I spent today in the spring sunshine at the top of Fingle Woods doing a tree survey at Wooston Hillfort. Recording the location and size of the broadleaved trees is going to help with the future management of the area. The woodland work has to be carefully tied in with the preservation of the Iron Age earthworks and, while the archaeologists want to protect the two-thousand-year-old ramparts, the ecologists’ aim is to provide the best habitats for the protected species, the bats, the birds and the dormice. Working in the sun and taking a GPS position of each tree is usually no problem, a real pleasure.
Putting both arms round each tree to measure its girth with a tape might normally be seen as an innocent bit of tree hugging, but today, with spring being what it is, the red wood ants have been frantically building nests and establishing territories. They are well known for building great piles of leaves and needles which appear throughout the woods at this time of year. They are also known for their aggression and the tree hugging job is proving to be a bit more challenging than usual. The ants are staking their claim to the best oak trees to catch their favourite food, usually the honeydew from aphids but sometimes other insects. The ranks of the red and black worker ants have been teeming up and down the trees, making the most of a warm spell of weather (which probably won’t last!)
They are making it clear that I’m not welcome in their patch. Though I can’t see it, they are spraying me with acid but I can feel them clamping their mandibles into my skin. I’m not hanging around, there are thousands of them. In fact, there can be 100,000 or even 400,000 ants per nest.
Then a thought occurs to me – considering the ants were climbing almost every oak tree I saw today, and considering Fingle Woods is around 335 hectares. How many red wood ants are out there? The mind boggles.
by Matt Parkins