Five spring sights at Belfairs Woodlands

Photo: Bob Coyle

Spring is marching on! Here are a few things to keep an eye out for at Belfairs Woodlands in April.

Wood Anemone flowering

Spring is coming along in leaps and bounds at the moment at Belfairs. Seemingly overnight, a plethora of wildflowers have appeared. One species that is putting on a really great show at the moment is the Wood Anemone. This lovely, early spring flower is a member of the Buttercup family. It grows well in dappled sunlight, so the coppiced woodland habitat here at Belfairs is ideal. It spreads mainly through underground stems called rhizomes. This makes it particularly vulnerable to trampling; perhaps why the more disturbed areas of Belfairs don’t contain this wonderful plant, and one of the reasons that we use hedging to restrict access to our coppice coupes. This spreading via rhizomes is rather a slow process however, so wood anemones are often a sign that a woodland is ancient. The large carpets of anemones that we have in some areas here at Belfairs may well have been spreading for centuries.

Wood Anemone

Invasive Alexanders

Another, less welcome flower is also coming into bloom at the moment- Alexanders. This species is not native, having been introduced by the Romans as a food plant. Every part of the plant is edible, the large tap roots are quite parsnip like, the stems can be used much like celery, the leaves can be eaten as a salad, and the seeds have a peppery flavour. Alexanders can dominate our native wildflowers, so we have been pulling it out of some areas of Belfairs where there is high floral diversity. We hope that pulling at this time of year will be quite effective for a couple of reasons: firstly, we are only just coming into spring so the Alexanders will still largely be drawing on reserves from their large root stores so any root systems that we do not manage to pull will be depleted. Secondly, they have not yet set seed so we will hopefully prevent their further spread.


Recently pulled Alexanders

Hornbeam catkins

A third, rather different flower is also in bloom at this time of year. Hornbeam catkins are perhaps less striking than a galaxy of wood anemones or explosions of yellow Alexanders but a Hornbeam dripping with bright yellow-green catkins is quite a sight. The differences between the flowers of Hornbeam, and Wood Anemones and Alexanders give an interesting insight into their reproductive ecology. Hornbeam is pollinated by wind, whereas Wood Anemone and Alexanders rely on insects for pollination. This explains the less conspicuous nature of the Hornbeam flowers, as they do not need to attract insects. It is thought that this wind pollination is the reason that Hornbeam catkins appear at this time of year. By coming out before the leaves, there is less obstruction to wind pollination.

Hornbeam catkins

Hornbeam catkins

Long-tailed Tit nests

The lack of leaves on trees at this point in spring also makes this a fantastic time to get out and see if you can spot bird nests. Many species of bird are really active with mating and nest building already here at Belfairs. If you are lucky enough you might spot the fantastic nest of a Long-tailed Tit. These fabulous little birds produce their nests early in the season, making fantastic, tightly woven balls of cobwebs, hair, mosses and lichens lined with hundreds of feathers. These little birds are of particular interest because of their social behaviour. When breeding territories are scarce or if breeding efforts fail, young from previous years will stay with their parents and help to rear their younger siblings.

Wood Ant nests

The Wood Ants of Belfairs take nest building and social behaviour to a completely different level to the Long-tailed Tits. Daughters completely forego their own reproduction to help their mother raise their siblings. Their nests contain many thousands of individuals and are architecturally complex. The conspicuous thatched tops seen at Belfairs are very much the tip of the iceberg of the nest; do get out this spring to see these fantastic nests. Unfortunately, these fantastic invertebrates are in drastic decline here at Belfairs. Rackham says in his Woods of South-East Essex, published in 1986, that 133 Wood Ant nests were found here- last year when we conducted a survey, we only found 35.