Even this late in November, there’s still a good bit of
colour about – surprisingly so!
The larches and beeches are providing a welcome hit of gold and vivid
russet against the charcoal and black of the bare trees and the gloomy grey
skies. Both these trees are a real feature of the Lagan Valley
landscape and seem right at home – yet neither is native to Northern
The magnificent beech is indigenous to most parts of Europe and
probably came over with the Normans in the 13th century. Beeches have been here so long, they
are very naturalised – the climate and conditions clearly agree with them.
For all their huge stature and impressiveness, beeches do
not live longer than 200 years. It’s
hard to believe the Minnowburn beeches, with their great height and hidey-holes
in the trunks so beloved by little children, are not permanent features.
These trees are distinctive for their huge shading crowns,
massive, smooth grey trunks and largely horizontal branching. The profusion of overlapping small
leaves creates a wonderfully impressionist image when looking up and watching
the light filter down through – one of summer’s great pleasures. And right now, multitudes of crispy
leaves on the ground make a nice cushion for an impromptu nap – if the weather
ever dries up – or just fun for kicking along.
Such a wealth of leaves shades out all growth underneath, so
very little can thrive beneath a beech, with the exception of bluebells.
Photos provided by LVRP show just some of the biodiversity the Laganside woodlands support...
....like treecreepers and lichens
The rich yellow small-leaved hedges that come into their own
at this time of year are also beeches, but pruned way back. Soon the leaves will go brown,
lingering on until late spring. So now is the time for the beech hedge to
shine. (See them at their best on
the roadsides near Shaw’s Bridge)
A host of native animals have come to rely on the beech
tree. Bats for roosting high in the branches, feeding and nesting birds, barn
owls which make a beeline for a lofty perch or convenient cosy bolthole and
above all, red squirrels who love the sweet nuts.
A big tree is a great spot for owl, bat and bird boxes, as these LVRP volunteers show
Along with oaks*, beeches are members of the fagus
family. This name may be related
to the Greek word for ‘to eat’ as beeches provided a food source in times of
famine in Europe. *(Which are
native – thousands of years ago this island was covered in oak trees.)
Often around our countryside, a massive spreading tree can
be seen out on its own in the midst of a large field, dominating the scene, of
course. Usually it’s a beech,
making a statement. More stunning
still – the copper beech. No
wonder so many are landmark trees.
....and birds of prey. But these days owls have a harder time finding mature trees with handy nesting holes
The only deciduous conifer native to Europe, the European larch
first came to the UK in 1620 as a high quality source of wood. There are also Japanese larches in the British
Tall, yet delicate, larches are distinctive for their bright
grassy green colour, small soft needles and autumn golden tone. With their loose, spreading branches,
larches provide a more open woodland habitat and let in more light; attractive
features for birds of prey.
Bluebells make their show in deciduous forests before leaves appear to cut out their light
Beautiful though both trees may be, (as well fellow incomers
like horse chestnuts and sycamores), they can’t compare with the locals for
boosting biodiversity. Native
trees, (broadleaved varieties are best of all) and the plants, fungi, insects
and animals that depend on them have evolved together over thousands of
years. This is particularly true
of invertebrates. That’s why today, the emphasis has shifted towards planting
more native species. Even
so, every tree is a valuable habitat in itself.
A leaf strewn forest floor makes the perfect puffball habitat
In the past year there has been a good deal of concern about
these two species as they have been infected by the fungal disease also known
as Sudden Oak Death. Thousands of
Japanese larches have been affected and had to be felled. In Co. Down, the disease appears to
have jumped species and has infected several beech trees. Most likely, the fungus was brought in
with imported rhododendron shrubs.
Whatever the cause, it has now been spotted in several NI
locations. Naturally the LVRP team
are on alert for any signs of trouble with both species, which are among the
favourites in the Park. (even if
they are relative blow-ins!)