The sight of a dead tree, denuded and stripped of its prior glory, appears to be a worrisome one to some. Those who view such things as a public health hazard, a catalyst for fire or, worse still, as simply untidy. Often to such an extent that some actively remove fallen trees, or at the very least, encourage others to do the same. Sanitising our woodlands through the misguided notion that dead wood somehow represents dead weight in the woodland ecosystem, and does not quite fit with the verdant vision of perfection many people have for our wooded places. Though, in truth, this could not be further from the truth.
Dead wood has littered the floors of British woodlands for millennia – since the first trees began to live, and die, in natural succession. Indeed in prehistory, our woodlands would look much different than they do today. Not least due to the absence of dead wood which, in a healthy woodland ecosystem, can comprise as much as 30% of total woody biomass. The woodlands of today, somewhat poor in comparison, lacking a great deal of this valuable resource. But what is it exactly that sends conservationists balmy over dead wood?
The truth is that dead wood is keystone component within woodland ecosystems, with between 20-40% of woodland species directly dependent on the resource. With both standing and fallen deadwood of paramount importance in creating microhabitats in which a vast number of species thrive. Including a diverse range of saproxylic (deadwood-dependent) fungi and a mindboggling variety of mosses and lichens. Species which, over time, break down the wood, releasing nutrients and allowing larger plants to colonise. The characteristic “hummocks” formed by aged tree stumps blanketed first in mosses, and later in Bilberry and Ling a familiar sight in our more natural woodlands. With dead wood, in turn, providing a valuable habitat for a number of increasingly rare insects. With notable examples including the Black Tinder Fungus Beetle – found only in Glen Affric – and the increasingly scarce Aspen Hoverfly. The latter now listed as BAP species of conservation concern and wholly dependent on, as its name suggests, decaying Aspen. These are not alone, however, and a veritable smorgasbord of beetles, flies, worms and bees also call dead wood their home.
The virtues of dead wood stretch far beyond the realm of invertebrates, however, and a number of arguably more charismatic species are also directly linked to its abundance. Among these, the Crested Tit, the poster-boy for enigmatic Scottish wildlife, which is highly dependent on dead Scots Pines for nesting. There is also the Willow Tit, a species subject to a pronounced population decline in recent years, as well as, of course, more woodpeckers, owls, tits and treecreepers than you can shake a decaying stick at. All of which goes without mentioning the myriad species which feed on the insects associated with dead wood – the warblers, flycatchers and crests. With bats too utilising standing dead wood (snags) for both summer and winter accommodation. Indeed, ten of our fifteen native species have, in fact, been shown to utilise such places.
The loss of dead wood from our woodlands is one of the most pressing conservation issues in Britain today, and many species are feeling the pinch. Whether from a decrease in suitable nesting sites or the loss of a vital food source. With dead wood dependent birds and insects comprising some of the most rapidly declining species today. Something which does not appear to have gone unnoticed, with many now, mercifully, taking action to rectify the problem, including both Trees For Life and the Foresty Commission. Though one of the most promising initiatives I have seen to date comes from the Westquarter Wildlife Group, who, at present, are pioneering a simplistic yet highly effective means of conserving this important resource. Through the use of specially designed plagues in order to educate the public regarding the importance of dead wood. Though the words below from Les Wallace gives perhaps the best summary:
“Westquarter Wildlife Group has pioneered something which may prove to be a useful tool in saving woods from the loss of dead wood, and it’s extremely simple and cheap. Dead trees, which constitute no genuine health and safety hazard, now carry a simple wooden plaque (a cut section of tree trunk), like the ones people have their house number on, with a message inscribed. With examples including, ‘Woodpeckers Love this Tree’ or ‘Dis Tree is Gr8 4 Wildlife’. The latter showing you can ‘text’ in order to make use of limited space and cut down on the routering, a form of carving, needed for a long lasting sign. There’s plenty of scope for creating new messages and making images of the animals and fungi that needs dead wood. Children could be asked to come up with their own designs. Which would be placed high enough on the tree to prevent vandal attacks, and remain conspicuous for years.
It’s straightforward enough – Gordon Harper of the Forestry Commission kindly donated the sawn wood, we just needed a wonderfully creative and patient person to router the actual message. Step forward group secretary Amanda Cameron. With the help of ranger Lesley Sweeney and assistant Finlay Maxwell two of the plaques have now been put up on dead tree stumps in Westquarter Glen. More will follow and hopefully there be other ideas to promote the need for dead wood and dying trees in the future. It may seem a very small step in practical terms, but, in reality, it’s quite a significant one.”
Personally, I love the idea listed above and take my hat off to the group for attempting it. As Les says, the scheme is simple, almost incredibly so, yet that, I feel, is the beauty of it. In a day where most people are unlikely to venture online in an effort to obtain the latest set of Forestry Commission guidelines or peer-reviewed journals, such things are a life saver. Short, sharp, informative messages – particularly important to children who, in the future, will be tasked with safeguarding the natural world. Such basic moves are essential in our day of growing detachment from nature, and I wish the group all the best in the future. Hopefully, in a few years, we will be seeing such measures enacted elsewhere in the UK.
If you would like to hear more about the antics of the Westquarter Wildlife Group, you can find them on Facebook. And if you wish to “do your bit” in the fight to conserve our priceless dead wood, the RSPB provide some tips on how you can do so. In your own backyard no less. See Here.