Woodland continually creates deadwood, as branches fall or trees die. It used to be something that people “tidied up” and some still do. I came across a couple of lovely examples in Century Wood last week which show how wonderful and important it is.
Now and then we get reminders of the old attitude. The National Trust was pilloried last year for a TV advert where the ad company filmed people pretending to sweep up leaves and collect fallen branches in an SSSI … where that is illegal. And I joined some bushcraft Facebook groups recently, where many people believe that while trespassing and camping in woodland without permission, it’s ok to collect deadwood to build fires!
The thing is deadwood isn’t dead. It’s full of life. Like the skeletons of dead coral creatures that gradually build up a coral reef, deadwood is dead parts of trees, but provides structure and also sustenance for the plants, fungi and animals that inhabit it.
Deadwood is also a process, that starts with the time the branch or the tree itself dies and ends with it finally melting into the soil of the wood. The picture to the right shows the whole process in a single piece of wood. At the top it’s still a recognisable log, a bit decayed and holed, but nevertheless solid and round. As we follow it down the image, past the green moss, the decay increases until at the bottom it is crumbling away until eventually you can’t tell where the wood stops and the preexisting soil starts.
You don’t just meet deadwood on the forest floor. Standing deadwood occurs when a tree dies but is still strong enough to stand. For a time. There are risks with it, as it might topple over when someone is around, but if it’s safe to do so then it’s good practice to leave it, and I try to do that at Century Wood.
The tree I have in mind to show this is one of the plantation poplars. It’s already lost the branches above the first fork of the trunk but is still about 20 foot tall. You can see the base of it here (click on these pictures to enlarge them.) Some of the bark is coming off, and there are flat fungal “brackets” jutting out in the middle. On the ground are chips of wood, and these are the result of woodpecker activity. We often hear them in the wood and occasionally we come across the physical evidence.
You can see the woodpecker’s black nesting hole in the centre of this picture, with a scar through the bark above and even more so below the hole. Woodpecker’s don’t just use their remarkable ability to create nest holes. They also chip away at deadwood to get at insects living in it, and in this case the tree has lots bark stripped or fallen away and wood with scars from the birds’ beaks.
In the first picture you could see one of the columns of fungal brackets or shelves growing out of the remaining bark and here is a close up. Just like mushrooms and toadstools, these are their fruiting bodies that scatter spores on the breeze from gills or pores on the underside. The spores hope to land on suitable deadwood elsewhere in the woodland or beyond, and so it depends, like the other deadwood specialists, on the continued presence of it.
This last image is a close up of one of the scars where the wood has been chipped at by a woodpecker. At first I thought the little black circles were holes made by its beak, or burrowing by insect larvae. But closer inspection reveals it to be more fungal growths, this time like the mushrooms and toadstools we are more familiar with. Some of the stalks are clearly visible. Isn’t it fascinating how the ecology of those two species, bird and fungus, so far apart in form, fit together to make a life in the deadwood?
Edited to add: a month after this post I took this picture of striking fungal growths on another decaying poplar. Probably Dryad’s Saddle.