…or why dead wood can be a good thing…
Yesterday started off here in Cornwall as a perfect autumn day: the sun was shining, the garden was coated with frost and the air was crisp. So I decided to head off to a local area of ancient woodland – Devichoys Nature Reserve – owned and managed by Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
There is very little that can beat a woodland for an autumn walk – the colours, the leafless branches twisting darkly against the sky, wood pigeons dashing from tree to tree or bright robins perching close by hoping you’ll kick up something interesting to eat, rime-coated leaves, the roar of cars and lorries…oh, yes, Devichoys runs along the main A39 between Falmouth and Truro, and the traffic noise is constant. At first I thought I’d find it distracting, but I was surprised how quickly I shut it out (possibly a skill gained from living in London!), and focussed instead on the stillness and delicate noises of the woods.
Devichoys is a 40-acre site of ancient woodland. This does not mean it is a relic of wildwood or primeval forest – ancient woodland means a wood that is generally at least 400 years old and with a predominance of natural not human-planted trees, but which nonetheless bears the hallmarks of traditional sustainable management, such as coppicing. Look at a plantation of oaks, with their straight trunks and almost uniform shapes and height, and then look at the crooked, weaving branches of the sessile oaks (Quercus petraea), clearly of different ages, that dominate Devichoys Wood. Very little ancient woodland like this remains in Cornwall – much was felled to fuel the tin mining industry – so fragments like this are beautiful to find.
As you walk round the circular track in Devichoys you can spot the familiar signs of coppicing everywhere – several stems growing from one central ‘stool’ where the tree has been cut – making use of the natural ability of the tree to regenerate and provide a continuous source of wood. The very informative sign at the entrance to the reserve told me that coppicing stopped here about 60 years ago, but that the Wildlife Trust has now restarted it as a conservation practice.
We are used to thinking of human impact on the environment as bad for wildlife, but in fact these traditional and low-impact management practices are beneficial, by creating a varied structure and open spaces to suit different species. The Trust is also creating ‘rides’ through the wood – clear avenues where the trees have been cut to create lighter areas. I’ll definitely be visiting in the summer to enjoy the colours of the wildflowers and butterflies that will be thriving there! These spaces can also be good for some bat species that like a varied environment.
There is plenty to see in the late autumn, though. I started my walk early, so the frost was still decorating the leaves and acorns, catching the low sun.
Look at this rime-covered acorn:
And what’s been nibbling this one?
In case you were beginning to wonder about the subtitle of this post – the management of the wood also incorporates leaving plenty of dead wood lying around, and I loved seeing all the different shapes of fallen and felled logs and branches. Why is dead wood so good? Well, it is of course part of the cycle of nature for plants to decay and return their nutrients to the earth. And in the meantime it provides a home for mosses, lichens, fungi and invertebrates.
These lichens are enjoying the dead wood!
And so is this fungus!
I spent a lovely, muddy, crisp two hours in Devichoys Wood, spotting lovely old trees of hazel, holly, beech (which hold their browny-gold autumn leaves through much of the winter) as well as the gnarled oaks and the bramble (still trying to flower!).
I even managed to get lost (not a surprise to anyone familiar with my sense of direction), and found myself at the edge of the wood, admiring the trees curving away around a field edge. It always gives me a thrill to approach a wood, to wonder what I’ll find under its branches, but it is even more entrancing to stand beneath the trees, looking outward, wrapped in its peace and privacy.
For more about Devichoys Wood and how to get there – it is off the A39 close to Perranaworthal and about 3 miles north of Penryn – see the Cornwall Wildlife Trust‘s website. Be warned – parking is limited.
To find out more about ancient woodland, I don’t think you can do better than Oliver Rackham‘s Woodlands, published in Collins New Naturalist Library series.