Ancient woodland was worth the 50-year wait
SHE was called Mrs Squires, and I was her pupil at Christ The King Primary School in Leicester.
I reckon she would be pretty chuffed that I’m writing about her half a century later but it is right she should get a mention, because it was her enthusiastic and exciting description of the ancient Burnham Beeches in Buckinghamshire that stayed with me all these years.
And it was her who came to mind when, at long last, I visited the Beeches last week.
My 50-year mental image was soon shattered when I found car parks and tarmac roads through the reserve, a café and a visitor centre, when I had pictured pastoral bliss and 14th century woodsmen demonstrating their skills.
But I soon got over that when I touched living trees that these same men had tended and harvested all those years ago.
Twisted and gnarled they are, but still alive and providing vital and unique habitat for myriad species of wildlife.
I told you about the non-native mandarins last week, but this special place holds populations of some of England’s rarest birds, including nightjars and the mighty hawfinch.
The UK’s largest finch, it has a massive, powerful bill. Always shy and difficult to see, the hawfinch has become even more enigmatic in recent years with a decline in many of its traditional breeding areas.
Hawfinches are very elusive birds, spending much of their time in the tops of trees and disappearing when humans are still some distance away.
To find them you have to learn their ticking calls, know where to look and be able to approach without alarming them.
As finches go, this is a real monster, almost as big as redwing, and with a huge bill capable of cracking cherry stones.
They are basically orangey-brown in plumage with one massive white wing bar and a white tip to the tail.
The bill is grey-black in summer, horn-coloured in winter and has a distinctive black surround.
In the past, most of Burnham Beeches was grazed by livestock and many of the trees were pollarded to generate a regular supply of firewood.
The medieval craft of pollarding, where the upper branches of a tree are pruned, produced more foliage and extended the tree’s life.
Rangers have been trying to revive the practice at Burnham Beeches, and the plan is to re-establish the link between the forest and the community around it by providing fuel, in the form of small logs for wood-burning stoves, and high-quality meat from their cattle which now graze the area.
By doing this, they hope to ensure the longevity of the Beeches and make the forest more relevant to local people’s lives.
Pollarding and grazing resulted in a landscape of wood pasture and heathland.
It was very rich in wildlife because the mixture of sun and shade provided a good variety of micro-habitats for different species.
Fungi are an essential part of the trees’ ecosystem, breaking down dead and decaying material.
The fungi create conditions where saproxylic invertebrates thrive.
These need dead or decaying wood for one or more stages of their life cycles, often the larval stage.
This is one of the most threatened communities of invertebrates in Europe.
Some mosses and lichens are only found on old trees. Several have very specific requirements, such as the tiny Forster’s knot hole which grows only on the sides of small pools of water found in the exposed roots of beech trees.
An ancient tree in Buckinghamshire