Wildlife Column: Hazel catkins light up the hedgerows

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The hazel is one of our first shrubs or trees of the year to burst into flower, the bright yellow catkins lighting up a woodland edge or a lane-side hedgerow.

The long male catkins, pale yellow, and around 5 cm to 12 cm in length, appear in abundance around December and then attain their full glory by about late February. The female catkins are much less showy being very small and largely hidden in the buds; look carefully and the bright-red ‘styles’ are visible but only a few millimetres long. By mid-summer the green hazelnuts begin to appear and by the autumn the ripened nuts will be ready to harvest.

In many ancient woods and along old hedges hazels are important and may be ‘indicators’ of antiquity. Indeed, in times past hazel was economically important too. The hazelnuts were an important harvest and in some parts of the Peak District for example, were carried away in cartloads. Along with nuts, the ‘coppiced’ wood was a significant crop as the stems of about fifteen to twenty years old were cut back to the base or ‘stool’ from which the ‘coppice’ then ‘sprang’ to form new growth. Harvested, the ‘wood’ (as opposed to ‘timber’ from big trees for construction work), was used for fuelwood and making charcoal for local industries.

However, by the 1800s or so, there were problems in many areas including in Sheffield, with local people ‘nutting’ (i.e. gathering hazelnuts illegally) in the woods. In some places this led to landowners deliberately removing the hazels from the woodlands. The rhyme ‘here we go gathering nuts in May’ however may refer to other nefarious activities in the woods around May-day – since there are no hazelnuts to gather at that time. The local youths tended to gather and then head for the woods having consumed large amounts of May-day ale and the results included severe damage to this important resource. Legal accounts tell of the lord of the manor taking ruffians to court to try and quash such behaviour. Their gamekeepers and woodmen no doubt took the law into their own hands!

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