Wildlife

Chilterns woodlands are alive with wildlife! Explore a typical wood through the seasons to find out what’s about. Listen to birds singing and watch badgers and deer going about their daily lives. You can even get a bird’s eye view of a red kite’s nest. There’s also information about places to go in the Chilterns where you might see some of this wildlife for real.

Visit the various seasons: Spring | Summer | Autumn | Winter

Magnifying glass iconClick on any of the magnifying glass symbols on the woodland pictures below to find out more information.

Spring

The woodland is coming back to life after the long winter. Trees come into leaf over the course of a few weeks. The leaves of cherry and field maple appear earliest in the season, followed later by beech, oak and ash. This is the time to look for woodland flowers. Bluebells are at their best in late April / early May depending on how mild the weather has been. Other flowers like primroses and wood sorrel flower before this. The birds and animals in the wood are preparing to breed.

Woodlands in Spring Red Kite Blackcap Cherry Blossom Woodpecker Orange Tip Butterfly Bluebell

Red kite / Gerry WhitlowRed Kite

Red kites build large nests in mature trees and rear between one and four young. They can often be heard calling to their young. They are birds of prey and although they can kill small animals like rats and mice, they prefer to feed on carrion (often from animals killed on the roads) and also on earthworms and beetles. They have a wingspan of 1.5 – 1.8m and were re-introduced to the Chilterns in the early 1990s. There are now over 300 pairs.

 

 

Listen to a Red Kite calling:

 

See footage of a Red Kite nest:

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Blackcap

Blackcap / Phil FarrerThe blackcap is one of a number of migrant birds that come to the woods to breed in spring. Although the male has a black cap, the female has a red cap! On spring mornings, these and many other birds sing loudly to mark their territories and attract a mate. The dawn chorus is a real sign of spring, and with a trained ear, it’s possible to make out the many different songs. Some birds need large areas of young trees to provide the right conditions for them to feed and breed. As a result of the woods becoming older and more shaded, species such as nightingales are becoming rare.

Listen to a Blackcap singing:

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Cherry in blossom / Chilterns Conservation BoardCherry Blossom

Cherry blossoms in April – insects pollinate the flowers and later in summer the cherries ripen. You often find hoards of cherry stones in the bases of trees which are left after mice and voles have eaten the fruit. Cherry trees are easy to recognise by their red / brown bark that peels in horizontal bands. The wood of the cherry is used to make fine furniture.
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Woodpecker

Great spotted woodpecker / Paul YoungGreen woodpecker / Phil Farrer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 The great spotted woodpecker is the most common woodpecker of the Chiltern woods. It is 22-24cm long, black and white, with a bright red patch under the tail. It pecks at trees to find beetle grubs for food and drums to find a mate. Trees that have died, but are still standing provide ideal nesting sites for woodpeckers. Two other species of woodpecker can be found in the Chilterns. The green woodpecker is more likely to be seen on the ground as it likes eating ants. The lesser spotted woodpecker is a black and white sparrow sized bird that is rarely seen.

Listen to a Great Spotted Woodpecker drumming:

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Orange tip butterfly / Allen BeecheyOrange Tip Butterfly

The orange tip is a butterfly of the spring, flying from April to June. Only the males have orange tips to their wings. Females lay orange eggs singly on plants such as hedge garlic and cuckoo flower. The caterpillars are the same green colour as the seed pods they feed on so are well camouflaged. The caterpillars fight for food so often only one is found on each plant. Butterflies need the sun’s heat to be able to fly so you will only see them on warm spring days.
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Bluebell

English bluebell / Natural England, Tina StallardBluebells carpet some ancient woods where the soil is deep and moist. They do not grow on thin chalk soils of the steeper hillsides. The flowers develop from bulbs each year. The heavy black seeds of bluebells drop to the ground close to the parent plant and take several years to develop into flowering plants. They are very good at forming patches in suitable conditions but spread relatively slowly. Native English bluebells are bright blue, only have flowers on one side of the stem and have a strong scent. The non-native Spanish bluebells are paler, have flowers on both sides of the stem, and have less scent. Sometimes you may find crosses between the two species.
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Summer

Beech trees cast a dark shade in summer, so few plants are able to grow under mature beech which gives this type of woodland its unique feel. The bare ground is covered in fallen leaves from the year before, plus mosses and ferns and a few other shade-loving plants. It is cooler in the woods, so it is a good place to visit in the heat of the summer. The woods often seem quiet at this time of year as birds are now feeding young and no longer noisily defending their territories.

Woodlands in Summer Tawny Owl Speckled Wood Butterfly Stag Beetle Badger Foxgloves Chaffinch Bats

Tawny owl / Ian McGuireTawny Owl

Tawny owls live in woods and are mainly nocturnal. They can be heard calling at night either with a shrill ‘kewick’ or hooting with a distinctive ‘twit-twoo’ which is actually a duet between the male and the female. The plumage is chestnut brown, with grey, brown and black streaks. The face is round with deep-set black eyes. Tawny owls are the largest common owl in the UK, with a wingspan of around 1m. They weigh between 400g and 600g. Males and females bond for life. They nest in tree holes or in old crow’s nests, laying two to four eggs in late March or early April. The chicks leave the nest in June. They feed on small birds and mammals such as voles and mice which they locate by sound.

Listen to a Tawny Owl calling:

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Bats

Bats / Melvin GreyNoctule bats are one of Britain’s largest bats, with a body length of 6-8cm and a wingspan of 32 – 45cm. The females are larger than the males. They emerge early on summer evenings from holes in trees, and may fly some distance, possibly miles, to feed on moths, beetles and other large flying insects. They fly fast and high above the ground. They hunt and avoid obstacles using echo-location. They mate between August and October, then, after hibernating for the winter, females move to nursery roosts in May and give birth to a single pup in July. The young can fly after four weeks and are independent after five to seven weeks. They are quite noisy and their calls can betray their roosts.
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Chaffinch / Sue WardChaffinch

The chaffinch with its metallic ‘pink pink’ call is one of the commonest birds in woodland. It has a distinctive song too, ending in a loud trill. It feeds on seeds, insects and fruit and is attracted to open glades in the wood to find food. In summer male chaffinches look particularly striking in their breeding plumage with grey heads and pink chests.

Listen to a Chaffinch singing:

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Speckled Wood Butterfly

Speckled wood butterfly / Chilterns Conservation BoardWoodland butterflies such as the speckled wood, thrive in sunny glades within the wood. They can often be seen competing for patches of sunlight. The caterpillars feed on grasses, but adults feed on honeydew produced by aphids. As well as butterflies, many more species of moth are found, some feeding on trees such as oaks in their caterpillar stages. The adult moths fly at night to find a mate and lay eggs on suitable vegetation.
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Badgers / Phil FarrerBadger

Badgers are now numerous in woods in the Chilterns and often come out at dusk in mid summer. They measure around 65-80cm from nose to tail and weigh 8-12kg (about the size of a corgi dog). They are easy to recognise with their black and white striped heads and stocky, silver / grey bodies. Badgers live in family groups (clans) of up to 12 individuals. They live in underground tunnels and chambers known as setts, which can be used for many generations. Nesting material (grass and bracken) is often brought out of the sett during the day to air in the sunshine. They have a wide-ranging diet including slugs, earthworms, seeds, berries and even rodents, birds and eggs. Honey from bees’ nests is a favourite.

See footage of Badgers outside their sett:

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Foxgloves

Foxgloves / John MorrisThe foxglove is a woodland flower that thrives once the ground has been disturbed and light allowed through by tree felling. Its seeds can last for many years in the soil until light levels are suitable. It flowers between June and September in its second year and can grow to 1.5m high. The name ‘foxglove’ is a corruption of the phrase ‘folk’s glove’ because fairy folk were said to wear the flowers as gloves. The whole plant is poisonous; however the drug Digitalis is extracted from it and used to treat heart problems.
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Stag beetle / Stephen DaltonStag Beetle

Stag beetles occur in Chilterns woodlands, but are quite rare. The males use their 5cm antler-like jaws to fight rivals. Beetles are one of many invertebrate animals that feed on the soil and rotting vegetation. They are an important part of the food chain. Badgers feed on beetles, earthworms, slugs and snails. Other smaller organisms, like mites and springtails are very important at breaking down leaves and recycling nutrients in their droppings, they become food for centipedes and beetles, which may themselves become food for birds.
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Autumn

The autumn colours seem to be getting later in the year, and are now often at their best from late October through November. Use the interactive map to find Chiltern woods which are great to visit in the autumn.

The colours are often stronger after hot dry summers. You can identify different trees by their autumn colours: beech turns bronze, hornbeam goes yellow then brown, field maple yellow, wild cherry red. It is also the time for most of the trees and shrubs to produce their fruits – which adds to the colour and provides food for many animals in advance of the winter.

Woodlands in Autumn Fungi Fox Squirrel Jay Muntjac Beech Mast

Beech tree / John MorrisBeech Mast

Beech trees produce lots of seed, known as mast, which is held inside a small woody, bristled husk. In October the husks split apart and four lobes peel back to reveal a pair of three-sided nuts. The mast is produced every five or six years, and these are known as mast years when each tree will produce thousands of nuts. In the years in between very little seed will be produced. This is a useful reproductive strategy for trees as it means that all the animals that like to eat the mast are kept at fairly low numbers so that more seeds germinate.

Wood pigeons, mice and voles all like to eat the mast, as do many insects, so if the same amount of seed was produced each year it would be easier for these animals to feed on all the mast. Oak trees follow the same strategy when producing their acorns. The level of seed production for both trees depends in part on the success of the flowering season earlier in the year. Both beech and oak are wind pollinated and this causes hay fever in some people.
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Squirrel

Squirrel / Phil FarrerGrey squirrels were introduced from North America and have become a pest over the last 50 years. They damage many trees including beech, oak, birch and maples. The male squirrels strip off pieces of bark and eat the living tissues of the tree, which then causes the area above damage to become brittle. If ‘ring barked’ the top dies back to the damaged area. Grey squirrel bark stripping damage mainly occurs in June and July when sugary sap is flowing down to roots, but you often don’t see the brown dead tops of birch and sycamore until late summer and early autumn.

Grey squirrels live up to nine years and feed on nuts, acorns, flowers, tree shoots, cereals and roots. They bury surplus food 2-5cm below the ground or in tree hollows. They live in trees in a compact spherical nest (drey) made of sticks and lined with grass and leaves.
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Fox / Phil FarrerFox

These red dog-like animals have bushy tail with a white tip known as a brush. Foxes are great scavengers and are omnivorous, eating fruit and carrion, but they also hunt rabbits. They have a very characteristic musty smell which you often notice when out for a walk in the woods. They live in holes known as dens or earths. The females known as vixens have a loud scream call in the mating season. The young are known as cubs.

Listen to a Fox barking:

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Fungi

Fungi / Anita ParryRotting logs are often covered in fungi in autumn. Fungi help to decompose wood and recycle its nutrients back in to the soil. Many fungi also help trees to feed on nutrients in the soil. Only a few types attack living trees. They are a vital part of the woodland.
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Jay / Phil FarrerJay

Jays are colourful members of the crow family. They help spread oak trees by collecting acorns and burying them in the grass. They retrieve some for food later but many start to grow. Some jays come here from Scandinavia in autumn to add to our native population.

 

Listen to a Jay screeching:

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Muntjac

Muntjac / Phil FarrerMuntjac deer are native to China and south east Asia, but have escaped into the Chilterns from parks around stately homes such as Woburn in the 1920’s. They are now widespread across the area and like eating colourful flowering plants including roses, bluebells and rare orchids. They are small deer, measuring 45-52cm at the shoulder (about the same height as a springer spaniel). Males have small (15cm) backward-pointing antlers, and both sexes have tusks, which are actually extended upper canine teeth. Unlike many other species of deer, muntjacs are solitary, but small groups may sometimes gather at feeding areas. They can sometimes be heard barking like a dog. They have red brown coats in summer but become darker brown in winter.

See footage of a Muntjac eating a mushroom:

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Winter

Broadleaved trees like beech and oak lose their leaves for the winter. This is a good time of year to see the shapes and forms of the trees. Even without leaves it’s possible to identify trees just from their bark, twigs, buds and general shape. The animals in the wood have different ways of coping through the winter months. Some, like bats, dormice and hedgehogs go into hibernation, while others, like squirrels, use stores of nuts they’ve collected through the autumn. Birds often struggle to find enough food. Winter is also a good time to look at the lumps and bumps from past activities such as quarrying, sawpits and boundary banks, as the vegetation has died down.

Woodlands in Winter Buzzard Robin Holly Fallow Deer Pheasant

Buzzard / Gerry WhitlowBuzzard

Buzzards have increased across the area in recent years. They kill rabbits, young pheasants and other small animals, and will also scavenge on carrion. They have a wingspan of up to 1.25m and have broad, rounded wings that make a V shape when soaring. They have a stocky build and a short, rounded tail. Buzzards can often be seen flying with groups of red kites. Surprisingly, they are generally quite tolerant of each other.

Listen to a Buzzard calling:

See footage of a Buzzard feeding young in the nest:

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Robin

Robin / Phil FarrerAlthough robins are generally associated with winter, they can be seen in Chilterns woods all year round. They are about 12 – 14cm long and adults have a distinctive red chest. They feed on insects, snails and worms and breed in hollow stumps or crevices which they defend fiercely. The robin’s slightly mournful song is a distinctive sound of winter.

Listen to a Robin singing:

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Holly / John MorrisHolly

Holly is increasing in many woods in the Chilterns. This is thought to be a sign of a warmer climate as holly is sensitive to frosts. It is easy to recognise with its tough, spiky leaves, which it keeps all year round, and it is spread by birds eating its red berries. Holly has separate sexes, and berries only occur on female bushes. These plants need to be in open sunny positions such as hedges, for the fruits to develop. Holly has very pale wood, which is used to make inlays for fine furniture.
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Fallow Deer

Fallow deer / John MorrisFallow deer can be seen in Chilterns woods in medium sized herds, sometimes over 50 animals. They stand about 85-95cm at the shoulder and only the bucks (males) have antlers, which in mature animals have broad, flattened tips. The bucks and does (females) with young tend to stay apart, except during the rutting season in October. They like to eat the shoots of young trees, which can cause the trees to die. This can be a big problem and deer numbers need to be controlled. Without control, numbers of deer could double over the next five years. Deer are active at dawn and dusk and are often involved in collisions with road traffic.

See footage of Fallow Deer bucks fighting:

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Pheasant

Male pheasant / Phil FarrerFemale pheasant / Phil FarrerMany pheasants are bred in captivity and released into the wood for shooting. Organised shooting parties take place throughout the winter from October 1st to February 1st. It’s illegal to shoot them at other times of the year or on Sundays. Male pheasants are large (70 – 90cm long) and colourful. Their head is green / black with red sides and the tail is up to 45cm long. Females are slightly smaller and buff brown with dark spots. They also have a long tail. It’s common to hear the males’ loud, hacking call followed by a rapid wing flutter. Pheasants feed on shoots, seeds and insects.

Listen to a male Pheasant calling:

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