November 2019 has been Kilminorth-themed for me, with a guided tour of the woods on 8th and a practical activity (forgoing Cornwall Wildlife Trust’s AGM), to benefit local dormice on 16th. Both events are featured in this blog, along with some glorious autumnal scenery.
Remarkably, despite what has often felt like a cold, dark, very wet month, the weather was glorious and sunny in magical Kilminorth Woods on both days.
Kilminorth Woods Local Nature Reserve, across the estuary from – and mirrored by – the Woodland Trust-owned Trenant Woods, is owned by Cornwall Council and open to the public. It is managed principally by countryside ranger Jenny Heskett of Cormac and her teams (see the latter part of this article). The 100 acres (approximately 45 hectares) line the estuary beginning at Looe’s Millpool car park, and are classified as ‘western oak woodland’. They are actually part of Polperro parish, and included in the Polperro Neighbourhod Plan, although many Looe residents may not realise this. Although the most ancient trees have gone, there has been woodland here since at least 1600 AD and there’s a mysterious ancient monument too …
A guided walk around Kilminorth Woods
Our guided walk, led by Christine Spooner of the Friends of Kilminorth Woods http://friendsofkilminorthwoods.co.uk/, ably assisted by her husband Derek, author of Wild Looe, (available in all good bookshops including https://www.nhbs.com/wild-looe-book), and another Friend, Rogan Jones, took place on a glorious sunny day that turned the hillside opposite gold and filled the estuary with spectacular reflections.
Early in her introduction to the woods, Christine told us that recent Japanese research relating to ‘forest bathing’ had found deciduous woodland by the sea to be particularly beneficial for people’s well-being. Kilminorth Woods are sessile oak-based mixed deciduous woodland bathed in the sea air from the Atlantic ocean at picturesque Looe. I’m sure we all breathed a little more deeply to take in the fresh, healthy atmosphere.
The tide was out on our arrival, and Derek told us about the bird interest along the estuary: there is a small heronry across the river (we were able to see Grey Herons up in a tree) and there are also Little Egrets – about 12 pairs of each in summer.
Derek reported a lot of Kingfisher activity, and low tide is a good time to see them (keep reading for my photos, taken at a distance). They come to the estuary at this time of year after breeding further upstream, and Derek had seen them every day over the past three weeks.
Resident birds in the woods include Jay, woodpeckers and Nuthatch, with Blue Tits (described by Derek as principal users of the nestboxes) nesting in summer.
A small number of Great Tits and Marsh Tits are also found in the boxes. The Marsh Tit, now on the Red List of the UK’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee and in serious decline over recent years, didn’t use the boxes this year, but is still present in the woods in small numbers. The Friends have put up some low, small nest boxes especially for Marsh Tits, which also use dormouse boxes.
Derek pointed out a natural Coal Tit nest that had been used this year. Brown Long-eared Bats had also preferred dormouse boxes to bat boxes.
But now, the ancient monument …
We began our walk at the ‘Giant’s Hedge’. Our quite large assemblage of wildlife enthusiasts consisted mostly of Launceston Area Parish Wildlife Group (LAPWG) https://www.launcestonparishwildlife.org.uk/ , on a neighbourly visit south at the invitation of friends from our fellow Wildlife Group. For a list of groups, see https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/cornwall-wildlife-groups
Christine told us that the Friends of Kilminorth Woods were set up in 2006. They found a lot of rhododendron (Rhododendron ponticum) spreading into the woods, and had a remarkably successful campaign to get rid of it. These rhododendrons not only cast shade and discourage other species from growing around them, but also, their pollen is toxic to honeybees and the honey is reportedly toxic. I didn’t know that! Interestingly, she said that the rhododendrons didn’t tend to flower in the shade of Kilminorth Wood, so I guess no local poisonings have been reported.
We began walking along Giant’s Hedge path. There is much speculation about the hedge. It is a steep embankment that once stretched from Looe to Lerryn. It probably dates back to 600 AD and may have been the boundary of a Cornish kingdom. There may have once been two embankments rather than one, and it may have stretched eight miles in total and reached to the sea. Was it defensive? No one knows for sure, and Christine would love a geophysical survey to take place.
Walking up the steep path, we heard a nuthatch and came across bird boxes and dormouse boxes, but no dormice have been found this year. Our dormouse expert told us about the two that had been found previously – one was in a bird box.
There are over 50 bird boxes and over 70 dormouse boxes in Kilminorth Woods, although some have disintegrated. At first checking bird boxes just at the beginning and end of each year, Derek is now checking them once a week from April through to June, for the BTO (British Trust for Ornithology). Keep reading to the second half of this blog to see how the local Cormac Ranger, Friends and other volunteers are taking action to help dormouse populations recover in these woods through renewed coppicing activity.
As the sun shone through multi-coloured autumn leaves, LAPWG member Tony Atkinson observed that we were surrounded by even-aged, secondary woodland. We learned that veteran trees were slowly being mapped and measured, particularly the sweet chestnuts, which mature quickly.
Only a few of the Friends are involved with practical woodland management, but these few are helping to create small glades, giving older trees space to grow. Although Kilminorth is classed as ancient woodland, in the past the woodland would have been cleared in patches. There are still stumps remaining from some very old-looking trees, particularly along the degraded Giant’s Hedge.
As we made our way along the leafy track, I spotted something brilliant turquoise on the ground. Usually I would expect something this bright to be plastic, or stray jay or kingfisher feathers, but apparently it’s the mycelium of a brightly coloured fungus Chlorosplenium aeruginosum.
A path above the estuary
We also came across a lovely view down to the former boatyard below us, now cleared of pylons. This view is kept relatively open by woodland management, and is ever changing. While we were there, Tony related how boatbuilders used to select bent trees with ‘knees’ from the local woods. Woodland was used by the other local people too for whatever they needed – I guess this included firewood, fence materials, tool handles and peasticks.
We reached a small stream that’s marked on the OS map. Sadly, this part of the woods has been a focus for vandalism, with people lighting fires inside trees. It’s also a litter hotspot, but the Friends hope that young people are learning to value the woods as they gather in this more open area where beech trees have suppressed the undergrowth.
Local lads used to meet at this tree (below), known as the ‘White Lady’ or ‘Naked Lady’. She is slowly disintegrating, but she has plenty of ‘babies’. The bare stump is covered in a pale lichen.
The banks along the path are an ecological treasure full of mosses, lichens and ferns, providing homes for voles, robins, wrens, and ferns such as the Broad Buckler Fern. We also found a Coal Tit nest right at the bottom of a tree.
We passed an area where coppicing has been taking place to open up the woodland. It may disturb dormice initially, but in the long term they do return to suitable habitat, weather permitting. Tree thinning is encouraging spring flowers and butterflies, too.
The ‘Raven Tree’ is a big conifer, on its way out and with a big Wood Cauliflower fungus. We learned how dying trees make interesting creaking noises …
There was a steep walk down from our path to the furthest point of our journey, where we stopped for a while.
Watergate, once boasting tea rooms, is close to the tidal limit, and there are lime kilns a few hundred metres further upriver. The rock to be burned in the kilns was was brought from near Plymouth by barge. The resulting lime was used on the fields by local farmers, to improve the land.
We stopped for a gaze at the river and some edible birthday treats from Jen (surely we should be giving her treats on her birthday, not the other way round) before walking back along the lower path by the estuary.
The homeward journey
Our return journey was along the path along the lower edge of Kilminorth Woods. Here, at the foot of the woods, the area has its own piece of saltmarsh.
We were treated to some spectacular views of the woods and river on our return walk.
These banks were covered with ferns, too, which could be identified by Mary Atkinson if we weren’t sure what they were. (The intrepid Tony Atkinson clambered up to some high rocks to check out a past record of the Tunbridge Filmy Fern, but it was too dry and sunny up there and the fern was not present.)
Kingfisher in action
Back on the subject of birds, Derek reported that there were eider flocks in the bay. There had been a previous flock of seven, but then a larger, different flock of 14, including six males. We were in store for a different bird-related treat as we headed to the end of our walk: a kingfisher hunting on the far shore, perching on dead wood and diving into the calm waters. Apologies for the quality of my long-distance photos. I always forget to bring a tripod to steady the camera!
Walking along by the estuary, we found some fragrant otter spraint. It’s exciting to imagine otters playing so close to town. Tony also found several very tall cherry trees adding variety to the woodland.
Thank you, Friends of Kilminorth Woods, for a truly lovely day.
Visit www.friendsofkilminorthwoods.co.uk to find out more.
A day of coppicing in Kilminorth Woods
After returning to the entrance of Kilminorth Woods about a week after the guided walk described above, my coppicing day began unexpectedly with an encounter. I met a group of four friendly geocachers, three of whom are members of Cornwall Wildlife Trust.
https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/ These three were from St Austell and the other geocacher is a member of Devon Wildlife Trust https://www.devonwildlifetrust.org/ from Plymouth. Apparently there are several geocaches hidden in Kilminorth Woods, and one had just been found by the group, who also turned out to be joining Cormac and some Friends of Kilminorth Woods for the coppicing day.
Our leader, Jenny Heskett of Cormac, gave us a useful introductory talk about why we were about to coppice an area of woodland, which involves cutting down some of the trees. It can look and sound at first glance like destruction, unless you realise what’s going on.
Because woods often have a history tied up with human land use, the trees do not necessarily have a varied age structure, and when a thick wood of largely even-aged trees grow skyward together, light can be blocked from the woodland floor, leaving it cold and dark. Importantly, Hazel Dormice (a Priority Species in the UK Biodiversity Action Plan) have been recorded in Kilminorth Woods in the quite recent past, and the area we were about to work in is well stocked with dormouse boxes. We were here to do more to help our native dormice survive.
We walked up a steep slope to an example of previous coppice where Jenny showed us one of the dormouse boxes in a hazel bush.
Sadly, no dormice had been found in the boxes for the last two years. Tall forests of uniform vertical tree trunks and a bare, shady woodland floor are not much use to hazel dormice, which like to scramble through a network of twigs and branches above the ground, looking for hazelnuts and a variety of other food items. Jenny told us how bramble, for example, provides food for dormice, so at this particular place on this particular day, bramble clearance was not on the itinerary. The dormice eat both the flowers and the berries, and even take a mouthful of the abundant insect life that visits the flowers and feeds on juicy ripe berries.
Jenny explained that the angle of the woods makes it colder, so we were also creating warmth for dormice, and giving some space and air to some venerable veteran trees. Conversely, where there was too much open space, we would carry out some layering of hazel, creating more habitat for Hazel Dormice.
We carried on up to the very top of the woods, just below the outer boundary hedge. Here there were some handsome old oaks and holly trees laden with berries. (Jenny mentioned that there should not be large, dark areas of concentrated holly – our aim was enhancing the diversity of the trees in the area.)
Jenny showed us how to recognise sycamore by its green buds with ‘Nora Batty stockings’. Other buds are also distinctive: two I learned to recognise during a lesson at school, at the age of 11, were the slim brown scrolls of beech, and the fat, hard, dark grey buds of ash.
We then turned out attention to hazel, with its silvery bark. We were to redo some old hazel coppice that had been cut back some time ago but had now grown rather tall, twisted and lanky, with few clambering places for the local dormice.
Our aim was to cut out the thicker stems with bow saws (being careful to wear thick gloves). Sometimes it was wise to shorten the longest stems by cutting the tops off with saws and loppers first – otherwise we brought quite major pieces of tree crashing down, and my faithful dog insists on standing underneath these branches. Her new high vis gear wouldn’t be enough defence!
The job was finished with a chainsaw where necessary, creating log piles, while smaller saws and loppers could be used to cut leafy lengths of twiggy growth. These were piled around the coppice stools so that grazing deer would find it difficult to stick their heads in to eat the fresh hazel growth that would emerge.
Unwanted trees, such as some beech and sycamore, were cut down by noisy chainsaw while the rest of us produced some pleasantly restful rhythmic sawing noises.
Some of the thicker wood was stacked around trees to provide more climbing places for dormice. When active, they prefer to be higher up, although they may hibernate at ground level. I was told by a fellow coppicer that when dormice hibernate they are able to stop emitting any scent. This keeps them safer from stoats and weasels. We kept an eye out for nests, which look like woven grass tennis balls but are actually made of honeysuckle bark. Jenny spotted that one of the multi-stemmed old coppice hazel trees was full of honeysuckle, and so we left that one alone.
We also left deadwood, as it is good for invertebrate life and woodpeckers.
When we stopped for lunch, we realised that by letting sunlight in, we had already made the woods warmer, and I could feel my back heating with the sun’s rays, despite it being mid-November.
One unintended bit of coppicing had been carried out on a rather straggly rowan, which was not as abundant here as the beech, hazel, oak, sycamore, holly and vintage sweet chestnuts. Apparently rowan respond well to coppicing, and there was plenty of scope for regrowth. The one bunch of berries was put out for the birds, and the rowan will regrow with renewed vigour into the future.
After lunch, the volunteers undertook some layering. Long, thin and bendy hazel stems were scraped with a knife to encourage rooting and then pegged down with wooden pegs made from other bits of coppiced tree.
Before I left, Jenny showed me some healthy hazels that had been coppiced a few years earlier. They had sprung multiple healthy young branches which were still covered in leaves.
Dormice have been known to return to neglected woodland after coppicing, so fingers crossed that our healthy day of woodland work outdoors will bring some furry, honey-coloured residents back to the hazels and the dormouse boxes.
See all my Cornwall Wildlife Group blogs at https://wordpress.com/view/cornwallwildlifegroups.wordpress.com and find out more about the Wildlife Groups of Cornwall at https://www.cornwallwildlifetrust.org.uk/cornwall-wildlife-groups