The wonders of Hazel
I always think of hazel as the first herald of spring. As I write this in January the hazel catkins are starting to extend. The catkins are the male part of the plant, and are responsible for producing the pollen. Hazel is wind pollinated. Try flicking a catkin on a dry day, and you may see a satisfying cloud of pollen emerge.
Try looking up close at the buds, to see if you can spot the small red female flowers. The tiny petals are vivid scarlet, and I always feel a small thrill when I see them for the first time each year. Hazels are self incompatible, which means the flowers need to receive pollen from a different hazel tree.
Hazel pollen makes a great high protein snack for bees that emerge early in Winter, hungry from their winters hibernation. Try looking out for bees on the catkins on sunny Winter days.
Hazel trees are beneficial to wildlife in many other ways too. The leaves provide food for the caterpillars of a number of moths, which in turn providing food to birds and mammals. In autumn the nuts are a source of food to woodpeckers, nuthatches, tits, wood pigeon, jays and small mammals, including famously dormice. Try looking for the empty hazel cases, and identifying which animal has eaten them, from how the nut was removed.
Humans have had a working relationship with hazel trees for over a thousand years, where Hazel is grown as a coppice crop. Trees are grown closely together, and periodically they are cut back to ground level. This process stimulates new growth, and the cut wood is a good sustainable source of material for various uses. Traditional uses include the wattle in early houses and hurdle fencing. Try looking out for areas of hazel that has been coppiced in the past or present, when you go on woodland walks.
The managing of hazel coppice woodland creates an open, wildflower rich habitat. I have developed an area of hazel coppice on my allotment. As you can see in the image above, in January and February it is transformed with a fabulous carpet of snowdrops, which is later replaced by bluebells.
For me, my hazel coppice provides a valuable source of materials to support my Forest School work. We have made rustic furniture, walking sticks, woodland instruments, magic wands and many many more things. You can see a rustic woodland xylophone below. It is also a valuable source of firewood.
For more detailed information on coppicing I recommend the book: "Coppicing and Coppice crafts, a comprehensive guide" by Rebeccs Oaks and Edwards Mills.