Staverton Thicks

I am currently reading Oliver Rackham’s ‘History of the Countryside’ – the seminal text on the landscape I’ve known all my life. I was lucky enough to hear Dr Rackham speak back in 2014, before his sad passing the following year, and the enthusiasm he brought to the conference is apparent in every page of this otherwise weighty tome. Whilst learning much about how the British landscape came to be, I am treating it as something of a tourist guide to compile a wishlist of exceptional and illustrative locations. One such is Staverton Park and I was pleasantly surprised to find that a Biodiversity Seminar I was attending was just a few miles away, providing the perfect excuse to see for myself! With a quote like this, how could one resist?

“Sometimes a park still has its original trees. The supreme example is Staverton Park (near Woodbridge, Suffolk), a famous and awesome place of Tolkienesque wonder and beauty. The mighty and bizarre shapes of oaks of unknown age rise out of a sea of tall bracken, or else are mysteriously surrounded by rings of yet mightier hollies.”

img_6158-1
One of the mighty old oak trees within Staverton Park.

Staverton is a place which seems to have a special effect on those who visit – from casual walkers to woodland ecologists, you can appreciate it on many levels. Rackham’s account of the site is one amongst many – Peterken wrote extensively on the history and vegetation of the woodland (you can read it for free on the FSC website here) and Nick Sibbett produced a quite extraordinary survey of the individual trees which make up this exceptional arboreal congregation for Natural England. Exploring the crossover between the ecological and the cultural – Sara Maitland includes it as one of the chapters in her Gossip from the Forest – an exploration of the connections between woodland and folklore. It has formed the focus of Guardian Country Diaries and there are some lovely blog posts from the likes of Frames of Reference, Crossways Farm and Down the Forest Path.

Whilst guided walks do occur from time to time, the park is in private ownership but a path meanders through The Thicks to the south and then edges the eastern periphery of the parkland.

From the Woodbridge Road, just before Butley, a footpath takes you into the woods. The finger sign points directly towards a mighty oak – just a flavour of things to come! A short path winds you through the bracken, and past a few more giants, and then you’re into The Thicks! This part of the park was fenced from the remainder in the early 19th century and was left fairly unmanaged. It’s modern name was first recorded some 60 years later in 1881 as the canopy closed to form the dense woodland you can see today.

img_6124-1
One of the might oaks which parts the path in The Thicks, Staverton Park

The path is vague, meandering and dissipating between mighty oaks – in places, they settle contentedly in the middle of the path causing the way to wend around it, whilst in others the oaks loom across your way, making you duck and divert.

But despite the imposing, watching presence of the oaks, this is really the realm of the holly which is the most abundant tree in The Thicks. One of these hollys is thought to be the tallest in Britain at a towering 22.5m high!

img_6134-2
One of the amazing tall holly trees within The Thicks, Staverton Park

Some grow from old coppice stools, sending an array of trunks skywards, whilst others grow twinned with older, larger oaks, the angle of their growth aiming for gaps in the canopy beyond their associates. The ground beneath the living trunks is littered with the bodies of their fallen – branches and boles lie as deadwood across the woodland floor,  providing abundant opportunities for invertebrates which has evolved to rely upon such deadwood which is increasingly hard to find in our modern woodlands.

img_6137-2
One of the holly trees arising from an old coppice stool in The Thicks, Staverton Park

Peterken presents evidence which indicates that the site might have been continuously wooded since the wildwood era. Whilst there is no woodland in the country which is not influenced by human management or exploitation, he argues that this might be closest to the primeval, natural condition than most other woods in lowland Britain. The effect of walking The Thicks is of wandering between ancient beings, but the deviations from natural condition are quickly apparent. The oaks are predominantly pollarded – a historic practise of cutting the trees above browsing height to allow a sustainable harvest of the new growth. This extends their life and facilitates the gnarled, huge boles but is far from a natural occurrence on the scale seen in The Thicks. The ground flora too is surprisingly poor, lacking many of the ancient woodland indicator species. This is presumably a result of the intervening parkland years when the trees were open grown and the land grazed or heath beneath. Then there is the composition of the stand – according to Rackham’s analysis, Suffolk is deep within the limewood province, where small-leaved lime would have been the dominant tree species before the wildwood was cleared. Whilst Peterken makes no assertion that this woodland is akin to the wildwood which was once to be found upon the same soil, it is worth considering how far even a woodland with such an ancient feeling as this is departed from the wildwood we once had.

img_6138-2
The dense holly enclosing the path through The Thicks, Staverton Park.

Walking out of the dark oppressive vegetation of The Thicks, the scene switches. Suddenly the oaks are free from the evergreen accompaniments of the holly and are strewn majestically across the parkland with only bracken beneath. Any one of these trees would make you stop and stare if you stumbled across them, but en masse they form an army, like walking through a coven of witches or a gathering of the ents.

img_6122-1
Walking out into the parkland at Staverton Park is like stumbling across a gathering of ancient beasts

Wandering down the sandy track which etches the line between ancient parkland and modern farmland, birch begins to join the scene, its youthful white bark serving to throw into relief the massive presence of the oaks they grow amongst.

img_6155-2
The mighty bole of an ancient pollarded oak with the fresh white trunks of the birch in the background.

Nick Sibbett’s immense survey numbered the living oaks at 2,899, and more standing dead trees besides!

img_6142-1
One of the standing dead oaks within Staverton Park

Some of the oaks in the park have a Diamater at Breast Height (DBH) of over 7m although many specimens are much smaller than this. The precise age of these oaks isn’t known – there was a myth that the trees were planted in the early 1500’s by the monks of Butley Abbey. Some are indeed over 400 years old but there are a wide range of different aged trees across the park.

img_6123-1
Another of the mighty idiosyncratic oaks within the Staverton Parkland.

My first visit was at dusk, and the second at dawn the next day as the sun rose to the east. My time amongst this ancient assemblage was short lived, but I hope to be back in spring or summer to spend more time in this magical place.

img_6148
One of the boundary oaks of Staverton Park at sunrise.
Advertisements

Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

img_5197-3

Vancouver – Skunks, Squirrels and Stanley Park

After an amazing 10 days in the wilds – from the mountains of Squamish; the temperate rainforests and pacific beaches of Tofino; and the whales off Victoria – it felt a little strange to be heading to a city to finish. But Vancouver had plenty of wildlife delights to offer us.

One of the highlights of any trip to Vancouver has to be Stanley Park. Straight across the water from downtown, you can hike the 8km  around the seawall or explore the trails through woodlands, gardens and grassland in the centre. We were hoping to see sea otters and racoons – both of which are common sightings apparently – but we instead settled for the black squirrels which were to be found in abundance. We even found a guilt-free way to feed them – the ground was strewn with conkers, and although they were there for the taking, the squirrels seemed unable to resist one which had been picked up and rolled towards them!

img_4849
Black squirrel with a horse chestnut in Stanley Park, Vancouver.

These squirrels are black forms of the invasive eastern gray squirrels – Sciurus carolinensis – the same species which have largely deposed the reds from the UK. The population in Stanley Park is said to have originated from breeding pairs given as a gift from the Mayor of New York in 1909 and released into the Park.

IMG_4775.JPG
The progressing shades of autumn shown in the maple leaves in Stanley Park

As with any big city, the feral pigeons were to be found everywhere. These are easily vilified and despised by many city residents, but they are a perfect example of a species whose niche overlaps with the habitats we create for ourselves and which thus thrives alongside us. These birds originated from rock doves which were birds of sea cliffs and mountains – I always wonder whether they would be seen differently if it were puffins who had made the leap into the mainstream.

img_4690
A local offering help to a tourist…. or more likely angling for food!

Herons were abundant around the city – as you might expect for a seaside conurbation – and as in other urban environments, they seemed easily at ease with the bustle of passers by and barely registered your presence. We saw them motionless in the waters off Stanley Park; perched on boats in the harbour; or stalking the boardwalks of the marina.

img_4846
Grey heron stalking away from a coke machine on the marina in Vancouver

Cormorants were another species which made use of the urban infrastructure in close proximity to the sea to roost between feeding.

img_4683
A cormorant having a scratch – this one was perched on Granville Island Bridge

Amazingly, Vancouver is home to some rather impressive mammals such as the coyote. You can see recent sightings on an interactive map which shows their pawprints across the city.

Whilst we didn’t see a coyote, a nice surprise on our last night was a skunk which wandered out across the road and pottered along the sidewalk foraging for morsels. It was only after it had gone that I remembered the cartoon stereotypes from childhood and wondered if I’d been a little blase! This skunk had the swagger of an old hand who’d been around a few years and was fairly unconcerned with a little attention from passers by. We left it ambling off down a side street, disappearing to a white stripe in the darkness between the streetlights.

On our very last day in Canada, we went to see an exhibition of Emily Carr’s paintings before catching our flight home. I’d never come across her work before but her forest pieces were captivating. They are impressionistic without being abstract and give an overwhelming evocation of the life and flow of the BC forests which we had become familiar with over the two weeks. You can read more about the exhibition and find out more about here work here.

img_4901
Autumn leaves turning orange in the streets on our last day in Canada.

Victoria: Humpbacks to Hummingbirds

Our final stop on Vancouver Island itself was in Victoria – out on the eastern tip.​

​The highlight of our stay there was the opportunity to see orcas and humpback whales on a trip out into the straights between Victoria and the mountains of the Olympic National Park beyond. We went out on a zodiac and bounced across the waves – not the ideal transport for the seasick ecologist but I soon forgot when we found a pod of orcas moving gracefully through the open seas. The waters around here play host to resident orcas who are present all year round; but this pod was passing through; these are referred to as transient. Interestingly, the two groups have different feeding habits – the resident pods are largely salmon-eaters whilst transient pods tend to eat seals and other marine mammals.

img_4399
Members of a transient pod of orcas

After spending 20 minutes watching the orcas, we moved on to watch a pair of humpback whales which were perhaps even more impressive. I know that ‘whales are big’ is about the most basic fact you can learn about them, but I’d never seen one up close before to be able to appreciate just how big they are! They would break the surface to spout at regular intervals of 20-30 seconds and repeat this 5-6 times before arching their backs for a deep dive which results in their tail breaking the surface and following them down to the depths where they would hunt for 5 minutes before returning to the surface for air.

On the way back, we got some great views of the sealions on a small island just off the coast – the smell caught up with you soon afterwards!

img_4417
Steller sealions seen on the way back to harbour in Victoria

I had made some assumptions about the ethics of whale watching, in that it must be OK to be sanctioned, but after returning to dty land, I did a little research on the potential impacts upon these species. From the work I do in the UK with bats, I know that a species which relies upon echolocation for navigation and hunting will change their behaviour in response to noise – this is seen through avoidance behaviour or changes in hunting or foraging tactics. It turns out that there is evidence that whale watching can have a similar impact upon whales.

The sites I found which deal with this issue didn’t really give me a satisfactory final answer. Partly this is because these trips occur worldwide, with different regulatory regimes and some wildly different ideas of appropriate practise. And partly because the research simply isn’t there to assess the significance of an impact – the mechanism is understood and an impact demonstrated in some circumstances but the real impact of this growing industry may only become apparent in the long term.

The whale watching tours leaving from Victoria do follow a strict code of practise, and the various boats we saw watching the orcas observed these well. This would significantly reduce the impact in comparison to unregulated tours, but whether it is enough is still questionable. It was an amazing experience, but I would think twice before going out again. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society express concerns over trips from Vancouver Island to visit the resident population as, by definition, they are much more likely to suffer from the repeated visits from boats on a daily basis whereas the transient pods are likely to receive much more short-term disturbance.

img_4405
Humpback whales spouting off Victoria, BC with the mountains of Olympic Park in the background.

One unexpected reminder of home was walking through the streets at dusk and hearing the trees alive with song. We had watched starlings descending into the city as the day drew to a close and there, in the middle of Government Street amongst the lights and cars, was an evening roost! A free concert for all those who passed by.

The other creature I was really hoping to see was a hummingbird. Victoria gets a number of species through the summer, but their reliance on the seasonal resource of nectar means that most migrate for the winter to seek food. With such a fast wingbeat, their energy expenditure means that they can’t go too long without a sugary refill! We were too late for most, but one exception is Anna’s hummingbird – these have the northernmost year-round range of any hummingbird and are regularly counted in Christmas bird lists for the city. On the last day, I read a tip which suggested listening for the male singing from the top of a tree. I had been sitting a few moments listening to what I assumed was some sort of machinery in the street outside our apartment, before realising that this series of buzzes, chips and whistles was the bird I was hoping to see! Looking for all the world like a pair of outsized bumblebees, a pair were skittering around the top of a street-tree, settling briefly before buzzing onwards and out of sight.

img_4476
Anna’s Hummingbird settled in a street tree in Victoria, BC.

The final stop was a few days in Vancouver itself before heading back home – final post coming soon!

Tofino – Beaches, Big Trees and Bears

After leaving Cathedral Grove, we made for Tofino out on the western coast in the Pacific Rim National Park. The town is situated at the tip of a peninsula amongst a cluster of islands and inlets.

img_4030
Rather than three trees – this photograph is actually taken in the space between three leaders which arise from a single bole.

The temperate rainforests along this stretch of the coast are stunning – we walked the steps and boardwalks through the luscious greenery admiring the towering trees above and their tiny delicate lichen analogues below. The parallels with the temperate rainforests in the UK – such as those found in Wales – are apparent through their determination to green every available space – as you can see in the image of the wooden boardwalk below!

img_4246
Boardwalk covered with mosses and ferns

One day we walked through the forest to reach Schooner Cove – one of the stretches of pristine sandy beaches which line the Pacific – and another, we walked the length of MacKenzie Beach watching surfers learning the waves whilst sandpipers foraged along the shoreline.

img_4092
Sandpipers and sanderlings feeding along the shoreline in MacKenzie Beach

The beaches around Vancouver Island were almost all headed up with bleached-white driftwood – presumably pulled clear to lie well above the strandline. These are no mere branches – the timber at the top is often entire trees. Where these piles were well established, they provided nice little ecological niches, with plants establishing within the hollows and small birds foraging in amongst the cavities their huge trunks crated.

img_4109
Driftwood piled artistically with a crow sat at the apex – corvids were frequently to be seen foraging for morsels along the shore

Whilst we saw plenty of the grey squirrels, sadly all to familiar in the UK now, we also saw some much smaller species too, such as this one which popped up to see us at Long Beach. There are two similar species – Douglas and American Red squirrels – which are tricky to tell apart to the unfamiliar eye. Fortunately their distributions are rather different – Douglas squirrel is not found on Vancouver Island.

img_4103
American Red squirrel along Long Beach, Tofino

In the late summer/early autumn, the black bears frequently spend time along the shore, foraging under rocks and boulders for crabs and other rockpool treats. We had hoped to join a kayaking trip out to see the bears, but the organisers said it was too late as the bears were heading back inland to follow the salmon runs. However another outfit just around the corner was still running trips – sadly not by kayak – so we hopped on and went out to watch them! The tour leader was very experienced and spotted the ‘right kind’ of black blob at a great distance when it was merely a spec on the shoreline. On closer approach, he cut the engine and idled slowly and silently close enough for us to watch the bears without disturbing them.

img_4265
Black bear foraging along the shoreline in Tofino

Watching the bears overturn the boulders as though they were simply pebbles to be pushed out of their way allows you to appreciate quite how powerful these creatures really are. Whilst we never saw another wild bear on our travels, it was great to be able to observe this natural behaviour without needing to worry too much about our exit strategy!

​On our last day, we took a kayaking trip out around Clayoquot Sound, including a walk around the Big Tree Trail on Meares Island. The staggering trees include cedars which are between 1,000 and 1,500 years old. These spectacular beings came scarily close to destruction in 1984 when MacMillan Bloedel prepared to log the island. The Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Council declared the entire Island a Tribal Park and successfully gained an injunction against the company which has allowed these treasures to be preserved to this day. The arrogance of the proposal to log the island hit me quite strongly – after standing for 1,000 years or more, why should this generation and this company decide that these ancient trees were theirs to take? Much more chilling is to think of the vast expanses of forest which didn’t escape this fate.

img_4237
The cloud hanging over the wooded islands around Clayoquot Sound, Tofino
DCIM100GOPROGOPR0563.
The view from the kayak on a beautiful Sunday morning.

Next stop – Victoria out on the eastern tip of Vancouver Island!

 

Vancouver Island – Sea-mist in Nanaimo

After Squamish, we headed out to Horseshoe Bay and caught the late afternoon ferry across to Vancouver Island – landing in Nanaimo just as darkness fell.

img_3810
Our first sunset views of Vancouver Island on the ferry from the mainland
We stayed just up the coast a little from the town itself, and woke the next morning to see the sea concealed with an inversion lit by blue skies and sunshine above.

img_3905
The mist beginning to clear over the ocean between Lantzville and Vancouver as the morning wore on
We hastily corrected our plans and headed out to Moorecroft Park in Nanoose to make the most of the surreal scenery. Here we walked down to the silent shoreline and watched hawks, vultures and cormorants whilst the mist rolled down the wooded hillside to reach the sea.

img_3908
Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

img_3896
Mist rolling down from Vancouver Island to reach the sea in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

img_3897
Trees barely visible through the mist at Moorecroft Park, Nanoose.

Turkey vulture beside the shoreline in Moorecroft Park, Nanoose
We spent the afternoon walking around Protection Island, watching seals in the harbour from the Floating Pub, before heading inland the next day to Cathedral Grove.

img_4025
The view up amongst the giants of Cathedral Grove
Sadly, the main draw of Cathedral Grove is that it is one of the few remaining stands of the old growth forest which is otherwise now largely lost. Here, the largest trees are 800 years old, measuring 9m in circumference and towering to a colossal 75m. This habit is markedly different to the growth patterns of old broadleaf trees in the UK – I recently climbed some 35m high black poplars but this is easily the highest I’ve ever been in the canopies. Our broadleaf trees grow oldest when they are coppiced or pollarded and never reach these heights – for example the Bowthorpe Oak – thought to be over 1000 years old, has a circumference of 13m but stands barely 15m high.

img_4020
Dipping into the edge of Lake Cameron
As well as admiring the trees themselves, there were the decorations of bryophytes draped over the branches and hanging down in straggled strands – the most appropriately named being the Witches Hair lichen.

img_4021
Trailing bryophytes amongst the lower branches of the confers in Cathedral Grove.
Next stop – heading out to admire the rainforests and the Pacific Ocean in Tofino!

Squamish – Sea to Sky

We’ve just returned from an amazing couple of weeks spent on and around Vancouver Island in British Columbia and I’m still processing all the sights and experiences. Vancouver island is extensive, BC is huge and Canada is just colossal – I’m aware that we only scratched the smallest surface of this stunning destination but I thought I’d share below a few of the highlights from the trip. First stop, Squamish!

This town is nestled between the mountains and the sea and claims the title of ‘the Outdoor Recreation Capital of Canada‘. I can see why… whilst my fingers itched to join the climbers scaling boulders and pitches all around, we had only a few days and there was adventure enough without taking to the vertical!

img_3666
A view of the Strawamus Chief, taken at sunset from Smoke Bluffs with Squamish town nestled below

The Strawamus Chief hangs above the town and we were lucky enough to have a perfect view of this iconic mountain from our window. At night you could watch the stars wheel overhead whilst mornings would see the peak revealed or otherwise concealed by rolling clouds which permitted glimpses in silhouette before billowing it back into obscurity.

img_3536
Starlapse over the Strawamus Chief

We walked the Chief trail which can take you up to all three consecutive peaks of this enticing prominence. Although time conspired against a view from the peak, the route up from Shannon Falls was spectacular – a combination of natural path and the built elements such as log-steps and boardwalks required to surmount the otherwise impassable. The forest which hugged the base and through which the path ascended was our first real view of the eerily beautiful bryophyte-hung conifers which we were to become familiar with over the next few weeks.

img_3610
Shannon Falls etching its way through the deep conifer forests which crowd around it

img_3795

A grey second day took us out along the Mamquam river which empties into the Sound at the foot of the town. The salmon runs were just beginning and we walked through the gravel banks amongst saplings and driftwood to watch their backs breaching the ripples as they spawned in the shallows.

These runs bring the eagles in the winter where thousands can be seen taking advantage of the fish – the record count in 1994 was 3,769! Sadly we were a little too early  as they peak in November.

img_3689
The humped back of a spawning male pink salmon (Oncorhynchus gorbuska) breaching the water in Mamquam river.

The salmon die after spawning and we saw many dead along the gravel banks, as well as failing and foundering in the river itself. This seemed a sad sight, but the runs of salmon from the oceans to the rivers, and their subsequent demise in freshwater, are a vital ecosystem function in transferring nutrients from one location to the other. The fish are caught or scavanged by a wide variety of species, from bears and eagles to mink, otter, gulls and vultures. This is transferred to the land through droppings, but also manually moved by bears in particular who will take the fish into the forest but often feed only on the most select parts, leaving the rest to be scavanged or simply to break down and decompose. One study in south-eastern Alaska found that up to 25% of the nitrogen in the foliage of trees was derived from spawning salmon which makes this miraculous migration a key component of the forest ecosystem.

img_3694
One of the many salmon carcasses which contribute to a vital upstream flow of nutrients

Our stay backed onto Smoke Bluffs and we took a couple of walks in the trails which weave through this forest. With huge boulders scattered amongst the conifers, and no shortage of mountain bikers willing to throw themselves down them, the trails were somewhat more challenging than the average stroll through the woods but all the more exciting for it. Whilst the evidence of others was apparent, we found ourselves alone; the sense of stillness and quiet in those woods was unlike everything I’ve ever experienced, shielded by high canopies above with all sounds softened by the sea of ferns which lapped the edges of the trail. Down low too were some beautiful lichen forests, emulating their larger neighbours in miniature.

img_3675
Lichens growing within a bed of moss upon the rocks in Smoke Bluff park

One our last day, before heading on to Horseshoe Bay to catch the ferry across to Nanaimo, we caught the Sea to Sky Gondola for a bird’s eye view of the landscape. Sea to Sky is the name of the route and the region, and it’s not hard to see why – the view from the 885m high peak out across Howe Sound shows what a stunning combination of the elements this place is!

img_3768
The view out over Howe Sound from the top of the Sea to Sky Gondola

At the summit station were creatures which I first thought to be butterflies, but on closer inspection realised were grasshoppers. I think these are Trimerotropis species and their sustained bouts of flight were unlike any I have seen our UK species do. These noisy ascents would last 10 seconds or more and had the air of a display about them – this is something which females of the genus are known to do when receptive to mating. Whilst conspicuous on the wing, they were perfectly camouflaged against the rocks, disappearing if you took your eye off them only to reappear precisely where you left them!

img_3801
Trimerotropis grasshopper on the rocks at the Sea to Sky summit

Next stop – Vancouver Island!

 

Vegetation Layers in an English Woodland

The different layers within a woodland are one of those classic illustrations from ecology textbooks – usually a cartoon graphic showing how the structure changes as you move from the ground up to the canopy. The distinctions are indicative – there is often plenty of overlap between the layers – but these are a useful way of thinking about the woodland in terms of its ecological function beyond what simply meets the eye. Helping you to see the wood for the trees, if you will!

We undertake tree climb and inspect surveys for bats in a variety of settings – from individual trees in gardens to well-spaced parklands and dense woodlands. Each of these gives a different insight into vertical variation but a recent climb in an oak and ash woodland gave a nice opportunity to illustrate how this changes in a typical ancient woodland habitat.

English Oak Woodland Structure
Photographs taken at 2m (bottom), 6m (middle) and 12m (top) in an English oak and ash woodland to illustrate the variation in spatial structure.

The number of ‘layers’ and their distinctions vary between sources and across countries – I’ve seen three defined layers, nine defined layers and every number in between delineated in various graphics. I’m going to keep this simple and focus on the three broad categories which are shown in these photos:

Field Layer – taken at 2m height

Ground Layer
Photograph taken at 2m showing the field or ground layer in an English oak and ash woodland

 

This photograph encapsulates what could be considered the field layer, the ground layer or the forest floor depending on which divisions you use. Broadly, this is the view from the ground – the most apparent vista for most visitors to the woodlands but the scene varies greatly as the year progresses. In secondary woodland or more botanically diminished sites, this can be a mass of ruderals such as nettles, cow parsley and bramble whilst some plantation woodlands can be head-high in bracken. In ancient woodland – such as this – springtime sees a flush of ancient woodland species which time their flowering early in the season before the canopy closes overhead. As May arrives and the trees and shrubs come into leaf, the main event on the forest floor is already coming to an end. Some species flourish later in the season but in September, the vegetation has largely died back often leaving a relatively bare floor. The dominant vegetation remaining is therefore the trunks of the trees and the shrubs which rise above the field layer to leaf and flower higher.

Scrub Layer – taken at 6m height

Shrub Layer
Photograph taken at 6m showing the hazel-dominated shrub layer in an English oak and ash woodland

This could be described as the under-canopy, the scrub layer, the shrub layer or the under-storey layer. This is the level at which the shrubs flourish – those smaller woody species which often include hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, holly, dogwood and elder, amongst others. These shrubs can often form such a dense canopy that the view to the treetops above can be quite obscured – something of an issue when you’re searching for bat roosts! In this instance, hazel and hawthorn dominate and as the photograph shows, they form a dense and highly cluttered environment some 6m above the ground.

Canopy Layer – taken at 12m height

Canopy Layer
Photograph taken at 12m showing the space between the shrub layer and the woodland canopy in an English oak and ash woodland

This is up at the top of the trees, where the taller trees branch and close their canopies to claim first use of the sunlight available. I’m not right in the canopy in this photograph – the trees did not require us to climb to the peaks – but this nicely illustrates the shrub layer below with the high canopy of the oak and ash above. In some forests, the species composition includes a sub-canopy of smaller trees – such as rowan, silver birch and field maple – which form a layer between the lower shrubs and the taller climax species. This photograph nicely illustrates how much of a space can open up between distinct layers within the higher reaches of the forest structure.

Why does it matter?

An appreciation of how the character and conditions of a woodland change on a vertical plane are just as important, although a little harder to appreciate, than the variation on the ground. The illustrations above are for just one section of just one woodland and each type of species composition but they help to give a visual idea of how this works.

One example of how this type of variation is important is when considering how bats might use a habitat. Different species of bat have different hunting characteristics and habitat preferences, and this often relates to how open or cluttered a habitat is. Species such as brown long-eared are highly maneuverable and will glean insects from leaves so a reasonably cluttered woodland environment suits them perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, a noctule hawks in open space, often flying over fields and catching its prey on the wing. Species such as pipistrelle are typically characterised as edge specialists which forage along woodland edges, hedgerows and other similar environments.

Pipistrelle
Pipistrelle bats are typically described as ‘edge’ species which forage along the edges of vertical features, such as a woodland edge

The field layer of the woodland looks ideal for a species such as brown long-eared but you might think that it would be too cluttered and enclosed for other species. However an insight into the structure above the shrub layer reveals a mosaic of open space and leaf cover which provides perfect ‘edge’ habitat for a hunting pipistrelle, and the voids between the trees would be perfectly navigable for a noctule in search of a roost. This was the subject of a talk by Ian Davidson-Watts at a recent BCT Bats and Woodland conference which you can read more about in this blog post here.

If you’re looking for tree climb and inspect surveys for bats, do check out this page for further details!

 

Heather Hanami anyone?

One of the cultural aspects I love about Japan is the observation and celebration of the seasons. This is manifested perhaps most strongly in the Hanami – flower viewing.

In the springtime, the cherries across the country put on spectacular displays and people flock for celebrations and selfies. There is a blossom forecast on the weather report to allow people to plan their visits; people gather with friends and families to have picnics and parties under the trees in the parks; and there are special blossom trains to take you on scenic journeys through the cherry orchards.

Whilst cherries are popular as street and city trees in the UK, and are occasionally planted in such numbers as to be worth of a pilgrimage, I wonder whether our most appropriate focus for Hanami might be heather viewing.

IMG_8821

Many of our upland areas are transformed in August and September as heath and moorland are washed purple with the flowering of heather. The effect is truly spectacular and well worthy of a pilgrimage one sunny late-summer day. Putting aside the question of ‘naturalness’, and certainly the practises which are predominantly responsible for the habitat, the flowering of the heather represents an easily accessible way for everybody to appreciate nature and reconnect with the shifting of the seasons.

IMG_8860

Before the autumn leaves turn – a phenomena equally enjoyed by the Japanese as momojigari – I’d suggest a sojourn to the uplands to enjoy one of the last great shows of summer while you can!

IMG_8845

If you do take a trip – keep your eyes peeled for the smart little heather colleges bees which time their lifecycle around the flowering of this species. Find out more about them in my blog post here!

30 Days Wild 2017

It’s the 1st of July and that means that the Wildlife Trust’s annual month-long challenge of #30dayswild is over for another year.

Last year, I wrote a blog every day for #30dayswild but this year I’ve had to settle for a tweet – so this is my retrospective of highlights from June 2017.

I am incredibly lucky to have a job which, along with writing reports and assessments, also gets me out in the wild to undertake surveys. Despite this, here are my top tips for engaging with wildlife on a day to day basis.

#1 Get out every day!

This might seem like an obvious one, but there”s nearly always time to connect with nature if you make the space. If I am in the office for a day, I always get out at lunchtime, rain or shine, for some fresh air and exercise. Sometimes I’ll have a target in mind – visiting the wool carder bees down in the Sensory Garden in town for example. Other times I’ll just wander, but never yet have I returned without encountering something unexpected – whether this is a grasshopper landing on my hand or finding a new orchid colony in the wind and rain. If you’re receptive to the wildlife around you, there will be something to intrigue you! The following photographs are all lunchtime encounters:

#2 Keep your eyes peeled for surprises

When I’m out and about on surveys, we had particular targets in mind. One day we might be surveying for newts, other times we’ll be carrying out habitat surveys or scoping for suitable bat roosting trees. But the opportunity to be out and about provides ample opportunity to witness something new – here are a few from surveys during June:

 

 

 

#3 Spend time in your garden

Spending a day out in the garden at a weekend allows an insight into all the activity and life which occurs every day when I’m out at work. There’s something special about wildlife in your garden – especially if they are attracted by, or using, things which you have provided for them – be this native wildflowers for the bees; the pond for damselflies; or the log pile for woodlouse spiders and frogs.

I am aware that I’m lucky to have a garden and some people do not have this space – but the principle still applies to a local park or even a patch of grassland at the road verge. I always feel a stronger connection with wildlife close to home, which you don’t need a special trip to see.

 

 

#4 Take the time to visit somewhere special

Despite stating that wildlife close to home feels particularly special in #3 above, that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t take the opportunity to explore somewhere new and exciting when you can. The Wildlife Trust manage some incredibly diverse and exciting reserves around the country, and the vast majority are free to explore.

I love the Nature Finder App which the Trust have produced – this maps their reserves and will show you which ones are close to you, along with details of what you might find there. As I travel around a fair bit, there are often opportunities to call by somewhere new and see something unique. When you’re planning a long journey, I would urge you to check it out and find somewhere magical to stop off on the way. Or use it simply to find somewhere new closer to home.

These are all opportunistic stop-offs when I was driving close by in June:

 

 

#5 It doesn’t hurt to have a holiday booked in the middle of #30dayswild!

We had an amazing week away in the Dolomites at the beginning of June and spent the time walking the mountains and valleys and experiencing some amazing flora. If you feel like perusing the photographs, you can read more in my blog post here. Otherwise, here are a few #30dayswild highlights!

 

 

 

 

 

#6 Keep it going!

Why stop at #30dayswild – keep up the habit and enjoy wildlife all year round – you can tweet #365dayswild to share your experiences and don’t forget the Wildlife Trusts who have masterminded this campaign – they do some excellent work preserving some of our most precious sites but they need your support!

  1. Find your local Wildlife Trust here.
  2. Get the Naturefinder app here.
  3. And keep up to date on the latest news from the WIldlife Trusts here!