Celebrating Forests

Join Lucy on a springtime meander in Naddle Forest to discover why forests in the Lake District are vital for a diversity of species.

The Lake District is mostly known for its rugged, open, grassy hills dotted with sheep, a place where hill walkers flock to conquer the many peaks or holiday makers gather to enjoy the lakes in the valleys. There is another, lesser known, side to the Lake District found in small hidden pockets and Haweswater is lucky enough to encompass one of these gems. Forests! Not just any old jumble of trees but ancient relict forest. Naddle Forest is a SSSI designated site and is a great example of ancient semi-natural woodland, that is, woodland that has persisted since 1600 but has had some modification through man’s activities such as harvesting or livestock grazing. Naddle Forest has an amazing complement of lichen and bryophyte flora, unique in the Lake District thanks to its easterly position and this long history of essentially being left undisturbed.

Most of my work here involves planting new trees out on the bare hillsides or fixing boundary walls and during the winter months finding occasions to wander into the forests are rare. With the advent of spring everything changes and I find myself drawn in to the darker areas. There is a reason these forests are so special, their relatively undisturbed state over such a timescale means that wildlife is very at home here. The ground is carpeted with bluebells, late to show themselves here in this northerly location, its well into May now and they are just coming out. The canopy is positively ringing with bird song. It is magical in the forest, I feel cocooned away from the troubles of the world, surrounded instead by the relentless seasonal progress of nature. I could sit here all day just observing the comings and goings of the woodland residents.

I can see the rich green carpeted ground is divided by a series of well walked tracks, the nightly wanderings of badger searching out the rich pickings of the forest floor. Badgers, being short squat barrels, bulldoze through the foliage and create a path that is used by foxes, hares and mice and these tracks are easy to spot. There is a commotion up above me on the slope, I can see small birds darting in and out of the tangle of brambles and hazel, they are alarming like crazy and I know something is there. Then I spot it, the forlorn looking tawny owl fledgling, head swivelling to try and see from which side the barrage of abuse is coming from. Although almost all its feathers are through I can see some wispy fluff poking out and its tail is on the stubby side giving away its young age. Probably best if it hunkers down where it is, the other birds will eventually tire and move off.   

Further on I see birds darting and flitting in the canopy busy collecting nesting material or for others like our great and blue tits bringing food back to nests. It is hard to see the birds now as the leaves have matured into their full size, the dead look of winter trees now transformed into verdant glory. The smell of wild cherry is thick in the air. I can hear the sibilant call of the treecreeper and there they are seemingly flowing around the thick trunks of oak and ash. Another bird that always catches the eye is the pied flycatcher. You can’t miss the flash of black and white as it hawks insects from branches, such a treat to see and Naddle Forest is full of them. Nationally the pied flycatcher has declined by an estimated 53% since 1995 but here in Haweswater the mature trees of Naddle have plenty of holes for them to nest in.

Others are harder to find and I rely on my ears. The rich yellow and white of the wood warbler make it an easily identifiable warbler but spotting them in the dappled sunlight of the canopy is not so easy. Garden warbler are even harder, they like tall trees and they blend in so well with the background, luckily both have songs that are easy to pick out so you know they are there even if you can’t see them. And then there is the cuckoo, everywhere you walk at Haweswater right now you can hear the cuckoo. This is yet another bird that is in catastrophic decline in the UK but still well represented at Haweswater.

I disturb a roe deer buck, his bark a surprising noise amongst the bird song. He shoots off nimbly up the slope and into the refuge of thicker trees. The velvet is no longer covering his antlers and with its loss they seem somehow skinny. Yet another sign of the seasonal movement of nature, roe deer lose their antlers in early winter, the re-growth covered in velvet makes them look much thicker than they really are.

 Now I am being scalded by a little ginger thing, the red squirrel is letting me know that I am not welcome, stamping his feet and chattering at me. There is probably a dray nearby with young in. After admiring his beautiful soft red fur for a moment I move off and leave him in peace.

I know I am infinitely lucky to have this forest on my doorstep even more so during the current crisis and it never fails to show me something special. Taking time to move slowly through these secretive forests will reveal all manner of treats if you keep your senses open. Ancient woodlands should be celebrated for all their glory big and small and for the wildlife they conceal.

Lucy