Saturday, 8 January 2011

Winter birches brighten the landscape

On a dull winter afternoon, just before the weak rays of the sun disappear below the horizon, it is the Silver Birches that stand out against the darkness of the brooding conifer plantations. The silver-white bark of the birches seems to absorb some of the colour from their surroundings, the tint of the orange sky and the soft browns of the bracken. The birches take on soft bronze overtones and seem to glow, adding to the magic of the Breckland winter landscape.

There is something about these trees, perhaps echoes from a childhood spent on the Surrey heaths where the birches were seen by conservationists as unwanted invaders, scrubby raiders threatening the delicate heathland balance. But to me the birches were, and have remained, an important and welcome part of that landscape and I always associate them with sandy soils, heather and the chattering winter flocks of Lesser Redpolls. The Silver Birch is a pioneer species, an opportunistic tree that is quick to utilise vacant land free from competition. It was one of the first trees to follow the retreating glaciers in the march back north across Europe. The production of vast numbers of tiny, wind-dispersed seeds have played a part in the tree’s success, while nitrogen-fixing nodules on the roots have enabled the birch to improve the condition of the soil in which it found itself.

Foresters have also tended to regard the birch unfavourably, an unwelcome opportunist with a tendency to appear in the wrong place and to grow too rapidly. The birch is relatively short-lived for a tree, with few individuals reaching their own three score years and ten. Its timber is not widely used, although it once was in Scotland. It does have a number of craft uses, included in which are its use for smoking fish, being the wood of choice for this delicate process, and the use of its sap to make wine – something that is still a popular practice in some households.

For me, however, the birch has earned its place in my affections for a number of reasons. I delight in its airy habits, the way in which it appears in open landscapes on poor soils where other trees struggle to gain purchase. It is there at the margins, taking the first steps towards a colonisation from which others will inevitably follow. I also appreciate its wildlife value, supporting various fungi, many different insects and, of course, birds. Perhaps this appreciation is shaped by those childhood recollections and by the fact that I see parts of that Surrey landscape reflected in

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