September and the days are getting shorter but there is still some summer left before autumn really starts; good days for walking in woodland. Our county has many woods including Foxley, north-west of Norwich, which is Norfolk’s largest remaining ancient woodland and famous for the magnificent bluebells which carpet the ground in the spring. It is recorded as being over 6,000 years old and is mentioned in the Doomsday book. Pigney’s wood, just outside North Walsham, is one that has been extensively restored by the North Norfolk Woodland Trust with well maintained paths, picnic areas and information boards for identification of plants and birds; unfortunately, it has seen some vandalism in the past. Another wood within reach of North Walsham is Bacton, also known as Witton Woods, which is a mixture of different types of trees and open spaces. Large estates, including Felbrigg and Blickling, often have extensive woodlands which are open to the public.
After the ice age, as the glaciers melted, trees started to take over the land in Britain. At first, because the weather was still cold, they were mainly mountain types but as the temperature increased so did broadleaved species and over the centuries our country became heavily forested. Humans started to develop agriculture and woods were cleared for crops and grazing and trees felled for wood which was the main fuel, so by the 1st century AD nearly 50% of our woodland had disappeared. Very little remained by the time of the Norman occupation but because forests were valued as hunting grounds and for coppicing to provide building materials and firewood, some were created.
However, during the 17th and 18th century the Navy had a great deal of authority as to how forests were managed and oaks were harvested for ship building to keep Britain ‘ruling the waves’. Oak is rich in tannic acid and was also used extensively in the leather industry, important for the production of saddles, harness and boots, necessities of the time. Our forests became heavily depleted and by the mid-nineteenth century the building of railways to transport goods meant that coal became available around the country, therefore reducing the need for firewood but we still needed timber. The Forestry Commission was formed in 1919 and they replaced many of our broadleaved trees with quicker growing conifers but these gloomy forests did not create ideal homes for insects and flowers. With the invention of plastics and similar materials, not as much timber was required and the woods became overgrown and tangled which reduced the life in them even further. The big storm in 1987 destroyed millions of trees but in the last few years quite a lot of native woodland has been planted; in spite of this effort we still have a long way to go as some has also been destroyed for various projects such as golf courses, quarries and building.
The importation of trees from other countries hasn’t always helped, as some of them carry diseases to which our native trees have no resistance; disease also arrives with migrating birds and insects, wind and travelling vehicles. The RSPB, Wildlife Trusts and the Woodland Trust work hard to maintain our woodlands and always welcome volunteers if you want to get involved. Also, for a small fee, The Woodland Trust will plant a tree for you if you have something to celebrate or in the memory of a loved one; another way of helping to restore our natural woodlands and maintain the wildlife that lives in them.
Many trees bear fruit and nuts at this time of year and these help to feed wildlife so it’s a good idea to delay hedge cutting and pruning for the time being.
Autumn flowers are providing nectar for bees and other insects and one that will often still be in flower until well into November, along roadsides and on waste ground, is Toadflax. This pretty snapdragon-like plant acquired its name because the wide mouth reminded people of a toad and early in the season it looks very similar to flax; the orange and yellow blooms give it its other name, ‘butter and eggs’. The flowers remain tightly closed until a heavy bee, attracted by the orange colour, lands on the bottom lip and its weight forces open the flower allowing the nectar to be harvested. Only those insects with long tongues will be able to reach this as the source is right at the back of the flower. The plant had many medicinal uses in the past including as a powerful purgative and diuretic, so don’t be tempted to eat the ‘butter and eggs’ while on your autumn walk!
Barn owls didn’t have a very good year in 2015 with a significant reduction in breeding pairs. The population of small mammals fluctuates year by year and voles, which form a great part of the Barn owl’s diet, were rather thin on the ground (literally) last year. Let’s hope the records for 2016 show better results for this beautiful hunter. We have a regular visitor to an old barn that we had renovated. We provided an owl hole so that he or she – it’s difficult to tell the difference when they’re flying – could come and go easily and, except for the odd squirrel, the owl is the only resident; the floor is littered with pellets which contain the indigestible parts of the prey. We did put up a nest box but, as far as we know it has not been used yet. (Maybe by the squirrel)?
The lack of prey will also have affected Tawny owls which will be calling at this time of year to establish territories, driving away youngsters which would threaten their food supply.
Several of you have emailed me about last month’s piece, with particular interest in keeping bees. Our friend Helen, who owns those in our meadow, is an expert and there certainly seems to be quite a lot to learn. There are courses available and if you go to www.norfolkbeekeepers.co.uk or British Beekeepers Association, email@example.com 024 7669 6679, they will point you in the right direction. Let me know how you get on if you decide to attend a course. Carol, from Holt, also asked me how to be sure that what she is looking at is a Honey bee and not another kind. There are many different kinds of bees and bumble bees are easy to recognise by their fat, furry bodies. The honey bee is one of the smaller bees and if you look at the enlargement of part of Joan’s photo of the worker you’ll notice that her wings are divided by veins into cells and the one on the edge, called the marginal cell, is long and reaches nearly to the wing tip. This conclusively identifies her as a Honey bee and you should be able to see this when she settles to gather nectar and pollen.
Thank you all for your interest.
Activities to join in this month include:
• Volunteering at Bretts Wood.
• Bird migration & wildlife on the Attenborough Way – Cley.
www.norfolkwildlifetrust.org.uk or 01603 625540.
• Nature’s Olympians – firstname.lastname@example.org or 01485 210779.
• Twilight Zone – email@example.com or 01603 715191.
© Sheila Sims 2016