Tony Bailie's Take on Nature: From field to forest in just six years

Bluebells bring in a different tint to nature's colour scheme

HAWTHORN are the stars of this year's spring spectacular, their white flowers making them stand out along country lanes, urban streets and even alongside motorways. They seem to have been a long time coming, some flowering as far back as March and others just coming into full bloom this week.

Walking along country lanes, bluebells bring in a different tint and the dark yellow of ubiquitous whin bushes adds another contrast to green leaves and brown branches. The ash trees are finally starting to leaf, their fronds hanging limp and still stretching out into their familiar elongated fronds.

Ireland's ash population is under threat of total devastation from the fungal disease ash dieback which is continuing to spread. Ash is one of our most common native species and the disease has affected trees in every county in Ireland. However, in a very small glimmer of hope, there are indications that some individual trees are more resilient than others.

It is now six years since I put in around 40 sapplings into a small neglected field and each year since I have added more – there are now more than 200 and it has become a quickly maturing woodland.

One of the problems I have is keeping high grass from smothering the young trees before they have a chance to grow above it and some have been lost. Rampantly spreading brambles are also an issue and I have lacerated my hands and arms trying to keep these in control.

This is the first year that I have seen parts of the former field become a forest floor where the canopy of leaves of the trees has kept the sunlight from reaching the grass. The fall of last year's leaves has created a new terrain, although the brambles still need to be kept in check.

Parts have developed their own personality, a copse of Scots pine giving way to small open area around which a dozen silver birch cluster and, in among them, a lone yew – the other one I planted was an early casualty and just died. Perhaps it was the wrong soil type to give it nourishment.

The birch are reaching impressive heights, but it is the alder and willow which are really thriving on the damp ground close to a small stream which borders the woodland. Some alder are now at least 25ft tall, grown from knee-high sapplings planted just a few years ago.

Another success story is the beech trees, which have now shed their copper leaves from last year and spouted new bright green covering – although this species was only introduced to Ireland a few hundred years ago, it is closely related to our indigenous trees and integrates well in native woodlands.

The mountain ash are tall and still whispish, like gangly youths who have still not bulked out, while the oak trunks seem to be thickening as these stalwarts of Irish woodlands gain height and will eventually tower over their neighbouing upstarts.

For some reason the beech seem to be the preferred choice for the small birds that have decided to nest in my forest – wrens, wagtails and tits – the starlings preferring to dig out holes behind the guttering in the house and nest in there.

Trails carved through the still flourishing grass suggests that there are larger creatures making regular visits and I have seen foxes close by and heard them barking in the night.

There are also badgers in the area and the black and white hairs snagged on brambles indicating that they are passing by.

An abundance of frogs took up residence last weekend probably drawn out from the nearby stream by Saturday's heavy downpours and they, along with the shrews and field mice that are lurking in the undergrowth, provide food for the larger mammals.

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