Woodland Wonders: Winter

By Katie Stevens

Welcome to the December edition of Woodland Wonders. Frosty mornings are here, berries are abundant, and trees are shedding their leaves – Winter is definitely here!

Woodland Wonders: Winter

With grey skies becoming the norm and occasional sunny days a rare joy, woodlands can become a tad ‘drab’. But some interesting fungi can be found nestled amongst the fallen leaves. One that I have seen a few times during winter is a Herald of Winter (Hygrophorus hypothejus). Found primarily in conifer woodlands, particularly pine plantations, this waxcap has a bright yellow stem. Its cap is round, flattish and curving that ranges in colour from olive to dark brown and purple. It will look quite slimy when wet after rain, but when dry it can be a bit tricky to spot when nestled amongst autumnal leaves, so keep your eyes peeled!

Another mushroom that is well camouflaged is the Winter chanterelle (Craterellus tubaeformis). A common mushroom found in both conifer and broadleaved woodlands, they have yellow-brown stems with a funnel shaped cap of various shades of brown and orange. Although hard to spot on the woodland floor, they like to cluster around tree stumps and fallen branches.

Woodland Wonders: Winter

Winter chanterelle

Woodland Wonders: Winter

Herald of Winter mushroom

Winter is synonymous with bare trees and empty woodland floors, yet there are many shrubs and wildflowers that add splashes of colour on your chilly woodland walks. The dark, glossy leaves and bright red berries of holly (Ilex aquifolium) are a main feature in most woodlands in winter, particularly mature beech woodlands. Rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) is another evergreen shrub that can be found in woodlands. Although a pretty sight in gardens and managed landscapes, it is considered a non-native invasive pest within woodlands and the general countryside. Beguiling onlookers with its glossy green leaves and pinky-purple spring flowers, it can grow up to 8m tall, finding patches of light within the canopy and spreading into any available space. A flourishing shrub is normally a positive prospect, yet this has a negative effect on the woodland. It will outcompete other vegetation and fauna, from shrubby plants to wildflowers and without mechanical or chemical control, it will become the dominant shrub species.

Woodland Wonders: Winter

Rhododendron ponticum

Some deciduous trees are still hanging on to their leaves, such as Oaks and Hornbeams, but most are bare, with a dense carpet of coloured leaves beneath them. Deciduous trees like Oak go through a period called senescence or biological aging. For them, senescence is their dormant period, where they are not actively growing and photosynthesising; unlike annual or biannual plants, trees have multiple life cycles, meaning they have many years maturing and growing until they die. During senescence, the hormone Ethylene is produced in large quantities, causing plants and trees to age and fruit to ripen. In annual plants, this leads to death, but in trees, only the leaves are affected; this is because of a clever layer of cells called the abscission layer that the tree sends to the base of all the leaves to prevent the spread of Ethylene to the rest of the tree. This means that there are large, concentrated amounts of Ethylene within the leaves, causing them to breakdown and eventually drop from the tree.

Now, this whole process occurs within the tree, hidden beneath the surface; the only evidence we see of this is the colourful change and falling of leaves. Within a leaf cell, chloroplasts are organelles (structures) that contain different coloured pigments that make up the leaf colour; the leading pigment is chlorophyll, which makes the leaf green. During senescence, these pigments start to break down, starting with the dominant chlorophyll. As chlorophyll drains away, other pigment colours are visible, leading to the amazing reds, golds and yellows you see across the countryside.

Activity suggestion: Take a walk through your local woods and see how many colours you can find. For younger (and older!) minds, collect as many different coloured leaves you can find and create some winter art: Click this link to see what you can create with leaves, as suggested by The Woodland Trust.

Woodland Wonders: Winter

Winter colours

Woodland Wonders: Winter

Hedgehogs hide themselves well within their nests!

Early winter is an important time for birds and animals, as they are busy collecting food and nesting materials for the cold winter period or hibernation. One animal to keep an extra eye out for is the Hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus). These nocturnal creatures can be found in woodlands, meadows, grassland, as well as parks and gardens. They feed on all kinds of insects, such as slugs and millipedes, and will nestle in piles of leaves, under thick undergrowth and under garden sheds. Keep an eye out for nests within your local woods or in your gardens, but if you do accidentally disturb a hedgehog in its nest, firstly, don’t panic and pick it up! Just cover it back over with a thick layer of leaves or similar material, and if possible, leave some dog food or insects and water nearby, so that the hedgehog can regain its valuable resources to rebuild or build another nest.

Activity suggestion: Build a hedgehog house! You can put it in your garden or your local woodlands, in a quiet corner or at the base of a tree. Homemade houses should be made from solid wood and partly filled with dried leaves, hay or straw; I would suggest not using wicker or ‘brushed’ material, as the hedgehog’s spines could get stuck. Click this link to see how to make a hedgehog house!

That’s all for December, I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas and a happy new year; get your wellies or boots on and go out for a bracing Winter walk!