28 Sept 2022

Wild About Wildlife: The secrets of the Oak Woods

Wild About Wildlife: The secrets of the Oak Woods

Ireland's oldest tree? The Brian Boru oak tree in Clare is estimated to be over a 1,000 years old

WE had been driving past the Oak Woods for years and I was really curious as to what natural secrets might be lurking beneath the canopy. The wood is located on a very dangerous bend in the road and the nearest safe parking is at least a kilometre away.

There is one large house just around the corner and there is plenty of room to park a car there. Unfortunately the owners have placed several large stones there and interlinked them with a large chain. This is to deter anyone from parking but made me all the more determined to explore the wood.

The wood first caught my attention when a few years ago I saw a jay flying into one of the trees. These are the exotics of the crow family and most members have a dull grey or black plumage. The jay is the complete opposite and is brightly coloured with pinks, blues, black and a touch of white.

They are very wary and the usually the first indication of their presence is a loud shrieking call. They feed on the acorns of the oak and bury them in preparation for leaner times. While jays have excellent memories they forget about some. If they survive the deer the saplings get the opportunity to mature into magnificent oaks. Might woods growing form the humble habits of the Jay.

As we left the car the dark clouds rumbled in the distance. The weather was incredible close and we could see the rain pelting down over the distance hills. The wind was blowing the clouds away from us so we decided to continue.

After short walk we reached the edge of the woods. We had a great start to our exploration and straight away found an orchid. I love finding these flowers and this one had lots of black spots on the long narrow leaves. The flowers were in a slim spike and a light purple in colour.

We scrambled over the low stone wall that protected the wood. It was crumbling away with age and was full of violets and ferns. A pair of wood pigeons quickly disappeared deeper into the woods and I think there were surprised by our un-welcomed intrusion into their world.

The trees are only a 100 years and while for some humans this is a lifetime, for the oak tree, it is still in the toddler stage. Oaks can live for over 500 years and some survivors have reached the thousand year milestone.

The branches of the oaks were covered in a thick carpet of mosses, lichens and ferns. This provides a mini habitat for countless insects. Birds like the tree creeper, who has a long curved beak find plenty of food in the cracks and crevices.

While honeysuckle is a natural climbing plant it will also scramble along the ground. This and bluebells are indication of an old undisturbed woodland.

Bramble was also growing in the understory and we had to be careful when walking through the tall vegetation. Bramble thickets are a safe resting place for young animals and birds like dunnocks and wren will often build their nests there. The shade loving speckled wood butterfly can often be seen resting on the leaves of the bramble.

We walked deeper into the wood enticed by its mysteries. The normally low growing wood sorrel was standing very tall on straggly stems, as it searched for every ray of light. The leaves are edible but have quite a sharp taste.

Foxglove was not that common and we found a few plants scattered in one corner, but they had made no progress in colonising other parts of the wood.

A loud bank of thunder put us quickly back on the road. Thankfully the wind kept the rain at our sides and we reached the car just as the heavens opened.

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