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How an elm tree that died decades ago is still giving life today
I have an enormous old tree stump that I hoisted many years ago into the branches of a sycamore tree outside my living room window in the hope of attracting owls to nest in it. Over the years it has been home to barn owls, kestrels and tawny owls. And I have painted them again and again perched at its gnarled entrance.
Then this month a surveillance camera I have trained onto the stump captured a total of seven different species visiting over the course of a week. I watched transfixed as my recording played back a tawny owl, a pair of kestrels, a barn owl, a blue tit and a tree creeper, which climbed steadily up, and then down, the stump, combing the rutted surface of the bark for insects. These were just the bird species. The camera also caught a stoat and a squirrel climbing awkwardly, one back leg stiffly following the other, through the hole.
This week is National Tree Week, which marks the start of the winter tree planting season. But I would like to extend this national celebration of trees to encompass dead trees. The symbiotic relationship between the wildlife species sustained by my decaying tree stump is fascinating. The owls living inside it cough up pellets made up of the undigested skeleton and fur of the voles that they eat. Clothes’ moths then lay their eggs inside these pellets, and when the larvae emerge they feed on the fibres of vole fur. The larvae then crawl up the sides of the inside of the tree hollow, pupating in the crevices, where they then become fodder for tree creepers, blue and great tits. As they decay these pellets also attract flies, which in turn attract spiders that also attract small birds.
I found this old stump one cold winter nine years ago. It is elm and I loved the furrowed silver colour of the bleached bark. I decided it would make an excellent backdrop to my paintings. With the help of a friend I brought it back to my workshop. I spent most of that Christmas holiday turning the jagged stump into a nest box for owls. It was a huge piece of wood, measuring 5ft high and 5ft across. I trimmed the top and bottom off so that I could put a roof and a floor on. But it was still too big to manoeuvre so I also sliced it down the middle, like an Easter egg, before attempting to hoist it into the fork of a sycamore. I had already built a platform for it to rest on and I used a pulley attached to my car to winch it up into place. My wife drove the car slowly backwards whilst I stood on a ladder guiding it up. I put the two halves back together once it was up. The following year a pair of tawny owls nested in it and it has been used year after year by different owl species. The elm stump has gone on to feature as a backdrop in a number of my paintings, like this one of a tawny chick perched at the entrance to the hollow.
Latterly I have installed cameras inside it so that I could watch the chicks as they hatched. This year eight barn owl chicks were raised there and watching them via the video link to the cameras has been absolutely incredible. Watch the video below to see how they all huddled together inside the spacious elm hollow. Don’t miss the amusing way they twitch every now and then, some of them tumbling to sleep, others following insects as they buzz about the nest – isn’t it incredible how they twist their necks 180 degrees?
It has been so fascinating to watch so much life thriving after the death of this old elm. Elm trees once dominated the English landscape. But they have been all but obliterated by Dutch Elm Disease. Considered one of the most serious tree diseases in the world, Dutch Elm has killed 60 million British elms in two epidemics and continues to spread today. Elm is a very hard wood and it has taken years for the affected trees to decay. In fact many elms stood long after they were pronounced dead. As they did so, their trunks continued to be a feature of the landscape like skeletons, their bark slowly peeling away and the bare wood beneath bleaching in the sun.
They have also gone on to support wildlife long after their deaths. On the farm in Givendale where I grew up, I remember one particular elm with a large hollow burr on it. A pair of little owls returned there year after year to raise brood after brood. Another dying elm I knew of was home to a pair of barn owls and the roots of yet another became home to a stoat family.
Now my elm stump, nine years after I found it and took it home to use as a backdrop for my paintings, and possibly decades after it actually died, is still giving life. The painting below also features this fabulous old elm. In this painting I decided to include as much of the elm bark in the composition as possible. I think it really gives you the sensation you get when you spot a barn owl perched in a tree in the wild and your eye has to pick out the buff-colour of the barn owl from the background.
Of course nearly all our tree species support wildlife. Ash trees, which are especially prevalent here on the Yorkshire Wolds where the soil is rich in chalk soil is rich in lime, have hollow trunks that provide safe nest sites for little owls, tawny owls and barn owls. I have spent so many happy evenings watching little owls flying in and out of ash hollows. These birds are a delight to watch. They return to the same hollow year after year.
Ash is one of the last trees to come into leaf and during spring the woodland floor is carpeted with blue bells and red campion. You only need to stand still in an ash wood for half an hour during spring and summer and you will see so much. Both green and spotted woodpeckers tend to choose ash. And there’s nothing quite as magical as spotting their chicks peeking out from their nest holes in June. Tree creepers also like to nest under the peeling bark of old ash trees. And robins, redstarts and so many other birds also use these graceful trees to raise their broods in.
I often use fallen trees or driftwood as props for my paintings and I now have a number of nest boxes fashioned in much the same way as my elm stump nest box and wired up with surveillance cameras. The photographs below were taken in a nest box made from a fallen sycamore. They would look good in a painting don’t you think? And the painting below features a piece of salvaged driftwood.
Author: Robert E Fuller