Life in the trees and down on the forest floor can be tough, but thanks to some very special adaptations a group of amazing animals thrive in our forests.
Evolution is at the root of all life on earth, driving animals to change and adapt in order to survive. Nowhere is this truer than in the forest, where the phrase ‘survival of the fittest’ has never been more appropriate. It is a bat eat moth world out there, but after countless millennia of evolution, nine UK species have become particularly adapted to forest life.
The goshawk is one of the UK’s most elusive birds, yet it's anything but shy and retiring. These raptors are heat-seeking missiles armed with a lethal arsenal of adaptations.
Goshawks launch themselves through holes in the overgrowth by tucking up and thrusting their feet forward. They fold up their wings to sail through gaps in the trees, opening out their tail like a third wing in order to maintain lift. They close their nictitating membranes (semi-transparent second eyelids) to protect their eyes from thorns – all at lightning speed. With this extraordinary agility, goshawks are true conifer specialists.
2. Pine marten
The pine marten’s habitat is, unfortunately, what makes this pretty mammal so rare. It favours well-wooded areas, but due to habitat fragmentation, is now mostly confined to the Scottish highlands. Where they are able to live their forest adaptations ensure they do extremely well.
Powerful retractable claws mean they are excellent climbers: scaling trees in order to satisfy their varied diet and make their dens. They also have flexible ankle joints, meaning that, unlike cats, they can race back down trees as well as up them, in pursuit of prey.
Treecreepers are a particular favourite of mine: scuttling up tree trunks like chubby mice. They are perfectly adapted for their life in the forest, with strong feet and long, curved claws. These come in handy when searching for insects in the crevices of tree bark, which they probe with a delicately curved bill while maintaining their balance with their stiff tail.
It is also thought that the bill and claw length of treecreepers can vary according to the seasons; making the most of different conditions and maximising foraging opportunities.
4. Stag beetle
What an animal! Those huge mandibles are certainly impressive, but funnily enough, aren’t actually what makes the stag beetle such a forest specialist. That is all down to their larvae.
Stag beetles spend anywhere from three to seven years in their larval stage, buried underground and surviving on that woodland speciality: rotten wood. Adults survive for a mere few months, using up their fat reserves, but will also drink tree sap and eat fallen fruit.
5. Red squirrel
It is no secret that red squirrels are specially adapted for woodland survival. Their long tail and sharp claws help them scale towering trees and leap from branch to branch while, like pine martens, their flexible ankles afford amazing manoeuvrability. However, red squirrels have an additional adaptation.
With four toes on their front paws but five at the back, these beautiful mammals have extra leverage when they are up in the trees.
6. Wild boar
Once extinct in the UK, wild boar are now thriving in some UK forests. Their strong snouts are perfectly adapted to rooting through woodland soil, while their wiry brown hair helps them blend in among the trees. Boarlets are even striped like humbugs for extra camouflage.
The adaptation that makes wild boar most successful, however, is their incredibly varied diet. They will dine on virtually anything found in the forest, including worms, beetles, bird eggs, nuts, berries, carrion, roots and tubers.
7. Purple emperor butterfly
The purple emperor is possibly the most elusive animal in the UK. It spends the bulk of its life up above the canopy, fluttering around broadleaved trees in search of aphid honeydew and tree sap. But like most woodland creatures, this isn’t their sole foodstuff.
Purple emperor butterflies have, shall we say, exotic tastes. They will descend from their lofty kingdom above the oaks to feed on animal droppings, carrion and urine. They can’t get enough of the salts contained in this unconventional butterfly food: an essential part of their diet.
8. Brown long-eared bat
Unlike many of the bat species that pluck prey from mid-air, brown long-eared bats prefer foraging in deciduous woodland. They fly slowly by the vegetation, snatching moths and other insects from their perches, and have even been known to take spiders from their webs. It is all thanks to those incredible ears.
Brown long-eared bats have exceptionally sensitive hearing, which combined with their quiet form of echolocation, makes them lethal to their prey.
9. Woodlouse spider
Small but perfectly formed, the business end of a woodlouse spider makes it a formidable forest predator. They may only be around 3cm long at the most, but these little spiders come with impressive mandibles. Their prey? Woodlice, of course!
They patrol their woodland habitat, hunting for woodlice underneath logs and stones. Their powerful fangs come into play when they go in for the kill: piercing the louse’s tough exoskeleton with ease.
Can’t wait to get out into the forest and see how many of these animals you can spot?