Updated: Jul 21, 2020
by Louise Cartwright
'Fagus Sylvatica' otherwise known as beech, an impressive and dominant feature in many woodlands across Pembrokeshire. Truly native to parts of southern England and south east Wales, with some specimens growing to 35 metres. For what it gains in height however, it lacks in longevity. With 150 to 200 years being its maximum age, it's relatively youthful for a deciduous tree. The outstanding feature of Beech, is its great tolerance to shade. It is reputed to be the most tolerant of any British tree except yew (Savill, 2013). Not only are beech shade tolerant but they cast dense shade and produce copious leaf litter. This means that comparatively little grows underneath them and no other tree species can compete.
This being said, there are a select group of specialists which find beech woodlands to their liking. Notably orchids (helleborines) of the genera 'Epipactis' and 'Cephalanthera' which favour the clearings. Also, the 'saprophytic' Birds nest orchid, which derives it's nourishment from dead or decaying matter. Few insects feed on the leaves of beech, a notable exception being the larva of the Lobster Moth. What the beech lacks in insect life however, it gains in the fungal kingdom. Strolling through a beech woodland in Autumn, you may come across the Death Cap, Satan's Bolete, Porcelain Fungus and Artist's Bracket. This motley bunch, being reasonably beech specific. After the flush of fungi in Autumn, our feathered friends move in, with Chaffinches and Bramblings feeding on the brown spiky shells which house the beech nut, otherwise known as beech masts (Sterry 2007).
The 'Unexpected Harvest', for us, is their luminescent spring leaves, which can be made into a 'Noyau' – typically a liqueur made from brandy, flavoured with nut kernels. Beech leaf noyau has the addition of gin and sugar, where the young leaves are steeped in gin for a period of weeks infusing the gin with their tangy flavour.