If you go down to the woods...

The BBC has more than its fair share of National Treasures, David Attenborough arguably the richest.  But did you know that Cookham has its very own Village Treasure?  Brian Clews sits firmly in the Village Treasure chest for his activities with several groups, but perhaps most visibly for his work supporting the our wildlife and habitats.  He sits on the committee for Cookham Wildlife Supporters, and can often be found sharing his encyclopedic knowledge and a bad joke or three in their events program.  Brian, lives in Broom Hill and has been resident in the village since before the Ice Age.  Well OK, that's a bit of an exaggeration but for FORTY EIGHT years.  We barely even had a railway station forty eight years ago (also an exaggeration).  He has spent forty years contributing to the local RSPB group, and has written books and papers too numerous to mention on this, his specialist subject.  But I've been watching Blue Planet and I know that it's still possible to teach an old naturalists a new trick or two, and it seems the same is true for our Brian.  At least I would say so judging by his review of the Cookham Wildlife Supporters event, "Know Your Trees" held recently at Bisham Woods and led by Martin Woolner (who incidentally is another Borough resident and described by the BBC as a "local conservation hero").  Read on so that you like I, can wonder at what a Wellingtonia is, and rue the fact that we missed going down to the woods!

Cookham Wildlife Supporters is a voluntary group.  Please consider supporting by joining via the Meet Up page or the Facebook group.  Events are run all year, for every age group and the calendar can be found here.   

Brian Clews and his wife Hazel

 If you go down to the woods...

Well, you would have needed an umbrella for a start. But also you would indeed have had a big surprise, because our host for our Cookham Wildlife Supporters tree walk, Martin Woolner, simply ignored the weather and treated us to a fact-filled feast of forest features and functions. Whilst it was a slimmed down group that braved the conditions, each and every one of us were spell-bound by Martin’s extensive knowledge and understanding of woodland cycles and the amazing harmony of plant and insect life, the perfect accord between fungi and root systems, and the seasons and life-times of trees and other plants within the woodland.
We were alerted to the variety of different stands and under-storey we passed through; some with dense shrubbery and flora, others, such as the Beech copses with hardly anything growing beneath their horizontal leaves that block out the summer sunshine. We began to understand the age differences of adjacent trees, and which ones were native (37 varieties in UK), and which were most likely planted ‘aliens’, such as the massive Wellingtonia we studied, with its spongy, red bark, which you could punch quite hard without wishing you hadn’t!
We found numerous mushrooms which Zigi Fibert (an expert on the subject) nibbled to confirm identification – certainly something the rest of us were reminded NOT to do! And Martin explained the amazing sympatric relationship with root systems whereby the fruiting structure we see above ground conceals the huge network of mysterious and miraculous mycelium strands that work together with underground roots to supply and exchange minerals within the soil. Some simply surround roots, whilst others actually bore inside them, but the exchange mechanism between them is mutually beneficial. (And with some types, humans get breakfast too!)
We found multiple strands of Honey Fungus growing beneath the bark of one tree, resembling a bunch of tough boot-laces, gradually seeing off its host. We found domed and blackened ‘shrooms which transpired to be King Alfred’s Cakes which, by all accounts, can be set alight inside, folded closed, and carried around in ones pocket like a permanently-ready fire-lighter (once again something we were urged ‘not to try at home’!)
Then a Hazel tree loomed into view, enticing Martin to dig deep in his bag of goodies whereupon he produced a trio of thumb-thick twigs neatly glued together by an amazing fungus that has ‘learned’ to recognise two lots of bark touching each other and produce a substance to bind them permanently together forming a ‘trap’ into which other sources of food for the fungus can be retained. Not so much a honey trap as a Pritt-Stick trap! Amazing. (Apparently this incredible structure is known as Hymenochaete corrugate but Martin said we could call it Glue Fungus without getting a slapped wrist!)

We studied wood rot, discovering that softwood decomposes quickly in the form of White Rot, but that some trees (hardwood varieties) have a structure incorporating a lot more lignin, a cellular mechanism giving greater rigidity than others, resulting in a much slower decomposition rate. We discovered that water-filled holes in trees host a wealth of different miniature forms of life, from mossie larvae, hoverfly offspring, flies, beetles, lichens and mosses – like an allotment for Lilliputian wildlife.

We looked at leaves which can also host a minuscule world of creatures crawling inside their ‘veins’, such as  the Horse Chestnut which a tiny, but picturesque moth, attempts to ‘conquer’ every year with its larvae, and others that seem to cope with annual attacks of Tar Spot.

By the time Martin had absorbed the entire two hours planned and we had regained the car park in near darkness, we realised we had been totally captivated with the topic, hardly noticing the challenging conditions at all. All told, a brilliant afternoon.

Brian Clews



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