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Wildlife of the woods

The wood is home to many birds and mammals, but if you are part of a noisy group you may think the wood is without large animals!

Broadleaved woodlands go through many changes throughout the seasons. These woods not only consist of many tree species, but include a rich ground flora of grasses, ferns, herbs, mosses and fungi. There is a whole cycle of growth and decay as the woodland regenerates itself each year. Among the most common plants in the ground flora are bluebell, wood anemone, wood sorrel, enchanter's nightshade, wood avens, bird's eye speedwell, wild arum, self heal and many species of ferns and mosses [LIST].

Woods in Autumn

Boad–leaved trees shed their leaves in preparation for winter. The green chlorophyll is broken down and withdrawn into the stem, and the leaves glow with the reds and yellows of carotenes and xanthophylls. An abscission layer develops which will allow each leaf to fall with the minimum of disturbance, and a protective layer of cork is laid down at the base of each leaf to seal it from infection. These elaborate preparations are necessary because in the low temperatures of winter the trees would be unable to absorb the large amounts of water from the soil to make up for what has been lost through the leaves. The needle–like leaves of conifers are specially adapted to conserve water, and so they can be retained through the winter.

Autumn is the time when the fruits on most of the trees and shrubs ripen. Insect food is becoming scarce, so the birds and mammals turn with increasing need to berries and other fruits; the resident bird populations are swollen by migrants from still colder countries, and some mammals are beginning to lay in a store of food for the winter. All of these are developments which enhance the opportunities for seed dispersal. Woodland plants have devised all sorts of ingenious strategies to facilitate the dispersal of their seeds. Many are packaged in nutritious carbohydrate–rich wrappings specially produced to attract birds, enclosed in skins coloured bright red – the colour birds see best. When the leaves have been shed, trees and shrubs whose fruits are dispersed by birds are lit up for a short time by red berries, but these quickly disappear, especially when the winter visitors arrive, and particularly if the winter is a harsh one when little other food is available.

Trees which want to attract birds retain their fruits on the branches, where the advertising is most effective. Trees whose fruits are not bird–dispersed on the other hand do not produce fruits which are brightly coloured, and they are generally shed from the plant when they ripen. Any help which squirrels or mice or other animals provide in dispersing the fruits is incidental; no special attractive colour or special carbohydrate supplement is produced. If a squirrel eats an acorn or a hazel nut, there is no hard seed coat to protect the seed during its passage through the animal's digestive system. Most of the fruits produced by beech and oak fall to the ground close to the parent, where they will have little chance of developing successfully unless a decaying or fallen tree opens up the prospect of the all–important light and living space. They may germinate freely – as beech, ash and sycamore in particular will do – but the optimism of germination soon withers.

A number of woodland trees and other plants have invested in aerodynamic inventions to carry their seeds far from their restrictive parents. Ash, sycamore, lime, maple, birch and hornbeam all have wings which help to lift the seeds in the breeze and carry them some distance from the parent – but seldom very far. Feathery parachutes offer the prospect of travel futher afield – and this is found in the willows, in wild clematis, as well as numerous herbs. Crab apple is one of the few trees which is deliberately adapted for dispersal by fruit–eating mammals such as ourselves. Other woodland plants use the unintended good offices of passing mammals by hitching a ride. They have developed hooks or bristles which catch in the animals' fur. Wood sanicle, wood avens, water avens and enchanter's nightshade are all common examples which can be seen at Knockbarron.

A profusion of fungi occurs in the woods at Knockbarron, and autumn is the time of year when they are most in evidence. The fungi of woodlands make their living in two main ways: by breaking down the bodies of dead plants (and then using the products to build up their own bodies), or else by attacking and breaking down the bodies of living plants. The great army of fungi which bring about the decay of dead plants are called saprobes, and those which attack living plants are parasites.

Nutrient recycling in nature depends on saprobic fungi and bacteria. Without them the whole business of life on earth would grind to a halt. Dead plants would never rot, and the materials which go to make up their tissues would never be recycled in nature – they would simply pile up on the surface. Yet the only time we notice these fungi is when they produce their fruiting bodies, the most conspicuous of which are mushrooms and toadstools. For the rest of the year the main body of the fungus (which consists of a vast network of tiny threads called mycelium) lives below the surface.

But these saprobic fungi are a more important part of the wood than one might think, because many of them have an intimate association with the roots of the forest trees, shrubs and herbs. These special beneficial root–fungus associations are called mycorrhizas, and they are essential to the well–being of the trees, because the fungi assist with the provision of nutrients.

Woods in Winter

In winter the woods are quiet. But the woodland still has its community of faithful residents – and certainly for the bird watcher there is always something to see. The tit family is represented by four resident species: great tit (tomtit), blue tit, coal tit and long–tailed tit, but all four can co–exist happily in the woods because each species has its distinct ecological niche, so that there is no direct competition between them.

Woods in Spring

Over the winter, the herbs of the woodland floor will have withdrawn their food reserves and stored them in below–ground parts such as stems and roots.  At the earliest hint that winter is coming to an end, the leaves of most of the spring–flowering herbs of the woodland begin to peep above ground. They need their early start, because they have to get through as much as possible of the business of the year before the trees come fully into leaf in May, drastically reducing the amount of light reaching the woodland floor. Spring is thus the time of year when the herbaceous plants of the woodland are at their most active, photosynthesising for all they are worth, and carpeting the ground with their blossoms. Parts of the woods are a blue haze in May, when the bluebells flower;  elsewhere there are constellations of five–petalled white stars of wood anemones, clumps of incomparable primroses;  wood sorrel, beaked parsley, wood avens, wild arum, golden carpets of lesser celandines, shy goldilocks, retiring wood sanicle. The trees themselves flower in spring also, but their flowers are for the most part wind–pollinated, and so they are less conspicuous since they do not need to draw attention to themselves in the way insect–pollinated flowers do. By the middle of summer there will be hardly any sign of these early starters, except for such tell–tale signs as the dried flower–stalks of the bluebells.

Woodland Animals

Animal life abounds in the woods. Fox, badger, red squirrel, rabbits, wood mice, hedgehogs and stoats are resident or regular visitors. The pine marten, is here also, but not often seen. Knockbarron used to be home to many badgers, but almost all have been exterminated because of their involvement in the transmission of bovine TB. Most of the common woodland birds can be seen at Knockbarron (listen out for the jays in particular!) [LIST]. The great majority of woodland animals are small creatures, and although they include many of the more special and interesting animals, they are unlikely to catch the eye of the casual visitor.

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