Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow…
Winter is special and it can be a magical experience to see the woods at this time of year whether it be on cold frosty mornings, starlit nights or days with fog or mist blanketing the lower ground.
Head into the woods at this time of year and you may encounter the winter trinity of Holly, Ivy and Mistletoe. There is an old legend that Holly first sprang up under the footsteps of Jesus with scarlet berries like drops of blood and the leaves like a crown of thorns – in Northern Europe it is known as Holy Tree or Christ’s Thorn. An early Chiltern name for Holly is Christmas Tree, which may have given Christmas Common its name. It was seen as a safeguard against lightning, witchcraft and goblins and often planted outside farmhouse doors. Although cutting boughs of Holly is a longstanding practice, the felling of whole trees is thought to be a bringer of bad luck – heartbreak or illness may follow and there is a Buckinghamshire tradition that if you cut down a Holly tree, a witch will appear in its place.
Ivy is our only evergreen liana and contrary to widespread belief, it is not a parasite on trees. It manufactures all its own nourishment and uses trees simply as scaffolding – problems only occurring due to the weight of foliage on older, unhealthy trees or the shading out of leaves. Ivy flowers play a hugely important role in providing an abundant late source of nectar for bees and its berries are food for birds – it is also a fantastic nesting habitat. Ivy has a rich history in folklore and symbolised eternal life, loyalty and devotion. Traditionally seen as a good-luck charm, Ivy was used to keep evil away from cows, milk and butter – although it was usually forbidden indoors at any time other than Christmas.
Mistletoe is a glorious sight as it appears golden-green and white among leafless winter branches. Although more widespread in Western areas it is locally common, particularly on old Lime trees. Native Mistletoe, heavily associated with Apple trees, has declined as old orchards are grubbed out but thankfully it has been able to successfully colonise soft-barked trees in parks and gardens.
Trees are as beautiful in winter as they are in full leaf, standing starkly against the sky or in massed-ranks in the woods. Winter is a good time to get to know the trees in our local patch and then observe them through the cycling of the year. Although deciduous trees are not in leaf, there are a couple of simple ways to identify those found commonly in our woods – buds and bark. The buds of Ash are arranged in opposite pairs, shaped like a Bishop’s Mitre except for the buds at the end of shoots (often curving upwards) which are slightly more conical. The most important aid to identification given by the buds is that they are matt-black or very dark. Ash bark is smooth and grey or a pale grey-brown in younger trees and in older trees the bark becomes fissured into ridges.
Hazel is often seen in our local woods as a coppiced tree or small bush. The buds are quite short and bluntish with red-green scales and arranged on opposite sides of the stem on hairy stalks. The bark is a light grey-brown and is often flaky or peeling. The yellow male catkins appear before the leaves and hang in clusters – like cat’s tails.
Cherry is perhaps more easily identifiable by its bark than buds – the lines which look like horizontal bands or cracks in the bark are called lenticels and are characteristic of the species. The dark egg-shaped orange-brown buds can appear in clusters and have very visible scales.
Beech buds are long, thin and have sharpish points. They are copper-brown in colour and stick out at a sharp angle from the stem. Beech bark is smooth and silvery grey, becoming a bit rougher in old trees but not so much as Ash. Often on younger trees, smaller branches of larger trees and in beech hedges you can see the dead brown leaves staying attached all winter.
Twigs can be a great ID tool as well: Lime twigs are red, those of Alder Buckthorn have orange markings, Elder twigs are green and smell unpleasant and Hawthorn and Blackthorn twigs have sharp spikes – the latter especially so.
Winter is a great time to head out birdwatching. There are many migrants that visit us at this time of year but also those year-round residents that may become easier to spot. Starlings, their numbers swelled by birds coming in from Europe, can often be seen (and heard) in large flocks, Blackbirds emerge again after their moult to forage in the hedgerows and Robins are forever present.
From the woodland margins look out across fields and hedgerows for flocks of migrating birds. Redwings can be commonly seen along berry-laden hedges. Fieldfares, flying in from Scandinavia, feed on hawthorn, rosehip and rowan and if you are lucky you may see the stunning Waxwing – plumpish brightly-hued starlings from Scandinavia and Russia - which eat a wide range of berries and feast on apples and mistletoe.
…The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
(Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening – Robert Frost)