Winter Clarity

Originally published March 2009

Hello everyone and a belated Happy New Year! Spring, if not yet sprung, is definitely coiled and ready to go. Meanwhile the Winter continues to provide us with a different vista across our landscape, and in our Reserve, almost on an daily basis!

Now for the show of hands time… what have The Lady of the Woods, The Scandinavian God Thor and a Witch’s Broom in common with each other? In order to inject a little suspense into the proceedings I think we will leave the answer to the end. Just to say that our own Quarry Wood is full of it and can be seen in all its glory at the present time! Which brings us nicely to the theme for this month… visibility!

If you stroll through the fields on a regular basis I am sure you will be aware of the enhanced clarity light conditions provide at this time of year. You seem to be able to pick out detail in the distance (when it’s not raining or snowing!) which is lost in those hazy days of Summer. Add to this the lack of leaf coverage in the trees and a whole new world is out there for those who take the time to look around.


Perhaps the first thing to consider is the difference in the shapes of the trees. Silver Birch, gleaming white, tall and graceful with slender, pink, whip like branches swaying in the breeze; Chestnut, with its deeply fissured bark often spiraling up the trunk and strong sturdy limbs, coppiced to produce four or five trees from the one like our beautiful specimen at the Reserve entrance. Take a look at the magnificent Oak in the churchyard and you can’t help but marvel at the strength of its structure built up over many decades.


This is the time when you can study a tree and see how it has grown; for those of you with artistic tendencies here is the perfect opportunity to get to know your arboreal subjects before they clothe themselves with their photosynthetically produced layers.


But it’s not only the trees themselves which are worth admiring, it’s what is in them. If you stop and listen you will suddenly realise the world around us is full of sound. Filter out the cacophonous elements of anything man-made and you will be left with an amazing variety of different bird songs. What makes it special is the fact that at this time you can trace the songs to their owners as they busy themselves in the trees and shrubs feeding, courting and staking out their territory. From the giant Wood Pidgeons to the tiny Wren, the avian population is on display! The squirrels too are getting a touch of Spring fever and can be seen chasing through the trees at breakneck speed as they answer the same call of the wild as the birds.


Our lovely full (worth a look just for that!) pond is also teeming with life, just a few days after being covered in thick ice! Away from the remnants of the floating Duckweed (Lemna sp.) the water is crystal clear. If you wade out from the bench end to a third of the way up your wellie and let the water settle, you will see busy little water beetles, tiny mites and Blackfly larvae swimming with their characteristic ‘Sidewinder snake’ movement. Just up from the pond the ferns are sitting on the rock face with their fronds lowered in a seemingly dignified position of submission to the passing of the season. You get the feeling that come the warmer weather they will raise their fronds en masse as if to salute the sun, the ultimate energy source! Of course this won’t happen, but even as I write those new fronds are developing and sitting there in tight coils ready to unfurl in a few weeks time.

Now, the patient among you can put your hands down. The Lady of the Woods is in fact the Birch, a true native of our island being one of the very first trees to recolonise the land after the ice retreated. We have both Silver and Downy Birch in the Reserve and at times it is difficult to tell which is which due to hybridisation. Our Celtic ancestors had an alphabet called The Tree Ogham Alphabet in which Beth (Birch) was the first letter and represented the first month in the celtic calendar. Quite naturally the Birch was then associated with fertility and new birth and in Norse mythology the tree is dedicated to Thor who just happens to be the God of that heady mix, thunder and fertility!

TQW 2009The Witch’s Broom I hear you cry! Well it is true that the original besoms for broomstick weddings were made of Birch, but that is nothing to do with witches. Look up into the Birch woods at the moment and in the branches you will see dense clusters of twigs looking like large untidy nests. These are in fact galls caused by a variety of organisms, the one associated with Birch is the fungus, Taphrina betulina. These parasitic organisms interfere with the trees’ growth regulating chemicals resulting in secondary branches growing out in many different directions and resembling either a witch’s broom or a bad hair day depending on your outlook on life!

So there you have it, ecology, mycology, mythology and some Latin thrown in for good measure. Please open your eyes and ears and take the time to go out and enjoy this very special season.

As always, get in touch with me at

Paul Johnson


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