An adapted extract from ‘The Secret Life of a Woodland Habitat: Life Through the Seasons’ by Chloé Valerie Harmsworth (@chloevalerienatureart; chloevalerienatureart.wordpress.com/about), a nature writer, poet and photographer from Hertfordshire. For more seasonal joy and information, order her book here: https://bit.ly/3bcSCjp
‘To appreciate the beauty of a snowflake it is necessary to stand out in the cold.’ (Aristotle)
Winter brings visions of cold, grey, quiet days that are better spent indoors. Days that don’t offer much to the nature lover. Yet in reality, the woodlands are full of colour, activity, song and beauty at this time of year, and by exploring this underrated season, you will be vastly rewarded.
Crunching across grass and leaves, hardened mud and frozen puddles boosts your physical and mental well-being. Fresh air helps to invigorate and clear your mind of heavy thoughts and reduces fatigue. Even slate-grey days provide a vital boost of vitamin D, and foggy ones transform woodlands into eerie, magical places. Sunny, frosty days are particularly special, with ice-encrusted surfaces sparkling to stunning effect; the blackthorn shining and the dogwood glowing.
Embrace the elements and rhythms of winter, and you will truly be living life to its fullest. Finding joy where you can, whatever the weather, will make you feel more alive. After all, an unpromising, wet and windy walk could lead to an encounter with a mouse or muntjac, or a glimpse of a treecreeper or woodpecker.
Now that the majority of woodland foliage is out of the way, it is the ideal time to inspect tree buds – this goes a long way towards identifying the tree species. Here’s some information on a few of our most common UK species:
This tall and elegant tree is one of the simplest to identify. Its twigs end with three distinctive matt black buds, shaped like pointed hooves – quite unlike the buds of any other tree. The tree’s clumps of seeds – also known as ‘keys’ – are another distinguishing feature; they are still hanging on in winter, to be eaten by birds such as the colourful and characterful goldfinch.
Pagan mythologies describe humans as descendants of the ash tree, and the Scandinavian World Tree (which supported the entire universe) was said to be an ash.
The buds of this grand tree are surprisingly unassuming: small, pointy and reddish-pink. They appear in a cluster at end of a twig, with single ones alternating along the rest of the twig.
The oak has been a special tree in our culture ever since it was worshipped by druids and pagans. It is also essential for our wildlife, providing a habitat for more organisms than any other tree: up to 2,300 species rely on it.
At the beginning of the year, you may notice handsome golden catkins dangling from the hazel tree. Also known as lambs’ tails, these long thin strands are the male flowers, whose pollen grains are transported by winter’s winds. The female flowers are discrete and fuchsia-coloured, peeking out of light green buds.
Groups of hazel trees are often gathered together in what is called a copse. The woodland worker known as a coppicer cuts back the trees to encourage new growth. Perhaps this action can inspire us to let go of what no longer serves us, to start afresh when needed.
It’s difficult not to be philosophical and mindful while studying winter’s small details: by slowing down you become more aligned and in rhythm with the season. Your body, mind and soul will thank you for taking the time to be outside, connecting with your local nature. Finally, if you need hope during this time, remember that the tree buds will burst open with new leaves and flowers when spring arrives.
‘The Secret Life of a Woodland Habitat: Life Through the Seasons’ by Chloé Valerie Harmsworth (@chloevalerienatureart; chloevalerienatureart.wordpress.com/about) is available here: https://bit.ly/3bcSCjp