27 Nov 2021

Albert Nolan: Exploring the woodland walks on our doorstep

Albert Nolan: Exploring the woodland walks on our doorstep

As we stepped out of the car I immediately regretted not bringing my cap. The day had looked nice and sunny from inside, but there was a bracing wind blowing outside. I huddled deeper into my coat and we slipped under the wire blocking the entrance to the forestry walk.

This is a lovely quite walk and we are blessed to have so many woodland walks right on our doorstep. While conifer woods are generally thought of as lifeless places there can be a surprising amount of wildlife living along the edges of the paths.

The first wildlife we saw were four beautiful horses. They had just been left in by the farmer and they will find plenty of good grazing among the grasses and flowers. Their hooves also dig up the ground and a hungry flock of rooks and jackdaws were busy foraging for grubs.

The woodland road is refuge for many species of wildflowers. They are generally left to their own devices and only disturbed by the occasional walker and when it time to fell the crop.

Many of these flowers are very beneficial for hard pressed insects. Red clover was growing in abundance and we had a good look, but found no late bumblebees. I did see a common carder bumblebee a few days previously in my garden. She was feeding on the flowers of vetch that was growing up through the long grass at the base of the hedge.

We crossed over a small stream and this led us into the woods. It was probably planted around 50 years ago and is now ready for harvesting. The increasing frequency of storms has taken its toll on the forest.

Many of the trees are leaning against each other, while more have tumbled to the ground. This gave us the opportunity to examine the tops of the trees, but there was very little in the way of mosses and lichens. A few of the trees had cones packed with seeds. This must provide an additional welcome meal for many woodland creatures.

Scrub willow grows along the edge of the path and this supports a few hundred species of insects and their larva who feed on its leaves and flowers. In early spring it has long hanging catkins packed with pollen and nectar for bees.

Under the willows the leaves on the brambles were turning a beautiful red. The long arching stems have been picked clean of their blackberries by birds and animals. These then help to spread the bramble throughout the wood. They quickly grow into dense patches as their sharp thorns are a great defence against grazing animals like deer.

Brambles are also the nursery for future deciduous trees. This is the only place that trees can find a safe place away from the mouths of animals.

The layers of stones used to make the forest road create another niche habitat for dry loving plants. We found lots of the yellow flowers of cat’s ear, daises, pink herb robert and foxgloves. These flowers would not be able to compete with the rank grasses and cows in the nearby fields.

Our first bird of the day was a robin and he was singing from a tree. Both male and females keep winter territories. While robins are often thought of as garden birds their traditional homes is woodland. As the forests were cleared they moved closer to our homes. The mixed trees, shrubs and borders of a mature garden are the perfect mini replicate of their woodland home.

A high gate proved no obstacle and we quickly jumped over. The track became much wetter. Moss covered the ground in the woodland and the dykes were full of brackish water. In spring these are often full of tadpoles but many dykes dry own before their residents reach maturity.

At an old house situated at the foot of the hills, we stopped for a quick break and to take in the incredible scenery. The view and wildlife must have been amazing in the summer but barren in the winter, without all of the trappings of modern living. The wider impact on the landscape is evident from upland forestry, wind turbines and quarries.

The hedge in front of the house has been torn and shredded. It looks terrible and is absolutely no benefit for wildlife. Hedgerows are rare and precious habitats in the hills and provide much needed shelter, food and nesting spots for birds.

At the base of a steep path a mountain stream has been carolled into a pipe. The stream has carved a deep ravine down the side of the hills. Birdlife is scarce with most species having moved down lower for the winter. Only a few hardy wrens are left.

These tiny birds fly quickly across the path in front of us and a long cold long winter takes a terrible toll on wrens. They must really struggle to find enough food during the short days to sustain them through the long nights.

We can go no further as the path ends in deep forestry. With darkening clouds threatening overhead we quickly retraced our steps back to the car.

Inhospitable looking at first glance the woodland reveals it treasures with a little patience. Comments/ questions to or 089 4230502. Albert is also available to give walks/ talks to schools, tidy towns, youth and community groups.

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