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A new ‘forest’ I planted is now a haven for woodland wildlife.

12 years ago wildlife artist Robert E Fuller planted a small copse to encourage the wildlife he paints. Now the tiny ‘forest’ is home to owls, foxes, hawks & badgers and the inspiration behind a new exhibition of paintings of woodland wildlife.

 

I’ve loved walking through woods ever since I was a child. You can’t beat the beauty of ash woodland in spring. These magnificent trees are one of the last to get their leaves and the sun shining through allows a vivid flurry of flowers to burst into life beneath them, offering carpets of bluebells, anemones and red campion in turn.

wooland wildlife, pheasant in bluebells by artist Robert E Fuller
Woodland wildlife, Pheasants in Bluebells, by artist Robert E Fuller. Shop for more like this
Woodland wildlife: fox painting by Robert E Fuller
Woodland Wildlife: Briar Fox, limited edition print by Robert E Fuller. Buy Now

So I was heartened to hear about the government’s plan earlier this year to contribute £5.7 million towards a ‘Northern Forest’. The proposed forest is to be managed by the Woodland Trust and will involve planting 50 million trees along 120 miles of land that stretches from Liverpool to Hull, with the M62 as its spine. The project aims to turn cities such as Manchester, Leeds, Sheffield and Hull green. I think it’s a fantastic idea. Trees, woods and forests provide a lifeline to a myriad of wildlife. New pockets of woodland like this will provide essential habitat for so much wildlife since the connected corridors of trees will allow many existing species to also thrive.

Inspiration for a new exhibition of paintings of woodland wildlife

The concept has inspired me to paint a new collection of originals featuring woodland wildlife. These go on show at my gallery in a new exhibition entitled ‘Wild Woods’ next Saturday (June 16). Click here to find out more about the event.

As a wildlife artist I spend much of my time watching animals in woodland. I have spent many a happy evening hunkered down beside huge sycamores on the Yorkshire Wolds watching badgers emerge from their setts. I’ve also watched red squirrels scampering through plantations of larch in the Yorkshire Dales and studied pine martens emerging from stands of ancient oak in Scotland too.

woodland wildlife, badgers by artist Robert E Fuller
Woodland wildlife: Badgers at Twilight, art print by Robert E Fuller. Buy Now.
woodland wildlife pine marten by artist Robert E Fuller
Woodland wildlife: Pine marten art print by Robert E Fuller. Buy Now.

But my favourite woodland has got to be my own ‘wood’. I planted this one-acre belt copse in 2006. It grows around an arc across the top of my garden, high on the Yorkshire Wolds, and includes larch, scotts pine, evergreen oak, holly, mountain ash, blackthorn, hawthorn, spindle, crab apple, beech and ash trees to name a few.

Planting copse to encourage woodland wildlife

It took me some time to draw up a planting plan of different species and where to locate them before I ordered 1,200 trees and enough mixed hedging to stretch around the 400 metres boundary of my property. My home and gallery in Thixendale is exposed to strong winds and I hoped the trees would provide a wind break as well as a wildlife haven. It took two weeks in January to dibble in the tiny saplings and encase them in their protective tree guards. I was slightly underwhelmed by my efforts when the planting was done – I was impatient for these tiny twigs to grow. I nicknamed it ‘Fotherdale Forest’, although at just one acre it can hardly be described as that. Fourteen years later it is, however, a wildlife haven.

planting a woodland for wildlife
Planting 1,200 sapling to create a ‘fringe’ of woodland above my home and gallery
planting a wood for wildlife
‘Fotherdale Forest’ is now a haven for wildlife

Now my ‘forest’ is a haven for woodland wildlife like owls, foxes, badgers and deer

I have bullfinches and goldfinches nesting here, as well as a number of different species of warblers like whitethroats, chiff chaff and black cap. I’ve even got roosting tawny and barn owls. And these are just the birds. There are also stoats, weasels, hedgehogs and I’ve even seen roe deer, foxes and badgers passing through. With such an abundance of bird life, however, the predators follow. Just last month, I was walking to my workshop when I heard the continuous loud chinking of a blackbird. I followed the sound into the wood. I was expecting to see a roosting tawny owl, since blackbirds usually object noisily to their presence.

But as I walked along the grassy path I noticed a handful of red-legged partridge feathers on the ground. This wasn’t the work of a tawny owl. As I bent down to pick a few up I heard an explosion of wings. A female sparrowhawk broke cover, flying off the ground from under a dense blackthorn. I went to investigate and found a partially eaten partridge. There was still plenty of meat on the bird. Hawks will nearly always keep returning to a kill until it is finished so I ran back to my workshop and gathered up some cable ties. I then tied the partridge down onto a blackthorn sucker.

Among the woodland wildlife is a magnificent sparrowhawk

Once the plucking has been done and the first meal devoured, hawks have a habit of moving the remainder of the kill and stashing it somewhere safe. But I didn’t want the sparrowhawk to move this one until I had some surveillance cameras set up on the kill. I went to a chest freezer where I keep any road kill I come across precisely for moments like this. I had a bag full of partridges which meant I could continually replace the kill and keep the hawk feeding in the wood for days. Sparrowhawks usually like to feed from their own kill and are difficult to bait. But my plan was to trick the sparrowhawk into returning again and again, as if it had an everlasting partridge.

plant a wood for wildlife
Sparrowhawk feeding on a partridge carcass
planting a wood for wildlife
Beady-eyed sparrowhawk

The following day I removed what was left of the partridge and put out a new one from my stash of road kill. Then I waited for the hawk to feed. By mid-afternoon I heard the birds in the wood calling out loudly in alarm. I waited a further hour for all the calls to subside before I went in to investigate. The sparrowhawk had clearly been, because the partridge carcass had been half eaten.

Since she now had a full crop, I knew I would have the time I needed to set up my cameras. I began by laying 100 metres of cable through the undergrowth, forcing myself through brush so dense a springer spaniel would have refused to go in. I was scratched to bits as I dragged the cable through. But these cameras would relay live images back to my studio to inform me when the sparrowhawk came back to feed, and so I persevered.

Then I rigged another camera back to my workshop where I planned to operate a further two Gopro cameras via remote control. It was an elaborate set up and also involved covering all the cameras in camouflage netting to disguise them. The hawk was back the following day. Her visits were short. I suspected she was starting to lay a clutch of eggs nearby and needed to return to her nest. But they were frequent enough for me to spend a week watching her in this way.

Watching the woodland wildlife on my surveillance cameras

I got some amazing footage. But the cameras also gave me an insight into the secret world of my Fotherdale Forest. Whilst the sparrowhawk was away, I noticed wood mice feeding on the partridge carcass. They were also collecting feathers, presumably for their nests. There was a hilarious moment when a wood mouse tried to pinch a bit of partridge meat whilst the hawk was actually feeding. The hawk looked at it with an expression of utter disbelief. If it could speak I could imagine its expression of disdain as it said: ‘Don’t you know I am an apex predator’.

But the plucky little mouse ignored it until the hawk lashed out with its wing as if to deliver a lethal karate chop and at last the mouse scampered away in a cloud of partridge feathers. But not for long. Despite this initial set back, the brazen wood mouse went on to make several more attempts to feed on the carcass, right under the menacing beak of the sparrowhawk.

The birds in the wood also made use of the kill, collecting the strewn feathers to line their own nests. Then a host of invertebrates came to feed at night on the partridge carcass. Beetles, slugs, flies: these then attracted a toad which became a regular visitor to the site. Even a passing hedgehog couldn’t resist a snack.

I decided to try to get some close-up photographs of the feeding sparrowhawk. I waited until night fall before I approached the feeding site and then lay down under some dense bushes to gauge my vantage point. There were some low branches and vegetation blocking my view so I cleared these and then hung camouflage netting and draped hessian blinds to disguise my planned hiding place. I swept the twigs from the path and carpeted the last four metres for a silent approach. Early the following morning I set up and focused my SLR camera.

Planting a wood for wildlife: sparrowhawk painting by Robert E Fuller
Woodland wildlife: Sparrowhawk, painted by Robert E Fuller

That afternoon the sparrowhawk was back. I crept into position on my belly so I would be at eye level with my subject. I looked down the lens. A piercing yellow eye glared back at me. I nervously pressed the shutter. I didn’t want the sound to scare her away. But there was no reaction from the hawk. I was only nine metres away in the perfect position to get more great shots of this great grey phantom of my Fotherdale Forest.

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1 comment on A new ‘forest’ I planted is now a haven for woodland wildlife.

  1. Thank you for the amazing emails. Having visited you last October I am transported back to your beautiful studio and area. Reading your descriptions and looking at the photographs has given me so much pleasure.

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