Durham University Botanic Gardens in February

Another month into the new year and there are many more signs of spring in the Botanical Gardens.  I’m fortunate to visit in the lull between storms Dudley and Eunice on a cold, bright, blustery morning but there is plenty of evidence of the damage caused by storm Arwan before Christmas and Corrie and Malik last month.  Maybe the saddest casualty is the large oak near the alpine garden, which developed a crack across its based after storm Arwan and was felled altogether by Corrie and Malik.  Maybe I’ve been watching too much Green Planet but it looks to me like the giant insect sculptures in the garden are dragging it away to their nest! 

It’s a sad and worrying impact of our changing climate that some eight million trees were estimated to have fallen in this winter’s storms, before Dudley and Eunice struck last week. However devastating this is for individual trees and the wildlife they harbour in natural woodland, George Anderson of the Woodland Trust argues that, in some places, gaps left by the storm will speed up plans to replace species like Sitka spruce with oak, rowan, Scots pine and birch and create new plantations full of native species.  Old-style forestry commission plantations of a single species of conifer, all around the same age, and height, are particularly vulnerable to storm damage, knocking one another over like dominoes. A December walk through our local plantation turned out to be more of a scramble over and around fallen trees.

Fallen conifers on Bowburn pit heap plantation, Dec 2021

Fallen trees can enhance biodiversity because the extra light available allows younger trees to grow up fairly quickly and plug gaps in the canopy. At the lovely Tentsmuir Forest in north-east Fife, the plan is to replant with a mixture of bushes, rowan trees, oak and Scots pine rather than just pine. This will have the dual benefit of offering may more habitats for other organisms and meaning that, should one tree fall, it is less likely to take all its neighbours with it. In addition, if the urge to tidy up every fallen tree can be resisted, dead wood left on the ground will provide a habitat and food for fungi and a wide range of invertebrates, birds and bats for many years.

Back to the gardens, where much of the grassland is now carpeted with naturalised snowdrops and spring snowflakes and the daffodil buds are filling out. Arum and Trillium leaves are pushing their way through in damp, shady parts of the woodland garden and the first Winter aconites and dwarf irises are showing, though they are not prepared to open in today’s intermittent sunshine.

Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, and Winter aconite, Eranthis hyemalis

More trees and shrubs are in flower now too – Californian redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, has tiny pollen-bearing cones at the tip of each branch and shrubs such as Viburnum, Daphne and Mahonia are sending out their scents to attract early insect pollinators.  All are important sources of pollen and nectar for any early flying Honeybees and Bumblebees, when there is little else available. Honeybees only fly at this time of year if they are in desperate need of nectar or pollen because the queen has started egg-laying, so early-flowering shrubs can be vital for a hive’s survival.

Clockwise from top left: Flowers on Californian redwood, Sequoia sempervirens, Daphne odorata, Mahonia and Viburnum bodnantense.

There is the lovely feeling abroad that spring is just around the corner and, even on a chilly morning, the birds are singing loudly.  There are plenty of birds in the trees and on feeders around the re-opened bird hide; a jay and a nuthatch, as well as the usual blue tits, coal tits, chaffinches and blackbirds.  However the stars of the show are a pair of squabbling, very fat grey squirrels monopolising two of the feeders.  A braver-than-average blackbird tried to scare away the squirrel on the feeding table by flapping its wings at the thief, but without success.

I know I am not supposed to like grey squirrels but their entertaining double act is hard to ignore!


  1. Excellent blog!!
    This would be a delightful link for the Friends’ website and Mike would have loved it.Thankyou.

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