A partnership between the Woodland Trust and the National Trust

What’s So Good About Dead Wood?

So, this is the time of year to eat, drink and be merry. Mince pies, mulled wine and warming company were calling, but first, the ‘Friends of Fingle’ volunteers had work to do. Introducing the final task of the year, Dave Rickwood the Woodland Manager, explained the importance of one, so far, overlooked feature of a healthy woodland ecosystem; dead wood. He described how, “In Fingle, there is not enough dead wood, either standing or lying on the ground. It makes up an essential part of the woodland life cycle, it’s where the invertebrates and decay fungi sustain the bottom of the food chain. Historically, this woodland has been managed as a timber resource and much of the old dead wood has been ‘tidied up’ but our focus now is to support the woodland species. So, today, we are going to look at how we can survey the woods and describe and record the dead wood.”

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In a woodland ‘sub-compartment’ beside the River Teign, the volunteers listened to Dave explain the survey technique while he passed round various charts, maps and recording sheets. “This is where we need your help. It’s a method we haven’t tested before so, if you can suggest any improvements to the approach, they will be welcome.”

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He continued, “If we look at this veteran oak here, we can see various holes, cavities and patches of flaking bark which make ideal shelter and roosts for bats and birds. Here at Fingle we have 12 out of the 17 species of bats in the UK.”

On a chilly December afternoon, the volunteers were soon getting warmed up, working out how to apply the survey criteria to describe the mighty fallen oak, the moss-covered stumps or the tangled heaps of forestry brash before them. “Size matters!” they were reminded. “A large fallen oak will still be here in twenty years’ time, but the small softwood branches will rot away quickly.” The heavyweight hardwoods will last longer and are more likely to provide homes for interesting invertebrates, but each piece of decaying timber will play a part in the life-and-death cycle of a healthy woodland and the more dead wood, the better.

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The volunteers will set about their new challenge in the New Year and, once the results are in, areas can be prioritised for a bit of extra management work. Some tree felling and ring-barking will begin to create the next generation of decaying timber, giving the woodland food chain a helping hand. Did somebody say “food”? Before mince pie time, the volunteers had another job to do. Fred, the Fingle Ranger introduced the idea of monitoring species of invertebrates around the woodland using vane traps. These ingeniously simple devices can be made from plastic bottles and old sign boards and the volunteers were soon cutting and assembling some traps that would be used to monitor the elusive creeping, crawling and flying bugs that rely on a supply of decaying wood for their survival. Fred explained that “the flying insects will hit the plastic vanes and slide down into the bottle. We will inspect the traps daily and identify the species of insect in there.” It may take an expert eye to help with the invertebrate identification, so an ecologist will be on hand too. So, yet again, the volunteers of Fingle are continuing to hone their skills with some new and interesting projects which, we hope, will support the increasing diversity within this stimulating restoration project. With regular monitoring, the effect of the additional dead wood should become clear with a corresponding boost to the bugs and beetles of the woods.

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As the daylight disappeared, the volunteers found their way to the Fingle Bridge Inn. Mince pies at last! Fred, Ellie and Dave all gave presentations to show their appreciation of the volunteers and their contributions of time and energy. Ellie described an “amazing” 5000 hours of surveying wildlife, managing habitats, building bridges, archaeological excavations and assisting the smooth running of events. Well done to the volunteers of Fingle Woods!

by Matt Parkins

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