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Let us a meander into the mild Mediterranean winter forests where our blogger Ladybird sheds some light on nature’s very own woodland ‘spring clean’.
Illustrations are taken from our recent book Woods and Forests which you have the chance of winning by following our competition details on Facebook or Twitter! You can also order it here or download our fun learning app.
In the Eastern foothills of the Pyrenees it is still a mild 10 or 11 degrees this January morning. The dry leaves crunch and rustle cheerfully beneath my boots: holm oak, sweet chestnut, acacia, and here and there a stray palm frond wrenched from a distant tree by strong winds. It feels like a British Autumn rather than mid winter. The heavy rains have held off. Yet they will come soon enough, torrential, gouging out deep ravines in the slopes, creating cascades of falling, swirling vegetation, rearranging the landscape in minutes. Today, however, the forest floor sports a carpet of leaves, still mostly whole and identifiable. Yet beneath my feet I am aware that the slow process of decomposition is underway, unseen, unheard. This is an age-old process, which is part of the cycle of each year and of life itself. Decomposition is a vital stage in regeneration the world over.
Millions of creatures large and small contribute to the shredding, slicing and dismantling which will slowly turn last year’s dead leaves into compost at this time of year. Transformed into vital nutrients, they are returned to the soil to produce healthy re-growth in the Spring. Some of the larger mammals may be difficult to see but leave their mark, such as the wild boar. In these parts, they plough up large patches of ground with tusk and snout in their hunt for nuts, tubers, roots, grubs and insects. Badgers, fox, deer, squirrels and even woodcock all play their part above ground in this breaking down of existing structures as they hunt for food. Beneath the ground, moles, dormice and voles dig underground lairs and tunnels and aerate the soil.
Less obvious, but far more numerous are the armies of tiny creatures and insects at work. From earthworms, woodlice, maggots, dung beetles, bark beetles, slugs, leatherjackets to the acrobatic springtail, which is no bigger than a pin’s head, these are the decomposers and detritivores – discreetly and relentlessly munching, chewing, devouring. Plants such as fungi and algae also feed on dead leaves, rotting tree stumps and fallen twigs. From these they extract substances crucial to their own proliferation. In so doing they contribute to the overall rotting down and composting which releases into the soil fresh nutrients invaluable to fresh plants and germinating seedlings.
It is good to know as I tramp through the woods, be it in dry or wet conditions, in the months to come, that unobtrusively and silently nature is at work in this myriad of forms all around me.