January at Belfairs

January at Belfairs

Even in the depths of January, there is still plenty to see at Belfairs; even some signs that spring might be on the way!


Winter is a great time of year for birdwatching in the woods of Belfairs. With the trees having lost their leaves, birds are often much more visible. Food is also much scarcer, often making birds a bit bolder in their search for food thus still more easily seen. One lovely species to which this particularly applies is the Goldcrest.

The Goldcrest is the smallest bird in Europe; weighing just 5g. As a small, warm blooded animal, Goldcrest live on a real energetic knife-edge in the cold winter conditions; losing up to a fifth of their body mass in a single night keeping warm. This difficulty in cold conditions is perhaps why our resident Goldcrest are joined by migrants from Fennoscandia; incredible to think that a bird this small could fly across the North Sea.

The combination of an increased winter population and bolder feeding in winter make January the perfect time to see Goldcrest at Belfairs. Holly is a particular favourite of this species, so if you see a nice thicket of Holly, look out for this fabulous little bird.


Photo - Neil Higginson


Where the Goldcrest deals with winter conditions by being a bit bolder in its foraging habits, there is another small warm-blooded animal found at Belfairs that deals with the winter in a rather different way. Instead of more actively searching for food, Dormice do completely the opposite; going into hibernation. They allow their body temperature to drop for prolonged periods and massively reduce their metabolic rate, thus reducing their energetic needs. Through the autumn they will have increased significantly in mass, and will currently be in hibernation nests, slowly burning through their energy reserves.

Dormouse sleeping

Credit - Danny Green

Hazel catkins

Not all of the residents of Belfairs are as inactive as the Dormice in January. The Hazel trees are already beginning to wake from their winter slumber. Almost as soon as the New Year was upon us, Hazel catkins started to fluff up, and there are now a fair few of these “lambs’ tails” out around Belfairs. Hazel is not pollinated by insects, but instead is pollinated by the wind. This means that it doesn’t need to wait around till the warm weather and insects come around. In fact, by releasing its pollen now, things are probably a little easier; the lack of leaves on trees probably facilitates the dispersal of pollen.

Hazel Catkins

Cherry Laurel

Some species, however, retain their leaves throughout the winter. There are very few native trees that do this; here at Belfairs, Holly is the only native broadleaf that retains leaves through the winter. However, there are a number of non-native trees that humans have brought to this country that do retain their leaves through the winter. One such species is Cherry Laurel; a member of the rose family from South-East Europe. Evergreen species like Cherry Laurel can be problematic for our native flora and fauna, which is not adapted to living with broadleaf evergreens. As well as the Hazel, which releases its pollen before trees come into leaf, many of our woodland wildflowers emerge and bloom early in the spring, taking advantage of sunshine getting to the forest floor before the trees come into leaf; something which they cannot do in the presence of evergreen trees. Climate change could make Cherry Laurel even more problematic; mild conditions in winter will allow the evergreen Cherry Laurel more opportunity for photosynthesis, giving it more of an advantage over native deciduous species.

Due to these negative impacts, we are taking out Cherry Laurel (and other non-native trees like Rhododendrons) from Belfairs. Cherry Laurel has spread significantly on our site over the past couple of decades, but thankfully is still relatively localised, though in some places it is quite dense. Hopefully we can get on top of the issue before it becomes too much of a threat to our native wildlife. 

Volunteers at Belfairs removing invasive Cherry Laurel

Volunteers at Belfairs removing invasive Cherry Laurel


One native species found here at Belfairs that retains its leaves through the winter is Yew. Due to its evergreen nature, Yew does some things somewhat similarly to Cherry Laurel: it is quite toxic, thus preventing herbivory, allowing it to retain its leaves for a long time; it is quite tolerant of shade; it is not able to deal with prolonged periods of frost. However, where Cherry Laurel is fast growing and invasive, Yew is much slower growing and, as a native plant, our native wildlife is adapted to living alongside Yew.

The slow-growing wood of Yew has long been used for making a variety of implements, in part due to its high durability. So durable is Yew, that a spearhead found here in Essex made from Yew is thought to be the oldest wooden artefact ever found; estimated to be over 400000 years old. In addition to this ancient association with the people of Essex, Yew has a much more modern connection to Essex. Toxic compounds found in Yew have been found to disrupt cell division, and thus have proven useful in cancer drugs. These drugs are manufactured here in Essex using clippings from Yew trees from around the British Iles.   

Yew tree at Belfairs