Don’t cut out the dead wood ... our birds have need of it

“CUT OUT the dead wood” they always say. Why? You might as well shoot woodpeckers, nuthatches and marsh tits. They all need dead wood. And standing dead wood which is dry, is much more important than fallen dead wood, which is set.

Five or six Red Data species of rare wasp and bee species – those not even your regular country person would ever notice or know anything about – need dry dead wood, that is, standing upright, to continue their lives.

Always leave the dry wood if you can, if you do not need it for the fire that is.

Outside my house here in West Dean woods, I watch the great spotted woodpecker doing his rounds of the upright dead shoots of the hazel coppice. Just like a fox or a badger doing his rounds to the well-known feeding places where a mouse might be dug out or a cache of woodlice unearthed, so the woodpecker knows which branch or stem is ready for harvesting.

Tap-tap-tap, and then in goes his tongue to extricate the larvae of a beetle.

He flies a few yards to the next part of the larder, and jerks upwards with that sort of mechanical hop, looking at each bit of the dead wood larder to see what there is to harvest there.

He traverses the coppice behind the house and then often flies up to have a look at the dead branch on the old oak, the one which the tree is self-pruning.

The inside of that branch is as hard as iron but the outside sapwood is all fluffy like cotton wool and full of goodies.

In this nature reserve which is managed for the hazel coppice and oak standards as foresters have for centuries, we do leave dead oaks standing.

They are no threat to safety, which any landowner has to think about of course. I know they would have been harvested in the old times. Today we leave them as larders for the woodpeckers.

Also these are the instruments used by woodpeckers to sound their territory claims.

Special weather-polished branches at the top of these trees are made to vibrate and send signals half a mile around the woods.

Then we have to think about the very rare and declining willow tits which need stumps of dead wood near the ground that they can excavate for their nesting chambers.

This whole business of wildlife conservation is more detailed even that the the farmers growing crops.

The business is in its infancy for the details of how to provide for hundreds of species of moth, butterfly, bird and plant is not always known, quite apart from not always being possible.

But I always think that the simple one of leaving dead wood for colourful and attractive birds is one of the easiest to achieve.

Richard Williamson