Here are the highlights of what has been a really interesting and exciting year in the wood:
This year our wood has joined the National Dormouse Monitoring Programme. The British dormouse population has heavily declined in recent times and dormice are now strongly protected by law. But unfortunately the population is still falling, and more research is vital to understand the reasons so that steps can be taken to help.
The programme has been running for twenty-five years and four hundred sites in the UK are being monitored, half of these being in Kent which is a stronghold for these adorable animals. Working together with our neighbouring wood, fifty dormouse nest boxes were put up around both woods in February. Throughout the rest of the year we accompanied the dormouse disturbance licence holder on monthly inspection tours around the boxes.
As well as blue tits, we found various caterpillars, copper underwing moths and yellow-necked mice in the boxes, but it was quite a while before we actually found a dormouse. Perhaps the year was too hot for them to nest in the wooden boxes and they were choosing airier locations further up the trees.
I began my training to obtain a dormouse disturbance licence so that eventually I will be allowed to check the nest boxes myself. This will take two to three years and, as part of this process, I went on two courses during the summer at The Wildwood Trust near Canterbury where they have a breeding programme to provide young dormice to use in reintroductions schemes.
By July we did start finding dormice, both in the wooden boxes and in some heavy ‘woodcrete’ bird boxes that we also looked in and which may have been cooler for them.
Dormice live in very low densities in a wood and so we were never expecting to find large numbers in the boxes. But, by October, with dormice numbers augmented by the year’s young, we found seventeen dormice nests in the fifty boxes. It took a long time to process the dormice that day and we didn’t have the time or energy to look in the bird boxes as well, but there would no doubt have been more in those.
One of the dormice we found was a female that had been born this year and yet she already had a litter of young. This is most unusual and is a valuable piece of data to report back:
Now, in December, all the dormice will be hibernating in their winter nests down at ground level. Hibernation is hazardous, but those that survive should start to emerge in March and I am full of anticipation to see what next year brings.
We have had a tawny owl box up in a stand of beech trees since the autumn of 2019, but it has only ever provided a safe and comfortable home for grey squirrels. There is a camera on a pole looking at the box but unfortunately it is slightly too far away and the box is just out of the range of its sensors.
However, in February and March we did start getting occasional suggestions that owls were interested in the box this year.
The bird ringer is licensed to ring owls and he monitors barn owl chicks in the Stour valley every year, but he had never before ringed tawny owl chicks. We mentioned to him that we were in no way certain but that something might be going on in the wood. The sightings of owls around the box continued from time to time and, in early May, we all met in the wood to open up the box and see what was inside.
To our absolute delight there were two fluffy tawny owlets inside:
Once the babies had been ringed and measured, they were returned safely to the box:
The bird ringer took this wonderful photo on his phone once they were back inside:
We managed to rig a second trail camera up on the other side of the tree and, a couple of days after the chicks were ringed, it recorded an adult owl encouraging one of the chicks out of the box:
Unfortunately, after that fantastic sequence, the cameras provided us with no further footage of the chicks. Newly fledged tawnies do stay in their parents territories for several months but I didn’t see a ringed owl on the cameras however hard I looked.
But at the end of October I did finally see a ringed bird – proof that at least one of the chicks had successfully fledged:
After the owls had left, the squirrels once more took up residence in the box and, in the autumn, we cleared the box out. The owl nest was at the bottom but a squirrel nest was on top:
I think that the squirrels have now returned again unfortunately. We plan to clear the box once more in January in the hope that the owls will use it next year.
We have the dog to thank for this year’s success with the foxes. She was extremely interested in one of the many rabbit holes that there are in the wood. As I pulled her away, I noticed a clump of pheasant feathers at the entrance to the hole which wouldn’t be expected with rabbits. We put a camera on the hole and our suspicions were confirmed when we straight away got this photo:
There were a pair of adult foxes and seven gorgeous little cubs living down the hole:
After a while the photos abruptly stopped and I presume that the cubs were moved to a different location – it must have been getting pretty unpleasant down that hole after all. We did continue to see fox cubs on various cameras throughout the rest of the summer:
Apparently a vixen may reuse a den year after year and so we continue to have a camera on this hole in case she does.
Birds and Bird Ringing
There has been a lot of ringing in the wood this year, giving us a wonderful insight into the birdlife of the wood:
In the winter, the wood provides sanctuary to lots of woodcock that have migrated here to escape the cold of Finland and Russia where they breed.
This hole in an old cherry tree has been nested in by both great spotted and then by green woodpecker in previous years. But this year it was used by squirrels.
However, the green woodpeckers did find somewhere else to nest and raise a family:
When we took on the wood it came with an over-sized population of pheasant, presumably a legacy from when there was a shoot here in former times.
It is estimated that a flabbergasting sixty million game birds are released into the British countryside every year to be shot for pleasure. Whilst these birds are often given supplementary food, they do also hoover up our wildlife and this photo caught one of them red-handed:
When we first saw round the wood in the autumn of 2018, there had been an active buzzard nest that summer at the top of one of the silver birch and we found rabbit bones on the ground below the tree. Sadly buzzards have not nested in our bit of the wider wood since then, but we have enjoyed frequent sightings of these magnificent creatures throughout the year:
When we visited the wood on a sunny and still day in March, we noticed that certain trees were humming loudly with life. It was the goat willow which had come into flower up at their very crowns and we needed binoculars to see what was going on.
The tree’s flowers were heavy with pollen which was being much appreciated by honey bees. Unlike many other bees, honey bee workers overwinter and can come out on sunny spring days to take advantage of early pollen bonanzas such as this.
We had several sightings of a brown hare in the wood in spring. This photo is not great, but it is the only one we managed to get of it:
In early April, the trail camera looking at the woodpecker hole in the old cherry tree caught four brown long-eared bats around the tree one evening. One of the bats is at the entrance of the hole, just below the top branch.
The ecologist who is helping us with the dormice is also a bat expert and she set up infrared floodlights and a sophisticated IR camera to try to catch the bats as they emerged from the hole the next evening. The camera was amazing – even when it was totally dark it had a remarkable view, as if it were daylight:
Brown long-eared bats were detected around the tree although they they probably didn’t come out of that exact hole, as well as common and soprano pipistrelles. It was so interesting to get to know a bit more about the bats that are living in the wood.
The same old cherry tree has many old woodpecker holes in it. Squirrels were nesting in several of these this year:
The badgers in the wood have had a low key year, but we have enjoyed seeing them from time to time nonetheless:
Over the previous winter we had cut back a lot of dogwood in one of the clearings to stop it shading out the abundant marjoram that grows there. We were rewarded for all that hard work this year with fantastic butterfly sightings on the marjoram, including many silver-washed fritillaries that came gliding in:
The marjoram clearing was rich in many other invertebrates as well as butterflies. These red-brown longhorn beetles were particularly eye-catching:
In September there was a sighting of a red deer…
…and in November a polecat (or perhaps polecat-ferret hybrid) visited the wood:
It has been very enjoyable to compile this review of the year for the wood, and gather together all of its best bits. What an amazing twelve months it has been. This winter we plan to continue thinning some areas of dense growth and coppicing some hazel whilst the wood sleeps, all the while looking forward to what next year will bring.