Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Wet woodland at Eccleston Mere

I'm often asked by birders, dog walkers and anglers alike, what my opinion is of the now flooded woodland at the south end of the mere. It seems that most think that it is a disaster area, where a once beautiful woodland has now been all but destroyed. But I'd like to put another point of view.

Over the past 24 years I've learnt to accept changes at the mere which are not always to my liking and not always for the benefit of wildlife. The mere is after all run for the benefit of the yachting and angling clubs. The water levels are too high, there's  almost no real edge, it's too manicured in places, there's too many dogs, too much disturbance, both on the water and on the banks.

But the wet woodland is different. It's a wild place with very little disturbance. Formerly a largely sycamore woodland, thick with rhododendron, it is now transformed into a flooded, neglected area of dead or dying trees, a place where no rhododendron can grow. It doesn't look pretty, so should we be sad and annoyed at it's demise? I think not.

We all know that rhododendron is an unwelcome addition to any wildlife friendly woodland, and all conservation organisations spend a lot of volunteer time removing it. Very little vegetation can grow under rhododendrons, and it is not to the liking of many invertebrates. Rhododendrons reduce the biodiversity of a woodland.  The flood in the southern woods is doing us a favour. I'm glad to see the end of the rhododendrons.

But what of the sycamores, surely we should we mourn their passing? Well some might, but consider this, it's not actually a native tree and to quote the Woodland Trust it is "a tree of contradictory perceptions; once loved as a shade tree it now bears the scorn of some countryside organisations that see it as a 'weed' which needs to be removed". Ironically, in their death throes, the sycamores are much better for wildlife than when they are thriving. Dead or dying sycamore trees provided brilliant habitat for all kinds of invertebrates, fungi and birds. It's no coincidence that water rail and willow tit records have increased dramatically over the past few years, and wet woodland is also good for many other species from woodpeckers to woodcock. Wet woodland is a UK BAP priority habitat and we should be glad that we have it at the mere. Sycamore woodland is common at the mere, and the loss of this small area is insignificant. Check out the JNCC website for more information, or click here to see what the Wildlife trusts have to say about wet woodland.

And actually the woodland isn't dead. The edges of the wood are still very much alive with Alder, a tree which can cope with wet conditions much better than sycamore, and which provide food for flocks of finches in the winter. Even the sycamores continue to survive on the western edge of the wood.

So what does the future hold? At present this is a flooded woodland rather than a true wet woodland which is a living ecosystem. In time, if left to it's own devices, the woodland will probably move more towards true wet woodland, as more suitable trees such as willow and alder replace the dead sycamores, the remains of which will continue to provide homes for many creatures. This can only be good.

Of course the woodland at the mere is not being managed, it's not a nature reserve. It may be that some management will be put into place to remove dangerous trees, or even to belatedly stop the flood, but one things for certain it's a habitat that will change either through Human intervention or natural succession. The trees are now dead, no amount of management will reverse that. Something will take the woodlands place, a return to sycamores and rhododendron is not an option. From a naturalists point of view, it's quite exciting to see how it evolves.

My hope is that most of the trees will be allowed to remain where they fall and that the woodland will remain wet. In time I suppose it will eventually start to dry out. But the journey to that point will be an interesting one, and at least it provides an element of the unknown with opportunities for many creatures.

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