Winter workin'

Illustration of a robin by Sonia Hensler

Temperatures have finally fallen, and winter is here once more. Our visitors seem to feel sorry for us at this time of year because of the cold and the incessant rain but this is our opportunity to get our teeth stuck into some serious woodland management – something all the rangers in our team enjoy.

As well as wet weather, winter also means the birds have abandoned all thought of nesting and the trees have descended into dormancy – the perfect time for us to get cracking!

Regular visitors will be aware of our long-term project to restore our woodland to a healthy composition of native tree species with a rich ground flora of woodland wildflowers and heather. Evidence of our work can be seen on the South Woodland Walk, where the continued removal of large Turkey Oaks has encouraged our native Sessile Oaks to regenerate alongside a rich flora of Gorse, Broom, Madder, Yellow Cow Wheat and many more of our beautiful native plants.

You can also see a clear change on the North Woodland Walk at the end nearest the King Harry Ferry, where we have removed or thinned out Beech and Holly to open amazing views of the creeks and, as you round the point, a great view of Roundwood Quay. In this part of the wood, increased light levels have now allowed the heather to begin its recolonization of the woodland floor.

It can be interesting to have a look and see if you can find some heather and then – if you walk here regularly – track the progress of these plants as more and more pops up. Roundwood Fort is probably the best place to see it at present because entire areas have managed to return to heath beneath a healthy population of young Sessile Oaks growing up to succeed their veteran predecessors.

Jimbo the heavy horse dragging out timber from Silver Fir felled at Roundwood
Jimbo the heavy horse dragging out timber from Silver Fir felled at Roundwood on the Trelissick estate, Cornwall
Jimbo the heavy horse dragging out timber from Silver Fir felled at Roundwood

To get to Roundwood, you will have to traverse the little Chestnut wooden bridge over Lamouth Creek. In the early stages of our forestry season we have thinned out quite a bit of dense, shade-casting willow to allow this bridge to dry out and hinder the decomposing influence of so much damp! Our Wednesday group of volunteers have also done a fantastic job of scrubbing, brushing and scouring the green algae, moss and mould from the timber so that, all in all, the bridge is looking the best it has in quite some time.

Our volunteers give the bridge over Lamouth Creek the scrubbing of its life.
Volunteers scrub a footbridge clean of moss and lichen on the Trelissick estate, COrnwall
Our volunteers give the bridge over Lamouth Creek the scrubbing of its life.

Meanwhile, over in the Trelissick Parkland we were saddened to lose several large trees to these nasty storms that keep buffeting us with high winds and that ruthless, sideways blown rain that soaks through all but the sturdiest coats and makes the windward side of your face go numb. The first of these was a stately old Sycamore that used to stand sentry over the tarmac road through the Park. This tree had started showing signs of decline over the last couple of years and we had carried out several attempts at remedial work, hoping to encourage the tree to put on new growth and recover. Unfortunately, it continued to decline and had become unsafe to remain in such proximity to a busy path. The tree surgeon who cut it down had a bit of a shock when his chainsaw hit something deep in the tree – this Sycamore had been growing around some large and pretty ancient hand-made nails! They must have been inside for a considerable amount of time!

A cluster of large nails hiding deep inside the main stem of the sycamore
Ancient hand hand nails in the centre of a felled sycamore on the Trelissick estate, Cornwall
A cluster of large nails hiding deep inside the main stem of the sycamore

Another notable loss was a big Beech that stood on the fence-line between the car park and the Parkland itself. This tree was suffering from the attention of a fungus called Giant Polypore, and again we had tried to save it by reducing the weight and height in the crown, but it just became too dangerous to keep standing next to parked cars. With this individual, we have retained most of the main stem as habitat for deadwood insects and our regular team of tree surgeons made incisions in the wood to encourage nesting bats whilst employing cuts and techniques that mirror natural processes. Why not go and look as you are walking? It’s just along the fence on your right as you enter the Park.

Thomas the tree surgeon in his natural element, removing the top of the beech tree in the Trelissick Parkland
Tree surgeon removing the top of the beech tree in the Trelissick Parkland, Cornwall
Thomas the tree surgeon in his natural element, removing the top of the beech tree in the Trelissick Parkland

The ranger team will be out in the woods for most of the winter, so if you see us whilst visiting, don’t hesitate to come and have a chat about what we are up to and why. We are always happy to discuss our woodland walk and point out different features or areas of interest.

Wildlife

You could be forgiven for thinking that winter is a time when food is scarce, and our native wildlife is laying low or hibernating, waiting out the cold, lean months until spring rolls back around. For many animals however, these darker days are when they are most active. Leaves fall from the trees, hedgerows become sparse and frosty mornings betray tracks and spiderwebs, all allowing previously elusive creatures to become more visible.

Robin

Apparently, one of the Nation’s favourite birds. Is there a bird more emblematic of the festive season than a robin? Well, possibly a turkey but that’s for considerably different reasons…

A robin resting on a post in a garden
Robin on a post at Trelissick, Cornwall
A robin resting on a post in a garden

Robin redbreast is vocal, precocious and injects an often much-needed splash of colour into the dreary days of winter. Robins are also sedentary, meaning they do not migrate but defend their territories year-round and so are often easy to spot in the sparse, winter woodland or even more so as they loudly demand pasty crumbs and sandwich ends. 

Conversely, the Robin is far less frequently seen during the spring and summer when plentiful food means they are likely foraging out of sight in the woods than visiting gardens and bird feeders.

If we have a mild winter, Robins can begin to breed as early as January and in more usual circumstances they will certainly have begun by March.

Great spotted woodpecker and tawny owl courtship

Unusually, both these birds begin their courtship in winter and there is a good chance of hearing them as they are at their noisiest during the cold season.

Tawny owl
Illustration of a tawny owl by Sonia Hensler
Tawny owl

If you can hear an owl, you might be surprised to learn that the famous ‘tuwhit-tuwhoo’ sound is most probably being made by two birds. This is because, although both sexes can make the ‘tuwhit’ sound, only the males can call out ‘tuwhoo’, so the famous owl call is often a male responding to a female. Owls mate for life but repeatedly consolidate their bond through courtship, feeding and communication. Tawny Owls are believed to be most vocal from December through to February so listen out!

During January and February, the woods can often reverberate to the drumming of the Greater Spotted Woodpecker. These wonderful birds can strike their sharp beaks as many as 40 times per second! Drumming is usually the way a woodpecker finds its food, seeking out grubs that live in decaying wood but during the winter it also doubles up as a way of attracting a mate. Males will drum up to 600 times a day until they have found a partner, so these early months of the year are a great time to try and locate them.

Spider webs 

Frosty, winter mornings are the perfect time to go out looking for spider webs. When the dew settles upon a spider’s silk these beautiful constructions suddenly become far more visible and you realise just how many there are!

Spider's web
Illustration of a spider's web by Sonia Hensler
Spider's web

Why not go out for an earlier walk around the Estate and spot webs in hedgerows, fields, high up in trees or in the windows of buildings?

Spider silk is an amazing substance and – if you are lucky – you might even catch a spider making its web, so then you can see how expertly they are constructed.

- The National Trust Ranger team, Trelissick and North Helford