Monday, 9 February 2015

Hug a Tree - Winter Tree ID skills workshop with Cumbria Wildlife Trust

Trees are awesome. I have loved trees for a long time and been truly awe inspired by some of the massive and ancient trees I have seen both in the UK and abroad. I have been known to hug trees and I spent a lot of my childhood hiding in my den made in a holly tree in the woods behind my house. I was fortunate to grow up with an apple orchard out the back and so learnt to climb and fall out of trees at a young age. In more recent years I have studied temperature differences below huge oak trees for my Open University studies and I have pored over books explaining the intricacies of subjects such as photosynthesis, succession and senesence. 

You can't beat sunlight through the trees in summer - Peak District

The forest in winter - Whinlatter, Cumbria
Having said all of that I think my tree ID skills are okay in the spring and summer when there are leaves to aid identification but not great so in winter when there are no leaves (or very few) to guide you. So when I saw that Cumbria Wildlife Trust was running a workshop on winter ID skills at Brown Robin reserve I signed up to go along.

The workshop was run by Tony Saunders, the honorary reserve manager at Brown Robin and a man who knows a lot about trees! Tony runs his own coppicing courses and workshops and had a lot of tips and info on trees. We mainly looked at twigs, bark and buds and Tony explained the differences between these on various trees and pointed out clues to help with identification. The first tree we looked at was a sycamore. It had a smooth bark which was greyish in colour. Being an old tree the buds were way up high and so I haven't got a pic of them!

Sycamore - Brown Robin Reserve
The next tree was a witch elm, which wasn't meant to be included in the workshop but ended up being mentioned! I think I could easily confuse this with Ash as the bark looks quite similar. However elms do tend to be smaller and the best way to check an ash is by its very obvious buds which Tony pointed out and which will be explained later!
Witch Elm - Brown Robin Reserve
Then we moved on to one of my favourites - the hazel. I guess I find this one quite easy to identify as it has many shoots branching out just above its roots. The other giveaway is the bright yellow catkins and unfortunately I can't remember much about the buds - one to look up later on!
Hazel with its many shoots and branches - Brown Robin Reserve
Hazel catkins - Brown Robin Reserve
Hazel shoots - Brown Robin Reserve
Next we stopped and had a look at an ash which also has greyish bark, but what I picked up on was the indentations in the bark, the way the lines run. When you compare this with the elm above there is a subtle difference in the pattern. And then as I mentioned above the absolute giveaway is the buds which are black. Easy peesy.......if you can reach the buds!

Ash tree bark - Brown Robin Reserve
Buds of an ash tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Below is the Rowan, the bark of which has quite a distinct pattern. It is grey and smooth but has these little horizontal indentations. Tony had some folklore on this one and told us that it was believed that if you ever get stuck in a fairy ring it is the rowan that you will get you out. So there you go - don't leave home without some Rowan just in case!

Rowan bark - Brown Robin Reserve
Rowan Tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Tony told us about the two common type of birch trees, downy birch and silver birch, with the branches on the downy growing up and on the silver growing down! The easiest way to spot a birch is to look for the silver bark. There are some quite old gnarly trees in this woodland but if you look close enough you can see the silver colour. There was also some dead birch trees - 'standing dead wood' which had some amazing horse hoof fungus on it. it was amazing and shows some of the benefits of dead wood providing a home for other species.
Silver Birch - Brown Robin Reserve
Horse hoof fungus on dead standing wood - Brown Robin Reserve
Loads of horse hoof fungus - Brown Robin Reserve
Next it was on to a coppiced area. Coppicing is where trees and shrubs are cut right back to create a clearing. This allows the growth of species that in the past would have found it hard to compete against the trees for sunlight. It also allows strong regrowth from the shoots of the shrubs that have been cut back. As Tony said it's pretty exciting in spring as you see what appears from beneath the leaves. 

Coppiced area - Brown Robin Reserve
Piles of coppiced wood - Brown Robin Reserve
Next it was on to the classic oak tree. Now I know that there are different species of oak but we were sticking with the basics today so we just concentrated on the clues that indicate an oak is an oak! The bark I find quite easy to recognise as it is very broken op and well gnarly! The buds are quite small and if you look out for an oak apple they are a little round ball that is a real clue. The other indicator Tony pointed out - in winter if you have a look amongst the leaf litter there are likely to be leaves of the tree below it and for an oak there are likely to still be some acorns around. Lots of clues for this one!

Oak tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Oak apple and buds - Brown Robin Reserve
And then it was on to a beautiful tree that I am not that familiar with - the hornbeam. The leaves are similar to a beech but are much more jagged at the edges. However if there are no leaves around it is down to bark and buds again! And the bark is easy to recognise on a mature tree but not so much on a young tree. I think the bark of a mature hornbeam is beautiful, I love the wavy striations. The buds on the hornbeam when compared to the beech are much smaller than those of the beech. The beech buds are shown later on...

Hornbeam tree- Brown Robin Reserve
Hornbeam bark - Brown Robin Reserve
Hornbeam - Brown Robin Reserve
We also had a look at a spindle and I can't really say much more about this apart from it is...spindly!! Tony told us how this was a very popular wood in the past for making spindles. And on reading a bit more about the spindle tree on The Woodland Trust website I discovered it was also used for making pegs, knitting needles, skewers and toothpicks. Pretty useful tree then! Tony also mentioned that it is used for making artist's charcoal and it is a pretty good quality one that is produced.

Spindle Tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Spindle Tree - Brown Robin Reserve
And so it was on to the classic beech tree, again easy to identify if there are still some dead leaves hanging on! The bark is quite smooth and the buds are very long and torpedo like. The other clue is there are likely to be beech masts on the woodland floor beneath the tree. They are the prickly husks that are pictured below.

Beech Tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Beech Tree Bud - Brown Robin Reserve
Big old Beech tree - Brown Robin Reserve
Beech Masts - Brown Robin Reserve
Big old gnarly tree - Brown Robin Reserve
The other interesting fact that Tony pointed out was the orange lichen growing on both on a sycamore three and an ash tree. The lichen was bright orange but it only grows on the north side of the trees and so a great indicator of which way north is if you are ever lost in the woods!
North facing orange lichen - Brown Robin Reserve
North facing orange lichen on ash tree - Brown Robin Reserve
The real treat of the day was the cherry tree. We had one of these in our garden as a child and they are great trees with a very distinctive bark. The markings are horizontal lines. On the reserve there is a beautiful big cherry tree together with a hornbeam. They are picture below are really complement each other. I can't wait to go back in spring and see these trees!
Cherry bark - Brown Robin Reserve
Cherry and Hornbeam trees - Brown Robin Reserve
And then after a stop at the little 'wee log cabin' for a tinkle and then back down to Tony's workshop for a cuppa and a little test of newly leaned skills on some buds and bark around the charcoal kiln. Tony runs workshops and has a group called 'Spooniversity of Grange' where people meet to make spoons, mugs, bows and other items out of wood. I will definitely be going along to this. I couldn't believe my luck to have stumbled on this opportunity. I have been looking into starting to do some whittling for a little while now but couldn't find a left handed crook knife. However, Tony pointed me in the direction of some and I am going to join the spooniversity club!

Woodworking area
The new tarp erected yesterday - great for a brew area
The ghillie kettle bubbling away
The charcoal kiln
This one is self explanatory!
I came away from this day feeling totally inspired to go out and learn more about trees and to get better at identifying them. I would recommend Tony to anyone for his knowledge and enthusiasm for trees and working with wood. If you are interested have a look at Tony's website ynotcoppice for more info.
.....and so in the afternoon I took my dog out for a walk and practised some of my new skills. I was mainly however surrounded by oaks but I had fun looking more closely at the bark, hunting for acorns and inspecting some oak apples. Trees truly are fascinating.

Acorn cups under an old oak at Low Fell
Oak apple on an old oak tree at Low Fell
Big gnarly bark of a big old oak tree at Low Fell
Interesting trunk of a holly tree - Low Fell
The one other tree I did see was a beautiful holly tree. Of course this was easy to identify from its leaves but I loved the bark and the twisted trunks of this tree. Pretty cool!

What an amazing and inspiring day and I would like to mention two other things that have I have been thinking about whilst wandering in the woods and that is things I have read in books recently. I would highly recommend both of these books as a great read. The first is a piece I read in "My Outdoor Life" by Ray Mears, where good old Mr Mears states that when you want to learn about something you should start slowly and simply and then add layers to it. 

This is something I totally agree with. I love learning and can immerse myself in a subject but it so true with anything in nature that you have to start slowly and build up. I did this with wildflowers - I started with the common wildflowers and learnt to identify them and then I now go out and look for more unusual ones. The same method will be applied to winter trees!

The other is in a book "The Nature Book" by Marianne Taylor, where she writes that there is so much to learn about nature that you can never know it all, but the more you delve into it the more you want to know. And I will leave you with that thought......


Taylor M., (2009) Michael O'Mara Books Ltd "The Nature Book"
Mears, R., (2013) Hodder & Stoughton Ltd "My Outdoor Life" (Accessed 9 February 2015)

Also have a look at Tony's website for green wood courses - the link is highlighted above to go straight to his page: 

or visit him on Facebook:


  1. Really informative post on trees and great photos, as always. Am very much enjoying following your blog :)

  2. Thanks Lisa - I'm glad you're enjoying it!