It's almost winter here and in the early morning and late afternoon I can smell the smoke from local wood heaters. I used to have one and, though I loved to watch the wood crackle and glow, it had two negatives for me. Firstly as a health risk, not just from the smoke, I didn't want the soot and tar deposited on the roof to pollute the rainwater we collect and drink. Secondly my increasing understanding of how valuable fallen wood is to the forest and its inhabitants.
Dead and fallen wood works for the bush in several ways:
As fungi break the dead wood down, nutrients are returned to the soil. This keeps the soil healthy and helps the remaining flora grow
An enormous number of insects rely on dead wood as a food source. Things like termites and borers. may not be our favourites but they are an important food source for many birds, reptiles and mammals.
Hollow and fallen logs provide shelter for reptiles, frogs, mammals such as possums, gliders and bats and, of course, let's not forget the birds who use them for nesting. In Australia some 21 bird species are threatened by people collecting fire wood. According to Philip Gibbons and David Lindenmayer in their book, "Tree Hollows and wildlife conservation in Australia" 27 species of amphibians, 79 reptiles, 114 birds and 83 mammals use hollows here.
Typically it takes 120 years before a hollow forms that is useful to any vertebrate fauna and hollows for larger mammals may take up to 220 years. Each tree species varies eg I have quite a few tallowoods on my property and these may not even start forming hollows until they are 170-200 years old. Scribbly gums don't start until they are at least 200 years old. I'm always amazed by people who think that it's OK to cut down our old growth forests because we are planting more than we take down, firstly the latter are rarely planted as nature intended them to be and secondly could you wait that long to regain a home?
So what can you do if you still have a wood heater?
Look for thin pieces of wood, rather than logs that would form hollows if left in the bush.
In Australia huge piles of timber are burnt each year offering no value to anyone and further adding to our CO2 emissions, so if you see someone chopping out a tree, or piling wood up to burn, ask if you can use the wood for your fire.
If you do take wood from your property or elsewhere, leave plenty behind.
If you buy wood, find out where it comes from and if they are considering these aspects when they collect wood to resell.
Start thinking of hollow logs as homes for animals and birds.
Plant more native trees, even though it takes a long time for hollows to form, they will be needed.