Getting better acquainted with winter trees during lockdown walks

Hazel catkins

Hazel catkins - Credit: Sheila Meades

Like many people I’ve been doing quite a bit of walking recently, around town and the valley; probably more than I normally would in winter. 
To add an extra level of interest to my walks I’ve started to work on my winter tree identification skills. Not that I had many to start with! Paying close attention to stark, leafless trees wasn’t something that had occurred to me until I was encouraged to give it a go.

The main things to consider are the overall shape of the tree and the bark, twigs and buds. The fallen autumn leaves of some trees, such as beech and sweet chestnut, take a long time to decompose and often provide a tell-tale sign on the ground.
I started with the easier ones, the most common deciduous species including beech. There are plenty of beech trees on the hills around Sidmouth so it’s easy to stop and have a close look. The most noticeable thing is the smooth grey bark which is often very tall, climbing towards the sky and finishing with a big, open canopy. The twigs are thin and a reddish-brown colour and the buds are long and slender and point outwards, away from the twig.

A bare oak tree in winter

A bare oak tree in winter - Credit: Sheila Meades

Mature oaks, another common species, are often large, majestic-looking trees, even in winter. They have a rounded top and broad canopy and lots of small twigs and branches making them appear ‘busy’ when you look up into them. The buds along the twigs are a rusty-brown colour and they cluster together at the twig tips.
I’ve found The Byes to be a great place to practice tree spotting. Not far from the toll house there’s an old horse chestnut tree with its distinctive large, brown sticky buds. Close by there’s a sweet chestnut with deeply grooved, slightly twisting bark which is a distinctive feature of these trees as they mature. Very helpfully, Sidmouth Arboretum has labelled these and many other trees around town so there’s often a ready answer if I get stuck or want confirmation of my thinking.

Horse Chestnut Buds

Horse Chestnut Buds - Credit: Sheila Meades

The location of a tree can also provide an identification clue. In The Byes, by the bridge above Gilchrist Field, there’s a beautiful alder tree, which looks like it’s bending down to take a drink. Alders love to have their feet in water and this tree is no exception. It also offers other clues, particularly the small, woody, brown cones of the female catkins, which stay on the tree all year round, and the male catkins which are short and purply-brown in winter.

If you’re interested in and curious about nature I can really recommend getting better acquainted with winter trees. But you’d better hurry, spring is just around the corner and before too long we’ll be distracted by leaves and blossom. One tree that provides an early sign of spring is the hazel, usually seen growing as a small shrub in hedgerows. Most are now covered in the familiar, cheerful, yellow male catkins, but see if you can spot some female flowers too. Unlike the males, they are very tiny and delicate, measuring only a few millimetres across and are a deep pinky-red colour.

To help with my new hobby I bought a photographic guide from the Field Studies Council called Winter Trees which I’ve found very useful. There are plenty of resources online too including the Woodland Trust website.
Do get in touch with us at and share your tree identification stories. We also have a new Instagram account - @sidvalleybiodiversity – so check us out!

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