Oct 26 2020

Autumnal working woodlands

While we may be enjoying watching the progress of the autumnal colours at Fingle, for centuries this time of year would have been a busy round of foraging, as well as gathering the food and wood that would have helped people, livestock and wildlife make it through the winter.

Have autumn events changed?

Last year most of the autumn events monitored by Nature’s Calendar* were in line or slightly later than the 2007 benchmark year. Elder and rowan were the earliest trees to show leaf tinting on 20 September while pedunculate oak started on 6 October and sessile oak on 5 October. The appearance of full leaf tinting followed the same pattern; elder on 14 October and rowan on 17 October, while the oaks didn’t reach full tinting until early November.  Fingle has really started to look and feel autumnal over the last week, so it’s a great time to come and enjoy watching the changing colours


Autumn canopy                                                      Autumnal colours at Fingle                                Autumn leaves on the River Teign

Another key autumn event – leaf fall was also close to the benchmark year. All the trees apart from the pedunculate oak started to lose their leaves in October, but the records didn’t give an overall trend. Ash, beech and elder were slightly earlier, hawthorn, hazel, field maple and sycamore were the same as the benchmark year, while the others were slightly later.

Falling leaves

Leaves can die and fall at any time from disease, drought or too much water, but the autumn leaf drop, is linked to the levels of the hormone, auxin. While the leaves were growing in the spring, a layer of cells was being formed in the abscission layer between the stem and the leaf stalk. Throughout the growing season the levels of auxin in the leaf and the tree have been in balance, but now that the temperature has lowered the hormone level has started to drop, causing the cells in the abscission layer to elongate. As the cells lengthen they create fractures that separate the leaf stalk from the stem without leaving an open wound, and either the weight of the leaf, or the wind will make them fall off, or be blown away.


Autumnal leaves reflected in the river                          Autumn’s leaf carpet


Nutty foods

Acorns and beech mast are a great food source, and traditional pannage rights allowed people to let their pigs roam through woods to feed on these high energy nuts. Mentioned in the Domesday Book, pannage was a traditional Dartmoor practice and one that the tenants of the church owned Coleridge and St Thomas Cleve woods would have followed. The local manorial records for Doccombe and Moreton state that for an annual fee, tenants’ pigs could forage in the woods between the feasts of St Michael and All Souls.

Foraging pigs
Photo credit: StockSnap from Pixabay

Acorns continued to be a valuable food source, and local children were still being given time off school to collect them for their local parish pigs up until the 1870’s. The practice was revived during the Second World War and in 1942 the County Garden Produce Committee organised the collection of acorns and beech mast for local livestock.

Conkers and cordite

Collecting conkers (Photo credit: WTML/Michael Heffernan)

Acorns and beech mast weren’t the only nuts to have contributed to war time efforts. In 1917, children were asked to collect conkers, as their starch was being used to produce acetone, a key component in the manufacture of cordite and explosives. Over 3,300 tons of conkers were collected, though many never made it to the factories at Holton Heath in Dorset or Kings Lynn and were left rotting at local railway stations. While the difficulties of shelling the nuts made this a short-lived venture, conkers have also been used as a Victorian flour, a soap ingredient, a great game and a possible spider or moth deterrent.

Fungi the wood-wide web

Often linked to taboos, evil spirits, and decay, fungi are an essential part of a healthy woodland, and their fruiting bodies can be seen on trees and dead wood, as well as on the woodland floor and under hedgerows. But these fleshy spore-bearing mushrooms are just the tip of an underground network of fine feeding strands. Penetrating deep into the ground, this web collects nutrients and phosphates that are passed into the tree roots in exchange for sugars in a mutually beneficial mycorrhizal relationship.

Beech trees gain all their minerals from fungi like the beechwood sickeners, while oaks are linked to the oakbug milkcap, and fly agaric forms relationships with birch, pine, and spruce.


Mushrooms in Halls Cleave Photo credit: Tom and Li-Li                     Fly agaric                      Some of the fungi visible in Fingle at the moment…    Photo credit: Alice Cockerton

ou can find out more about the wide range of edible mushrooms in the October foraging guide.

Closer to home

Be on the lookout for inebriated insects on over ripe and fallen fruit because the ethanol in the fermented fruit has the same effect on them as it does on us. From bees with wobbly flight paths, to angry wasps who may be more likely to sting and butterflies who are so mellow they don’t move when you get near them, they can all get ‘drunk’ on nature’s alcohol.


By Jane Halliday, pictures by Paul Moody unless individually credited


*Nature’s Calendar is a citizen science project run by the Woodland Trust and the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology to study phenology (the impact of seasonal changes in plants and animals).



Bill Hardiman: Fingle Woods – an illustrated historical outline







For more info please visit https://finglewoods.org.uk/


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