February in the Forest

As I write this the country is suffering dramatic weather: high winds, wintry showers, hail and thunder mostly affecting Scotland. I don’t know what February will bring, but can it be worse than the incessant rain and floods of last year? I hope for more ‘normal’ weather, but in February that can mean almost anything (‘February brings the rain, Thaws the frozen lake again’ said Sara Coleridge, but Flanders and Swan despondently modified this to ‘February's ice and sleet, Freeze the toes right off your feet’!)

In the forest, I hope that the ground has a chance to dry out to make walking more pleasant. None of us like the mess left by ‘forest operations’ – not so much the felling of the trees as the churned ground concomitant with their removal by tractors, forwarders and log lorries. I’ve heard that such disturbance can be a positive factor in the development of the woodland, providing a suitable growing medium for newly-arrived or long-buried seed with the bonus of the increased light levels brought by felling or coppicing. Who knows what long-dormant plants may reappear? At Kingswood deep ploughing brought not only poppies but a reappearance of small-flowered catchfly (Silene gallica), absent in these parts for many years but persisting in the soil’s seed bank. Bluebells often pop up where conifers have been removed, having remained dormant for decades. Slightly more prosaic is John Bingham’s discovery of a clutch of tomato plants among the needles of a clear-felled patch in Withybed Wood – testimony to a forester’s lunch box.

In the Wyre Forest, as in other woods in the UK, alternatives to clear felling and replanting are being trialled. Selective felling and coppicing, using a mixture of tree species, are probably less disruptive to wildlife and may be more resilient to plant diseases and climate change. The publicly-owned areas of the forest will see conifers continuing to be removed and replaced by deciduous trees, so in those areas clear felling will still be a feature for a while to come, but what replaces them may be very different to the even-aged stands of oak that dominate the forest now. Let’s hope so: darkness and uniformity are neither good for me nor the woodland wildlife!

This month look out for hazel catkins, snowdrops, leaves and green flowers of dog’s mercury, peacock and brimstone butterflies emerging from hibernation if the weather is warm enough, and perhaps some birdsong and nest-making.

Linda Iles