Tuesday August 11 2020




Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Christmas trees

Posted on November 27 2014 at 3:33:25 0 comments

Winter oak

Mary Green discusses some typical trees of our woodlands.

I always come back to trees in the autumn and winter. I suppose they are so prominent then, when the flowering plants have set seed, the birds have gone quiet or migrated, harvest is over, and the most noticeable thing in the countryside is the trees.

The Woodland Trust has a new policy which they took to all the Party Conferences this autumn. It is called a Charter for Trees, Woods and People and, among other things, asks for local authorities to ensure everyone lives within 500 metres of accessible woodland.

It also stresses the importance of long-term woodland management and reforestation for flood prevention and air quality as well as biodiversity.

We in the Village area are well-blessed with trees, living in a landscape with remnants of ancient woodland everywhere and some notable new plantings. However, I doubt that many of us are actually within 500 metres of accessible woodland.

Newbourne Wood in Rowney Green is our most accessible woodland reserve, currently undergoing changes. This year, inappropriately planted non-native conifers have been cut down and planting is about to start of native trees, with local people involved.

The provisional date for this is December 13 at 10am: bring your own spade! Trees planted will be predominantly oak but will include silver birch, cherry, sweet chestnut, small leaved lime, hazel, guelder rose, spindle and hawthorn, as well as others like ash which will regenerate naturally.

Contact Steve Lewis on .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) if you want to be involved.

Nearby Peck Wood is wonderful ancient woodland, accessed by youth groups but not accessible by the general public except for a week in spring. Pinfield Wood, a beautiful old bluebell wood, and the rest of the Lickeys are accessible from Barnt Green. Most of the patches of woodland around Alvechurch, though, are on private land.

Further afield are great accessible woods like Pipers Hill between Bromsgrove and Hanbury, and many other Worcestershire Wildlife Trust reserves (Broadmoor Wood, Lion Wood and Beaconwood among others).

Local Woodland Trust woods include Pepper Wood near Fairfield, Uffmoor Wood near Romsley, and Southcrest woodland in Redditch.

But for many of us our best chance of being up close and personal with trees is in old hedge lines (through fields and along roads) and around our public spaces like The Meadows and the local churchyards.

Even in December, some oaks may still have leaves, turned their rich golden brown. Oaks are very much part of our local landscape. Many are very old, though not many qualify as “ancient.”

The definition of ancient varies from species to species, depending on their usual lifespan. While an apple tree is considered ancient at 150 years old, an oak has to be 600 years old. It is difficult to know the age of a tree until it is dead and the rings are counted.

Even then it may not be possible as ancient trees are often hollow. In old woodland, trees will have been coppiced, and may appear more like little groves of trees rather than one big one.

The traditional way to estimate the age of veteran trees like oak is to link hands round them. If it takes three adults to hug the tree, it is about three hundred years old.

Of course, different trees grow at different rates through their lifetime, so this is only very rough. But it’s nice to do, and gives you a chance to hug a tree without people thinking you are a bit odd.

In ancient times oaks were one of the key trees in the Celtic calendar. They were used in spring fertility rituals, the boughs being brought in for ceremonies. They stand for strength and courage.

Later they were used to represent the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II, and this persists in the “Oak Apple day” ceremonies across England in late May, when the trees were decorated and boughs brought indoors.

Some of these rituals became associated with ancient rights of commoners to collect wood in forests. The most famous is still enacted in Grovely Wood in Wiltshire (I once heard a nightingale there) where a strange complex of paganism, people power and royalism is celebrated every year.

The oak came to represent strength and manliness. It was the wood used for warships, so our navies were called “hearts of oak”. It became St George’s tree, and it breaks into leaf around his day. Now it is often seen as a symbol of England. Veteran oaks often mark boundaries.

“Oak apples” are not of course the fruit of the tree, but a swelling made by an insect. The true fruit is the acorn, used in the past to feed pigs, and during the war for ersatz coffee. Last year there was a huge crop: this year it’s hard to find any.

Even older than the old oaks, the oldest trees around here are yews. These are one of our few native evergreens, dark and brooding. They grow in many of the old woods around here, but especially in churchyards.

The one in Cofton churchyard is probably the oldest, with the St Laurence yew in Alvechurch and one at Tardebigge church not far behind. The berries are poisonous but birds can eat them because only the seeds carry the poison and those pass straight through!

Yews are associated with death and rebirth, possibly because of their old age. They were grown for making bows and arrows in medieval times.

It’s strange to think that some trees near us were watching over Tudor and even medieval life. No wonder oaks and yews have always been endowed with spiritual powers: they remind us of our own mortality but of the continuity of the earth.

Even after a mild autumn, most of our bountiful fruits are over now, though I was still eating the odd blackberry into November. On the way up the field from Withybed to Foxhill, there are some bullace – wild plums, like big sloes. They are usually too sour to eat raw, but this year they ripened fully and were sweet and lovely.

Sweet chestnuts were absolutely full of nuts this year, and have been good to eat. There are some up the top of Wheeley’s Road, some at Hopwood, and others near Tardebigge. There are big ancient ones in Piper’s Hill Wood, with amazing spiral bark. Chestnuts are of course perfect Christmas food.

Now we’re in December, we notice the holly and ivy, whose glossy green stands out against the bare twigs of other trees. Holly is prickly where it is in danger of being eaten by animals, and smoother at the tops of trees on old growth.

Only the females have berries – male and female are separate trees. They survive well as under-wood in forests of bigger trees, as well as in stands and hedges. Ivy has most beautiful leaf shapes and patterns, very variable.

Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t strangle trees, though it will damage them if they are already in trouble. Its musky late flowers are still blooming as I write this in November, food for insects, and the berries provide late winter food for birds.

When I’ve been away to all the other places I wrote about this year, I’m always glad to be home in the Village area. The trees are one of the reasons for this.

In the autumn I collected and ate wild service tree berries, like little nutty medlars, and I love to see this now rare tree so often around Withybed, with its vivid autumn leaves.

There are a few places I especially love because of their woodland echoes. Foxhill Lane is one. It has copious bracken, wood sage and bluebells, showing it was ancient woodland once. It has remnants of laid hedges, from years before the modern slash technique.

In the early autumn, one side is full of wondrous blackberries. You can glimpse the Malverns from it, and also look down over Alvechurch nestling in its valley. In a harsh winter it fills with snowdrifts, and in summer swallows gather on the wires.

Buzzards soar overhead all year round. I even love the way there are foxes on Fox Hill and foxgloves in Foxhill Lane!

Barnt Green is full of trees, from lovely old Pinfield Wood to the impressive non-native confers around the big houses. My favourite bit is the ridge of trees out of Barnt Green on the Blackwell road, between the road and the railway.

This has some oaks over 200 years old so must have predated the railway. It has young oaks too, and birch, sweet chestnut and horse chestnut. In May it is full of bluebells, in autumn boletus and fly agaric fungus, and there is beautiful golden bracken in winter – it is another piece of old woodland.

From a strategically placed seat you can see the fine woodlands on the edge of the Lickeys, and the new line of planting on the other side of the railway. There are so many little places like this round here – I’m sure you’ve got your own favourites.

Another thing I love at this time of year is the wildfowl on the canal. We have our swans back with their five beautiful youths. We now have two noisy farmhouse geese who have joined our Canada flock, having escaped from a local smallholding.

And once more the barnacle goose has come back to join them. He or she is such a quirk of nature, having no business to be in the Midlands, but coming back for the last seven years for the cold months. And now we have a mandarin duck at Cofton, which has also been spotted on the canal.

I recently had a canal trip right into Birmingham, seeing bits I haven’t seen before. I even found some black poplars along it in one place. And we passed an unexpected fig tree leaning over the water.

Near here there’s quite a lot of elm by the canal. Even when great trees die, they aren’t totally eradicated, and their regrowth pops up where the old tree-lines were.

I love the canals because they were made with the technology of their day for industry and commerce, great engineering feats and a tribute to human muscle-power. Yet they have become vital wildlife corridors, places of peace and enjoyment where you might find an orchid, or a barnacle goose – or a fig tree!

Before the Victorian era, we didn’t have “Christmas trees” but we did have trees associated with Christmas. Boughs of yew and holly and ivy were brought into the house – evergreens to represent the continuity of life from one year to the next.

Perhaps some of us can revive the custom of celebrating life in darkness this way, instead of with all those non-native spruces which never grow to adulthood.

I hope everyone who reads The Village has a happy Christmas and new year, with plenty of trees and birds to watch and favourite spots to visit.

My poem this month is one I wrote with the residents at The Lawns after collecting their ideas and memories about trees (I added the black poplar later!)

Tree haiku

Ash, the first and last,
Blunt black buds scribble its tale
Our everyday fire

Oak, St George’s tree
Spring gold and last autumn bronze
Archive of centuries

The maple turns gold
Fallen stars under our feet
Carpets of hand-prints

Winter hazel, gold disk
Leaves like Christmas chocolates
Nuts gone into squirrels

Poplar, roots in wet
Leaves shaking, sickness and health
Coming back from death

Holly, king of winter
Cock robins, berries of blood,
Fire for the new year

Ivy clinging dark
Its familiar, the wren, flies
Low along the hedge

Yew, oldest of all
Immortal in the churchyard
Darkness at the heart

What Villagers have been saying about this story . . . most recent comments first


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