Wild About Wildlife: Life in the leaf litter

Albert Nolan

Reporter:

Albert Nolan

Wild About Wildlife: Life in the leaf litter

Seán Hartigan and Albert Nolan with friends at the recent Broadford Arboretum "Growing Trees from Seeds" Workshop

THE cold snap and the strong winds are stripping the leaves from the trees. Already the ash trees around my house are bare and barren. Ash is often the last tree to complete its green canopy in spring and the first to drop them in late summer. The alder is also bare like the ash - while the oak and willow are just about hanging on to a few fluttering leaves.

Leaves are a fabulous resource for gardeners and wildlife. A good layer of leaves on the ground prevents the soil for freezing over. I often spot blackbirds busy on a winter’s morning turning over the leaves. They are searching for worms and grubs and these a vital source of winter energy.

One lady was in touch recently regarding blackbirds. She and her extended family had not seen a blackbird for a while and she was concerned by their absence. With the breeding season over and the abundance of food in the countryside, blackbirds revert to their shyer nature. They remain hidden along the bases of hedges or in woodland where they find plenty of food.

As I walk around I see lots of people busy sweeping up the leaves.

While they do need to be removed from paths to prevent people slipping, leaves could be left in other places for wildlife. Gardening for nature is all about balance and looking at the needs of wild creatures as well as ourselves.

Stack under the shelter of a hedge or tree and hedgehogs looking for a safe hibernating spot make take up residence. They will create a snug and warm chamber in the middle of the leaves. Next spring they will wake up and devour lots of slugs and snails that live in your garden.

The leaf litter is home to countless mini beasts, from woodlice to centipedes. You also find the larva of moths and butterflies and the eggs of insects. Worms will pull the leaves into their burrows and help add organic matter to the soil.

Fungi are blooming at the moment and are especially rich under deciduous trees. Their long white mycelium feed on the nutrients from decaying leaves and also make food available for nearby trees.

In the garden stack leaves in a corner and leave to naturally break them down. Next spring you will have a dark and crumbly soil conditioner. This can be used as a mulch around plants, or spread over the soil, and left for the worms to incorporate. You can also get a few black sacks and cut a few holes in the side. The leaves will break down and in my experience this method is often a little bit quicker. Tree seeds like acron also benefit as the natural fungi in leaf mulch, as these help their roots to develop.

The pine needles from conifer trees are not suitable, as they are too acidic (make land sour and unsuitable for growing). Visit a pine forest, and you see that there is little life under their branches.

The only downside I have found from stacking leaves is that kids love to knock them over.

Mine used to spend hours watching me making piles only to scatter them to the wind as soon as my back was turned.

This autumn the leaf piles remain untouched as my kids are growing up too quickly with the passing of each season.

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albert.nolan@rocketmail.com