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Can't see the wood or the trees!

Can’t see the wood or the trees

We are very lucky in Watford to have a few acres of exceptionally fine wooded parkland, this is Cassiobury Park and it is generally loved by the local population because, among other things, it is simply a beautiful place. Below the park is a chalk stream and then a canal and then some extensive deciduous woodland and a golf course. The park has some very interesting history, mostly to do with a few very rich land owners which were variously connected to royalty and had splendid titles, and at one time the whole area was simply a very large garden and deer park. The huge mansion has gone along with most traces of its splendid garden, and this is no great loss to the naturalist but the remaining legacy is very interesting indeed. Part of that legacy is a very diverse range of mature trees, including a few splendid ornamental conifers and one of the largest Sycamore trees I have ever seen, and by and large many of these trees are in reasonable condition and so should continue to please people for many years to come. But the best part of that legacy is a series of ancient Oak trees, many of which are in various stages of decay and so of intense interest to the naturalist. We know only about beetles, but even from this rather limited knowledge of the park’s insect fauna we can say without reservation that it is an absolutely superb place for saproxylic beetles. In fact it must be among the best sites in the UK, and this simply because it has hosted decaying trees for several hundreds of years. The remaining large Oaks are priceless, especially if, like us, you like to wander around at night with torches looking for beetles on decaying trees. Life rarely gets better. But over the past few years we have had a real treat because a whole group of huge Oaks have been pumping out sap and attracting beetles like there’s no tomorrow. It was obvious that the trees were on their way out because large areas of bark were either missing or loose and no longer attached to the trees, and this made the site all the more exciting. This was where we found such gems as Uloma cullinaris and Achopera alternata and Corticeus fasciatus, and it was where we found Quedius dilatatus in abundance. This is where we ignored abundant Hornets while we watched by torchlight numbers of Red Underwing moths flying under the canopy and where we found Snake-flies and watched Prionus ovipositing on nearby Birch trunks. And we regularly found a very diverse range of beetles. And all the while there were groups of people enjoying the park, even after midnight! To us, at least, the place is so very impressive that we intend to write a page about it for the site and include a list of the saproxylic beetles, and it will not be a trivial piece. It remains a magical place, though no longer quite so magical as it was a couple of years ago.

When we visited one night to survey some of these old Oaks a couple of years ago we were horrified to find some of them (among the best for saproxylics) had been cut down and sliced up into logs; that was a shock. Even more of a shock to find subsequently that the logs had been removed. We will elaborate on this another time, but suffice to say that this behaviour is nothing short of ecological vandalism and stupidity. I say stupidity because it is obvious that whoever was involved in this process had no knowledge of ecology and not a thought for the local biodiversity. There are other trees, unfortunately many of which are in a similar condition and so, presumably, at risk from this ecological vandalism, and there are many small trees throughout the park that might one day reach maturity and, hopefully, old age. But there is very little succession or continuity from the point of view of conserving the saproxylic fauna. I’m not a professional conservation officer (thank goodness), but even as a relative layman I can see much better ways to deal with old trees such as these. Of course nobody would want an Oak tree, or even an Oak branch, to fall on their head, or the heads of their loved ones, and this is understandable. But cutting the trees down to avoid this is absolutely insane. How about this: cut off all the branches and leave them on the ground, then let the trunk decay while it is upright, and let people like me study what’s going on while the whole lot decays. And here’s a thing, if the standing trunk is deemed unsafe then why not put a fence around the whole lot in order to keep people safe? This seems obvious to me, what also seems obvious is that the course of action that was actually followed was a demonstration of something, I’m not sure what and I do not want to get abusive, but it was a demonstration of something. The same thing happened in the adjacent Whippendel wood a few years ago; they stripped out all the Pine trees and left the trunks piled up along one of the woodland pathways. Of course we were there at night with torches and saw them crawling with beetles. Then one night they had vanished. There is something seriously wrong with nature conservation in this country, and I suspect it has to do with money somewhere down the line. This is a very upsetting topic to write about and so now I sign off, but hopefully, and in a different frame of mind, I will write about local nature for the site.

Actually that’s not quite all because a slightly related thought just occurred to me. Road verges and embankments are often left to go wild, and they are sometimes seeded with various wild flowers, and these make very impressive nature reserves. I’m all for it; take a summer drive to Tring from Watford along the A41 and you will see mile after mile of breath-taking arrays of flowers and grassland, and I know from experience that it is teeming with insects. But here’s the thing: over the years I have read many articles about how car windscreens used to become covered with dead insects when driving through the country. I have seen this sort of thing first-hand; since the 1970s I have occasionally visited a small area of woodland in West London to see Stag Beetles, and each and every time I see far more squashed in a nearby road where they were attracted to car headlights, and curiously it is usually males that get squashed. It’s not so much of a problem now because insects are not so abundant, but even so I wonder how long it will be before people begin to complain, as they seem so readily to do nowadays, about their insecty windscreens when using certain stretches of roads. Just a thought.


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