Originally published February 2012
Hello everyone and welcome to a new year in the woods! At close of play in 2011, I refered to Ma Nature’s state of confusion as a result of our unseasonable weather. Well, as much as I have faith in her judgement, it is crystal clear that the poor old thing is still in a bit of a whirl!
In her defence, the spell of mild, bright days last month definitely got the fauna and flora buzzing and budding with an admirable disregard for the Gregorian calendar. The air is full of song as the Feathered Folk tune up for our annual Festival of Sound: the speed of their activity dizzying as they pack in a full day of nest building, flirting, feeding and squabbling. During a stroll through our little reserve on a sunny January day, I was treated to a breathtaking display of acrobatics as energetic Squirrels chased one and other through the canopy. The ground dwelling Brocks have also been industrious over the Winter months. Mounds of clay-coloured sub-soil mark new entrances to their subterranean cities whilst numerous, shallow snuffle-holes poc-mark the soft woodland floor.
Our pleasingly full pond was already looking like a speckled, green highway as the colonisation of the surface with thousands of tiny new plants of Lemna sp. was well under way. The water column itself almost seethed with life as fly larvae swam around in awkward jerky movements whilst their older relatives danced in the thermals above and around the pond: the torment of the Mini-Biters is starting early this year! Slender new branches snaked up from shrubs and hedgerows whilst leaf buds smothered the trees in a mass display of arborial fertility. Wild Primroses are providing us with our first flash of colour this year although Wood Anemones, Bluebells and Spotted Orchids were following up closely as their leaves peeped through the rich layer of mulch carpeting the woodland floor.
It is this (very early) Spring image that leads me to the first topic of the year, Litter. First, the good stuff. One of the many joys of a mixed woodland environment is the diverse nature of, perhaps, the most important habitat and ecosystem on any reserve, the ground-covering layer of decomposing plant debris known to one and all as leaf litter. It is here that many insects, spiders and amphibians will enter a dormant state and hibernate; though many individuals may die during the course of a harsh Winter. Leaf litter comprises of three distinct layers. The top few centimetres contain the recently fallen and easily identifiable debris of leaves, twigs and bark. The layer below that is a powerhouse of energy production known as the fermentation horizon. Here the detritivores (from Latin detritis-wearing down + vorous-devour), have broken the litter down into small pieces. This group contains numerous, ant, lice, beetle slug and of course earthworm species. Next come the decomposers, in three waves. Initially, fungi break the litter down chemically so that a second group of animals including Springtails and Mites can carry on the good work. Finally the microscopic bacteria and fungi wade in and reduce the remaining proteins and nucleic acids into their basic Carbon and Nitrogen constituents; ready to be utilised by growing plants and thus completing the nutrient cycle. The advantage of a varied broadleaf woodland, such as Quarry Wood, is the annual addition of a beneficial chemical mix to the ecosystem. Different tree species contain a range of chemicals in their leaves (see Autumn Colour and Festive Greenery – Dec 2010) and it is this variety that makes for a productive fermentation horizon. The greater the variety of leaf, the greater the biodiversity of the fauna and the better the rate of nutrient recycling.
The third layer of the woodland floor is made up of dark humus (from the Latin, earth or ground). Not to be confused with the double m tasty Middle Eastern dip, this is in fact any organic matter that can not be broken down any further. Soil scientists refer to the stability of the material. This dark layer of unidentifiable plant and animal matter is the final form of the organic part of soil and can last indefinitely.
That is a very brief summary of the world of natural woodland litter. However it is my unpleasant task to consider the effects of the wrong sort, anthropic detritis. This time of year is synonymous with the sight of dustbins overflowing with the rubbish from the wining and dining season; not to mention plastic wrappings, twine and ribbon from numerous festive gifts. As bad as this can be if it blows about, we have the added problem of certain individuals actually throwing rubbish away as they walk through the reserve or even as they drive past! I Shanghaied my father and children into the repulsive task of a twenty minute litter collection duty; we managed to fill a sack with cans, bottles, plastic containers, paper and twine. All of which are potentially lethal to wildlife as well as unsightly. Bottles and cans are death traps for small rodents, rusty metal and broken glass dangerous for anyone, including us, and twine can be taken down into Badgers’ setts with the bedding material where it can maim and strangle cubs; a horrific scenario.
Many apologies for introducing a sour note into my usual ramblings, let us make it a year in which we all utilise, treasure and take pride in our glorious little reserve.
Take nothing but memories,
leave nothing but footprints!
Chief Si’ahl (1780 – 1866)
As usual, put me right at firstname.lastname@example.org