The frost and snow has returned to the UK. But do not let the chilly air stop you from getting out into the woods. The festive season can be a wonderful time for walking with family and friends, and to work off any excesses of food or drink.
Trees/shrubs… Autumnal leaves will still be falling from some trees and their colour will carpet the ground, then gradually they will brown. Over time fungi will decompose them, creating soil and returning essential nutrients to the woodland ecosystem. Holly is a key winter tree for many people, this lovely evergreen displays red berries that are eaten by birds once the frosts have lowered their toxicity.
Plants… Ferns and mosses bring some welcome green to the woods, growing on and among trees and rocks. The beautiful evergreen hart’s tongue fern grows in the shade beneath trees. Mistletoe is another seasonal favourite. This semi-parasitic plant can be found on many trees, but favours cultivated apple trees, limes, poplars and hawthorn. It is more often found on open trees. In Britain it is most abundant in the south and west Midlands.
Fungi/lichens… The recent cold weather may have seen off some of the more seasonal autumn mushrooms, but there are many that can be seen all year round. The squidgy named jelly ear fungus looks like a strange brown fleshy ear growing on decaying wood. The brilliant bright yellow brain fungus on dead branches of broadleaf trees is extremely eye-catching. And black witch’s butter may sound like an ingredient for a cauldron but is in fact another jelly fungus that especially likes old oak trees. Many bracket fungi are still about, such as turkeytail.
Birds… Robins are a festive icon and around Christmas they will be become more active as their hormones kick in and they begin singing to find a mate. Many think fondly of these red breasted beauties, but they can be little bruisers to each other as the males are extremely territorial. Mistle thrushes are important for the spread of misletoe. The seeds inside the berries are coated in a sticky substance. When the birds eat the berries the seeds get stuck on their beaks and are wiped off on trees, or are eaten and deposited in their droppings. The sticky glue around the seed hardens fastening it to the tree. The new plant then grows roots into the tree to get water and nutrients. Once thought to be a horrible tree killer, semi-parasitic mistletoe is now seen as important as a source of food and habitat for a whole range of other species. Only really heavy infestations will have any dire consequences for trees.
Mammals… A number of mammals are hibernating, but foxes and badgers are among those that can still be seen. Shrews do not hibernate because their bodies cannot store enough fat reserves to see them through the winter. Their metabolisms run so fast they must eat every two to three hours to survive and are most active at night.
Insects… Warm decomposing leaf litter provides an excellent refuge from the winter cold. Lift it up and you could find spiders, millipedes, woodlice, insect larvae and more. Slugs and snails may still be seen leaving their slimy trails. The December moth can be found flying from October until mid or late December. They mate and lay their eggs in autumn and in spring their larvae feed on a variety of deciduous trees.
Our website can help you locate many stunning woods in your area and across the UK. You can also record all your amazing finds on our Nature’s Calendar website and be part of a great citizen science movement.
Kay Haw, Assistant Conservation Adviser