Hazel, willow, beef and storytelling from Bedfordshire

Silent Summer

July in Wassledine's hazel coppics
Under the hazel coppice canopy in July

Suddenly it’s quiet in the woods. It happens sometime in July, and it happens almost overnight. Because for large parts of the year the wood is my office, I’m lucky enough to enjoy the seasonal tide of bird song as the sound track of my working day, so when these dramatic changes happen, even I, with my liking for Radio 4 dramas, take note.

As I make charcoal on hot days in August, for short periods there is no bird song at all which leaves the wood a slightly eerie place. Mostly though, as well as the whirling buzz of flies and bees,  wood pigeons provide a background nagging to my day and the torpor is disturbed by the occasional desperate mewing of a buzzard, the chonk of a crow, a green woodpecker’s yaffle  or quiet chinks from unidentified birds in the deep cover of the hazel coppice. Birds are recovering from the rigours of breeding, replacing feathers and trying to find and avoid becoming lunch. Of course, some have left by August, heading south for the winter.

As I cut coppice through the winter, birds are almost as quiet as in late summer but more visible, because food is scarce and they need more to keep warm. I’m usually tracked by a robin, looking out for likely morsels unearthed as I move around – apparently he thinks I’m a wild boar. His call sounds to me like he’s a bit shy and not certain anyone’s keen to listen.  Most days at some point I’ll be aware of the approaching chatter of a gang of blue, great and long-tailed tits. These compact charmers abandon any feeling of competition during the winter, spending their days searching for food together and roosting overnight in large groups. It’s always a pleasure to have their company.

Winter is a challenging time for many birds. Finding enough food, and in freezing weather, water, keeps them fairly well occupied. Of course, predators can do well now, picking up older birds and last spring’s young that don’t yet know the ropes. It’s a time of endurance but they must do more than just make it through winter safely. To be successful in the coming breeding season, they need to be in peak physical shape by the onset of spring.

I start hearing the stirrings of spring early in the year. A sunny day in January can bring out the occasional optimistic great tit, giving his shouted ‘teacher, teacher, teacher’ a dry run.  He starts to have some competition by late February and in March the woods begin to pulsate as blackbirds, wrens, robins, chaffinches and song thrushes join the chorus.

At some point I hear the first chiff-chaff, usually in late March and it’s a great moment. These will be the males, arriving early, after a ridiculously hazardous journey, some from south of the Sahara, to stake out territories before their prospective partners appear. This year, in our woods, the blackcap was next and it wasn’t until well into April that I heard the first willow warbler. By that time, the coppice is alive with bird song and it can be difficult to pick out individual species from the cacophony. I still can’t tell the difference between a blackcap and a garden warbler by their song, and that I fear is something I may just have to accept.

Whilst it’s sad to accept the quiet of the wood in mid-summer with the prospect of autumn only a few weeks away, it’s a pleasure to work there through the year and whilst I know those birds find me at best, an irritation, I enjoy and value their company greatly and would hate to be without it.


  1. adminguy adminguy
    October 21, 2020    

    testing spam filter

    • Elspeth Jayne Elspeth Jayne
      March 12, 2021    

      I’m just wondering whether to coppice a goat willow and the one next to it which hasn’t any cats paw things yet so I don’t really know what it is. Maybe a bit younger. So, already wondering what to do for the best and then you mention chiff chaff and I don’t want to deprive anyone of a home. It’s in a churchyard and there’s yammering (from people, not birds) to tidy, tidy, tidy but I’d rather leave well alone really. A wren was using the undergrowth in the winter as a roost. Perhaps I’ll leave it a bit longer. Thanks for your lovely blog posts.

      • adminguy adminguy
        March 13, 2021    

        Hi, thanks for commenting.
        It’s difficult to be really helpful without seeing the tree and churchyard. Generally I would be against tidiness for the sake of it, although churchyards are tricky because people do expect a certain neatness. If it’s big enough it can be possible to have a staged maintenance regime whereby some areas are kept really neat, probably around recent graves – grass mown weekly during the season, hedges kept neatly clipped and flower beds well-tended; other areas in which the grass is left to grow through the summer and cut in the early autumn when flowers have set seed, perhaps with the arising cuttings removed to reduce the nutrient level of the soil. Then if there’s enough space, a third virtually non-intervention area where only paths are cut and perhaps graves are kept visible. There can be some savings in costs which sometimes helps to persuade the powers that be.
        As to coppicing your goat willow, you won’t kill it as long as it will be in pretty full sun afterwards. If so, it will almost certainly grow back vigorously with more stems and present the same issues in less than 20 years time. If you decide to coppice it, it would be worth clearing around it to ensure it does get a lot of sunshine. As you probably know, mature goat willows can support a huge array of invertebrate species so it’s a valuable tree to have around, although they aren’t rare.
        Unless the tree is dangerous (and that’s a difficult thing to assess – you may well need to bring in expert help here), doing nothing until you and others concerned are really sure, is often the best option.
        I do like a plan, especially in a public area like yours most likely is. It’s best drawn up or at least agreed by all those involved, probably based on a map, with a simple list of operations together with timings. Then as people come and go, it’s available to be checked and gives a reason for what’s happening. It could include something like ‘coppice goat willow every 4 or 5 years’ – that way, the work won’t require expensive tree surgeons as the poles will be fairly small but they could be used for habitat piles in the church yard, some kind of green woodworking projects or go into someone’s wood burning stove.
        Perhaps a bit of a rant! Good luck with it. Guy

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