Category Archives: Woodland

Oxfordshire Art Weeks 2017 at the Whispering Knights woodland

The woodland is open again this year for Oxfordshire Art Weeks, which runs from Saturday May 6th until Monday May 29th 2017. We’ve already had lots of enthusiastic visitors who have enjoyed browsing around the new structures. They’ve given us some great feedback too, which is very encouraging and welcome!

You can check out the latest updates here – there are new videos and a look at how the woodland ecosystem is developing.

We look forward to seeing you!

Directions and details

 

Tracking activity through the winter woods

Spending time in the woods after snow gives an interesting opportunity to look for signs of activity that wildlife leave behind them. It’s easy to spot where they’ve been, but not always easy to tell what the species was. Walking along one of the main paths through the woodland I’ve been working in during winter since late 2014, I spotted the footprints of a large bird and knew immediately that it was a pheasant (Phasianus colchicus). The footprints, one placed directly in front of the other, brought to mind a clear image of a male pheasant in all his flamboyant glory as he stalked along the path. Male pheasants always look slightly foolish to me; their tentative gait makes them seem uncomfortably nervous, as if they wish to be invisible, but they’re so brightly coloured that you can’t miss them. I must look kindly on them as pheasant season has not long ended and they’ve no doubt been dodging the lead shot of hunters for many weeks.

pheasant prints in snow

Walking on through the woods I spot snow that has clearly been disturbed over a large area. Patches of snow have been moved aside, revealing the leaf litter beneath. I wonder what creature did it. Was it badgers visiting the latrines we find throughout the woods? Or were they looking for food, perhaps? A slow walk and closer observation amongst them and reveals the answer, for next to almost every bare patch I see the faint footprints of a blackbird in the melting snow.

blackbird foot printsThe blackbird’s footprints

The bird’s passage between the trees, as it tossed aside the snow and moved the leaves, is very obvious and reminds of me how blackbirds throw up leaves and bark chippings in gardens. I hope it found what it was looking for, be it worms, grubs, beetles or slugs.

blackbird activity snow 2Signs of foraging

This woodland is host to a large number of fieldfares (Turdus pilaris) during winter. They are winter visitors from Scandinavia, arriving in autumn and leaving in late winter, and I first noticed them in November, when I saw a flock of them perched in a tree in a hedgerow on the nearby farm land, all of them facing the same direction. They are timid on their migration visits and fly off at the hint of a nearby human, but their presence in the woods is clear. Certain trees, often larch or pine, tell that they’ve been used for roosting and the evidence is seen in the dense scattering of droppings at the base of the favoured tree. Stand still and you won’t necessarily see the fieldfares but their voices are all around you. It is a strange cacophony of whistles and clacks and it sounds to me just like I imagine a sound effect might do in an old science-fiction B-movie, used when insectoid aliens are about to terrify some unsuspecting humans (you can hear them in this clip). One day the fieldfares might stop for me to photograph them, but that day is yet to come.

Another mystery in the woods is one created by humans. Someone tried their hand at building a shelter of sorts but it didn’t go too well and stood for less than 48 hours before collapsing in an ugly heap. It’s a little irritating because two other mounds had been taken apart to put this wreck together and we’ll need to dismantle it. It’s fairly regular for people to come into the wood and play, but they usually do a better job of it than this.

mysteryWhat the hell is that supposed to be?

By contrast, here’s one that Karl made nearly two years ago, which is still looking sturdy.

mycelium mound snowMuch better

Autumn: mellow fruitfulness – and clouds of biting midges

In the Cotswold woodland that we visit, the scene has changed and is suddenly autumnal. Now that the cover of the undergrowth is starting to collapse and die back, far more can be seen of what goes on beneath. With the dampness of autumn, fungi have popped up over night, making meals for various types of wildlife. Mammals eat fungi and clumps can be found which have been partially consumed, only the stems remaining. Why did they not eat all of it, one wonders.

chewed-mushrooms

Slugs are also partial to fungi and I found this one making a quiet meal on its own. You can find out more about slugs here.

slug-mushroom

It’s a very good year for puffballs, but they don’t appear to be attractive to wildlife and none I’ve come across have the marks of being sampled.

puff-ball

Elsewhere, badgers show their presence in the form of the pathways they’ve made in the grass. Their routes never seem to vary, even if a log is laid across them, and the paths are well trodden. Another sign of badgers is the shallow latrines they dig at particular points along their territory boundaries. Badgers are cleanly creatures, but these are a rather unpleasant thing to come across, generally being full of sloppy droppings which are coloured according to what has been eaten.

badger-latrine

The presence of an active badger sett can also be seen when the badgers air their bedding, pulling it out of the sett and spreading it around. The bedding I was lucky enough to come across was primarily made up of dried grass and animal hair, which would make quite a soft and comfortable bed. I’ve yet to see a badger gathering bedding for myself but have seen video showing them dragging balls of grass backwards towards the sett, much as a dog would do with bedding. I found it almost as frustrating to watch and recalled how our dog Toby would scuff up the rug in his bed, changing it from being neatly spread out to a lumpy heap.

badger-bedding

At home, the robin still visits us several times a day, alighting on logs in the open fronted wood shed and then making short hops from one perch to another before flying into the garage for its treat of mealworms. The two blackbirds which had also been visiting disappeared suddenly and we suspected they had not been predated, but had gone off to the hedgerows to feast on the abundance of berries available there. They returned today and have gone straight back to their usual routine of speed-eating as many mealworms as possible. The robin, in comparison, is positively genteel, taking only a few worms at one sitting and allowing a few moments between each one.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’ it may have been to the poet John Keats, but I suspect he didn’t do much gardening. Autumn is certainly beautiful, but to me it also means the emergence of biting midges and once more resorting to insect repellent. This autumn has been especially midgy and working under shrubs has found me tormented by these wretched creatures and itching for days. How they get through my hair is a mystery. I searched out the repellent I’d mislaid after summer, Stupidly Simple Midge Repel. It contains pine tar and has a faint smoky odour, but it works and I’ve never been happier to smell like an old bonfire.

midge-repel

Charting the course of autumn wildlife

Now that this long autumn has begun its move towards winter, the activity of wildlife has changed from one of raising young to securing a territory and surviving the coming months of cold. Robins need little reason to fight amongst themselves and their battles become more frequent as the year ages and they strive to acquire and hold the territory that will feed them until spring. Finches and tits group together to form chattering flocks, hedgehogs, dormice and bats prepare for hibernation and amphibians burrow into soil, compost heaps or under log piles.

1021-1

In this old house, autumn is heralded by the arrival of wood lice, which suddenly increase in numbers and crawl about the edges of rooms or find their way into the bath. As temperatures drop, they are joined by, and appear to be eaten by, spiders and their numbers drop again. We find the dessicated bodies in clusters under cobwebs, tucked away behind the fridge or under the washing machine. Many people don’t like insects in their homes, but it doesn’t really bother me that much, unless they bite or a light has been left on in an open-windowed room and it fills with dancing craneflies (Tipulidae).

In the great outdoors, it is interesting to stand amongst autumn trees and see the changes. In the woods, the deer have moved back into the dense central growth, where they make beds by scraping away the grass and leaves to reveal the bare earth they seem to prefer resting on. They are donning their winter coats, turning from a rich brown to a dull fawn, which blends perfectly with the muted colours of approaching winter.

deer-scrapeA deer has scraped away the grass and moss to make a bed of soil

All around us, insects are seeking shelter, tucking themselves against seed pods or the curls of fallen leaves.

nov-2015Ladybird seeking shelter

Slugs are fattening up on the last of the fungi, that not eaten by mammals, and will themselves become meals for hedgehogs, thrushes or toads.

slug-mushroom

In the Cotswold woodland I frequent, a small team is working to collect the brash from tree thinnings and build it into loosely woven mounds. Work started late last year and finished in spring and now that it is due to begin again, I’ve visited the woodland to observe wildlife activity around these mounds and it is gratifying to see.

shelterA small mammal has made a shelter in this thick mass of pine needles

Spiders are weaving their webs in the woven brash and many small birds move in and out of the twined stems. As I walk along the pathways or through the trees, birds flit from one brash mound to another. Sheltering so many insects, the mounds have become larders for them, as well as both habitat and hunting ground for small mammals and amphibians.

1021-3The birds spend a great deal of time investigating the woven brash

When it sometimes seems that all species except humans are sensibly tucking themselves away from the cold, I hear the soft sub-song of robins and blackbirds under shrubs, then suddenly the voices of dozens of birds. I look up to see a large flock of long-tailed tits (Aegithalos caudatus) has landed on a lime tree, and are calling ‘tsee-tsee-tsee’. I can make life easier for these wakeful birds, so the seed feeders will be filled over and again and the songsters will continue to enliven the relative quiet of winter.

 

There is a growing community of species living in the woods

I spent part of a day in the woods by the Rollright Stones simply walking and looking – indulging in the pleasure of quietly observing, identifying, analysing and categorising what I saw. It is all too easy to pass by without actually seeing what is around us and many signs are missed, but look closer, pay attention, and you can see that this young woodland has a growing community of species that call it home.

 

in the woods

The following are just a few of the mammal and bird species we’ve seen so far. There have been many birds, some heard rather than seen, glimpses of deer, mice and voles, a weasel, signs that  badgers are about . In some cases, you don’t see the creature itself but  the tell tale signs of activity and then you can try to figure out what has happened.

Continue reading There is a growing community of species living in the woods

A couple of new structures at Rollrights

Karl made two more structures for Stephen’s granddaughter – ones that might be enjoyed  by a small, inquisitive child. The idea was also that there would be something that didn’t tower over her and that was small enough for her to appreciate.

pine-egg-1

The first was a sort of egg made from pine stems wound together to form a rough sphere, which nestles within the curve of the Young Snake. There is a hole in it so that people who wish to do so can look inside. Seen from a distance it is very pleasing.

the-egg

The other structure is a three-in-one type – there is an open dome of ash stems, just high enough for a not very tall person to stand up in.

open-ash-1

Within that is a very simple dome of willow stems bound together at the top with ivy.

open-ash-2

Inside the simple ash dome is a curious little structure that looks rather like a fragment of DNA.

dna

dna-2

It was constructed over a tree stump and, just because, Karl added in an oak twig with an oak apple still attached to it.

dna-3

The Young Snake and other creations

The felling and canopy lifting work at the woods by the Rollright Stones continues and it generates vast amounts of logs and brash, so it’s been decided that building larger mounds and structures is the way to go. As ever, Karl has been creative in his use of materials and the structures he makes are becoming larger and bolder in design. It’s fascinating to see this previously unknown aspect of his personality emerging.

whispering-knights-freezing-fogThe Whispering Knights in freezing fog

Continue reading The Young Snake and other creations

Rollright stones – snow in the woods

Snow was forecast for the 15th of January and Karl looked forward to seeing the woods under a layer of sparkling white; I stayed at home that day. Where we live, there was no snow at all and Karl saw none on the journey to the woods, but as soon as he turned into the driveway, there it was. Not a lot, but the light dusting and bright sunshine were enough to create a beautiful scene. All pictures are clickable to enlarge them.

ouroborosThe Ouroboros with a dusting of snow

I read in the Witney Gazette that the Rollright Stones were ‘one of the few landmarks in Oxfordshire to see a dusting of snow’ that day.

The mounds stood out very well indeed and here are some more pictures for your viewing pleasure.

Continue reading Rollright stones – snow in the woods

Rollright Stones Novel Structures – or ‘What on earth can we do with all this brash?’

In the making of brash mounds a time can come when you look at the sheer amount of material to be moved and decide that there is simply too much of it and that a new approach could be in order. This has happened in a couple of areas of the woods – in some parts, the brash is so thick that the woods are completely impenetrable.

1217-pre-dragon

What to do? You could build a dozen or so mounds but there were some big tree trunks in there and they also needed something doing with them. Some of the larch logs have been stacked to make habitats and sitting places, but larch doesn’t burn well – it spits and the burning of it leaves a tarry residue in chimneys – and nobody seems to want it. Because of this, Karl decided to make something other than a mound shape and instead built around one of the felled conifers to enclose it.

Continue reading Rollright Stones Novel Structures – or ‘What on earth can we do with all this brash?’

How we’ve been building woodbrash mounds

I’ve been asked to describe how the mounds are made.  You see, the idea is that these brash mounds serve more than one purpose – they are habitats and need to provide shelter for as many species as possible, which means that they must have a number of micro-environments in them. The dense layer at the bottom which provides habitat for species such as beetles and small mammals and shelter for amphibians, to the more loosely woven upper storeys where small birds can roost or nest. The important word here is ‘woven’ because these are not just heaps flung together in a thoughtless jumble, they are structures.

morning-mounds

This brings me to the second purpose: whatever shape they are, they should please the eye. Circular upturned coracle shapes, rounded and smooth, are ideal and straightforward to create. Sitting at regular intervals between the trees, they catch the light or sit in shadow, covered in frost, steaming in the winter sunlight, glaucous with algae and lichens or green with conifer leaves, they are beautiful and a sight to behold.

Continue reading How we’ve been building woodbrash mounds