Broad Leaved Woodland: a diminishing and vulnerable ecosystem.
WOODLAND IN SPRINGTIME, before the leaf canopy has blocked the warming sunshine, can be a magical place, full of sounds and smells that invigorate the mind and test the senses. Oak, ash, birch and hornbeam dominate the oldest woods, these species preferring the heavy clay soils of the region. Previously exploited aggressively for fuel and resources over many centuries, the county's ancient woods show many signs of man's past activities with pollarding and especially coppicing being most evident. These practices are not necessarily harmful to the animals living within this environment, indeed, quite the opposite. Opening up the canopy allows for a great diversity of wild flowers and insects to flourish, and the reintroduction of old practices such as charcoaling and coppicing in many of these ancient places will be of great benefit to many species.
The richest of Britain's wild environments yet the one most abused, ancient woodland is a rare commodity in Norfolk, yet there are small pockets of this rich habitat left. For the most part, more recent stands of woodland dominate; offering shelter and food to little seen wild creatures such as the roe deer, often heard barking at dusk, or the tawny owl with its familiar hooting call piercing through the stillness of the night.
Returning throughout the year will reveal the different phases woodland goes through and how its animal inhabitants make the most of the changing conditions. Butterflies, like the speckled wood, can be found squabbling in sun-drenched openings for a favoured basking spot early in the year, while months later insects give way to fungi and falling leaves, harbingers to the dormant months to come.
The extraordinary complexity and variety of life found in broad-leaved woodlands is without rival in Norfolk. Only the marshes and fenlands of the Broads offer anything like the richness of species found in old, established woods. (PANORAMA COMPOSED FROM TWELVE IMAGES)
There is an irony that during the longest, brightest days of the year, a broad leaved woodland can often be the darkest, most shaded habitat you could visit, and vice versa in the winter months, when they feel light and open. In fact, a healthy broad-leaved wood ebbs and flows in appearance and form throughout the year, only becoming fully dormant during the depths of the coldest quarter. However, don't let this put you off visiting these special places at every opportunity; they are the closest environment we have to a jungle or rainforest and are home to a staggering variety of animals; some familiar and others less so; invertebrates such as weevils, wasps and aphids far outnumber the birds and mammals we are more familiar with.
There is no best time of year to visit a mature woodland, even in winter the exposed branches and lack of ground vegetation can offer-up chances to glimpse elusive animals that would otherwise remain hidden under the summer canopy. Yet it is springtime that many people regard as the pinnacle of the woodland year, when spring flowers seize their moment to flourish before the sun's energy providing rays are blocked by the emerging leaves of the towering trees above. Carpets of bluebells and ransoms decorate the oldest woods, producing a heady, uplifting sea-of-scent that lingers in your nostrils for hours.
The heady, intoxicating scent of bluebells and ransoms fills the woodland air during late April and early May. Carpets of these talismanic plants can still be found in the county's oldest woods where the ground cover is left undisturbed.