A dead tree can bring new life

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Give na­ture an op­por­tu­nity and it will quickly be ex­ploited.

Look­ing through the win­dows of the garage (it’s ac­tu­ally no longer a garage - we con­verted it to a lounge area years ago, but old habits die hard), I have a clear view of the re­mains of a cherry tree. Once the pride of the gar­den with a tight mass of eye-smart­ing, white candy floss blooms in spring, it is sadly now just a pared down skele­tal stump with a few twisted antlers of de­cay­ing wood. Where once hun­dreds of lithe young branches would whiplash in a sum­mer breeze, its corpse now stands bare; a sorry dis­eases­tricken rem­nant of past glo­ries.

I had to take a saw to this once splen­did spec­i­men some 10 years ago, re­gret­ting each stroke of the toothed blade but know­ing for safety’s sake that it needed to be done. I cut the branches re­moved into man­age­able chunks and piled them in a shady spot under a hedge where they have sub­se­quently pro­vided a breed­ing, feed­ing and hid­ing place for myr­iad small in­ver­te­brates, am­phib­ians and mam­mals while they rot. The re­main­ing trunk has stood in slow de­cay, ful­fill­ing a util­i­tar­ian role as a wash­ing line prop, ever since.

It will pay us to take a closer look at this hith­erto ar­bo­real de­light: the tree may be dead but it is not life­less. An in­spec­tion of the gnarled sur­face will show a rich coat­ing of lichen whose green and yel­low whorls car­pet the wind­ward side of the trunk. These lichens form nu­mer­ous nooks and niches which help to shel­ter small spi­ders and tiny in­sects. Closer in­spec­tion still shows a few mosses to be present; both these low grow­ing en­crus­ta­tions form a richly tex­tured mo­saic.

Fungi are a fea­ture in sea­son. I’m no ex­pert here but have recog­nised puff­balls and bracket fungi to­gether with smaller species which may well be honey fun­gus. I’ve no­ticed that some of these have been nib­bled by mice. There are also molds and fil­a­ments of mildew in the damper spa­ces under loose bark. Give na­ture an op­por­tu­nity and it will quickly be ex­ploited.

As you would ex­pect, birds have been well rep­re­sented over the years, from spar­rowhawks us­ing the dense cover of the fo­liage to sur­vey the gar­den for prey, to green­finches feast­ing on the flesh of pro­lific un­ripe cher­ries. While there is now no cover or fruit, the stump still plays host to sev­eral avian guests. The bole has many deep cracks which are ideal for sit­ing a tempt­ing stash of peanuts or sun­flower seeds. With plenty of thick cover nearby the tits and finches visit all through the day­light hours, quickly steal­ing a beakful be­fore div­ing into sanc­tu­ary to de­vour the snack. A great spot­ted wood­pecker ap­pears reg­u­larly, tear­ing what lit­tle re­main­ing bark there is forcefully away from the soft wood with its chisel beak. Coal tits squeeze them­selves into the crevasses

ovipos­i­tor to drill deep and in­ject their own eggs into the ma­tur­ing grubs of the smaller in­sect. Life and death in a never end­ing cy­cle.

Stranger was the en­counter one night with a pair of mat­ing leop­ard slugs sus­pended on a string of thick mu­cus, en­twined in their her­maph­ro­dite em­brace. I’ve never seen that be­hav­iour be­fore or since.

Wood­mice can some­times be seen scur­ry­ing round the base of the tree hov­er­ing up spilt sun­flower seeds dropped by the birds. These in turn once at­tracted en­gi­neered by the wood­pecker in their cease­less quest for sus­te­nance; beady eyes dart­ing, stubby beak prob­ing. In spring dun­nocks em­ploy the fin­gered crown for song posts, a util­ity shared with black­birds, robins, wrens and the ubiq­ui­tous wood pigeons.

Later in the warm, so­porific days of high sum­mer, soli­tary wasps bore holes in the spongy wood, there to lay eggs to fur­ther the next gen­er­a­tion. Later still, grotesquely con­torted ich­neu­mon wasps use their nee­dle sharp a lovely rich red fox, a vixen I think, that spent a cou­ple of hours scrap­ing be­tween the roots vainly hunt­ing the ro­dents. Tir­ing of all things mouse it sat down, curled its lux­u­ri­ous tail around it­self and dozed in the sun­shine a mere 10 me­tres from where we watched.

That one tree has seen an aw­ful lot over the 70-plus years it has stood in a mod­est gar­den in Sprow­ston. A vast ar­ray of wild crea­tures have called it home, and still do. In­deed the tree is dead, but even in death pro­vides a cra­dle for life of all kinds.

Blos­som trees in the grounds of St Mary’s Church, Bun­gay.

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