Who I am – Scottish with a fascination for wildlife from childhood – in lieu of formal qualifications (and not being able to flash them about!) – was on the 1990 International Youth Conservation Exchange to Hungary, was the 1993 winner of the BBC Wildlife Magazine ‘Realms of the Russian Bear’ competition and spent nearly two weeks in the Aksu Zhabagly Reserve in Kazakhstan as the prize – found the local stomach bug was much more dangerous than the brown bears. Especially interested in the removal of invasive non native plants and conservation of dead wood and trees and associated fauna/flora as conservation issues – my personal experience suggests they are badly neglected topics. My main background is in recycling and waste reduction.
Les’s previous guest blogs here were in September 2018, Driven Grouse Shooting – your bluff’s been called, in February 2021 Jagged Ends, Blue Frogs and Scimitar Cats and Saving Dead Wood (1) both in August this year.
‘ADVENTURES’ WITH A PLAQUE TO SAVE DEAD TREES
Saving Dead Wood Part 1 looked at the triple whammy that hits it in public woodlands through failings in the current public consultation process, a dislike and even repugnance a proportion of the public has for it, and conservation organisations being very poor in promoting the ecological value of dead wood generally. It’s therefore usually removed, at worst to be burnt in situ or in a stove or at very poor best stacked under a bush somewhere out of sight to provide some, if probably reduced, value for flora and fauna. This seriously compromises the wildlife value of our woodland, at the same time as our area of native tree cover expands its ecological function and biodiversity declines, more and more young trees, less and less woodland with dead wood – wildlife continues its downward spiral.
Worst affected of all are of course dead trees, standing dead wood. Through contrast with adjacent live trees extremely conspicuous, if anything even more so when standing alone. There’s no way we can pretend they’re not there. When most voices in a public consultation say dead wood is unsightly, at least loose dead wood can be moved where it won’t be seen, but dead trees have to come down and that’s very bad news for the fungi, lichens and beetles that specifically need standing dead wood which is drier and warmer than the horizontal variety. Although woodpeckers can feed on the latter they’re not comfortable in doing so, they’re designed to feed on vertical structures. Likewise, while a dead tree can be an excellent roost for bats, it would be virtually useless as such once fallen over or cut down – then it’s far more accessible for predators but less accessible for a flying mammal landing and taking off.
Bird and bat boxes, artificial pine marten dens and to a certain extent bug hotels are a bit like the prefab housing built just after WWII, emergency accommodation in the absence of the ‘proper’ kind. We have a massive dearth of dead standing wood and there’s nothing we can substitute for the full range of ecological niches for either the species that feed upon the various elements of it or the invertebrates, birds and mammals that use the incredible variety of physical niches from soggy rot holes to gaps behind peeling bark dead trees provide for breeding, roost, and hibernation sites. There’s a desperate need for more dead trees, but it takes a very long time for them to develop, pretty much mirroring the time taken to reach maturity. Instead as outlined in the previous guest blog dead and dying trees are all too often the victim of warped aesthetic conventions. Putting up a nest box is essentially an apology for creating a dire wildlife housing crisis, but we need to make full amends starting by protecting dead trees, not vilifying them as an eyesore.
It’s a problem that’s plagued me for years, how can we nip in the bud that kneejerk, uniformed response from many that sees a dead tree as a visual abhorrence that must come down? Information stands might have a limited role to play in some locations, but expense and general impracticality (susceptibility to vandalism for one thing) means that it’s not really the answer most of the time or place. Putting up a nest box on a conspicuous position on a dead tree might deter people from asking for it to be cut down. Even if it’s too exposed to be used by birds in a rather messy and convoluted way the nest box is still establishing an association between a dead tree and wildlife in peoples’ minds. It’s hardly educational as such though and although not the worst gimmick in the world, still a gimmick. Not the answer, more an act of desperation.
What may turn out to be a genuine and surprisingly effective part of the answer had been staring me straight in the face for many months before it finally occurred to me. I once spent fourteen months working as a Home Energy Advisor on a government scheme aimed at reducing household fuel poverty and carbon emissions. This required going door to door carrying out surveys and giving advice. In that time, I must have looked at hundreds of house numbers carved into or painted on a piece of wood made from a cross section of tree that was hung next to the door. You’ll have seen them yourself, basically what could be called a wooden plaque made from cutting a slice out of a tree trunk. Relatively simple, and potentially inexpensive what if instead of house numbers these could carry a concise message and an image (of the wildlife using dead trees – bats, woodpeckers, and invertebrates) to be put high up on dead trees to be conspicuous and out of reach of vandals? They would rot down very slowly over many years with the tree they’re on and aesthetically being naturalistic, asymmetric in look would fit in very well. Even a square piece of planed wood would seem a little out of place, artificial and intrusive while rough wooden plaques would fit in so much better visually, and you could tailor the message/image on each individually regarding where it’s to go. It’s a very simple idea that really should’ve occurred to me sooner, but at least its simplicity could be its strength.
The problem with ideas is that it takes hard work and ability to turn them into reality, and therefore I was stuffed and totally dependent on other people to do so. At the time I was a member of the sadly now defunct, but wonderful while it lasted Westquarter Wildlife Group. It had been going for some years before I joined in a lower income area several of us had grown up in. It showed that pigeonholing natural history and conservation as solely a middle-class interest or even affectation is a myth and a dangerous one, nature is free that makes it even more, not less, important for people with restricted incomes. It must be said that the support we received from outside individuals and organisations because of where we were and what we were trying to do was outstanding. It was because of this that when the group decided to pursue this idea, we got fantastic help from the start.
Yes, the ‘blanks’ we needed cut from tree trunks were theoretically straightforward, simple things until you try to get your hands on any, we hardly ran our own sawmill. Fortunately, an acquaintance at what was then Forestry Commission Scotland provided some from ongoing forestry operations (no trees were cut down specifically for us) which was the crucial first step without which we’d have been stuck – so thank you Gordon!! We decided we would use what’s called a router to carve out wood to form the message, the same principle as engraving metal or glass. Funds provided by the National Lottery were used to buy one, then friend and group member Amanda took it upon herself to learn to use it. She did well, the plaque with a woodpecker was I think a wee masterpiece. Because space is restricted on these plaques and using a router time consuming, we took a path that I’m afraid will offend some sensibilities. We used ‘textese’, for instance ‘DIS TREE IS GR8 4 WILDLIFE’ – it made life easier for us and there was some fun to be had in dreaming up the text. It’s not obligatory, English teachers might wish it was a capital offense if it were.
Once finished one of our council’s rangers and an assistant helped us secure a couple of the plaques to dead trees in our local wood where they were conspicuous and safe from vandals. It was a rather damp, underwhelming autumn afternoon, but as far as I know it was technically a world first in the world of dead wood conservation, a thought that pleased me at least. We learned a few things the hard way. Bark peels away from a dead tree and that will happen more quickly if a comparatively heavy plaque is attached to it. Sadly, we lost our best one Amanda’s beautiful woodpecker thanks to that – best to attach plaques directly to a solid, bark less part of the tree. The plaques also weathered and darkened quickly so the router should have carved out wider channels that would’ve been more prominent, and perhaps a wee bit of varnish might’ve helped. There’s also nothing stopping having more than one plaque per tree.
An option we never got round to trying, but I believe could be very effective is getting school children involved. True using a router and or going up a ladder are probably out for them from a H & S perspective, but once it’s explained why dead trees important, and what wildlife is dependent on them, they could certainly design and stencil the images and messages to be used and be in attendance when the plaques are placed on to the dead tree(s), hopefully with local press in tow. Braying to have dead trees taken down because they’re supposedly ugly when children have tried to educate their ‘peers’ about their value to wildlife would look and feel rather tawdry – because it would be. Ignoring the ‘morality’ of putting subjective aesthetics before wildlife, and the wishes of children to protect it is the height of selfishness and being naff, not good having it underlined publicly.
So, there we go potentially a very simple and practical idea – essentially nailing a small piece of wood to a much bigger one – that could save a wildlife friendly dead tree and the time, effort and lots of money spent taking it down because someone says they think it doesn’t look nice. A big step forward from the current…well nothing….and a useful addition to the toolkit conservation organisations use to educate the public about the vital conservation importance of dead wood. Except that there isn’t any toolkit for educating the public about dead wood.
That’s quite a strong and rather accusatory statement so please bear with me a while I try to justify it. After a slow start giving the conservation of dead wood the attention it deserves (see previous blog ‘Jagged Ends’) many organisations are finally starting to do some very advanced work, snapping branches off with winches to replicate how storm damage creates fractured surfaces with niches for invertebrates and fungal spores, translocating dead wood associated species, boring holes in stumps to create rot holes etc, etc. My goodness this is sometimes even accompanied by good quality educational work!
But what’s happening or rather not happening outside of these little bubbles called nature reserves? Where’s the high-profile awareness raising to get the public to appreciate and understand the role of dead wood in their local woodlands? We have high big campaigns to get people to plant trees, to the point they end up getting planted where they shouldn’t and all too often too many get planted too close together because of the numbers game. Technically you’re expecting less of people by asking them not to dislike dead wood than you are by asking them to put on a pair of wellies and come out to get muddy sticking in trees on often rather dreary autumn weekends when there’s so much else, they could do. So, why in the public sphere the deafening silence about the conservation value of dead wood?
I have my own personal theory or more accurately suspicions why there’s such a glaring anomaly and failure in conservation/public education policy. No one is ever likely to criticise efforts to save farmland birds like turtle doves, yellowhammers, and tree sparrows, even the comparatively drab corn bunting is still a ‘sweet little birdie’. Now compare that with the reaction you’ll get if you publicise the importance of having dead trees wherever you have live ones, or in waterways or in any habitat in fact. There’ll be a very loud and negative reaction from a section of the public who loath the sight of dead wood, claiming it’s ugly and even diseased. Unfortunately, even ill informed, selfish, and arrogant attitudes somehow become sacrosanct when they are from ‘the public’ – obviously non pc to question them, all views MUST be treated with respect, which is surely ridiculous and very damaging. Only allowing all to have their say and give it a fair hearing should be mandatory, that’s democracy, but so is being able to challenge it.
When it comes to avoiding any negativity to conservation in the public sphere the NGOs seem to be treading on eggshells. Finally, progress is being made in getting wildflower meadows in more public spaces, flowers are pretty, and they help pollinators upon which many of our crops are dependent – like farmland birds not exactly a hard sell. However, many of those same pollinators need ‘weeds’ such as bramble, nettle, and dock for their larval stages and how many conservation organisations are calling for the creation and protection of them alongside wildflowers? There’s clearly acceptable and unacceptable nature in the eyes of some, but ecosystems don’t work on that basis we need all of it.
The price for not riling the reactionary is unfortunately a seriously watered-down approach that stops a broader range of the public getting on our side if only they were given the relevant information. How many more people would want to see the rewilding of our over grazed, over burnt tree less hills if they knew it reduced the chance of their homes flooding and that their money is which is subsidising the uneconomic activities heightening flood risk would be so much better spent on anything and everything from reducing food waste to the NHS to school trips to care for the elderly than keeping hills wildlife poor and flood friendly? I can’t recall one instance where the conservation organisations really went to town pushing this issue of massive public interest. If they haven’t done so because they want to keep on good terms to debate and negotiate with the vested interests responsible for the current state of our uplands, then shame on them.
So, what might be a useful aid in protecting dead trees has in the past ten years since the first ones were put up been pretty much floating around in limbo not necessarily as a failing on its part, but the lack of a proper platform to use it. Unfortunately changes in H & S regulations meant our original supply of blank plaques ended otherwise we could have kept making ones to donate to other groups and some back to Forestry Commission Scotland itself. That could have done a lot to help, but we could find no alternative supply. If so, we could’ve sent one down to Hardcastle Crags a National Trust property in Yorkshire where they’re doing excellent work in using dead wood dams to reduce flooding downhill. On a Countryfile program the presenter asked a staff member the significance of a dead tree left standing. There was no information in situ, so it was explained because it was great for wildlife. One or more plaques on the tree would have helped get the message across when a NT employee wasn’t at hand, and of course being seen on national television would’ve demonstrated the value of the plaques to an enormous audience. I’ve contacted them since, but that’s a bit lacklustre when you don’t have anything physical to pass on, just an outline of the idea.
I do happen to have a spare plaque, but it’s needed as a prop to promote the idea at talks, presentations, and meetings – pretty much the only option left in drumming up any support for it, that and writing in guest blogs of course. Whenever I’m going to a conference, an event or outdoor festival the plaque is usually stowed away in the little ex-army rucksack that goes practically everywhere with me. If I encounter someone who I think might be interested, I’ll show the plaque and give the background story. This has resulted in a few photographs being taken so hopefully the message does get across sometimes, but in quite advanced middle age it’s strange to be overtaken by adolescent like shyness and self-consciousness when approaching a complete stranger (on the basis they work for Buglife, the Woodland Trust etc I should add) removing a wooden plaque with routered text and image on it pulled from an old rucksack, and launching into spiel about the need to protect dead trees. It wouldn’t be so bad if the adolescent awkwardness was accompanied by the adolescent flat stomach, clear complexion, and higher energy levels, but sadly sod’s law is well and truly in operation, and I’m stuck with the worst of the young and old fart me. There have been some little adventures and perhaps even close misses though in getting the message out to a wider audience over the years. The very best one was when I was invited to an evening event at the Scottish Parliament celebrating the work of Revive: The Coalition for Grouse Moor Reform three years ago. The honoured guest was to be a certain Mr Christopher Gary Packham no less. This was the golden opportunity to get what in marketing they call ‘a product champion’ on board if I was very lucky. So, the plaque went into the old ruck sack and then through the metal detector at the security portal in the entrance of the parliament. I met a few old acquaintances, some new ones I’d only known through face book before and just before the event officially began CP arrived. At one stage I was standing about ten inches away from the great man, but it wasn’t a good time to talk.
His speech was excellent and the subsequent discussions I had with fellow participants were thoroughly enjoyable, but Chris seemed to have disappeared, I assumed he wasn’t too keen on crowds. Eventually a group of us went away for our own wee meeting in the pub. It was only later I found out Chris had gone off to one side of the room where people politely approached him to have a quick chat, say hi and thanks for his many efforts on behalf of wildlife. I kicked myself for missing him, I had desperately wanted to thank him for his help with a petition I’d set up, and I felt if the idea behind the plaque was bona fide Chris would be an excellent judge and if supportive a fantastic help in promoting the idea. In the last series of Springwatch he certainly did raise the issue of the conservation value of dead trees, specifically regarding the lesser spotted woodpecker. Of course, he might have told me it was rubbish, but somehow I wouldn’t have minded it so much coming from him.
There was an incident though where things did go to plan, quite beautifully in fact and in a way that brought me incredible satisfaction. In the previous blog I wrote at length of my frustrations at the public consultation process where being loud, ignorant, and indignant tends to carry the day rather than being conscientious and well informed. I stressed that conservation organisations and wildlife lovers need to be equally assertive and forthright in putting forward their views and aims – we can’t sit in the corner, wring our hands, and get anywhere. I’m glad to say that for once I’d put my money where my mouth, ten years ago now, the plaque was involved, and it was bloody great!
The RSPB had just obtained three million pounds from the lottery to oversee the Inner Forth Landscape Initiative (I.F.L.I) a multi-year project to make both the natural and industrial/historical heritage of the upper Forth estuary more accessible to all. An excellent project encompassing an awful lot of habitats, human heritage sites and kindred communities. The RSPB therefore embarked upon a series of public consultation meetings throughout the district trying to reach as many people as possible.
I attended one in late 2012, the RSPB were welcoming, but instead of putting plans of their own forward to ask for feedback, they outlined the aims of the I.F.L.I in the very broadest sense. This was well meant, but I believe a big mistake – it looked far too much like trying to fit in conservation after everybody else had said what they wanted, relegation to the margins yet again. The RSPB was entitled to put its plans forward first then review responses – that’s what everyone else does including developers, but somehow conservation organisations must do more. The bar seems to be automatically set higher when protecting wildlife is on the cards.
After the introduction we were to separate into discussion groups on different topics. Not surprisingly I chose the table on woodlands. A RSPB staff member was allocated to us – all had been extremely friendly and never passed comment or judgement on any response, but dutifully noted them down and thanked the participant for making it. After the staffer introduced himself, we were invited to make comments. The first to do so was a man to my immediate right about the same age as myself. In a somewhat pompous, loud, and indignant voice he announced “Our woods are untidy!! They need to be tidied up!!” He didn’t specify what he meant by untidy, perhaps he was referring to burnt out cars, dumped fridges and crisp packets, but I doubt it, I’m sure he would have said so. No this was someone deeply affronted, offended even because he would go into a woodland, and it was a woodland not a sterile municipal park. Oh the suffering!!!!!
Right there and then was the vindication why I was sitting at the same table with a wooden plaque in my rucksack carrying a message to appreciate what he clearly wanted removed. After so many years of frustration at the loud, uninformed, and reactionary scuppering local conservation projects here I finally was at the right time and place to counter it for once. I wasn’t one of the RSPB employees who no doubt had to bite their tongues behind fixed smiles, I was there as a member of the public who had as much right to express their opinion as forthrightly as they wished as anybody else – so I let rip.
I would love to say that what henceforth issued forth from my lips was articulate and eloquent, it wasn’t I was too pissed off for that – my excuse anyway. However, my irritation did mean the comments were delivered in a no-nonsense tone that meant I expected to be taken seriously. I began by stressing our woodlands are not parks, people who didn’t have the education to appreciate woodlands as wildlife habitat should keep to parks and not inflict their ignorance on the rest of us (I didn’t have to hold back so I didn’t), a large number of people don’t even understand where their food comes from so it’s not surprising they don’t understand why dead wood and trees are vital elements for woodland wildlife. At this stage I produced the plaque from my rucksack and used it to underline how and why we needed to educate the public and especially children about the ecology of our woodlands not waste scarce resources to ‘tidy them up’. When I’d finished the man who’d made the original comment – for one thing didn’t claim he’d really been referring to litter – said absolutely nothing. I doubt I’d changed his attitude, but his silence was a victory of sorts. It felt great.
It might sound like I’m making a massive meal of this one incident, but it’s the comments like the one I replied to that again and again have meant small fortunes that could’ve been spent on creating wildlife habitat or environmental education have instead been used to send gangs of chainsaw operators to remove dead trees. For the want of more proactivity on the part of our NGOs, and sometimes the unwillingness of individual wildlife lovers to exert their rights to push their views as much as anyone else, progress for conservation generally is reduced to a snail’s pace, and dead wood in particular is being hammered.
I’ve been carrying the plaque around for so many years now I’ve started to joke I’m getting to be like the log lady in Twin Peaks (the ‘log laddie?’). I’m glad to say I don’t have conversations with my piece of wood…not yet at least. I do, however, almost feel sorry for it – always the bridesmaid never quite the bride. If someone could point out how it’s an impractical suggestion, a waste of time that should be dropped they’d be doing me a favour. But I can’t see how it is given the terrible technical inadequacy and lack of commitment there is within the mainstream conservation movement in promoting within the public sphere the need for dead wood and trees to be conserved. Simple and basic though they are the plaques are a something when now there’s nothing, they could be part of a future toolkit of measures to help save dead wood should the NGOs pull their socks up and create one.
If you’ve managed to read this far (well done!), as ever I’d be grateful for feedback and if anyone can secure their own supply of ‘blanks’, trees brought down because of ash dieback might be a good source (if spreading the disease via them can be avoided), get a router and have a bit more competence with it than I then there’s nothing stopping you making plaques for dead trees like Westquarter Wildlife Group. In fact, I’d be absolutely delighted if you did.[registration_form]