With torrential rain falling I set off with dampened enthusiasm to join a group of volunteers in Halls Cleave, a steep sided valley in Fingle Woods. But by the time I had reached Clifford Bridge the rain had stopped and there were signs that the sun might even break through. A small team of volunteers were already at work in the woods, feeding a small fire with conifer branches and brash following thinning operations that took place last winter.
The aim of the thinning work had been to open up the canopy to let more light in to the woodland floor and to favour the remaining, better formed trees to grow on with improved vigour. Increasing light levels also helps the native woodland flowers (such as bluebells, wood sorrel, wood anemone and wood avens) to grow and to re-colonize bare areas of ground, that have resulted from years of excessive shading by the conifers and beech. Jim White, who was leading the volunteer task for the Woodland Trust, explained our job for the day was to gather up and burn the conifer branches and brash that lay strewn over the woodland floor and to collect the broadleaf thinnings into stacks or ‘habitat’ piles.
Jim explained that the improved flora along with the cut deadwood and branches which were stacked into ‘habitat’ piles would be good for a variety of fungi and invertebrates (including butterflies, moths and beetles), which are in turn beneficial for a variety of small mammals and birds. These small creatures themselves may become food for larger predators such as birds of prey (owls and hawks), foxes, weasels and stoats.
As the habitat piles breakdown the deadwood will help support some of the deadwood invertebrates. A study by the National Trust showed that the deadwood invertebrate fauna at Fingle was particularly interesting (David Boyce, 2014). Species such as the speckled longhorn beetle, whose larvae feed for two years in the deadwood of various conifers and broadleaved trees are just one of the deadwood specialists that live in Fingle Woods. Adrian Colston, who worked for the National Trust on Dartmoor, spotted this distinctive beetle in Fingle this time last year.
Another volunteer group from the Enviroment Agency had been out in Halls Cleave earlier in the week working under the canopy of beech and evidence of their work remained in the piles of brash and branches on the north side of the stream. As we worked through the morning, our habitat piles gradually took shape and multiplied. From a vantage point on the woodland ride, all the stacks took on a character of their own and looked like giant prickly hedgehogs making their way down the valley sides!
Habitat piles will provide a refuge for different species of wildife and cleared areas of the woodland floor will allow the woodland plants to establish
This was ‘light touch’ woodland management at its best – with no need for machines the damage to the ground flora is minimal. To mark National Insect Week (20-26 June) we would love to hear about any interesting insects you have spotted in Fingle Woods. If you have photographs you can post them on our Facebook page and we will try and identify them.
To read more about the speckled longhorn beetle on Adrian Colston’s blog
Words and photos by Kate Smith, The Woodland Trust