Wildlife: Who are nature’s bark strippers?

Bark stripping  Phil Green
Bark stripping Phil Green

Observations of nature in a particular area are always informative. Phil Green of Dronfield is a regular reader of my column in the Sheffield Telegraph. He also maintains ‘a few acres of land’ in the Beauchief Hall Conservation Area and came up with an interesting observation and a question.

‘I wonder if you could shed any light on a new phenomenon I have observed this summer. Of the many species of tree that I look after on the land the bark has been significantly stripped on just two and these are both young cricket bat willows.

Do you think it has to be squirrels?

I can only imagine it is the work of squirrels but in thirty odd years of grounds maintenance it is not something I have ever observed before.’ This is an interesting observation bearing in mind the extreme dry weather we have experienced this summer. Phil went on to ask, ‘Do you think it has to be squirrels and could it be related to the long dry spell we are experiencing which is clearly having a significant impact on native flora and fauna (my garden is also infested with pollen beetles for the first time ever)?’

My response to the question was basically ‘I think you got it in one - grey squirrels - and yes, I guess linked to the long hot, dry weather’.

I wondered if it was the moisture in the bark and sapwood that they were after; or else, maybe there was a chemical change in the tree brought on by drought-stress that makes the bark more palatable. Maybe the bark is sweeter because of the drought-stress. I would be interested to know if anyone else has seen anything similar. Grazing and browsing animals such as deer and livestock will strip tree bark and so will both Rabbits and Brown Hares.

Favoured trees species are ones like Sycamore that have sugaring sap and also, as young trees, soft, smooth bark. However, the observation did make me wonder whether any other readers might have seen anything similar.

If you have, then do let me know and if possible send in a photograph.

Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues