Beech woods of the Cotswolds

PUBLISHED: 14:39 19 January 2010 | UPDATED: 15:08 20 February 2013

Dead and decaying wood

Dead and decaying wood

The beech woods of the Cotswolds contain a range of plants that may not be the prettiest flowers to be seen under the woodland canopy but are vital to a flourishing and healthy ecosystem. The idea, held by some, that woodlands should look neat

Dead and decaying wood

Leaf Litter



Ground Ivy



Dead and decaying wood is critical to maintain a balanced ecosystem. All wood - from the mightiest trunk to the thinnest twig - will eventually be subsumed within the ecology of the landscape and as it does, will play its part in sustaining biodiversity. And before it disappears, look more closely at the beautiful patchwork of lichen, moss and fungi. In fact, it's far from dead.

A deep. rich, dark humus that covers the woodland soil. Plunge a hand into litter, feel its warmth and richness as if grasping the essence of nature itself, and smell its almost whiskey-like scent. And, indeed, this is nature's food. Have you ever wondered why it is that our woodlands thrive without the need for plastic-bottled fertiliser?

The devil's Leaf or Urtica dioica is an upright ugly plant with distinctive toothed and heart-shaped leaves, covered with nasty stinging hairs. They grow in thick clumps and up to four feet high.

Fortunately, the stinging nettle is one of our most important native plants for wildlife.

This sometimes all too invasive shrub with its arching, thorny stems produces the ubiquitous and increasingly loved blackberry. The leaves, arranged on either side of the stem, have five to seven oval leaflets. The white or pink flowers hang in loose clusters at the end of the previous year's stems. In autumn, there is an abundant crop of fruit. Bramble (Rubus fruticosus) spreads by means of arching stems that root on touching the ground.

Large, ever-spreading mats of ivy, dense, dark green leaves, Hedera helix is one of our most attractive and architectural of natural plants. It is also viciously attacked by those with the woefully mistaken belief that it rises up to kill trees.

Elder (Sambucus nigra) are those unattractive spindly shrubs with a lichen-tinged, gouged bark, with boring leaves. In winter, the shrub can look like a skeleton - even more so if rising out of the snow. The berries are the deepest black-blue, and perhaps because of misplaced associations with poison and witches are seemingly underappreciated.


Habitat: Perhaps the single most important resource for rare invertebrates in beech woodland is decaying wood. Here in the Cotswolds, there are at least a dozen species of rare or endangered invertebrates such as the click beetle Stenagostus rhombeus that need wood-decay to thrive.

Beech leaf-litter favours a multitude of moisture-loving invertebrates such as centipedes, millipedes, earwigs, snails, false scorpions, beetles and woodlice. Populations of the Flayback Millipede Nanogona polydesmoide although widespread and locally common is, nonetheless of international significance. It needs beech leaf-litter to thrive.

The nettle supports over 40 species of insect including some of our most well-loved butterflies. Notable among the latter are the Small Tortoiseshell, Peacock, and Red Admiral butterflies.

Nettle patches also are the home of overwintering aphids which provide an early food source for ladybirds as well as for blue tits and other birds.

The bramble provides nest sites for at least a dozen small bird species. The leaves are the food plant of many moths. The flowers bring butterflies like meadow brown, speckled wood and brimstone, and the fruit-laden branches in late summer will attract blackbird, song thrush and many other birds. Blackberries are also eaten by many small mammals. Bush crickets enjoy brambles as well.

Woodland is ivy's natural habitat. It can grow under low light levels and hence is as happy on the ground as it is climbing up trunks. During winter, the mats of ivy protect the soil from snow and frost and offer ground-feeding birds such as blackbirds and robins somewhere to forage and a sheltered habitat for small mammals.

Elder is widespread and is common along the glades and footpaths of woodlands. By July, the shrub should be covered with sprays of delicate flowers, now much appreciated by lovers of cordial, although some say the taste of the raw flowers is liverish. The berries will come out in thick clumps from August onwards. Leave them too long and the birds will have them though.


Facts: Rot and decay are essential elements of any biological system. At least 1700 invertebrate species in Britain live off decaying wood. The greatest natural accumulation of decaying organic matter occurs in woodland hence we also find the greatest number of fungi, rapidly converting dead timber into fertile wholly organic soil matter.

The importance of the underlying structure of the woodland is often under-appreciated: to all intents and purposes trees grow on their own humus in a truly sustainable fashion. Environmentally this is the soundest of agricultural practices as it means crops are being grown without the soil exhaustion that happens in farm crops.

Nettle soup is now all the rage in the kitchens of Notting Hill but the leaves should only be used until the beginning of June. Thereafter, they will be too coarse. It is the presence of the stings that has allowed the relationship with numerous insect species to develop. Recent research as shown that the main stinging chemicals are histamine, acetylcholine and 5-hydroxytryptamine (serotonin).

The berries ripen from August through to October (even through until November if last year is anything to go by.) The first and smallest ones are the sweetest. As the season progresses the berries are best used for jams and cooking.

Our native Hedera helix has two forms: the juvenile form with the characteristic lobed leaves is particularly suited to ground cover. In the mature form it becomes bushy, throws out branches and the leaves are more elliptical. Usually this form will only be found on trees.

Forget about fancy elderflower cordials but instead use the berries in jams (on their own or added to another fruit) or to make Pontack Sauce - said to be particularly good with liver.


Fallen branches, unused timber and even freshly produced off-cuts should be left or stacked in piles, preferably in shaded locations, and then left undisturbed. Removal of timber for firewood or for aesthetic or safety reasons is damaging and short-sighted.

As with all woodlands it is easy to be dismissive of what seems to be the banal and unimportant. Disturbance to accumulated moss, ground litter and ground surfaces should be minimised and indeed individuals can be heavily fined if they are found to be disturbing wild-life habitats.

Nettles play a crucial role for both rural and urban wildlife. They will grow in any phosphate-rich soil - and human activity can always help here; hence it is easy to establish a patch in a garden and, with little TLC, they will thrive!

On the basis that brambles can survive anything, conservation is the least of their worries. They can be contained in the garden but this does depend upon quickly uprooting any unruly stem that has attached itself to the ground. Best to keep them at the bottom and don't try to train them.

Ivy should be left to thrive. Not only on the ground but in trees as well. Walkers have been known to cut the base of Ivy plants growing on trees but this is unnecessary.

Fortunately, as it is also unsafe for eating, it doesn't have to worry about ending up in the cooking pot.

Learn to love the wizened shape and grow one in your garden. It can take good pruning and can always be described as a 'folly.'

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