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.