Downy and Silver

Downy birch trees
Downy birch trees joining up areas of willow scrub

The past few weeks have been spent planting up an area of rough, abandoned ground which hasn’t been grazed for the past ten or fifteen years. In some areas, willow scrub has come up in thick clumps above the heather, and the area already seems to be attracting woodcock, roe deer and black grouse. This wet paddock is about seven acres in all, and in order to join up some of these self-sown areas of scrub, I have been trying to connect the dots with downy birch trees.

I had never heard of downy birch until this year. To my simple mind, I had always thought that birch trees were just silver birch trees, so it was a revelation to find a mysterious stranger in my midst. When I first came across downy birch, I imagined that it was a totally different species to silver birch, but in actual fact it seems that they are at two ends of the same spectrum. Downy birch and silver birch can interbreed, so it is probably quite rare to see a pure silver birch without any downy DNA and vice versa.

As it turns out, various regions have their own hybridised races of birch which are made up of varying quantities of silver and downy. Galloway’s birch is most like downy birch, but there are several silver characteristics, and I was pleased to be able to get a few hundred whips of the local birch race from a nursery down by the Solway coast. They have been planted in loose corridors and passageways across the wet, abandoned paddock. There is something quite satisfying about planting new trees in bulk, and although the work is extremely tedious, there is a pleasure in looking out on fresh new tree guards and imagining what the future will hold.

It’s not easy to differentiate between silver birch and downy birch unless you really know what you are looking for, but from what I can gather, a general rule is that downy birch does not have such lightly coloured bark, tends not to grow very tall and does not have the great cascading besoms that you find on silver birch. If you see a mature birch tree with even its finest twigs standing up proudly without sagging or swinging downwards, it’s likely you’re looking at a downy birch. A close examination reveals a fine, gossamer down on the delicate shoots of downy birch (hence “downy”), whereas silver birch tends to be bare (or at least barer). Downy birch also has the attractive ability to thrive in thoroughly wet ground, so no wonder it is suited to life in Galloway.

I suppose that this is perhaps looking in unnecesary detail at what many people describe as a weed, but birch’s ability to feed black grouse and cover woodcock makes it at the top of my list of favourite trees. It also has the exciting tendency to grow at a reasonable pace. I expect that many of the trees I planted this spring will emerge from the tops of their guards by autumn, and they should be up and away in a few years.


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