When people speak about ‘wildlife’ they are often accused of talking just about birds and, as a Sherrardspark Wood Warden who is also a birder, that’s what I’m focussed on here. But let’s be clear: wildlife is all wildlife – flora and fauna – and Sherrardspark Wood has a smorgasbord of wonderful plants and animals awaiting your discovery.
Birds, of course, tend to be the ones that grab your attention. Whether you are hurrying along Ayot Greenway or wandering quietly in the depths of the wood (on an official footpath, of course) you can’t help hearing them. You would have to travel many miles to find a wood that comes close to ours for the numbers of songbirds we have. But why is this so? The simple answer is careful management.
In early times, woods were managed to produce firewood and timber (the only readily-available construction material) but nowadays much of our timber comes from overseas and we haven’t used firewood very much for years. No demand means no management and, along with most others, Sherrardspark Wood lay neglected for a number of years, save for an ill-fated attempt to convert part of it into a coniferous plantation for softwood production. The Wood Wardens, under the direction of Welwyn Hatfield Borough Council and Natural England, are slowly bringing the wood back into good health.
In simple terms we tend to think of woods as some trees with a bit of scrub beneath, but there is a lot more to them. Their original management schemes were sophisticated strategies of rotational harvesting, perfected centuries ago: this created a 3-dimensional, multi-layered mosaic of growth made up of mature trees, saplings, shrubs and coppiced trees - and the canopy was always kept open to allow light to flood through all the way to the woodland floor.
The early custodians of woods were concerned with looking after a sustainable resource - it’s not a new idea! The fact that their methods were also creating opportunities for wild flora and fauna to thrive in a floor-to-ceiling mixture of niches was incidental to their thinking - and probably taken for granted; not so in this millennium, when our wildlife is threatened as never before, and we have begun to value it again. Sherrardspark Wood Wardens still use those ancient management practices, but now it’s for the benefit of wildlife, and our enjoyment of it.
But back to the birds. Wren, robin, dunnock, song thrush, blackbird and several summer warblers all rely upon the layers of vegetation beneath the great oaks that grace this wood, and in the areas we have opened up and coppiced. Warblers these days have mixed fortunes. Blackcaps (sounding a little like blackbirds on fast forward) and chiffchaffs (“chiff-chaff, chiff-chaff”) are doing well and can be heard all over the wood. From my own surveys this summer, there have been at least fifteen breeding territories for each of them.
By contrast, garden and willow warblers recorded in summers past are sadly absent now, their relentless decline apparently the result of climate change degrading their winter feeding quarters. If they do make it back to us from Africa, our management work will provide the perfect habitat to welcome their beautiful songs again.
On a brighter note, our magnificent oaks are home to resident nuthatches, secretive treecreepers and big populations of blue tits and great tits, both of which scold you with their chattering as you pass. And show me a wood that can boast all three species of British woodpeckers! About 20 pairs of great spotted woodpeckers breed every year, which is why the Wood Wardens can often be deliberately untidy, leaving a lot of dead wood about for them! Resident birds of prey such as sparrowhawk, buzzard and kestrel hunting in the wood and along its fringes attest to the richness of our woodland wildlife (that’s nature, folks); fleeting summer visitors such as spotted flycatcher or cuckoo add spice to the mix; firecrest can bring winter twitchers running from miles around, laden with optical hardware and vibrating smartphones.
This is merely a snapshot of some the 70-odd species of birds recorded in Sherrardspark Wood. They can be tricky to spot through the leaves just now, but it’s a wonderful walk anyway! Now – as I was saying about the plants……
[This article was first published in Welwyn Hatfield Times on 20 July 2016]