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Woodpecker in the Ash

This is our ash tree. We have just the one, and it’s become a personal favourite of mine – for lots of reasons, but mostly because of the woodpecker.

It’s an unlikely favourite tree perhaps, because it’s dying. Most of its branches are bare throughout the year now. Occasionally bigger branches fall off it, which causes us to fear that we’ll have to cut some of it down at some point, for safety’s sake, but we’re avoiding that for as long as we can.

Because, though dying, it still has so much life in it – life of its own and life to offer other wildlife who depend on its decaying body for food and habitat.

The woodpecker is my prime example (or woodpeckers plural to be honest, but more often I see one on its own). It’s become quite special to me because on many mornings, as I sit in bed with my coffee, I see it hopping up the bare ash branches, hammering and pecking away at the soft decaying wood and the bugs within. It’s a good distance away, so I can only see it in silhouette, but its movement and shape are unmistakable.

From my window – the bare ash branches towering above the yew. trees.

I’ve never caught a photo of it (always too cosy watching it from my bed to leap out and start photographing). But last year I did this little drawing for a birthday card for Brian (pretty dodgy art I know, but you get the idea). This is how my woodpecker friend appears to me in the mornings. The red is imagined – as I said, I only see it in silhouette. It could even be a green woodpecker as we have them too here, but the greater spotted is more frequent, so I’ve always assumed the bright red flashy suit would be there if my eyes could see it.

And serendipitously, one just came to visit the bird feeder, right outside my window while I’m writing…

Happily, they’re one species that has actually thrived in the UK in the last few decades, unlike so much other wildlife. According to the Woodland Trust their numbers have increased by 300% since the 1970’s. So good to hear a wildlife success story amongst the prevailing trend of declining biodiversity!

Despite these numbers, unless you happen to live in a rural spot like this, seeing one is a pretty rare treat, and having lived all my life until now in built up areas, I find a sighting of one absolutely thrilling – they’re so big, and so stunningly dramatic in their red, white and black feathers. I’m a big fan!

So, anyway, having so often enjoyed the gift of witnessing one, busy at its work, while I lie in my bed, I feel very personally connected, both with the woodpecker, and with the ash tree. It’s given me an appreciation of the dying ash – thank you Ash, for your gift of Woodpecker.

The same goes for all the dead and dying wood around here – it’s so alive and bountiful. At first, we had a tendency to think dead and fallen branches should be tidied away, but these days we like to leave them on the land and see what happens…moss grows, weeds take root, beetles bury, fungi sprout…

Is it ash dieback?

Writing this today, I’ve been reminded of the question we asked a tree surgeon neighbour of ours a few years ago – is it dying of ash dieback? He thought not, and pointed to the rotting base, thinking it was probably due to water logged roots (the tree is only a few metres from the pond) – see the picture below. Still, looking up ash dieback information now, and discovering that we are predicted to lose 80% (or more in some forecasts) of our ash trees, I feel all the more fond of ours – ageing, but still alive – and not diseased. Perhaps we need to plant some more – maybe a grove of them! An old song is coming into my mind from the long distant past…The ash grove, the ash grove……Did I sing that at school I wonder?

The foot of our ash tree

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