The last of the gold and brown leaves have now fallen from the trees, except for the young oak, beech and hornbeam, which often retain their dead leaves throughout much of the winter. The leaf litter that carpets the floor is often overlooked yet is essential to the healthy functioning of woodland ecosystems. The organic matter (detritus) is eaten by many creatures such as earthworms, woodlice, millipedes and soil microfauna. The resultant humus is vitally important in helping the soil retain moisture, nutrients and heat.
The bare branches of our native woodlands in winter are also often overlooked, but those of birch and wild cherry are an attractive reddish colour, whereas alder possesses bright purple buds. Dogwood is our most colourful deciduous shrub, with its distinctive reddish-purple stems standing out amongst the other understorey vegetation. In contrast, native evergreens such as holly, ivy and wild privet hold on to most of their leaves, providing much needed shelter for many bird species in particular.
The busiest time for forestry work is well underway, with mature trees being felled for timber and replanted with new seedlings. The harvesting of mature trees is best carried out during this time period because the wood contains less moisture and less wildlife is adversely affected by the felling and extracting operations. Additional new woodlands are sometimes planted on bare agricultural land, which in time will provide much needed habitats for many species that have suffered large population decreases as a result of the intensification of farming over the last century. Almost all new planting is carried out between December and the end of March. If you would like help in planning and undertaking the creation of a new native woodland please contact us.
Demand for firewood predictably increases during the winter months, and most of our native species can be burned, provided the timber has been dried sufficiently. Trees that are thinned out during woodland management operations are ideal for firewood since their form and size make them unsuitable for high grade timber. As with any felling operations, it is essential firewood is harvested in a sustainble way and as part of a long-term management plan. Statutory felling licences obtained from the Forestry Commission are typically required, though cutting trees of relatively small diameter is an exception.
The hectic human activity is in sharp contrast to that of many woodland creatures, which either hibernate or migrate to warmer regions of Europe or beyond. There are a number of exceptions such as the red squirrel, wood mouse, common shrew and pygmy shrew, which all continue to forage for food. Shrews need to eat the equivalent of 80-90% of their own body weight every day in order to survive. They eat small invertebrates such as earthworms, beetles and spiders, some of which remain active during the milder days of winter.