Life, the Woodlands and Everything

Originally published October 2010

Hello everyone! I am sure by now you are all enjoying blackberry crumble, boiling up the damson jam and readying the bottles for the new batches of sloe gin and bullace brandy. This year the wild harvest for the feast of Mabon (see Nov 2008) is exceptional and the fields and hedgerows are brimming with comestibles as our flora and fungi strive towards the goal of every single organism on the planet: the survival of the species.

To continue with last month’s theme of fertility may seem like over-elaborating the point but it is worth taking time to ponder over the way an area of woodland, such as our little reserve, is formed. I am sure you all have a rough idea of the history of Quarry Wood (something I hope to look at in more detail in the future!) and how the railway came through before Dr Beeching carried out major surgery on the network in the mid ’60s. This gave us the opportunity to see how an area of unmanaged land is colonised over the years.

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Unlike other habitats such as grassland or heather moor, woodland has the extra dimension of height. This provides space for a whole range of habitats and their associated wildlife. There tends to be four main strata to a woodland habitat: the Ground Layer rich with leaf litter and mosses, the Field Layer with ferns, sorrels and flowering plants, the Shrub Layer often with hazel, holly and bramble, and the Tree Layer or Canopy. It is not usual to find all four layers fully developed in the same wood due to the nature of most of our woodlands in this country. Traditionally, woodlands are descibed in terms of their dominant tree species, hence beech woods, oak woods, chestnut woods et al. Very few of these are a reflection of the ‘wildwood’ which covered the British Isles after the last Ice Age. Once Neolithic men arrived around 4000BC they started a tree clearance regime that continued with such gusto that by the time the Great sandal’d and Toga’d Ones were getting ready to leave for sunnier climes around AD 500, moorland and farmland dominated the landscape.

The remaining areas of woodland inherited by the Anglo-Saxons were either cleared or managed with only a few isolated patches left as ‘wildwood’. The 17th century saw the emergence of a different type of woodland, the plantation. This continued way into the 20th century as the Forestry Commission blanketed vast areas of the land with single species conifer woods.

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Quarry Wood is a shining example of an area of young woodland which has established itself without the helping hand of mankind. The relatively poor, stony substrate and sandy soils resulting from the quarrying activity and presence of the railway was ideal for tree colonisation. Fast growing Birch and Chestnut soon provided the canopy, whereas the wetter ground became dominated by Willow, Aspen and Alder. Once a woodland has become established the rate of self-generation slows down considerably. The lack of light and presence of plant munching animals make life very difficult for young trees. Those patches of ground where the light does break through is often colonised by Holly, its leaves protected by their spikes and a thick waxy cuticle. The lighter wind-born seed of Birch, Willow, Aspen, Sycamore and Ash can travel to the outskirts of the wood where they stand a better chance of surviving. Heavier seeds such as Chestnut, Oak and Hawthorn fall to the ground or eaten off the trees and often spread by birds, squirrels and school children.

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So we have to say that Ma Nature has provided us with an admirable paradox to cogitate upon as we stroll through our local haven of delight. At one level the fauna and flora we see around us exist in a state of harmony and balance; however to do so, they must thrive in a ruthless, competitive environment that sees no holds barred in regards to getting the upper hand. Perhaps we should just enjoy the bigger picture and have another glass of sloe gin!

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For a year and a day there must I stay:
Beetles were tapping in the rotten trees,
Spiders were weaving, in the mould heaving
Puffballs loomed about my knees.
The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, J.R.R. Tolkien

Put me right at pgcrow@yahoo.com

Paul Johnson

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