Moving forests


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Notes on nature

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Moving forests

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I’m a fan of a good tree. Any tree that draws attention will do, but a few nice ones are forest beech - smooth barked and massive, common oak - the classic ancient tree (a saying goes ‘they take 300 years to grow, 300 years to live and 300 years to die’) and scots pine - towering over UK woodland and evoking a vibe of primeval forest.

But my favourite is the humble birch (in particular silver-birch, or Betula pendula if you want to be posh). Compared to a 900 year old oak, these guys live fast and die young, normally lasting only 40-60 years. But they are the colonists, the brave pioneers on the bare soil of disturbed land, setting up shop in the wake of human destruction.

If you go to the New Forest or somewhere else with peat-bog or heathland you are likely to see these as the only trees. Their majestic white-silver trunks sprouting from the ground like an inverted lighting bolt, their ornate hanging leaves catching in the breeze (hence the Latin in the name ‘pendula’).

Their wind dispersed seed can make saplings a nuisance in habitats where people don’t want trees (like our own heath at the Lodge!), but they are an important part of some of our wilder habitats in the UK.

In Scotland they are sometimes called ‘moving forests’ because their tiny seeds germinate away from the prevailing wind and their fast growth means they can spread across open landscapes.

Birds that benefit from birch woodland include, pied flycatcher, wood warbler, redstart and black grouse, not to mention Scotland’s only breeding redwings.

So next time you see a big old oak or yew remember that while its sitting in one spot with its roots all comfy, generations of birch trees are transforming the countryside!

Does anyone have a favourite individual tree? I’d love to hear about it, even if you’re not sure what it is! 

  • Rowan's another hardy mountain pioneer often found along side birch! And as you say its berries are great for wintering birds. Thanks for the comment Cirrus.

  • Yes, the Rowan. Humble maybe but berries for birds and a delight to the eye and I'm fortunate enough to have one in my garden . The cauliflower type flowers in the spring send fragrance all across my garden on a warm day. But I like all trees wherever they grow and I'm filled with admiration for Scots Pines, Copper Beech - oh every tree, I couldn't have a garden without at least one tree.