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The week's wildlife

The week's wildlife: May 2016

Week beginning 2nd May. Frightened (and) out of its skin

There was a sudden movement in the brambles.  Eyes turn and focus on…? Well, a long wriggling green shape with a black zig-zag. No head, a pointed tail, just a rapid slithering winding disappearance.  It was gone in a blink, leaving only a stunned memory in the mind’s eye.


What did I see? Was it wet? Was that really a green colour?  - well perhaps it was grey-green. But definitely a dark zig-zag marking down its length. And so, definitely, an adder. But not as I’d expected to see it. We’d been looking hard for them and had already found a couple of males basking on a sheltered bank beside the busy walking track. They had a definite brownish background hue. Male adders emerge from hibernation before the females but they are not usually green and they don’t usually look wet.


Looking carefully at the brambles where the snake had disappeared the answer suddenly dawned. There, right next to where it had been, was a snake-shaped wafery thin, transparent sheath. The adder had shed its skin. If it had happened just before we came along it would explain the greeny wetness. If we hadn’t frightened it, the snake would have still been lying there in the spring sunshine. The skin or “slough” actually seemed to be over the top of a briar and we speculated as to whether it had been using the thorns to help it escape.


Certainly the snake had not hung around. Adders are extremely shy, retiring creatures and use their venom to kill their prey. If attacked by a dog they may bite, but their usual means of defence is to retreat. 


We wished this frightened creature had stayed long enough for us to get a picture of its new greeny appearance, but we found some excellent ones here that seem to confirm that beautiful mind's eye memory.


Week beginning 9th May. Strange croaks and tweets

It was twenty minutes after sunset on a still spring evening, at the end of a day that was more like mid-summer. The temperature had reached 24C earlier, but now it was dropping fast. Undeterred, the midges were out in force. Most of the bird song was beginning to twindle away, but the Cuckoo was still very vocal and a Grasshopper Warbler had just struck up its continuous reeling song.


Suddenly, from behind and above the trees, came a strange mixture of calls - croaks and tweets.

Roding calls of Woodcock -
00:00 / 00:00

Then, silhouetted against the darkening sky, a flurry of beating wings crossed the clearing and seconds later was gone. Six minutes passed and the bird repeated its flight path - it had been flying around above the wood and was setting off on another circuit. Another five minutes, another appearance. But then shortly later there were two of them, flying together in the opposite direction with rather louder and more excited calls.

These were Woodcock, one of Fineshade's elusive and rather special residents, and there's a word in English to describe this unusual display flight - it's called roding. Woodcock nest on the ground, deep in the most undisturbed parts of the wood, so they are seldom seen except at this time of year after sunset when they mark out their territories in this strange way.


Woodcock are in trouble as a breeding species in the UK and have just been added to the Red List of Birds of Conservation Concern. A nationwide survey conducted by BTO volunteers in 2013 found that their numbers had decreased by 29% since ten years previously. Within Northamptonshire all the main woodland blocks were surveyed and it was discovered that Woodcock had disappeared thoughout the county - except in Fineshade and Wakerley Woods. Since then these two woods have been monitored every summer and it's really good to know that they are back again and, probably, will be breeding in 2016.

Because they nest on the ground, Woodcock are vulnerable to attack from dogs that are allowed to run free through the woods. (Dog owners please note!)


In the winter the small breeding population is augmented by many more birds that migrate here from Scandinavia. In the past, hunting Woodcock was popular and dogs were used to flush them out of the undergrowth in order to be shot. That's how one particular breed of dog came into being - the Cocker Spaniel. Now that their numbers have declined so drastically it seems inconceivable that these endangered birds should still be shot in the winter for "sport", but unfortunately our outdated shooting legislation still sees them as fair game.


Week beginning 16th May. The oak and the embattled ash

According to folklore we’re in for a dry(ish) summer. In this part of the world the well-known rhyme goes like this:


“If the oak’s before the ash, summer it will be a splash.

If the ash’s before the oak, summer it will be a soak”


This picture of the canopy above Dales Wood, in the northern part of Fineshade, shows clearly that the oaks’ leaves (left) have emerged well before those of the ash (right), so if you believe in the predictive capacity of such things you know how to prepare for a fairly dry summer.


Why should the leaves of our two common native trees emerge at different times? It is said that oaks respond to temperature – a cold spring will hold it back, whereas the ash is believed to respond more the amount of light and sunshine and, of course, day length does not change. As a result of warm weather in March and April the oaks managed to get a head start once again this year.


In fact, as a result of climate change and warmer springs, the ash has only beaten oak a handful of times in the last half century, with oaks on average about two weeks earlier than 30 years ago and ash only 7-10 days earlier.


So does it matter that oaks are coming into leaf earlier than ash? In areas of mixed deciduous woodland like Dales Wood, ash and oak compete for resources and whichever tree comes into leaf first wins the battle for canopy space. This means that year after year the ash trees are missing out – and this at a time when they are also threatened by the new disease known as ash dieback.


Chalara - ash diedack 

There are some excellent pages about this disease on the Forestry Commisssion’s website


Included there is an up-to-date interactive map showing the spread of the disease – it seems that it was first found in this part of Northants last year.  


Also see how you can help to combat the spread of the disease: the Sylva foundation’s Living Ash Project is here.

Woodruff & Ramsons

Week beginning 23rd May. Westhay - the regrowth begins

The rides in Westhay Wood were widened last year. (You can read about it here, here and here). This means that an awful lot of trees and shrubs were cut down in order to let more light into the wood which should benefit the flora considerably. And already the rides, which looked rather sad during the early spring, are beginning to green up and flowers are appearing.


For example, there is a terrific growth of Greater Stitchwort (right) – one of the great joys of English woodland at this time of year. 


In places, good patches of Bugle and Germander Speedwell are appearing and there’s also Wild Strawberry (below left) and, really unexpectedly a patch of at least eight Early Purple Orchids (below right).


However there are far fewer butterflies this spring and also less warblers singing along the rides.

But what’s most encouraging is the regrowth already coming from some of the stumps of the trees that were cut down – or “coppiced”. In particular you can already see Hazel shoots (right) and Field Maple (left). 


Of course this fresh young growth must be most attractive to deer: Fineshade has herds of Fallow and large numbers of Muntjac, though the Forestry Commission Rangers work hard to control their numbers.


Traditionally, when coppicing took place, the regrowth was protected from deer by building piles of brash over the stumps. More recently deer fencing has been used and, in places in Fineshade, chestnut paling protects coppiced plots.  But the coppiced rides in Westhay have neither brash nor fencing to protect the regrowth, so we can only hope that some of the lush new growth escapes the attention of hungry deer.

Week beginning 30th May. Two more white flowers

Last week we reported on two white flowers that are part of the re-growth in Westhay Wood, the southern part of Fineshade. This week we've found two more, growing in other parts of the wood. Both of them, like last week's Wild Strawberry (see below) are indicators of Ancient Woodland.


Firstly, on the left is Woodruff, (Galium odoratum) a delightful delicate flower. Its alternative names include Sweetscented Bedstraw, Sweet Woodruff and, most evocatively, Wild Baby's Breath. A patch of this flower is growing in Mill Wood, the most western part of the Fineshade complex and an area, described in the Ancient Woodland Register, like Westhay, as "ancient replanted woodland".

At the other end of the wood is an area known as North Spinney. Like much of the northern part of the woodland this was not originally recognised as strictly ancient. Some of the most obvious omissions have now been corrected by Natural England thanks to intervention by the Woodland Trust when Forest Holidays and the Forestry Commission proposed to develop there. You can see the current maps and read details about this here.

It was in North Spinney, during a survey for Dormice being carried out by volunteers for the Wildlife Trust BCN, that we came across a patch of Ramsons, or Wild Garlic. (Alium ursinum).  We may be wrong, but this is thought to be the only patch of this odiferous plant in Fineshade Wood. 

Apparently the leaves of Ramsons are edible and can be used as salad, as a herb,or even boiled as a vegetable.  In Russia the stems are preserved by salting and eaten as a salad.

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