Now winter is almost over, and despite it being a wild and stormy one at times, it has been a season of valuable learning experiences for me. With my Volunteer reserve officer position at Pitsford Water Nature Reserve, I’ve gained brushcutter and chainsaw qualifications and have had experience managing habitats with this machinery.
One of my favourite tasks was coppicing: a very satisfying job to do by hand, it is easier but much noisier when done with a chainsaw. Some overgrown hazel stools needed coppicing in one of the compartments at Pitsford, so it was great to have a go at coppicing with a chainsaw, as well as trying out a few other woodland skills.
I removed all shoots except the youngest one on each stool and practised layering: a process used to increase the stock of stools in a coppice woodland. As hazel coppice is quite rare at Pitsford, it will be good to increase the density of stools. After bending the stem, I shaved the bark off a section to expose the cambium (the vascular tissue that creates secondary growth) and pegged it into the ground with some Y-shaped forks cut earlier.
I took time to brash over each stool with a dead-hedge style technique: it’s a bit of an experiment that aims to keep deer from browsing the regrowth and allow light to reach the stool as well as giving space for the stems to grow straight up. Piling brash directly over the stool could block some of the light/space the stool needs and could result in regrowth that isn’t as strong or straight. On a visit to Rawhaw Wood, the owners Huw and Carolyn found brashing stools reduced the quality of their coppice products: instead they create a high dead hedge around each coupe to keep the deer out and their coppice stems perfect.
On a slightly different note, there is another activity that can be done in the woodlands at the coldest time of year…
In the bleakness of winter, there can be little to study and identify. The easiest and most obvious identifiable parts of many plants won’t appear until spring comes around. However, careful observation can reveal exquisite details that will aid in identification of certain plant species. Trees are wonderfully diverse in their morphology and this is more subtly displayed in winter. The tree’s leaf and flower buds are produced in the previous growing season and are protected by bud scales. Each species has unique bud and stem characteristics, and along with inspection of the bark and tree shape, identification of tree species in winter can be relatively simple.
To help myself (and maybe others!) memorise tree bud identification, I searched for and have taken some images of a number of common British tree species.
Alder (Alnus glutinosa) – Alder buds are a greyish-purple colour, with a soft texture and are slightly curved, sometimes looking almost slipper shaped.
Ash (Fraxinus excelsior) – Ash buds are distinctively coal-black, with a rounded triangular shape and resemble tiny deer hooves!
Beech (Fagus sylvatica) – Beech buds are glossy chestnut in colour, very thin and taper to a sharp point.
Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa) – Blackthorn is easily recognised by its many spiny thorns. To distinguish between Hawthorn, look at the buds which are arranged in clusters on spines, not singly.
Wild cherry (Prunus avium) – Cherry buds are quite round and pointed at the tip, and resemble bunches of cherries in their arrangement on the stem: they cluster in groups at nodes, although they can be spaced out singly and alternately on the stem.
Crabapple (Malus sylvestris) – Crabapple buds are reddish-brown and teardrop shaped, pointed at the tip. Some new buds sit atop a stack of knobbly scars on the stem from previous years, whilst other stems are smooth, having grown quicker.
Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea) – The stems of dogwood are more distinctive than the buds, with a bright red hue, although they can be green on the opposite side. The buds are small, brown and pointed.
Field maple (Acer campestre) – Field maple buds are small, with grey bud scales. Their position on the stem is a good defining feature: the buds are placed opposite on the stem, with each pair pointing in the opposite direction to the one before. Stems can become corky and ridged with age.
Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna) – Most hawthorn stems have spines, some don’t, but all have very round brown buds that are red at the tip.
Hazel (Corylus avellana) – The hazel is starting to flower at this time of year, so some tiny female flowers resembling red sea anemones are sprouting from the tips of buds. Buds are greenish brown on a slightly hairy stem.
Common Lime (Tilia x europaea) – Lime buds are a rich red colour, quite large and oval shaped. They are placed alternately on the red stem, which kinks at each node.
Pedunculate Oak (Quercus robur) – Oak buds are chestnut coloured and egg shaped, with more than 3 bud scales enclosing the bud. Buds are quite large and cluster at the tip of the stem.
Rowan (Sorbus aucuparia) – Young Rowan has beautiful shining silver bark, which can be quite distinctive in winter, as are the buds. Dark and coated in downy silver hair, the buds are held close the stem.
Silver birch (Betula pendula) – Most easily recognised by its striking paper white bark in winter, Silver birch buds are a long, pointed oval shape, held tight against the brown stem.
Spindle (Euonymus europaea) – Easily recognised if the bright pink seed pods are still attached to the plant, spindle buds are located opposite on the stem and I think they are shaped like curvy minarets!
Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra) – Elm buds are small, alternate in their position on the stem and are a deep brown, almost black colour.