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A plea on behalf of the storm-worn trees

There are few more dignified sights in our countryside than an ancient tree with decades worth of fallen branches stacked at its base. A mark of respect for the veteran, a salute to the fallen; a visual acknowledgement that deadwood continues to be a valuable habitat in its own right.

Resisting the urge to be too tidy continues to be a useful guiding principle in farmland conservation. Sadly, the aftermath of recent storms will present land managers with many ‘tidy temptations’, not least the chipping or burning of deadwood and brash, or even - dare I say it – the needless burning of the stumps of fallen ancient trees. This, along with the quaint but damaging trend to remove ivy from mature trees, continues to irk and perplex the more conservation-minded among us as we go about our business in the countryside.

While there is understandably pressure to ‘keep up appearances’ and avoid our farms being judged unsightly or unkempt, public understanding of conservation has arguably increased since lockdown, and we should not underestimate the public support for scruffy, deadwood habitats.

Of course, in certain circumstances tidying is necessary, trees need to be made safe for the public following winter storms, footpaths cleared for access and brash should not be left where it may negatively impact stewardship options or priority habitats. But clearing every last vestige of a fallen tree or coppiced hedgerow is like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

It is worth remembering the huge ecological contribution deadwood can make if left in situ or simply pushed to one side, offering cover for voles, a humid hibernaculum for amphibians, a nursery for stag beetles and other invertebrates or decades of succour for a plethora of fungi. Not to mention it’s a lot less work! Perhaps it is time we kept Britain a little less tidy?

Did you know? One of the ways in which the ecological condition of ancient woodland is assessed is by estimating how many cubic metres of standing and fallen deadwood there is per hectare. Usually, a key aim of restoration management is to increase this figure.

Salute to the fallen: This ancient oak was mentioned on Victorian maps and had decades worth of branches stacked respectfully at its base.

An invertebrate nursery: Stagbeetles (such as Dorcus parallelipipedus, pictured below) use deadwood for their hatcheries, with larvae living in, and consuming, decaying logs for up to three years before pupating and becoming an adult. These examples were found under some decaying applewood trunks which has been left in situ in an old orchard in Essex.

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