Archive for December, 2012

Woodland Matters

Image: Wiki Commons - geograph.org.ukA little blog to send some festive thanks to all our lovely readers and contributors. Recently we were nominated for a blog of the year 2012 award, which is just fantastic.

We really appreciate the support you have given us during this year; from reading the blog, to commenting on, liking, or sharing it. It all helps to disseminate important information on woods and trees, generates interesting discussions, and inspires people to appreciate and enjoy our wonderful woodland resource.

We hope 2013 brings you masses of joy and fulfilment, as well as some lovely woodland moments to cherish.

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Ancient trees are worth their weight in gold and jewels for the sheer biodiversity that they support. Watch out for a blog post on Ancient Trees in the New year

Woodland Matters

Research from Spain and Sweden in Europe, Brazil, Australia, California and many other parts of the world, provides grim evidence of massive declines of some of the largest organisms on earth – old trees (Lindenmayer et all, Science vol 338 7 December 2012). If populations continue to collapse, as predicted, with them will also disappear the ecological, historic and landscape roles of these keystone structures that cannot be provided by younger trees. John Muir, founding figure of the conservation movement in the USA and a passionate advocate for the giant redwoods of Yosemite National Park (population decline of 24% between the 1930s and 1990s) is no doubt turning in his grave.

Why are large old trees disappearing? As individual trees they are exceptionally vulnerable to a wide range of impacts – intentional removal, new pests and diseases, root compaction and damage, fire and competition – to name a few…

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This ancient oak is centuries old and has celebrated many seasons.  Photo Mike Hall

This ancient oak is centuries old and has celebrated many seasons. Photo Mike Hall

Here at Wood Elf Towers, the Christmas stockings are hanging by the fire, and there’s a plate of mince pies and a large sherry waiting for Santa, and a big bag of juicy carrots for all the reindeer.

But we appreciate that this time of year isn’t just about celebrating Christmas.  Christmas is a hybrid of many of the ancient customs which the Christian church adapted to fit its own calendar.  The customs of feasting and giving presents is actually part of the Roman festival Saturnalia, which was celebrated around the 17th December.  Saturn was the Roman God of agriculture and plenty, and giving gifts and providing huge feasts symbolised the redistribution of wealth from the rich to the poor during the season of greatest hardship.

The Solstice feast of Mithras, the Roman God of light, was celebrated on December 25th, and marked the renewal of hope as the short winter days began to get longer.  This celebration was adopted by the Christian Church around the 4th Century AD as the birth day of Jesus Christ, whose actual birth date remains unknown, although probably sometime between September and February.

In Northern Europe, the Solstice around the 21st December was celebrated by many peoples, and central to their celebrations was the Yule log, a huge log which could burn for 12 days and represented the rebirth of the New Year.  Oak was particularly revered for its magical qualities and its long burning capabilities.  For Greeks, Romans, Celts, Slavs and Teutonic tribes the sacred oak was associated with their supreme god – Zeus, Jupiter, Dagda, Perun and Thor, respectively, who also ruled the rain, thunder and lightning.  The Druids frequently worshipped and practised their rites in oak groves and mistletoe, probably the Druids’ most magical plant, frequently grew on oak trees where its presence was thought to be the result of a lightning strike.

So it’s quite fitting that we celebrate the Season with a picture of this beautiful, ancient oak taken in deepest winter.  Whatever you celebrate at this time of year, may you have a happy, healthy and peaceful Festive Season!

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facebook logoWe now have a Facebook page, full of links and information and shared bits of news.  Why not have a peek and leave us a message?  Find us on Facebook at WoodElfWeekly.

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Stately Beech trees - Queens of the Wood.  Photo by Mike Hall.

Stately Beech trees – Queens of the Wood. Photo by Mike Hall.

The Beech, Fagus sylvatica, tall and majestic with stunning autumn foliage, is one of my favourite trees.  It is found throughout Europe on mainly chalky soils, in either their ‘common’ or purple’ form, and can be found as stately isolated specimens in woods, or a lovely thick hedge, or as decorative specimens in parks.

Purple and Copper Beech trees lining the River Nith

Purple and Copper Beech trees lining the River Nith

Although it is thought they were introduced by the Romans, pollen records suggest that they have been in the UK since the last Ice Age, around 10,000 years ago.

Generally Beech trees have smooth, thin, silver-grey bark and edible (in small quantities!) beechnuts, or masts, produced by female flowers in the autumn.  These are a valuable source of food for squirrels, deer and mice, and in ‘the olden days’ domesticated livestock, particularly pigs, were released into beech woods to feed on the oil rich beech nuts.  Mature beeches can reach up to 40 metres high topped by a huge, spreading canopy, and their stately grace and elegance has earned the Beech the soubriquet ‘Queen of the Woods’, consort to the ‘Oak King’.  There is a dark side to Beeches, however; their shallow root structure makes them prone to falling over in high winds, and their habit of dropping massive and still living branches, particularly in times of stress or high rainfall, has earned them the dark nickname of ‘Widowmaker’.

Beech wood is used for fuel (the original Yule log is thought to have come from a Beech) and smoking foods such as cheeses, herrings and beer, as well as used for furniture and kitchen utensils.  In folklore, Celtic tradition associates Beech with prosperity, as well as wisdom and the written word and learning – a sentiment embodied in the Celtic ‘lesson of the Beech’ –  ‘Rooted in the knowledge of the ancients, sustained by the ideas of the present, we will continue to reach for the stars’ .  In past times thin slices of Beech wood were used to create the very first books, which were used by the Irish god Ogham to record the first known written alphabet in the UK.

Find out more information about Beech trees at the Woodland Trust site, and there are guides to Beech identification at the Natural History Museum website.

'Rooted in the knowledge of the ancients, sustained by the ideas of the present, we will continue to reach for the stars'.  Photo Mike Hall

‘Rooted in the knowledge of the ancients, sustained by the ideas of the present, we will continue to reach for the stars’. Photo Mike Hall

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P1000244Well, as it’s almost the end of the year the Wood Elves have been amusing themselves in the long dark nights as they sit by a roaring log fire with a small/medicinal sloe gin, by compiling ‘Top Ten’ lists – you know the sort of things, the completely materialistic Top 10 ‘Things I desperately wanted for Christmas and didn’t get’, or the more reflective ‘Top Ten Dismal Failures of 2012’.

To get things back on a more relevant footing, the Wood Elves decided to compile a ‘Top 10 list of woodland Top 10 lists’ after a peek through the blogosphere and internet – we found these great websites and we hope you enjoy them as much as we do!

No. 10  Sarah Maitland’s Top Ten Books of the Forest –there’s a great choice of reading in here, from classical Shakespeare to Grimm’s fairytales and taking in the wonderful I-Spy series, and also including a book of the work of our favourite artist, Andy Goldsworthy.  A great option for when you can’t get out to the woods!

No. 9 Travel: ten of the best autumn walks in Britain – a photo gallery by the Huffington post of gorgeous UK woodlands in their autumnal finery.

No. 8 Ten best woods and forests for myths and legend – a wonderful list of ‘must see’ woods for ghosts, mythical creatures and curative waters.  And not forgetting Robin Hood, of course!

No. 7 Gabriel Hemery’s Top Ten Largest Forests in the UK – this includes 3 Scottish forests, including the Galloway Forest park, the largest UK forest and right on our doorstep, and the magical Affric Forest in Inverness-shire (8th largest).

No. 6 Ten best leafy walks – although an autumn-themed list, these walks are wonderful all year round.  More information on many of them can be found on the VisitWoods web site.

No. 5 Ten best bluebell walks – look forward to spring; bluebells are the iconic woodland flower, and spring is really here when the woodland floors are carpeted in magical blue! This list includes the fabulous Carstramon Woods in Galloway, too.

No. 4 Top Ten British Trees – BBC’s Countryfile’s list of trees includes some intriguing woody facts and figures, including the most UK’s most expensive tree, tallest tree, and deadliest tree!

No. 3 Top ten trees for UK gardens – everyone should have a tree, but many of us only have the smallest gardens (if we are that lucky, even!).  But this BBC Gardener’s World list has some great ideas for beautiful trees in the smallest plots.  There’s something for every garden including trees with beautiful barks, flowers and foliage.

No 2 Top ten places to see ancient trees in the UK – unfortunately this doesn’t include any Scottish forests despite being a UK list.  Nonetheless there are some wonderful woods listed here, great places to go and walk in woods with a real sense of history, a real contrast to the more ubiquitous short-rotation forestry!

No.1 Ten best woods and forests for wheelchairs and buggies – this list is our number one choice because everyone should be able to enjoy our magical woods and forests.  This is a wonderful list of UK-wide woodlands, full of history and heritage and wild flowers and which really are accessible to everyone!

So there you go!  Hope you enjoy these lists, but please remember that Wood Elf Weekly isn’t responsible to links to external web sites.

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Have a peek at the Woodland Matters web site – there’s a nice wee piece about the wonderful things to be seen in our woods in the winter.  See it at Woodland Highlights: December.

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