Photo of Mervyn Knox Browne

Dead Wood

When my close friend Mervyn Knox Browne of South Loch Tayside was nearing the end of his long life, on a visit, I asked him how he was doing. Incapacitated by the vagaries of old age, he replied, ‘I am useless, just deadwood.’ It upset me to hear this from a man who had left his mark inspiring dozens of people, young and old, and whose 95 years had made a successful difference. He was a revered community member as well as a good deal further afield, and he had achieved so much more than he realised.

Feeling useless is sadly something that afflicts many older people. Mervyn had stridden effortlessly over Scotland’s highest hills on the roughest and steepest terrain for most of his life while gathering sheep or merely for pure joy. He knew the Gaelic names of all of them and their meanings. Now he was largely housebound. I sat beside him and took his work-worn hand, noticing the raised veins – a latticework like exposed tree roots on a bank, mapping his life, and then I replied.

‘Deadwood. Deadwood, both standing and recumbent, is vital to the sylvan ecosystem. It sustains life from the smallest micro-organisms to a vast range of invertebrates, plants, fungi, mammals, birds, amphibians and reptiles – a diversity of hidden and seen species. It feeds the soil and provides a rich larder for insectivorous species, wood-boring beetles, and saproxylic insects, and places for them to lay their eggs, hibernate, and hide. It provides a nursery, shelter, and nest sites. And that wealth of insect life provides food for all these species. As a true countryman, you know the importance of deadwood. In the past, you have told me this yourself.’ He looked at me, nodded and smiled. Then I added, ‘though you may feel useless, your stories, wealth of knowledge and understanding of the weather, the phases of the moon, and the work you have done in your lifetime recording the seasonal changes, the arrivals of migrants – the swallow, the cuckoo, and the first frogspawn are all game-changing. For example, you have an encyclopaedic knowledge of the ways of the curlew and why it’s in decline, the mountain hare, the red deer – and what of your hill farming wisdom? All of this continues to nurture us. We come into your warm kitchen to visit. Time stands still as we sit beside you, talking. We learn, we feel calm, and our lives are enriched, and nurtured. So yes, if you want to think of it that way, you are deadwood, but isn’t that wonderful?’ And we both laughed.

Deadwood. In the corner of our wild garden, I created a log pile. It’s in a place where there is dappled shade to suit a range of species, and things began to happen in an astonishingly short timeframe. Previously the logs were destined for our fire, but now instead, they have created a flourishing wildlife community – a micro-community, proof of that conversation with Mervyn, who passed away at the end of 2022. It makes me think of him while studying the fascinating lives spawned and attracted by the softly decaying logs. It’s only approximately four feet wide by three feet high, and beneath there are a few randomly placed stones and my starter kit of leaves and bark chippings; most of the wood is touching the ground. Over the past months, when the light is right, and the sun touches the area, I set up my small wildlife hide, wait, and watch with my camera. The rewards are immense.

Not long after I constructed the heap, honeysuckle began to sprawl over it and its delicate scent attracted a host of pollinators. Vibrant emerald moss and grey-green lichens colonised the wood, and within weeks, a robin and wren prospected crevices for nest sites. The robin was the first to deem it an excellent place to rear a brood. Fabulous fungi appeared.  Turkey tail with its palette of bronze, gold, fawn, and burnt umber, and the creamy edges of these outer fruiting bodies are transforming the logs. On warm days, a toad emerges, for the log pile provides a perfect dank, dark place to live. A common lizard basks on a lavish cushion of moss. So much to photograph, and all in my garden. I could chase the big species, the species everyone wants to see, but here is a small world that provides me with daily intrigue I have previously overlooked.

Spotted woodpeckers drill into the wood extricating grubs and larvae, creating a network of holes that, in turn, are colonised by new invertebrates. I sit in silence as birds, including nuthatch, blackbird, robin and various members of the tit family, jostle with one another, dropping pieces of nut and seed. A movement below draws my attention as a little face with eyes as black as the brambles it loves to eat pops out from a mossy bower, and then rushes back in. It’s a bank vole, a species found in woodland, hedgerow and garden. It soon re-emerges. Cautious, it peeps out several times. The life of a vole is woefully short. It might last for eighteen months if lucky, but that would be good innings. Slightly larger than a field vole and more confiding, it isn’t easy to differentiate the two species, particularly if you don’t see both simultaneously. A heap of empty hazel shells with perfectly nibbled holes bears witness to the small mammals relishing the caches buried by the red squirrels.

In spring, tawny owls often hoot through the daytime as well as at night. Voles, at the bottom of the food chain, provide a valuable source of food for them, birds of prey, foxes, badgers, pine martens, stoats and weasels. With its fast metabolism and constant need to feed, the vole listens intently and then swiftly nibbles at an apple. It doesn’t seem to register that the owl calls very close by spell doom. Then, three robins attack one another with their typical pugilistic behaviour, and the vole vanishes.

With sharper, more pointed faces, longer high set ears, and even swifter movements than the speedy vole, it’s easy to recognise a wood mouse. In the countryside, most of the mice we encounter are wood mice, also confusing referred to as long-tailed field mice. A new arrival smells the apple. I can see two huge ears sticking up from the moss, then resurfacing closer to the prize, whiskers, dark beady eyes and those big ears. I laugh out loud. It vanishes and reappears in a new place. I see its long tail as it waits for silence before sticking its head out again. Never still, never relaxed, like the vole, the life of this most widespread rodent is short too, but then wood mice can produce litters of 4-7 young and, when a food source is abundant, may successfully raise half a dozen litters a year. And when I consider that the offspring are sexually mature soon after weaning and produce similar amounts, that is a plentiful supply of mice. 

Photographing small mammals proves challenging. Often the results are poor; they move randomly and rapidly. Their endearing little faces may appear from out of any of the labyrinths and tunnels naturally created by the wood. It is all part of the intrigue. I lure them into specific places but note they are always wary, never relaxed, and vanish in seconds. There are ladybirds, wasps, dor beetles and comma butterflies, scurrying shrews, and, in summer, spotted flycatchers, for there is usually a buzzing halo of small flies and other succulent insects for them to feast on. Dead wood – it’s part of the vital circle of life. A robin perches above and sends forth a cascade of delicate song. I think of this as a requiem to dead wood and to a dear old friend, who, like my log pile, enriched life. 

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