An­cient wood­land was worth the 50-year wait

Rossendale Free Press - - The Laughing Badger - SEAN WOOD

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

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