Wildlife on the edge
PUBLISHED: 19:27 22 February 2014 | UPDATED: 19:27 22 February 2014
Woodlands aren’t just about mighty oaks and yews, most of the wildlife action takes place at the edge where tall trees give way to shrubs and grass
When we picture woodlands it is likely that we might first think about the trees deep inside.
Perhaps majestic, silver-skinned beech trees, dark, mysterious yews or straight-trunked oaks thrusting their branches high up into the canopy.
Or we might think of the coppice trees - tall chestnut poles that clatter together in the slightest breeze. Or the sinuous hornbeam with intertwined cords of wood like the muscle in a weightlifter’s arms.
Asked about the wildlife in this wood, we might pause to think hard, because in the heart of the wood it is often still and quiet.
This is the world of the specialist - the woodpeckers, tree creepers, nuthatches and the elusive hawfinch.
Unless we are in a recently coppiced woodland, there may be few plants. This is the domain of the recyclers; the fungi and invertebrates going about their complex business largely unseen.
So little do we know about this world, that much that occupies the work of woodland ecologists seems far-fetched; more to do with fairy tales than science.
For it is possible that, through roots and fungi, trees may chemically talk to each other. They may even collectively send resources and nourishment to younger trees.
But most of the wildlife action in a wood takes place at the edge where the world of tall trees gives way to shrubs and grass.
The Forestry Commission considers that up to seventy per cent of all woodland wildlife lives within and relies upon the woodland edge. Many of these species may be commonplace, such as blackbirds, song thrushes, small mammals foraging for food, or woodland butterflies like the peacock.
Maintaining the woodland edge takes energy and skill to keep a dynamic habitat of grasses, flowers, brambles and thicket to provide a constant source of wildlife: friendly habitat and food in all seasons but especially towards winter’s end – the ‘hungry gap’ – when resources are scarce.
So important is getting our farmland birds through this critical time that some farmers grow crops to supply seed and, in some instances, buy in seed to feed the birds, just as you might in your garden.
The woodland edge may be even more important. As our ancient woodlands face more challenges we need to buffer and link them so that wildlife can move from one to the other through a ‘Living Landscape’.
Letting thicket and scrub gently creep around our woods, merging them with the grass and arable landscape is vital if we are to maintain our woodland wildlife.
Research into insect species, on which we depend to pollinate crops, suggests that many of them may rely on the woodland edge habitat.
Pollinators in the UK are estimated to be worth £510.2m annually to our economy, so letting our woodlands spread out a little may have more of a value than we first thought. n