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Tuesday, 15 September 2015

Ancient Woodland Flora & Fauna

I’ve always loved anything miniature and small.  As a child, I loved reading The Borrowers by Mary Norton.  I was intrigued by Arrietty, the young daughter of a family of Borrowers, tiny people who lived under the floor.  When they emigrated in The Borrowers Afield I loved exploring the great outdoors through her eyes, discovering giant grass and hedges to climb, beautiful flowers, giant buzzing bees, mice and frogs.  And so began my love of nature.  I used to imagine my miniature self, running barefoot across the moss in my garden.  This glossy green carpet is perhaps one of the most ancient of plants, having no roots or stems, nor true leaves.  Many varieties of moss thrive in the ancient woodland of the British Isles.  It grows over rocks and soil, tree bark and stone walls. 

Lichens also grow on the bark of trees, and are similar in that they have no roots, and absorb water all over their surface.  They need moist humid air within which to grow, and the best place to spot them is in damp ancient woodland.  Because they absorb water from the air around them, many varieties of lichens cannot survive near motorways or human habitation due to the pollutants in the air, such as sulphur dioxide and carbon monoxide, which dissolve in the water in the air that they drink.  In these areas only Pleurococcus, a microscopic alga that turns tree trunks a dirty green colour, seem able to survive.  In ancient woodland you see a much more varied and exciting variety of lichens, including Tree Lungwort (Lobaria pulmonaria), one of the largest lichens with large light green leaf shapes growing over tree trunks, whose presence is often an indicator of ancient woodland.

Ancient woodland is rare in that it has undisturbed, and very rich soil.  It has not been ploughed or turned over by man for centuries, if at all.  It often dates back to the last Ice Age, and in deciduous woodland, has been fed every year with the falling leaves in autumn.  Deciduous trees also enable the prolific growth of another key ancient woodland indicator species – the English Bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta).  They flower and leaf early in the growing season, making the most of the available light before the tree canopy closes in late spring, giving a beautiful carpet of colour so typical of British woodland, and much loved pollen and nectar for our humble Bumblebees. 

Ferns are also well adapted to woodland, these shade loving group of plants are one of my favourite.  I love how each leaf gradually uncurls from the centre, extending out into beautiful light green fronds, it’s like unwrapping a present.  Large ancient trees in Britain harbour many beautiful little rare treasures, like the Golden Hoverfly (Callicera spinolae), large furry hoverflies that more closely resemble a honeybee, except that they have long black antennae that are white at the tips.  The adults are active in September and October, often feeding on nectar rich ivy as it is one plant which offers nectar and pollen at this time of the year.  Golden Hoverfly tend to lay their eggs in ancient trees that have been pollarded, where wet rot holes have often formed, or in the snags and complex branch structures of these old trees.

Perhaps the most elegant and beautiful creature of ancient woodland, is the Purple Emperor Butterfly (Apatura iris).  This Butterfly can appear black and white from some angles, but when the sunlight strikes the wings at just the right angle, a magnificent purple sheen is revealed.  This Butterfly spends most of its time up in the tree canopy feeding on aphid honeydew, although it’s rather unusual diet does bring it down in the early morning and again in the late afternoon, when it will feed on animal droppings, carrion, moisture from damp mud, and have even happily landed on human observers to feed on their sweat!

Another beautiful butterfly is the Silver-washed Fritillary (Argynnis paphia), a bright orange butterfly named after the silver streaks found underneath its wings.  This Fritillary is most often found in woodland where it’s larval food plant, the Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana), grows.  As adults, they feed on aphid honeydew in the woodland canopy, but also their favourite nectar sources, the flowers of Bramble and Thistle.    The Silver-washed Fritillary is a strong flyer, hurtling along through the tree canopy searching for anything that might be food, and investigating anything remotely orange coloured in case it might be a potential mate.  Their courtship flight is the most spectacular of all though, with the paler orange female flying in a straight line, whilst the male continuously flies in loops all around her, before eventually landing on a convenient spot where the male showers her in scent scales.  How romantic!

Wood Ant

Important managers of ancient woodland are the rare and often overlooked are the Narrow Headed Ants (Formica exsecta), recognised by a deep notch at the back of their head.  Even though they are only 10mm long, they play an important role in helping to regenerate forests.  Certain plants are dependent on ants for distribution of their seeds.  For example, Small Cow Wheat (Melampyrum sylvaticum), produces seeds with a small sweet attachment which attracts the ants.  The ants carry the seeds to their nest, where they will consume the yummy food, before taking the seeds out of the nest and disposing of them somewhere new where they will germinate into new plants the following year.  Ants must have a sweet tooth too!

Narrow Headed Ants are also surprisingly green in their way of living.  Masters of eco architecture, they build large dome-shaped nests around a tussock of grass or some similar plant, which provides not only the foundation of the nest, but also heat as the vegetation decays within their nest.  They also build their nests asymmetrically, with the larger and flatter side facing south, so as to get the maximum heat from the sun on their nests.  The worker ants also go out sunbathing, before returning to the nest and using their now heated bodies to warm and help incubate the eggs.  They also thatch their roof with a covering of grass, heather and pine needles, insulating their home from the cold.  I guess when you’ve gone to so much trouble to make your home so nice, you can understand how wood ants can be very territorial, and Narrow Headed Ants are no exception.  They have been known to climb onto the backs of other ant species, and decapitate them from behind, literally biting their heads off!  Perhaps they’ve watched one too many zombie movies?

Wood Ant

If you’re looking for more scary creatures of the forest, there are a couple of rare bats, the Barbastelle Bat (Barbastella barbastellus) and Bechstein’s Bat (Myotis bechsteinii).  I think the Barbastelle Bat is probably the scarier looking of the two, being mostly black and pictured here in caves.  It’s kind of ironic to think that humans used to live in caves, and these days most of us tend to have a fear of Bats flapping around us, how did we ever manage to live in caves with them?  Surely we must have come across them in the past, or is that where our fear of them first came from?  Did we inadvertently spook them with a noise, or was it just their time to fly out, and we happened to be in the way when they went?

Barbastella barbastellus

Apparently, Bats roost in different locations at different times, depending on whether they just want somewhere to sleep for the day, a breeding roost, or a hibernation roost.  For breeding, they prefer higher treetops, just under the canopy, where the sun will keep the females and their babies warm.  Non-breeding adult females, and males, prefer hollows and damaged spots in older or dead trees to keep cool in for sleeping during the day.  But in winter, they need somewhere cooler, to allow their body temperatures to drop, preferably quiet where they won’t be disturbed, and somewhere with a consistent temperature.  Perhaps in the base of an old tree, but Bats would also find caves ideal for this.  Perhaps they would hibernate deep in caves, whereas prehistoric man would be nearer a cave’s entrance making small fires to keep warm.  Then come springtime, a whole swarm of Bats could come flying out, surprising and terrifying humans, who would have had no idea they were there!

I think the cutest creature of the UK’s forests has to be the Dormouse (Muscardinus avellanarius), a quick search on GoogleImages brings up many gorgeous pictures to melt your heart.  Dormice are so sweet, with tiny human-like hands, cute faces, golden brown fur, and a fluffy tail.  They spend most of their time sleeping, they sleep all day long, and hibernate up to seven months a year.  They wake up in April, and spend their nocturnal lives searching for food amongst the branches in the trees, often taking long detours and leaping from branch to branch rather than having to risk the danger of predators on the ground.  They tend to feed on flowers and pollen in the spring, fruit during the summer, and nuts in the autumn.  Their favourite food is hazelnuts and bramble, whose flowers and berries can sustain them for quite some time, but they can also eat aphids and caterpillars.  The trees really do hold all they need, even giving them nesting material, and hollows within which to build their nests close to the ground for winter hibernation.    

Over recent years, Dormice are in decline.  Because of their specialised diet, and because of their fear of crossing open ground, dormice are restricted to ancient woodland sites, they cannot cross open ground to colonise other sites when their woodland habitat is destroyed.  All the species I have mentioned today are especially adapted to ancient woodland, many are rare and threatened.  Amazingly, only 2% of the British Isles is covered in ancient woodland, and only half of it is in a semi-natural condition.  The other half has been planted with exotic and invasive species, such as conifers and rhododendron, spoiling the biodiversity and making it difficult or impossible for our native species to survive there.  These woodlands need careful management, with the maintenance of native species of flora and fauna, to bring the woods back to what was originally here in these woodlands.  We cannot bring back the species that are already extinct, but we can use what we’ve learned to protect the threatened species barely hanging on to our British countryside. 

The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) is meant to protect special sites like these, to protect the ancient forests of Britain and its inhabitants from extinction.  But their wording has provided a huge loophole allowing any potential developers to bulldoze straight through the land.  This is what it says:

“Planning permission should be refused for development resulting in the loss or deterioration of irreplaceable habitats, including ancient woodland and the loss of aged or veteran trees found outside ancient woodland, unless the need for, and benefits of, the development in that location clearly outweigh the loss.

How can any benefit of development outweigh the loss of such a beautiful habitat and the amazing species within it, which could be lost forever?

The Woodland Trust believe this wording is as much use as a chocolate teapot.  The wording should be changed to ancient woodland loss being “wholly exceptional.”  The UK government disagrees, they believe there is adequate protection, despite there being absolutely no evidence to back that claim up.  What do you believe?  Do you want to protect our amazing and precious species?

As much use as a Chocolate Teapot Youtube video

Photo Credits:  Image 1 & 4 – WT/ML (Woodland Trust Media Library), Image 2, 3, 5, 10 & 11 – Getty Images, Image 6 & 8 – Nic Relton (Flickr Creative Commons license), Image 7 – Jim Champion / Geograph (Creative Commons license), Image 9 – Jan Svetlik (Flickr Creative Commons license)

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