During December conservation work is going on in the woodlands of the Site because at this time of year the work is less damaging to the plants and animals living there, many of which are hibernating or dormant. Hazel is coppiced on an 8-15 year cycle as it has been for hundreds of years. The wood harvested was a very valuable resource used by local people for fencing, hedge-laying, fuel, furniture and the making of utensils. Darwin remarked soon after moving to Down House.
There are large tracts of woodland, cut down about once every 10 years; some of these enclosures seem to be very ancient.
John Lubbock also wrote about the coppicing cycle as follows:
"When the copse is first cut there is a wonderful outburst of wild woodflowers, anemones, primroses, cowslips, bluebells, stitchwort, bugle, yellow archangel, woodspurge and many others. Attached to this phase are many butterflies, moths and other insects, but there is not yet enough corn for birds, or shelter for their nests. They begin to increase about their third year of the cycle. The flowers become taller, and are less numerous, still the Copse is at the height of its interest and beauty. Nightingales, blackcaps, titmice, willow wrens and other warblers find convenient nesting places. Year by year the beech and hazel and ash shoots grow longer, the sunlight is more and more excluded and gives place to a soft gloom. The flowers become fewer, paler and weedier; the small birds draw off to the edges of the wood … Then come the woodcutters and the cycle begins again." Lubbock, MS note.
Female holly bushes should be bright with berries this month. Holly is common in the Site, though it tends not to grow well in areas with chalky soils because it is unable to absorb sufficient iron. Darwin studied it here and wrote in The Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection,
"Some holly-trees bear only male flowers, which have four stamens producing a rather small quantity of pollen, and a rudimentary pistil; other holly-trees bear only female flowers; these have a full-sized pistil, and four stamens with shrivelled anthers, in which not a grain of pollen can be detected. Having found a female tree exactly sixty yards from a male tree, I put the stigmas of twenty flowers, taken from different branches, under the microscope, and on all, without exception, there were a few pollen-grains, and on some a profusion. As the wind had set for several days from the female to the male tree, the pollen could not thus have been carried. The weather had been cold and boisterous and therefore not favourable to bees, nevertheless every female flower which I examined had been effectually fertilised by the bees, which had flown from tree to tree in search of nectar."
In answer to some correspondents who had noticed a scarcity of holly berries in the winter of 1876/7 he wrote in the Gardener’s Chronicle to suggest,
"we cannot decorate our Christmas hearths with the scarlet berries of the Holly, because bees were rare during the spring."
Darwin also studied mistletoe and wrote in the introduction to the Origin of Species how important he felt it was to try to understand by what means plants such as mistletoe could have become adapted to survive. The life history of mistletoe is so complicated because, as a semi-parasite, this plant relies on its host (often apple trees, sometimes lime, hawthorn or poplar) for water and mineral salts, relies on birds to disperse its seeds and has flowers with separate sexes on separate plants and therefore needs insects to pollinate it.
With the loss of apple orchards, in the past common in the Site, mistletoe can no longer be found here, but some was planted February 2006. Meanwhile if anyone knows of mistletoe growing within or near the proposed Site, please enter your information on the 'Record Your Sightings' page or contact: email@example.com (01689 862 815).
In the winter feed the birds regularly if you can and leave them some clean water. Different birds eat different things so try to put out a range of foods from seeds and nuts to apple cores and fat, all of which can be hung up.