A triptych of chestnuts

Although it is quite late in the season to be foraging for sweet chestnuts (Castanea sativa), there were still a good number of edible nuts to be found during the first week of November. Ecclesall Woods is my favourite location for harvesting these delicious nuts. There are many large sweet chestnut trees in the woods, many of which were planted in the 1850s.

Sweet chestnuts are actually a Southern European species that were introduced into the woods as a fast growing alternative to native oak, with which it shares a high tannin content. This makes it a durable timber suitable for uses where a degree of water-resistance is required.

Luckily for us, many of these trees are now large specimens that produce an abundance of delicious nuts. Sadly some sweet chestnuts in Ecclesall Woods have been affected by Phytophthora aka ink disease on account of the dark spot-like stains that are seen on some trees, notably on beech. It is harder to see the early stages on the rough-barked chestnuts.

Should you go looking for chestnuts, remember to leave some for the wildlife. When gathering these I saw not one but two wood mice lurking in nearby brambles – it is not just the squirrels who like a nibble. Only take the big and firm nuts. If they are soft they are past their best; too small and they are a pain to shell.

Celebrating the Moss Valley Nature Reserve

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of spending two early mornings in the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust’s Moss Valley Nature Reserve. In this protected landscape it is possible to see a range of wildflowers growing together in such density that it has to be seen to be believed. The site is a mixture of semi-natural and replanted ancient woodland and features plants such as red campion and yellow archangel that are far from common in this part of The Pennines.

These are the photographic highlights of the wildflowers you will find growing in Owler Car Wood in early May. For more botanical and tree photography visit: fran-halsall.co.uk

English bluebell (Hyacinthoides non-scripta) are a useful indicator species, as where they exist in high concentrations it is reasonable to assume that the woodland is ancient (dating back at least 400 years).
Lamium galeobdolon
Yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon) is another of the ancient woodland indicators that grow here. While the leaves are similar to stinging nettles, the yellow hooded flowers are quite different.
Red campion (Silene dioica) grows in woodland glades, old hedgerows and roadside verges. Flowering between May and October, it is a food plant for bees, butterflies, hoverflies and more.
Wild garlic (Allium ursinum) grows in the damp soils down by The Moss, the brook from which the valley takes its name. Wild garlic is just one of the many ancient woodland indicator species growing here.

Newfield Spring Wood: ancient woodland indicator species

On a recent visit to Newfield Spring Wood, a woodland close to my home in the southwest of Sheffield, I spotted a classic ancient woodland indicator species: yellow archangel (Lamium galeobdolon). This foliage of this plant superficially resembles the familiar stinging nettle (Urtica dioica), however it can be easily distinguished when in flower. Stinging nettle has lots of tiny ball-like flowers hanging down in chains, whereas yellow archangel has whorls of bright yellow hooded flowers. The adventurous could also tell them apart by testing the leaves – if it hurts it is a stinging nettle!

On this occasion I saw yellow archangel growing alongside white dead-nettle (Lamium album) – also a non-stinger, which has similar flowers (but in white) and broader leaves. Included below is a photo of them growing together to make identification easier.

yellow archangel
yellow archangel & white dead-nettle
white dead-nettle

Although yellow archangel should be a locally common species associated with the ancient woodlands and hedgerows of Sheffield, what is actually frequently found is Lamium galeobdolon ‘Variegatum’ which, as the name suggests, has a variegated leaf. This is a cultivated species that often escapes from gardens into woodlands.

A Halloween fungi walk

On All Hallow’s Eve what better way to celebrate the cycle of death and renewal than go looking for fungi? They are nature’s great recyclers; many of them are saprophytes that feed on dying plants and animals, making their nutrients available for next generation of life.

L to R: Cavalier, with a floppy hat; mycena aka fairy bonnets; and the toxic wood pinkgill with a undulating edge

Last week I joined the autumn fungi walk led by by Micheal ‘Ziggy’ Senkans, Biodiversity Officer at Sheffield City Council around the fields and woodland of Waterthorpe Meadow in Beighton. Fungi are their most visible later in the year as herbaceous plants die back and deciduous trees lose their leaves.

Deceiver mushroom (Laccaria laccata)
Deceiver mushroom, older and paler
A deceiver has pale pink gills and consistent colour

As a whole different order of life from plants and trees, it has taken me years to develop an eye for identifying fungi. It is still a work in process but as my confidence grows I have been able to forage a few edible mushrooms this year, which feels like an achievement.

Immature meadow waxcap (Cuphophyllus pratensis)
Mature meadow waxcap, upturned gills (Cuphophyllus pratensis)
Candlesnuff fungus (Xylaria hypoxylon)
Scarlet hood (Hygrocybe coccinea)

Caution is needed at all times. Start with the assumption that all fungi are poisonous. Especially if they are red, have a wavy collar or ‘skirt’ at the top of the stem or feature an egg sac at the base.

Agaricus spp, with a ‘skirt’ on the stem
Webcap (Cortinarius spp.) – poisonous
Wood pinkgill (Entoloma rhodopolium)- poisonous

All the fungi featured on this page have been identified by an expert. Please do not use this article as the sole means of identifying any fungi you may find, especially if you intend to eat them. People die each year after mistaking edible mushrooms for deadly ones. Be safe!

Jelly ear (Auricularia auricula-judae) – edible
Common funnel cap (Clitocybe gibba)

The veteran trees of Bushey Wood

Last week, on the hottest day of the year so far, I joined Margaret Peart of the Dore Village Society to conduct an informal survey of Bushey Wood in Totley. This small patch of woodland is what remains of a larger wooded area that has been hemmed in by the housing built from the 1910s through to the 1960s.

For its size there are a high number of notable and possible veteran trees. The largest oak has an estimated trunk girth of 3.8 metres – estimated because we could not access the whole tree due to a fence. An oak of this size could be anywhere between 200 and 440 years old.i

The reason for this wide age bracket is because it is not known whether this tree grew on the woodland boundary, with plenty of room and access to light, or inside the woodland, where space and light levels are much reduced. The top end of this estimate would make it an ancient oak, however it is safe to say that an oak can be considered a veteran upon reaching reach three metres in girth.

In the approximately 400m section we mapped between Gilleyfield Avenue and where the brook enters the culvert, there are two other oaks in excess of three metres – one at 3.1m (pictured left) and another at 3.3m (pictured above). Plus another two notable specimens at 2.8m girth.

There are a further handful of large oaks in the remaining section, which could easily match the size of those already measured. In particular, there are a couple that perilously overhang the brook – to be measured on a cooler day and while wearing more appropriate footwear.

Eleven ancient woodland indicator species were recorded during this visit

The oaks are far from the only interesting finds in Bushey Wood. We spotted several large field maples; one at 2.5m can be regarded as a veteran in the region of 220 years old. The next biggest measures in at 2.2m and although not quite a veteran it is nonetheless notable, as a tree of this stature that has matured inside a closed canopy wood for in the region of a hundred years could be older than appearances suggest.ii

Slightly set back from the path there are two field maple coppice stools, partly entangled within the stonework around the old gatepost. Although of unknown age they could be contemporary with the other field maples along this stretch.

Other indications of this woodland’s considerable age are the many elderly hawthorns. The largest of these are single stem trees smothered in so much ivy they are impossible to measure, however there are also sections of straggly hedging, of which one example includes nine trees.

Hazels are found in great number here and, along with field maple, are among the eleven ancient woodland indicator species recorded on this visit. A couple of the coppiced hazels have reached an exceptional size (pictured) and should be regarded as veteran trees, although coppiced trees are notoriously hard to age. The whole picture speaks of a woodland once managed as coppice with standards.

There are several significant ash trees in Bushey Wood, although many of these are now behind the fences of private gardens (as shown below). Herein lies one of the key threats to Bushey Wood: over time the boundaries of some gardens have crept into the woodland margin and have then been later formalised by fencing. Those trees on the wrong side of the fence are both lost to the public and are subject to the whims of the homeowner.

Such trees may be loved and cared for, however they could equally well meet their demise through neglect or be felled for spurious reasons. Elsewhere inappropriate tree and plant species have either escaped from gardens or are deliberately planted along supposed boundaries. These are slowly making their presence felt in Bushey Wood, potentially at the expense of native species.

What ash trees could be estimated and/or reached measure in at: 3.0m (est.), 3.6m and another at 3.6m is now dead, with the top removed. Ash trees are given veteran status when they reach three metres circumference. It is likely that the ashes inside gardens could well equal this size range; they could be yet larger still.

Thanks to ash die-back the survival of each mature ash tree is more important than ever. No-one knows which trees will demonstrate natural resistance to this devastating fungal disease, making each tree priceless.

i This figure does not take into account the air pollution in Sheffield that was at its worst between the 1850s and the 1960s, which significantly slowed tree growth. Read Prof. Ian Rotherham’s comments on the subject at the bottom of this page.

ii This timescale relates to the last time this wood was likely to have been coppiced, as the practice had almost completely died out in Sheffield by the turn of the 20th century. It is possible that trees may have been coppiced during the war years when fuel supplies ran short.

HS2 Phase 2b: fighting for ancient woods and trees

Consultation on Phase 2b of the HS2 route

The proposed route for HS2 Phase 2b will destroy 16.7 hectares of ancient woodland in 19 ancient woods.  Another 11 ancient woods will be indirectly damaged.

At a time when species decline is accelerating we should be doing everything we can to protect ancient woodland. With only 2.3 percent of the UK landmass covered in ancient woodland, losing any of it for any reason is wholly unacceptable. These habitats not only support great diversity but they are also one of the best places to connect with nature’s magic. These irreplaceable habitats must be preserved so that our descendants are allowed to benefit from the same experiences that presently enrich so many people’s lives.

The Woodland Trust have provided an automated form, to which you can add further comments if you wish. Respond to HS2 Ltd’s consultation.  Deadline: 21 December 2018.



i-tree: putting a value on urban trees

Introducing the i-Tree Leeds project, where they are attempting to define the economic benefits of urban trees.  The Woodland Trust has written about the project here.

“festival goers head for shade
Revellers at a summer festival head for the shade of a copper beech during a heat wave © Fran Halsall

A new study has shown that a hectare of urban trees can lock in, or sequester, nearly as much climate-warming carbon dioxide as the equivalent area of rainforest.  This is just one of the many ecosystem services provided by trees at a very low cost.  In this current heat wave many people in the UK are waking up to the fact that our urban areas would be intolerable without the shade and cooler microclimates created by trees.

Talk: “The Changing Wildlife & Fauna of Sheffield Area Woods”

Talk: “The Changing Wildlife & Fauna of Sheffield Area Woods” by Bob Croxton.

Date: Tuesday 21st August.
Time: 2.15pm at the Discovery Centre, Ecclesall Woods.

Friends of Ecclesall Woods have arranged a public talk which should be of particular interest to those who want to learn more about ecology in Sheffield’s woodlands.

Bob has been taking photos in certain areas on a regular basis for many years and has observed the changes that take place when more dominant species move in. Are brambles and holly more of a threat to our bluebells than any invasion by the Spanish variety? Come and see Bob’s photos showing changes in the incidence of bluebells and many other species as well.

Bob is an active member of the Sorby Society and has contributed to the recent Sheffield State of Nature report published by the Sheffield and Rotherham Wildlife Trust.


Ecclesall Woods, coppiced area in Wood 2

It is a few years since this large area to the east of Abbey Lane underwent coppicing.  Several large sycamores were cut down and many lapsed hazel coppice stools were recut to allow more light to reach the understory.  This encourages regeneration of the ground flora, the seeds for which lie dormant within the soil of this ancient woodland awaiting the opportunity to germinate.

When visiting in late May I spotted the following plant without leaving the path: English bluebells Hyacinthoides non-scripta; herb robert Geranium robertianum; greater stitchwort Stellaria holostea; yellow archangel Lamium galeobdolon; enchanter’s nightshade Circaea lutetiana and tufted hair grass Dechampsia cespitosa.  All but the last of these are ancient woodland indicator species and the hope is that the management strategy will increase their numbers.  Brambles Rubus fruiticosa have not yet taken over the site, as often seen with other clearings, however a close eye will have to be kept on the emerging bracken Pteridium aquilinum.

Bracken and bluebells are both woodland species, although they are sometimes found on moors and grasslands where no trees are present.  They often indicate that there was previously woodland at the location and these missing woods are known as ‘shadow woods‘.

photograph © Fran Halsall.