My late-January bird count was undertaken on a chilly, misty morning. The damp air drifted slowly through the tree canopy, mist tangling with the bare branches, and gathering into larger droplets, before finally falling to the ground. Walking through the wood I heard the apparent sounds of rain on all sides, yet when I emerged onto an open ride, I was back into swirling mist, without the raindrops. It was as if I had been transported into a Costa Rican cloud forest, though I have to say that plodding through cold, sucking mud didn’t feel very exotic. Once again, the two-kilometre set route revealed remarkably few birds, and during that hour or so I recorded only eleven species, the most notable absentees being classic woodland birds such as three sorts of woodpecker, nuthatch and tree creeper. Even “common” birds were hard to find – no robins and just single wren and wood pigeon. This contrasted quite markedly with a recent count in Kings Wood at Molash, using identical methodology. There I found a much more varied 24 species and three times as many individuals. Interestingly, although I did hear tree creeper and nuthatch at Molash, the woodpeckers were also missing there. Marsh tit, brambling, siskin, crossbill, bullfinch, song thrush and mistle thrush are just some of the species counted at Molash but not found on my Blean transect. A large part of the explanation for these differences must reside in the nature of the two woods, the part of Blean that the route passes through being mostly uniform mature oakwood, whereas at Molash there is maturing beechwood, young and old coppice, scrub, and towering conifers. Spruce, pine and other evergreens get a generally bad press in conservation circles, thanks to their being introduced species that tend to shade out most vegetation beneath them, but when mixed in with deciduous trees they seem to provide conditions that are actually preferred by quite a lot of birds. The bullfinch is an interesting example: in Europe it is largely a bird of conifer woodland, whereas in England it is considered to favour broadleaved woods, but at Blean the evidence suggests that they prefer areas with a mix of habitats – mature trees, coppice and more open areas with scrub, bramble and herbaceous plants that can provide them with a variety of food through the year. So, introducing a scattering of conifers within deciduous woods, while increasing the artificiality of our cherished landscape, might enrich our bird communities. A conundrum for conservationists!
If you go down to the woods today……. you may find areas of ride shoulder and heath that look like casualties of the Somme offensive, with smashed young tree stems littering the ground. This is what a mulcher can do to vegetation; essentially a crude machine that obliterates woody growth through brute force, severing and pulverising the stems with a set of blunt teeth that bear no resemblance to keen cutting blades. But, it is a quick and relatively cheap way of achieving the conservation objectives of keeping parts of the wood as open habitat which, bearing in mind what I’ve written above about habitat variety, can only be seen as a good thing. The broken shards of wood rot down relatively rapidly, and though the shredded remnants of the stumps will send up fresh shoots, there will be plenty of open space for herbaceous plants to get established, making the rides better for butterflies and keeping the heathland more open for our nesting nightjars and tree pipits. Come the summer, the scars will have healed, not carpeted with poppies as on the First World War battlefields, but garlanded with St John’s wort, thistles, willowherb, grasses and much more.
Two views of heathland that have been mulched to keep the scrub in check and suitable for nightjars.
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