Wanted: dead and alive

Join us this Halloween and venture into the woods in search of the dead…this journey sounds scarier than it is, as we are on the lookout for deadwood.

We love trees for many reasons – a wander in the woods gives us a sense of calm, we are mesmerised by the sunlight dancing through the leaves, not to mention the colours of a changing season in the canopy. But we rarely pass a pile of logs without so much as looking at them. After all, it’s just some dead wood lying around – or is it? What happens when a tree’s life cycle comes to an end?

Contrary to popular belief, there’s not much dead about deadwood: long after their demise, dead trees give life to a myriad of living things. In fact, from the smallest hoverfly to the mighty owl, around 40% of woodland wildlife is at least partially dependent on deadwood habitats.

In the UK, around 2,000 invertebrate species are saproxylic – reliant on dead or decaying wood for either a part or all of their life cycle. If you have ever done a minibeast hunt in the forest, you will know the amount of creepy-crawlies scattering into all four directions when you lift a log.

Log pile

Log pile © Scott Petrek

Deadwood comes in all forms and sizes – a standing or fallen dead tree, the stump of a cut tree, dead branches of a tree or even dead shrubs – and it can create a whole little ecosystem on its own. It is full of species that live in it, eat it and eat the things that live in it. The dark and damp conditions are loved by woodlice, centipedes, millipedes and many other species who will happily make their home there, while other invertebrates feed on decaying wood as larvae, such as the rare stag beetle, many longhorn beetle species and the giant woodwasp.

The large presence of invertebrates, in turn, attracts predators. Woodland Birds and bats as well as hedgehogs seek out dead and decaying wood for a nice feast. Deadwood is a paradise for lichen and fungi too: look out for the distinctive candlesnuff fungus – it has a forked body with a black base and white, powdery tip and grows on rotting wood. As the tree slowly decays, it also feeds the soil and with it the surrounding plants.

Great Spotted Woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker © Jon Hawkins - Surrey Hills Photography

Dead and hollowing trees often boast an impressive number of holes and cavities that provide an ideal roost place for birds like the great spotted woodpecker, tits and owls. Bare branches sticking out of a standing dead tree provide a great vantage point for birds looking for a mate. Most of the UK’s bat species depend on tree holes for summer and winter roosts. A pile of logs often serves as a hibernaculum for hedgehogs and toads to spend the winter.

As on land, deadwood plays a vital role in our rivers and lakes too. Fallen logs can provide cover for fish as well as water invertebrates and create pools used for spawning. Woody debris can narrow a stream, slowing the flow and reducing soil erosion.

Just like death is a part of life, deadwood is a part of a functioning ecosystem and as such, of a healthy woodland, and we need to preserve it.  Sadly, our proclivity for tidiness along with other factors have resulted in a decline in deadwood habitats, threatening the survival of many species. Today, most managed woodlands contain less than 10% deadwood.

We purposefully create deadwood on our nature reserves with log piles and tree stumps or by leaving dead trees standing.

It’s easy to include deadwood in your own garden: simply pile up a few logs and let nature do the rest.