tawny owl

Jan 152012
 
timber damage after storm at fife smallholder

The relationship between Beech, Bats, Woodpeckers, Owls, and Pigs on our smallholding

‘Piglet has his own house, a “very grand house in the middle of a beech tree,” which he gave to Owl when his house was blown down on a very blustery day’ .
Winnie the poo
large beech trees in winter
We have some large Beech sentinels in our wood that are estimated to be 190 years old, and one of them suffered damage in the recent high winds that hit Central Scotland.  The limbs on these trees are very large and although unfortunate it does offer opportunities from the adversity.
fallen tree trunk from beech tree

Firewood

Beech wood is an excellent firewood, easily split and burns for many hours with bright but calm flames.

Woodlander

Beech wood burns well and can be used to smoke herrings and cheese. Chips of beech wood are also used in the brewing and making of some beers. 

Wildlife

Although a fallen limb or tree is good for firewood, it is also a part of the natural process within a wood and many species depend on this happening to maintain the balance and ecosystem that exists within a woodland.  The larger the concentration of old trees in an area and the longer they have been present on site the richer the variety of species you will find among them.
Many species live here all year round. Some are visitors and some live here permanently. Some come for the spring (Great spotted woodpecker), summer (Insects: Hoverflies, Birds: Green woodpecker), autumn (Fungi), and others for the winter months (such as Brambling birds ). Because of the variety of habitats available. A range of birds use the broad leaved woodland, evergreen conifer, open rough grassland and low bog areas.
nest in beech tree

Beech mast and Beech leaves

Beech mast is also a favourite food of many woodland animals such as badgers, deer, mice and squirrels and birds. The leaves are eaten by caterpillars.

The laughing woodpecker

The Green Woodpecker is the largest of the woodpeckers and has been known to visit our woods and its collection of fallen and rotten timber. It has a heavy-looking body, short tail and a strong, long bill. It is greeny-grey on its upperparts with a bright green rump and red on the top of its head. They have an undulating flight, and will climb up tree trunks and branches and will move around to be on the side away from anyone watching. It has a very distinctive call in that it sounds like it is laughing.
rotten wood and timber

Relationship between bats and woodpeckers

Tree are vitally important for our bats. The majority of British bat species have been recorded roosting in trees and some, such as the Noctule, rely almost exclusively on them. Noctules are often found in Woodpecker holes appearing to prefer them over natural cavities. Some researchers have suggested that Noctules may be dependant on woodpeckers to provide suitable roosting opportunities. Read more about bats.
potential bat roost in old woodpecker hole in tree
The picture shows an old woodpecker hole which could be used by Noctules for roosting. The hole is formed in a soft section of the stem of a tree. The stem has been infected by a decay fungi which has caused the wood to become soft enough to allow the woodpecker to create the hole. This potential roost has been created by a complex ecological relationship between Beech tree (Fagus sylvatica), Tinder fungus (Fomes fomentarius) and woodpecker, possibly the Green Woodpecker (Picus viridis).  It isn’t just roosting opportunities that make beech trees useful for bats. The trees attract insects and therefore provide valuable foraging habitats.

Bats and Beech

Bats roost in trees, in obvious cavities, cracks and splits, but also in less obvious places such as under ivy and under loose bark.  The damaged parts of a tree are the most likely places to find roosting bats.  Any tree can be used for roosting as long as shelter is provided,  but old oak, beech, ash and Scots pine are most frequently used. Bat roost sites can be at any height, although the upper trunk and branches are favoured. Entrance holes may be narrow slits on the underside of a branch that can be easily overlooked, as well as more obvious old woodpecker holes in the main trunk.

Owls and Beech

One of the best trees to attract owls is the beech tree. That’s not because owls eat the beech mast, or beechnuts, but because the mice eat them. In this way, the carnivorous owls get nice, fat, juicy mice to eat to keep them in the area.
beech nut casings
“As long as owl’s habitat is left alone by man and in such a state as to produce a great number of rodents, there will be no loss of owls in a region. One of the things that those people managing woodlands can do is not to clear out all of the undercover where mice live. Tawny owls will particularly benefit from this practice. Wood left on the ground and a pile left to rot will draw all kinds of insects which also feeds owls.”
decaying wood attracts insects that are predated by owls

Livestock

Pigs and Beech

Livestock were once released into beech woodlands to feast on the beech’s oil-rich bounty. The nuts were also important as a source of food, particularly for pigs. They are energy rich and could be used to fatten pigs up for market. The period when the nuts ripened and fell was perfectly timed to fatten swine for late autumn butchering. A farmer with access to oak or beech mast could thus convert calories present in nuts into calories in pork with little or no additional effort and at no additional cost in fodder. Indeed, by using mast rights a farmer was able to make use of a resource that would otherwise be unharvested or very inefficiently harvested.

Pheasants, Poultry, Turkeys and Beech

Beech mast has also been used to feed pheasants, poultry, and turkeys.  Beech nuts should never be fed to horses.
fifesmallholder beech trees in autumn

Smallholder

It is commonly accepted that the foods used to feed and to finish meat livestock affect the final flavour of the product. Pigs  fed on oak mast, chestnut mast or beech mast has a reputation for producing exceptional finished meat. As a result, with the new interest in artisanal and high quality foods as well as humane stock handling, there is a resurgence of mast-fed pork.
While beechnuts are nutritious for humans, eating too many can cause headaches or giddiness, as vast amounts of potash are contained within the tree.

Beech Tree facts

  • Beech trees are shallow rooted, and mature trees are at risk of being uprooted in high winds.
  • These trees grow slowly, eventually reaching a height of up to 120 feet, with branches spanning 50 feet.
  • The nuts are encased in a spiny bur and are favored by birds and other wildlife. Beech has a full crop of nuts every 5 years but does not really start producing a good crop until it is at least 50 years old.
  • The timber is practically pure white and is used to make furniture and toys.
  • The tree is best known for its many and low branches that create a deep shade.
  • Beech leaves take a long time to decay, so few nutrients are released to nourish ground plants. Consequently, there is little undergrowth in a beech wood, unless trees have been deliberately thinned out (coppiced).

Folklore

names on a tree trunk

Magically, beech is specifically useful for making wishes. To do this write a or scratch your wish on a piece of beech wood then bury it in an appropriate spot.  As your written wish is claimed by the earth so will it begin to manifest in life.  Beech is also popular with lovers, as witnessed by the many hearts arrows and names carved upon the smooth trunks of beech trees.
beech leaves in fifesmallholder wood

Recipe

Beech leaf Noyau

1 bottle vodka
225g (8oz) caster sugar
1 glass of brandy
Collect young, fresh beech leaves and strip them from the twigs.  Half fill an emptly bottle or jar with the leaves  and then pour on the bottle of vodka.  Seal up the container and keep leaves in it for 3 weeks, before straining them off.  Boil the sugar in half pint of water and add this to the vodka with a good sized glass of brandy.  You should end up with 2 almost  full bottles of noyau for the price of one bottle of vodka.

Links

Dec 282011
 

Importance of short tailed or field voles to conserving predators and raptors

In the winter when the rough grass has stopped growing and weeds have died down in our wood, the runs or motorways of the short tailed or field vole become more prominent.  This little creature plays a very big part in the ecosystem that exists within our smallholding, because it is the main source of food for the Kestrels and Tawny Owls found at Fife Smallholder.  Both these birds have nationally been in decline, and their presence here is a good example of the part that smallholdings can play in conserving wildlife in the countryside.

What does a short tailed or field vole look like?

Microtus pennsylvanicus

Description

Body length 10 – 12 cm. Grey-brown above, cream-grey below. The tail is less than 40% of body length, the tail is also much shorter than that of a bank vole. Ears are almost completely covered by fur, whereas those of bank vole are more prominent. The eyes are relatively smaller than those of a bank vole.

 Reproduction

Between March and December, the short-tailed field vole may have as many as four to five litters containing 4-6 young. The young females are ready to mate  at 6 weeks.

Where do short tailed field voles live?

They are found generally in moist grassy habitats, such as woodland, marsh, or river banks.  Here we find them in the rough grass in our wood and wild areas.

Although they dig burrows, they usually build nests above ground and build intricate runways through grasses.  Sometimes, voles will use the burrows of moles to get around.  Many vole families will share the runway systems.

English: Patterns of vole runs Tracks left in ...

Voles feed on a variety of herbaceous plants and grasses. Voles feed on above and below ground plant parts such as foliage, seeds, stems, roots and bulbs. As food becomes scarce in autumn and early winter, voles may seek the tasty cambium of small tree roots, crowns and trunks.

Short tailed field voles can damage trees

 Trees chewed by short tailed field voles are stunted, spindly and have very little foliage. Leaves can even show signs of reddening and other water-stress symptoms.  Damaged trees can look like they have been whittled near the trunk. The chew marks made by a vole can be recognized by: the pattern, location, and the size of the bite marks. Voles feed close to the ground, if not below ground.
For trees, there are protective barriers available. These tree guards can be purchased or homemade. Guards are often made out of plastic.  Make sure that the height of the guard is at least 12 inches and also plant the base of the guard deep enough that voles cannot burrow beneath them, 6-10 inches is enough. Check these guards regularly because you may have just made a cosy vole home!

Who eats field voles?

Kestrels and Tawny Owls eat the voles that are found in our wood and rough grassland on the smallholding.  As an important food source for owls and some other predators, their population peaks and troughs in a four-year cycle.  As they travel, field voles leave a trail of scent to warn off other voles. Hunting birds of prey, such as kestrels (identified by its characteristic hovering and perch hunting techniques) look out for the UV light that radiates from the trails.

Relationship between voles and Tawny Owls

Deutsch: Ein Waldkauz (Strix aluco). English: ...

Tawny Owls prey primarily on short tail voles, field mice and shrews. They will hunt at day and at night but usually at first and last light. They will hunt in and around wooded areas and in fields. Tawny Owl numbers have dropped dramatically over the last 80 or so years. As the Tawny Owl (like most birds of Prey) are very high up on the food chain,  any human changes that destruct and fragment the habitats and environments of animals at the bottom, invariably affects things at the top.

Reasons for the decline of the tawny owl

  •  Hedgerow destruction and replacement with maintenance free fencing. Great for Modern Farming but bad for mice and voles
  •  Increase in stocking density of Sheep and greater silage production. Lots of food for Cows and Sheep but means that the grass is too short for voles to run around in.

Relationship between field voles and Kestrels

Kestrel populations have declined over the last 25 years, but has remained stable over the last few years.  Population fluctuations generally tend to parallel that of its main prey species (the short-tailed vole) which has been affected by farming intensification and the lost of rough grassland.  The Kestrel has also suffered from increased competition from other raptors that have recovered from the low population levels in the second half of the 20th century.
The short tailed field vole is the preferred diet of Kestrels and breeding performance is closely tied in to the three-year cycles of this small mammal. In peak vole years Kestrel territory occupation is high, clutch sizes large and brood survival high. When the vole numbers bottom out after the peak the Kestrel occupation and productivity also falls.

The effect of snow on voles and predators

Snow can be good for voles as it protects their runs from the Owls and Kestrels, and voles can benefit from a fall of snow because it provides an insulating blanket over their territory.  Voles can eat roots below ground, and can therefore continue to find food.

Predators such as Tawny Owls and Kestrels find it much harder to catch voles after a snow fall and this weather can put great stress on these birds.

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