When we moved into our present house a collection of mixed conifers
were beginning to shroud the rockery. Nearby a wispy four foot pine
decorated the front lawn and close to the back of the house a small
eucalyptus was stretching skywards. Fifteen years later the rockery
had vanished completely beneath what my wife christened “the
Monster” and the pine towered taller than the house causing
anxiety in every westerly gale. The eucalyptus had reached a similar
height and was leaning over the house at an alarming angle.
This is not a cautionary tale of the dangers of planting shallow
rooting or alien species too close to buildings but in praise of
the products of their removal. Several garden corners, out of the
sun, have now acquired log piles or looser heaps of brushwood which
are slowly decaying, replicating to a very small extent the results
of the natural woodland that once covered so much more of Britain
and which has halved in the last 80 years. The piles restore a tiny
link in the essential chain of decay and recycling.
The lower, damper levels of a woodpile will soon be occupied by
woodlice, beetles, spiders, centipedes, slugs and snails. The higher
and drier areas, especially behind peeling bark, may shelter those
of our butterflies that hibernate as adults, notably peacocks, small
tortoiseshells and an occasional red admiral.
Adding a pile of leaves to a pile can enhance its attraction for
many animals looking for a winter refuge, with spaces between the
logs taken up by frogs, toads and newts, especially if the pile
is adjacent to a pond. Larger cavities may shelter a hedgehog. After
a while the heaps become good scavenging grounds for wrens, robins,
dunnocks, mice, voles and hedgehogs searching for food and cover
from bigger hunters.
However, the piles also act as magnets to top predators. To take
a fascinating example, each winter there is a regular influx into
Yorkshire of bitterns attempting to escape often-harsher continental
conditions and this has resulted in their attempting to re-establish
themselves as breeding birds in several areas, notably the Aire
and Ure Valleys. The last two winters have seen a bittern remaining
for long periods at Otley Wetlands. There has been speculation that,
with its usual food supply locked beneath the ice, it owed its survival
to lurking around the brush piles to hunt the small mammals themselves
foraging for even smaller prey.
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