As winter sets in, Dorset Wildlife Trust’s Reserves Ecologist Steve Masters urges us all to go down to the woods today
As winter’s cloak settles on the British countryside and wisps of mist float among the treetops, a walk among some of our oldest organisms is a must.
Entering the woodland winter realm evokes a calming sense of contentedness. As you descend deeper into the recesses of canopy and understorey, you retreat from the elements outside, whether environmental or anthropogenic.
Immerse yourself and let your imagination run wild with the history of these most ancient of habitats – the large herbivores of Britain’s past sheltering among the trees and grazing in woodland clearings; our distant relatives coppicing and working the woods for fuel and building materials; and for many of us of a certain age, Enid Blyton’s faraway tree, sheltering its magical folk.
These old, mainly broad-leaved woodland habitats in Dorset are home to an incredibly diverse range of wildlife. The towering canopy of trees, often oak ash or beech, supports thousands of species.
In winter, bird song is scarce, but the crisp air is occasionally pierced by the high-pitched peeping of troops of long-tailed tits, flitting from tree to tree in search of food.
Although deer in some areas currently pose a threat to the natural regeneration of woodlands, winter is a good time to see and hear them, especially as they rut, as the vegetation dies back.
As you walk, take time to contemplate the ‘wood wide web’ beneath your feet, a combination of fungi, bacteria and roots, all interconnected. This network allows the altruistic sharing of food and communications between trees and other plants.
In winter though, you may need to delve a little deeper for your wildlife fix and notice the more introverted of woodland species.
An important cog in the woodland ecosystem, fungi are key to recycling organic matter and helping to lock up carbon. Each time you place your foot on the woodland soil you are standing on miles of underground fungal mycorrhizae – what we see above ground is just the fruiting body of the fungi. One spectacular iconic species to keep an eye out for at the moment is the fly agaric, with its bright red cap and bright white stalk. Its colour is nature’s warning of its toxic nature.
These ancient plants, relics of times when dinosaurs still roamed the earth, are often overlooked. Their reproduction is reliant on moisture, so they often inhabit the shadier parts of woodland. Sometimes they will be perched high above your head, growing epiphytically on moss-covered tree branches. One of the most common species to look out for on your winter walk is soft shield fern, a typical shuttlecock form growing on the woodland floor. They can be large plants, but their surprisingly delicate fronds are divided several times to give a soft, feathery appearance.
Mosses and liverworts
One of the oldest lineages of plants on our planet, this diminutive floral is abundant across our woodlands, often forming cushioned mats across trees, rock and woodland floor. Their amazing structures are often difficult to see with the naked eye but are really brought to life with a magnifying glass. One species which you’re likely to come across is mouse-tailed moss, growing around the base of trees. It gives a lovely, cushioned spot to sit for that coffee break!
Find your nearest forest
We are lucky in Dorset to have a wide variety of woodlands. Dorset Wildlife Trust looks after a number of them: Powerstock Common and Bracketts Coppice in West Dorset; Kilwood and Stonehill Down in the Purbecks; Girdlers Coppice and Ashley Wood in North Dorset.
So, take some time, find a spot where the signal is strong, connect yourself into the Wood Wide Web and down your load.
Find out more about Dorset Wildlife Trust’s woodland nature reserves: dorsetwildlifetrust.org.uk/nature-reserves