If you go for walks around the Cotswold Water Park, you will probably have encountered stacks of logs in areas where the CWP Trust Rangers have been removing trees which have become unwanted for various reasons (cutting out too much light from water courses, or wind damage being two examples). These are known in the conservation trade as ‘habitat piles’ and have been left for a reason; they are not piles of free firewood and don’t need removing to tidy up the site! Dead wood is an important piece in the ecosystem jigsaw.
Habitat piles provide much needed homes and food for a vast array of wildlife. Amphibians, reptiles and small mammals will all find shelter and safety in them, fungi will start to grow on them and invertebrates will be present in increasingly large numbers as the wood decomposes. Invertebrate numbers have declined steeply, partly due to the use of insecticides but also because of the recent trend of ‘over-tidying’ the countryside (often in the name of health and safety); so these stacks of wood assist them to flourish on a local level. They are an important part of the food chain; providing meals for many birds, mammals and other wildlife. Piles of brash and smaller branches are sometimes also left for the same purpose, they may not look neat and tidy but over manicured countryside is not natural and supports much lower levels of wildlife.
The removal of wood from the habitat piles is always annoying and often involves a couple of logs being carried away by someone who is just unaware of their purpose; it is easy to look at them and think ‘what a waste’, without appreciating their importance. However, we have experienced cases of whole stacks being loaded onto vehicles and taken! It’s not even good firewood; as we frequently use willow for these piles, which is well known for spitting sparks in all directions.
Sometimes the rangers leave entire felled trees intact on the ground (mimicking natural tree-falls), to gradually rot down and become an important addition to the ecosystem. Almost unbelievably, we have experienced people with chainsaws cutting these up to take them away in the belief that they are in need of a good home. The assumption should always be to ask the landowner first, as many of these piles can play host to legally protected species. And please do remember that land with public access is not necessarily publicly owned land.
Dead wood, both on the ground and standing, is a natural yet sadly declining part of a healthy landscape; we try our best to encourage and support a great diversity of wildlife in the Cotswold Water Park, a more widespread understanding of what a habitat pile is, and achieves, will hopefully lead to more of them remaining in place for the species that need them.