The Turn of the Year
Despite the newness of the season, it being only 7 days since the Solstice, the first stirrings of a new year are noticeable. I went through the woods by Gunpowder Gorge where the river charges through a narrow limestone gap. The woods are a relatively new arrival, maybe 100 years old, with trees growing thickly on a shallow sticky marl which oozes wet all year. In the last few years the birch trees have been falling like matchsticks. Now the woodland floor is a like a giant game of pick-up sticks with a jumbled mess of silver stems lying crisscrossed and intertwined. This dead wood, though far from aesthetically pleasing, will provide vital food for the processes which might turn this young wood into a more mature naturalistic state. The dead wood is being colonised by a wide range of fungi and no doubt by saproxylic beetles (beetles that feed on dead wood). The fungi with their immense spread of underground hyphae not only process the decaying wood, but play a role in incorporating it into the soil and converting nutrients into simple compounds which plants can absorb. Saproxylic beetles are fundamental to the wild wood, playing a vital role in processing the normally indigestible heartwood of dead trees, while at the same time their fat larvae provide a plentiful food supply for woodpeckers and a host of other woodland species. Saprophytes (any organisms that feed on dead wood) are the missing key in many British woods, so all that lying timber is a real treasure for anyone who delights in wild woods.
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly wildlife adapts to the turning of the year. I heard my first thrush toning up for the Spring on Christmas morning. Now that first songster has been joined by robins and tits singing in the gardens, hedgerows and woods. Today along the river a dipper was singing his scratchy warbling territorial song. I spotted his bright white bib, bobbing up and down. The bird had chosen his singing position carefully, with his back to a concave hollow in the limestone wall above the river. The hollow collected and magnified the Dipper’s quiet voice, so that it could be heard above the cascading water. I walked home with an orange glowing western horizon, beneath a bright crescent moon, and a few minutes more light than the previous week.