Dead wood is dead good

November 2, 2023

Panshanger Park is 1,000 acres of countryside situated between Welwyn Garden City and Hertford. Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust is working with the park’s owners, Tarmac, to manage the park for both people and wildlife.

Autumn has well and truly arrived despite this year’s late summer heat, with signs of this at the park. The leaves on the trees are showing that greeny-brown hue, and fruiting fungus, most commonly-recognised in the form of a mushroom, can be seen poking through the leaf litter on the ground. 

In September, Panshanger Park had some exciting news to share in the form of the importance of the site for saproxylic beetles – beetle species which rely on dead or dying wood. The recent survey was undertaken to help inform Panshanger Park’s new management plan which covers all aspects of the park. Dead wood was not overlooked as part of this and for good reason! 

There are about 650 species of beetle in the UK that can be found in dead wood habitats. In the survey at Panshanger Park, two species were recorded that had never been found in Hertfordshire before, with one of these only having been recorded at four other sites in the British Isles. 

One of the more well-known species that is found at Panshanger Park is the lesser stag beetle (dorcus parallelipipedus). This beetle isn’t quite as showy as its cousin the greater stag beetle but is still great to observe. It is fairly common and is quite large at up to 3cm in length. Lesser stag beetles, along with many other species, rely heavily on dead wood for their larval stage, as the larvae both live in it and feed on it.

Lesser stag beetle ©Josh Kubale

Dead wood can sometimes be regarded as unsightly or messy, and often more formal parklands or estates will ‘tidy’ it up. However, this microhabitat is fantastic for a variety of invertebrates, like ants and spiders. At Panshanger Park, any dead or dying wood is left in situ, providing it is safe to do so – for example, it’s not left overhanging a public path – for natural habitat creation. Next time you’re on a walk around the park, keep an eye out for these striking looking habitats. Chances are that even though the tree might look dead on the outside, it will be host to a hive of activity within the wood itself. 

If you’re inspired by dead wood as a habitat, then perhaps you could introduce some into your garden. A small pile of loose branches, logs and sticks in a shady corner can be a great way to offer this habitat. Not only do invertebrates such as beetles, woodlice and millipedes appreciate this source of food and shelter, but newts, frogs and toads may choose to reside in these sheltered spots throughout winter. 

For more information on the independent survey of saproxylic coleoptera beetles conducted at Panshanger Park, visit: 

Jo Whitaker is the people and wildlife officer at Panshanger Park. She works for Herts and Middlesex Wildlife Trust and her role is funded by Tarmac.

Main picture of the veteran oak tree at Panshanger Park ©Tim Hill