Birchanger Wood consists of 69 acres of ancient coppiced woodland – hornbeam, hazel, ash, birch, oak, sweet chestnut, cherry, holly, and a wide range of flora including English bluebells, wood anemones and golden saxifrages. The wood is maintained entirely by volunteers in accordance with a management plan drawn up by professional ecologists and the Forestry Commission for the benefit of local community and visitors and supported by donations from a wide range of organisations, private, public and by individuals.
Birchanger Wood is set to host a range of activities for the whole community on 20th August, including bug hunts, orienteering and wood-turning – and it’s all free, although donations are gratefully received.
Local naturalist and educator Jono Forgham will be running woodland events throughout the day:
10am-midday: Moths and butterflies and pellet dissection.
Midday-1pm: Bug hunt and butterfly survey
1pm-2pm: Owl pellet dissection
2pm-3pm: Bug hunt
Throughout the day, the Bishop’s Stortford wood turners will be carrying out demonstrations at our compound next to the water tower on Heath Row. Visitors can buy their wares made from wood sourced from Birchanger Wood, including bowls, candlesticks, cheese boards, light pulls and pens.
We will also have an orientation activity with maps of the wood available for just £1.
And there may be other surprises… watch this space!
Woodland conservation can keep you in shape, no matter your age or level of fitness – and there is no sign-up fee and no monthly direct debit.
Birchanger Wood volunteers are involved in a vast array of activities throughout the year, which can change from season to season, offering great variety. Activities range from moderate to vigorous exercise, allowing everyone the opportunity to participate: planting trees, clearing leaves from paths, picking up rubbish, splitting and stacking logs, coppicing and pruning trees, and for those who are certified using a chainsaw for felling. Everyone can go at their own pace and according to their ability and time.
Felling trees – whether coppicing or removing dangerous and diseased trees – is part and parcel of managing woodlands to enhance biodiversity. At Birchanger Wood, felled trees are cut up, split and stored for seasoning. The next year, the logs are sold for sustainable firewood, creating an income and making our local woodland financially self-sufficient. All this involves physical labour.
Woodland conservation is comparable to other sport and leisure activities in keeping you healthy. Moderate wood splitting with an axe will burn 384 calories an hour – more than 80% more than a yoga class, 50% more than pilates and just 9% less than a 13-minute mile run. But if you use vigorous effort, you can expect to be burning calories faster than a high impact aerobics class. Felling small to medium-sized trees is comparable to an hour of taekwondo. Using a chainsaw will burn more calories than moderate to vigorous spinning. At the top end of the calory-burning spectrum, felling large trees uses more energy than playing competitive tennis.
Wood splitting with an axe is a work-out for the whole body, engaging multiple muscles to perform a swing and stabilise your position. It engages the entire core, including lower and upper back, shoulders, arms, abs, chest, legs and glutes. Swinging an axe uses all your abdominal muscles, from the ribs to the hips. Similar exercises can be done in the gym using weighted resistance, such as a medicine ball, but why pay a gym to practice an exercise you can do in the fresh air and for the benefit of woodland conservation?
You don’t have to be built like a lumberjack to swing an axe. Our volunteer Alice said, “I really enjoy it – and you don’t have to be super fit or strong! I admit my log-splitting skills are still a work in progress, but every extra pair of hands helps and it’s much more fun than the gym.”
Our most senior volunteer John leads on tree planting and has planted scores of young trees throughout the woodland, which are thriving. Tree planting uses around 380 calories per hour for an average-sized man – the equivalent of running four-and-a-half miles. But why spend good money running on a treadmill that goes nowhere to the sound of bad dance music when you can be using the same energy to do something positive for the planet?
Our younger volunteers are in their teens, often joining us as part of a Duke of Edinburgh qualification. They can enjoy physical activity, an educational opportunity and working alongside the generations. Two of our trustees are among our youngest volunteers and Birchanger Wood has become part of their lives – in one case, involvement in woodland conservation sparked an interest that led to doctoral research in woodlands. We are proud of being inclusive of all generations, which is what community bonds are all about.
By being out in the fresh air alongside friendly volunteers in non-competitive physical work, volunteers are benefitting their mental health.
According to a report released in December 2021 by Forest Research, in England woodlands save £141 million in costs associated with mental health illnesses, including visits to GPs, drug prescriptions, inpatient care, social services and the number of days lost due to mental health issues. The figures are based on evidence of the reduced incidence of depression and anxiety resulting from regular visits to woodlands.
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information for mental health charity Mind, said, “Spending time outdoors – especially in woodlands or near water – can help with mental health problems such as anxiety and mild to moderate depression. This might be due to combining regular physical activity and social contact with being outside in nature. Being outside in natural light can also be helpful if you experience seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression that affects people during particular seasons or times of year. Although many of us feel like hibernating in winter, getting outside in green spaces and making the most of the little daylight we get can really benefit both your physical and mental health.”
So, take up the woodland challenge for the sake of your own body and mind, for the sake of your community – and for the sake of all the diverse species in this ancient native woodland.
Volunteer activity happens every Saturday, from 9am to 3pm, throughout the year. Just turn up at our compound next to the water tower on Heath Row, Bishop’s Stortford. Stay for an hour, a morning or the whole day – you choose your hours. We look forward to seeing new volunteers.
July is a time for the insects of Birchanger Wood to come to the fore. Butterflies, moths and hoverflies should be easy to find. Many moth species can be disturbed from low growing vegetation and then seen in flight. They will invariably fly a short distance before landing and moving to the underside of a leaf to hide from predators. After dusk, an evening walk with a torch will reveal large numbers of these fascinating and rarely seen insects in flight.
Butterfly species will be seen on warm, sunny days, particularly in the early afternoon. Speckled Wood will be common, a brown butterfly showing yellow/cream dots on the upper wings. Meadow browns will be found on the periphery of the wood, adjacent to the agricultural land whilst the smaller skipper species will be noted resting on leaves, looking like orange moths.
The bramble will be in flower so always worth checking the white or pink flowers of this common plant within the woods. Gatekeeper butterflies will nectar on these and will be joined by a host of hoverfly species. These are the yellow and black insects that are similar to bees and wasps but a quick check on the facial features will show them to be a fly species. Very short antennae and large eyes will give the observer an indication they are flies.
Other butterflies worth looking for will be Red admiral, Small tortoiseshell and the Small and Large whites. The latter two will most likely be found where houses with gardens back on to the wood.
Also on nettles and bramble leaves will be the webs of the Nursery web spider, Pisaura mirabilis. These webs will be crawling with plenty of recently hatched spiderlings and invariably, the female will not be far away. Look on large flat leaves for her where she will be stationary, waiting for an insect to land. She will always have her first two sets of legs together, giving the impression she is a 6 legged insect and not an 8 legged spider.
If you come across any insect and manage a photo, (phone or camera) I would be happy to see it and help identify it for you. Always a chance of a rarity being found, so do send in your photos. firstname.lastname@example.org.
More unusual, but not unexpected butterflies will be Purple Hairstreak and Silver Washed fritillary. Both require oak for their caterpillars to feed upon. The purple hairstreak likes to spend most of its time high in the oak canopies, so is rarely seen. After 2pm, especially after some morning July rain is the best time to observe them, when they come down lower to nectar and drink. The Silver washed fritillary is a large orange and black butterfly, fast flying that will land upon vegetation to both nectar and rest.
During July, many birds go into post breeding moult. The new feathers grow through, pushing the old ones out. These older feathers will now be very worn from constant hunting for food. Consequently, they will remain quiet, hiding away as the new feathers grow. They are still present in the wood, just not easy to see. However, larger birds like the magpies and Jays will still be seen, albeit in a rather tatty state.
The fungus season in Birchanger Wood is now virtually over. The autumn saw a wide variety of fruiting bodies bursting through the woodland floor and from rotting wood, as seen in these photos taken in the wood this year.
The fruiting bodies – some beautiful (such as lilac bonnet which lives in leaf litter) and some ugly (such as dog’s vomit slime mould that thrives in damp bark mulch) – are just a fraction of the fascinating organism that is neither plant nor animal.
While some fungus such as Hymenoscyphus fraxineus which causes ash dieback can attack and even kill trees, most fungus is beneficial for our woodland. They assist with the decomposition of dead vegetation, turning it into fertile soil. Mycorrhizal fungi help provide tree roots with water and nutrients. There are also parasitic fungi like “yellow brain” that feed on other fungi. Many fungal species will not even push out fruiting bodies or be detected outside a laboratory.
If you are interested in fungus identification and putting a name to the species in these photos, go to our mobile app download page and choose from one of the identification apps.
Thanks to Birchanger Wood trustee Jono Forgham for sending these photos and allowing us to publish them.
While the vast majority of people enjoy Birchanger Wood’s springtime carpet of bluebells on their walks through our local woodland, some visitors are picking large numbers of them and trampling them by straying off paths.
The picking of wild flowers and plants in Birchanger Wood is a criminal offence. According to the Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 it is illegal to “uproot any wild plant without permission from the landowner or occupier” or to pick flowers from a special conservation site or reserve.
Almost half the world’s bluebells are found in the UK, they’re relatively rare in the rest of the world. Bluebells are fragile flowers that don’t like change or disturbance, preferring ancient woods like Birchanger Wood where the ground has lain undisturbed for years.
Bluebell colonies take a long time to establish – around five to seven years from seed to flower. The flowers can take years to recover after footfall damage. If a bluebell’s leaves are crushed, they die back from lack of food as the leaves cannot photosynthesise. As such, it is essential to stick to the paths.
In Birchanger Wood you will see how narrow tracks made by one person soon become wider and the bluebells end up in island-like patches instead of a woodland-wide blue carpet that we all love.
Another reason to stick to designated paths in bluebell woods is that the bulbs become damaged when the soil is compacted from the weight of footfall. The situation has become so critical in popular bluebell areas that woodland owners like the National Trust and the Woodland Trust have taken measures to control the numbers of people and where they walk, simply to preserve the flowers so that future generations can enjoy them.
Despite notices and publicity in the local press, members of the public have also been ripping ivy off trees, perhaps under the false assumption that they are helping the trees. Healthy trees are not harmed by ivy. Nectar, pollen and berries of ivy are an essential food source for insects and birds during autumn and winter when little else is about. It also provides shelter for insects, birds, bats and other small mammals. Destroying ivy in Birchanger Wood without the permission of the Birchanger Wood Trust is also a criminal offence.
The Birchanger Wood trustees are dedicated to conserving and protecting woodland habitat and volunteers work tirelessly to look after the wood. Our work is undermined by damage to our woodland flora, whether bluebells or ivy, which are essential parts of the woodland ecology. Please respect the efforts we go to in order to ensure there is a thriving woodland habitat on our doorstep, open to the public without charge all year round.
The coppice season had come to an end by the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck and the country was forced into lockdown. Volunteers worked hard all winter to fell trees to bring light to the woodland floor, as part of the management plan agreed with the Forestry Commission.
Public appreciation of the value of Birchanger Wood has increased during the lockdown. It is a place where people can take their daily exercise, so they can remain physically fit and find some headspace in a crisis that many are finding difficult.
The Forestry England compiled studies that show there is strong scientific evidence that visiting a woodland can improve mood and attention span, and even enhance psychological stress recovery. It says walking among trees reduces levels of cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, and claims a forest walk can boost the immune system through breathing in phytoncides, which trees emit to protect themselves from germs and insects.
While the lockdown is ongoing, we urge people to observe social distancing measures, while ensuring they keep to the paths and not trample on flowers. We also stress the importance of our visitor’s code, which includes keeping dogs under control and preferably on a lead, as well as respecting the flora and fauna.
Our visitor data shows that public useage of the wood is low during the early morning, so those who are in higher risk categories could consider taking a relaxing walk at sunrise to hear the dawn chorus without worrying so much about bumping into others.
Following Storm Ciara and the predicted Storm Dennis, the warden and trustees of Birchanger Wood Trust would like to advise locals on using the wood safely. As seen from these photos, several large trees were brought down by Storm Ciara. The volunteers, trustees and warden have checked the safety of the paths but have yet to assess the damage to trees away from the paths. Therefore, we advise all users of the wood to stick to the paths and not wander from them. There may be heavy boughs caught in adjoining trees that could come down at anytime and therefore represent a danger to all who stray from the paths.
All trees that have been brought down will be chain sawed and either left upon the forest floor to improve the bio-diversity of the wood, or be chopped for firewood and stored at the compound under the water tower. This wood can be bought for £12 a barrow on Saturday mornings when volunteers will be on hand to help load your car. All money raised from these sales goes back to preserving and conserving this ancient and magnificent habitat. We thank you for your cooperation and understanding with this safety matter.
Protecting native woodlands is regarded as crucial in the fight against climate change. Our community is very fortunate to have an ancient woodland on its doorstep, Birchanger Wood. The trust that manages the wood was originally set up to end encroachment by housing and preserve it as “green lungs” in an area dominated by the M11 motorway and an international airport.
The wood can only be properly managed with the help of volunteers and support from the community. Over recent months, residents have bought our seasoned firewood, while the Stort Valley Rotary Club and the Premier Court Care Home in Thorley have kindly donated funds to help support the maintenance and improvement of the woodland.
Yet, nothing could happen without the involvement of our team of volunteers, led by our warden Pat Forrest – a man whose name well suits his lifelong commitment to environmental conservation at Birchanger Wood. Every Saturday during the coppice season, they are active in coppicing trees – a sustainable way of managing trees, which regrow and provide the firewood that funds our operations.
However, we are always in need of more members of the team and would warmly welcome people who are prepared to be hands-on. If you are interested in conservation volunteering – even just an hour or two on a Saturday – please go to the compound next to the water tower on Heath Row, Bishop’s Stortford.
Meanwhile, local ecologist and science educator Jono Forgham has been documenting all the species in the wood. He is calling for community involvement in a year-long study of the wood and its natural history by recording the tree species, birds, mammals, insects, arachnids, plants and fungi. He will be visiting two to three times a week with moth trap nights on a weekly basis and would like anyone who is interested, no matter their experience, to join him. If you would like to be involved then please contact him at email@example.com or text him on 07805571551.
The mid-August moth night organised by Jono Forgham and members of the Herts Moth Group identified at least 120 moths of 30 species recorded in Birchanger Wood. The total was less than expected. However, there were two moth species identified that had previously not been recorded – the gypsy moth and the metalampra italica micro moth – which have expanded their range.
Autumn brings a new season of activity to Birchanger Wood with our group of volunteers beginning coppicing trees. Coppice rotation is a sustainable method of woodland management that opens the woodland floor to sunlight, provides products such as firewood and wood for craftsmen and extends the life of a tree.
Jono Forgham, a science educator and conservationist who writes a regular column in the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, staged several interesting, lively, hands-on activities in the wood over the summer months. Bug hunts and moth nights involving people of all ages, including some very enthusiastic children, have helped us assess what is living in the wood and the diversity of out insect life.
Insects are crucial to the food chain and maintaining the woodland ecosystem, but in high numbers they can represent a threat. The spring saw many of our trees blighted by the November moth caterpillar, which munched through the canopy. It’s probable that the caterpillar infestation was worsened by a warmer and earlier spring, which meant there were fewer hatchling birds to eat them. The trees appear to have dealt with the problem with some later leaf growth. We observed that in areas where trees had been coppiced, the level of bird predation of the caterpillar increased and there was less tree damage. This underlines the importance of our work in managing the balance of woodland flora and fauna.
Nature is always striving towards a balance and it’s likely that the November moth will not pose such a challenge next spring, with predators such as birds and wasps taking better advantage of increased caterpillar abundance. The long-term challenge in Birchanger Wood is dealing with climate change and disease. Last year’s drought put enormous stress on trees, leading to a significant losses across our countryside and encouraging disease. Ash trees are succumbing to chalara ash dieback across Europe, a fungal disease that researchers led by Oxford University will cost the UK a total of £15 billion – half of which will be over the next decade. Indeed, the Trust managing Birchanger Wood has had to set aside a considerable contingency to manage the disease, which means we are always looking for any funds to support woodland management.
Chalara is not the only disease. The oak processionary moth, whose caterpillars strip oaks of their leaves, is expanding its range and this summer it was identified just a few miles away; it seems inevitable it will reach us. Attacks by the oak processionary moth caterpillars and make them vulnerable to diseases, such as sudden oak death – a fungal disease that can affect many other trees and shrubs, from bay to sweet chestnut. All the more reason to keep up our programme of bug hunts and moth nights as well as our active conservation management.
Birchanger Wood Trust is always on the lookout for volunteers to join in the woodland management. We meet up every Saturday morning at the compound next to the water tower on Heath Row, Bishop’s Stortford. You can also support the trust by buying our firewood, which has been properly seasoned in our new wood stores.