiting squirrels [to a dead wood pile in front of the camera] provided us with a time-lapse of the springtime transformation of our woodland.

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A thorny problem https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/a-thorny-problem/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/a-thorny-problem/#comments Thu, 25 Jun 2020 23:23:16 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33489

When is a thorn a thorn, and not a spine or a prickle?  Generally, these terms are used casually and interchangeably.  Botanically speaking, they are all ‘spinose structures’ that is hard, rigid extensions or modifications of leaves, roots, or stems - all of which have sharp, stiff ends. They all have the same role - to deter animals from eating the plant that bears them. Spinescent is a term that describes plants that bear sharp structures that deter herbivory.  Thorns, spines and prickles are mechanical defences as opposed to chemical defences, such as tannins and phenolics, which create an unpleasant taste.

However, there are differences between these ‘structures’.

  • thorns are derived from shoots (they may be branched or not, may or may not have leaves but they do have vascular tissue* within them). The thorns of Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) can bear leaves.

  • spines are derived from leaves (formed from all of the leaf or some part of it and like thorns they have vascular tissue*)
  • prickles are derived from the epidermis (the outer layer of cells of a stem, root or leaf).   Prickles may be found almost anywhere on a plant and they do not have vascular tissue* inside. 

Prickles on a rose

[* Vascular tissue is the xylem and phloem. The xylem distributes water and minerals around the plant, whilst sugars move in the phloem]

The defences on roses are often described as thorns, but, in fact, they are prickles, as they do not have vascular tissue inside them. Young and old prickles can be broken off the stem relatively easily with the fingers (with due care),  As the prickles age, lignin (the chemical that wood is made from) accumulates and the structure hardens.

Wild lemon and lime trees (members of the Genus Citrus) have spines, these protect young plants and indeed the fruits. Professor Vivian Irish (Yale University) has investigated the development of the spines in Citrus.

Spines on a lemon bush

The spines are formed from stem cells.  Plant stem cells have distinctive properties,  

  • the ability to create specialised cell types and 
  • the ability to self-renew  (meristematic) 

However, the stem cells of thorn undergo a “programmed arrest” - they stop dividing.  There are two gene regulators of stem cell activity, referred to as TI1 and TI2.  They gradually switch off stem cell activity in the developing thorn, so that instead of becoming a shoot - it forms a thorn.  Stem cell activity slows and then stops,  resulting in the sharp pointed end of the thorn.  The Yale research team found that if TI1 and TI2 were blocked or silenced, then new branches were formed  but no new thorns.

Sometimes, the epidermis of a plant forms smaller. ‘simpler’ defences called trichomes.  They are outgrowths of epidermal tissue but generally consist of only a few cells and may form a defence against small insects. Some plants have a leaf or stem epidermis that is covered with stiff trichomes, which may sting. 

Trichomes of the stinging nettle

The classic example of this is  the stinging nettle. The stinging nettle trichomes have a swollen base filled with a ‘cocktail of chemicals’, including histamine, serotonin, and formic acid.   When the tip of a trichome is broken, it leaves a sharp point that can penetrate the skin thus delivering the ‘cocktail’ which results in the characteristic rash of a nettle sting.

Other plant defensive structures include ‘teeth’ on the leaf margins and leaf apices.  The classic example of such a leaf is those found on Holly. Prickly, spent leaves of holly would surely deter all but the most hungry of animals ?   The leaves that develop at ground level are wavy, with large triangular ‘teeth’, bearing spines but as the tree grows (holly can reach up to 80 feet),  the leaves become less spiny. Quoting from Trees and Shrubs Hardy in the British Isles by W Bean (a former Curator of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew), “The tops of good sized trees will be found almost wholly furnished with quite entire leaves”. Bean goes on to suggest, “The spines are a means of protection against grazing animals, and are no longer needed when the trees become tall.”

Spinose leaf of Holly

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New tools for old https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/practical-guides/new-tools-for-old/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/practical-guides/new-tools-for-old/#comments Wed, 24 Jun 2020 11:55:23 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33520

About 2 months ago, mid-lockdown, I had a major calamity: my outbuildings burned down (see image below), cause unknown although the fire brigade investigating officer suspected a carelessly discarded cigarette butt (the buildings back on to a road).  Although it was originally a stable block, built by the previous owner of the property, I used it as workshop / equipment store / timber store. Everything went: trailer, wood-chipper, ride-on mowers, chainsaws, brush-cutters ….  Even now, after 5 A4 sides of contents lists for the insurers, I am still remembering other things that were stored there.

After a couple of days wandering aimlessly around the wreckage, looking at a heap of ash and cinders which had previously been a stack of oak boards that had been seasoning for about 3 years, I started ‘tidying up’ – shovelling the ash into heaps and sorting the remains into separate stacks: wood, metal and other / unidentifiable.

Things started to emerge from the debris, battered and a bit stained but still in one piece, among them the metal parts of long-cherished hand-tools: bill hooks, axes, carving knives. It would have been easy just to chuck them on the metals heap and buy new ones, but some of these items were very dear to me; I have been wreaking havoc with my Yorkshire pattern billhook for almost 40 years!

I contacted an acquaintance, Andy Morton of Sallerton Wood. Usually Andy divides his time between building timber-framed structures and running his award-winning green woodworking courses. Because of lockdown, both these activities were on hold, so I asked him if he would have a go at re-handling the tools for me. He agreed and, as an added bonus, he told me that a workshop neighbour of his is a blacksmith who could re-harden the metal and put an edge back on the tools.

Although one of the blades didn’t respond well to the re-tempering process – it shattered – the others came out just fine, meaning that all I need to replace is one push-knife and the whole thing costing me around half of what a new set of tools would have.   So, rather than contributing further to the throwaway society, my dear old tools have been given a new lease of life; a quick splash of linseed oil on the handles and a few turns of fluorescent orange tape around them – so I don’t lose them in the undergrowth – and they’re as good as new.

A scene of devastation


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Aspen update https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/aspen-update/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/aspen-update/#comments Thu, 18 Jun 2020 23:07:20 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33371

Aspens in the United States have been the subject of a number of research studies.  The quaking aspen (Populus  tremuloides) has been used to 

  • study intra-specific variation in a tree species - previous studies have focused on quick growing (herbaceous plants), looking at differences in growth, leaf shape /size, and flowering.
  • the chemistry of the trees’ defences (tannins) 
  • The response to rising carbon dioxide levels - the aspens have grown faster.

To add confusion, there is also a European aspen, Populus tremula,  which is known as the quaking aspen, like its American counterpart.  The ‘quaking’ or trembling of the leaves is due to the nature of the leaf stalk or petiole, which has a flattened shape and is very flexible near to the base of the leaf.  The leaves are round with blunt teeth distributed somewhat irregularly around the leaf margin. The leaves of the European Aspen are more coarsely toothed than the American Aspen.  Young leaves have a copper tint before becoming green and then in autumn they turn a vibrant yellow before falling.  Both American and European quaking Aspen species can spread by suckers that form underground away from the parent tree.  The plants so formed are clones, that is they are genetically identical to the parents (ramets).

This feature means that Aspens are able to quickly colonise an area of open land - e.g. after a fire or clear cutting.  As a result, Aspens are sometimes referred to as foundation species as they can have a significant role in shaping the local habitat.  They need light and water, and for the first two decades of their life are fast growing, but as  the canopy fills out and competition increases so growth slows.  They are intolerant of shade, favouring moist soils and open conditions.  The trees generally have a life span of some two hundred years but the Pando Clone of P. Tremuloides (in Southern Utah) is not only thought to be the heaviest living organism (weighing over 6000 tons) but also is very old with some estimates suggesting 80,000 years!

The wood is white and light but quite strong; it was used for making oars, paddles and wagon bottoms. The trees attract a variety of insects, including the aspen hoverfly which feeds on micro-organisms in dead wood. The hoverfly lays its eggs in the wet, rotting layer of wood beneath the bark (the cambium) of dead and decaying aspen trees .  Here, the larvae feed on the bacteria that break the wood down. A continuous supply of dead wood is essential for the survival of the hoverfly as a species.  If dead trees are removed for firewood or the bark of such trees stripped by deer,  then these hoverflies lose their ‘homes’ and food source.   Deadwood cavities in the trees also provide nesting opportunities for birds, such as the woodpecker. Aspen is a ‘favourite’ building material of beavers.


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Hatherland Woods – Why buy a Woodland? https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/hatherland-woods-why-buy-a-woodland/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/woodland-activities/hatherland-woods-why-buy-a-woodland/#comments Fri, 12 Jun 2020 15:20:24 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33457

I have to confess woodlands have always intrigued me from being a child, be they small, intimate woodlands consisting of a few dozen tree’s or vast forests covering 1000’s of acres. There was always something, something special or magical even. Then you grow up of course and the world takes on a whole new perspective, then ‘magical’ often takes a back seat if it gets a seat at all. 

I did dally with the idea a little when my daughter reached an age where rugged outdoor play was on the agenda but never to the point of pursuing it to make it real, too much else happening in life, just too busy. But then my Mother passed away, her last dying wish was that I ‘feed the wild birds and  look after wild flowers and trees’. It’s at these points in life you are forced to stop and take stock, and here was a sign, surely? 

We viewed a few woodlands but Hatherland spoke to us when we viewed it, I guess it’s one of those things you can’t describe in words, or if you can I don’t have sufficient word craft to do it justice. It was smells, sounds, feelings, it was that old magic struggling to break out and be free again. Hatherland was to be ours, a relatively modest slice of Devon Oak woodland, ancient in its land use if not in its current crop of Oak. 

During our first few visit’s we had such grand plans with what we could and would do, how we would tame the wild and create a paradise.

Capability Brown had nothing on us, this was going to be spectacular! It’s what we do, the human race, we seem addicted to ‘knowing better’. However, as we visited more a subtle spell was cast and the wild tamed us. We began to realise that it was idyllic, mesmerising, mystical and spiritual all at the same time, in short damn near perfect, far surpassing anything we could create, so we did….  nothing. 

We have spent days and nights in this happy place, it devours time like a plug does water. We walk, sit, play, talk, camp, eat, rest, drink and smile, lot’s. My daughter loves to play in the stream, paddling, building dam’s and racing stick rafts whilst we watch from the banks. She learnt to climb a tree, and despite abject terror on the first attempt she was determined to go back, the tree willing her on to that next branch, offering her comfort, giving her support, showing her the world in a different way, sharing her space and her it’s. 

We have an old camper which tucks nicely off the track on the edge of the wood, so not all comforts are sacrificed for those that don’t wish to step back into the iron age, but for those that seek a closer connection a tree tent has proven to be ideal way of suspending yourself within the dream. Owls hoot, the trees sing and the ground litter rustles with life, a symphony of peace. Buying a wood is less about why would you and more about why wouldn’t you? No new car, bigger house, bigger TV has brought so much happiness to my family as this one small wood on a hillside in deepest Devon.


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Biting bees https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/biting-bees-2/ https://www.woodlands.co.uk/blog/flora-and-fauna/biting-bees-2/#respond Fri, 12 Jun 2020 09:57:26 +0000 https://www.woodlands.co.uk/?p=33429

In Spring, or earlier if winter has been mild, queen bumblebees emerge from ‘hibernation’, from their nests.  They then need to feed, having more or less exhausted their bodily reserves during the cold of winter.  Their food comes in the form of nectar and pollen - both of which can be in short supply in early Spring.

Whilst the bumblebees may need food, flowers also have a ‘need’-  pollinating agents - particularly bumblebees.   The inter-dependence of flowering plants and insects probably evolved many millions of years ago, back in the Cretaceous Period.

If bumblebees emerge too early or too late from their nests, then they can miss the flowers on which they depend for food. Equally, the plants can lose out on pollination services. As climate change makes our seasons somewhat variable, so the synchrony between bumblebee emergence and flowering can be lost. 

Research has suggested that some bumblebees may be able to influence the flowering of some plants.  bumblebeeThey bite the plants!  Recent work at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich has shown that three (maybe more) species  of bumblebees  (Bombus terrestris, B. lapidarius, and B. lucorum) use their mouthparts to cut little bits out of the leaves of plants and this results in the early flowering of the  ‘nibbled’ plants.   Furthermore, this biting behaviour is more common when pollen is in short supply.  The plants used in the experiments were tomatoes and mustards. 

The bumblebees simply used their mouthparts / mandibles to cut into the leaves and then they flew off.  They did not feed on the leaves nor suck up sap from the plant.  Yet, this leaf damage resulted in the plants coming into flower up to a month earlier than untouched leaves. Leaf damage using forceps or blades by the experimenters did make the plants flower a bit earlier but the effect was not as marked as the bumblebees’ interventions. This work raises the possibility that there is a chemical in the bee’s saliva that is affecting the physiology of the plants; certainly the observations warrant further investigation.

A similar interaction / response has been observed between trees and deer.  Trees, such as beech, respond to the saliva of deer by increasing the production of certain metabolites, notably defence compounds - tannins.  Tannins often have a bitter taste - which can deter herbivores.

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