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Skinny Woods

Back to Hunter's Hall ParkOn to Tall Trees

This is a piece of planted woodland, left over from the days of the large Niddrie House Estate.

A walk through Skinny Woods

Starting from the gateway at the Wisp, there are some new plantings along with some fantastic old trees. There’s a really broad Oak tree, and a poisonous Yew. See if you can spot the Ash tree, with a Yew sapling and Ivy growing out of it! There are also some colourful lichens on this tree (yellow and grey). From here, you can see distinct lines of trees beside the main woodland path through Skinny Woods. The first trees on the right hand side of this path are Common Lime, with Elder and Hawthorn bushes between them. 

There are a lot of trees along this path with Ivy growing on them. Ivy is not a parasite and doesn’t directly kill the trees that it grows on. However, it can get to such a large size that it covers the crown of a tree and shades out the light from the tree’s leaves. This will cause the tree to die, as it cannot get enough sunlight to produce the sugars that it needs to stay alive.

Ivy is extremely important to wildlife in winter. The flowers appear on the parts of the vine that get lots of light and they attract hoverflies and butterflies. These produce some of the last nectar of the year (they can sometimes last until December), which helps the butterflies that remain here in winter to survive until spring. As it is evergreen, it provides cover all through the year – but especially important in the winter, as many butterflies hibernate among its leaves. It is also a favourite nesting site for Wrens and Blackbirds. The berry-like fruits also appear in winter. They are eaten by Redwings and Fieldfares before the birds fly back north to breed in spring.

On the left hand side of the path are Sycamores, with many smaller, suckering Wych Elm trees (this many shoots are sprouting from the base of the trunk), Holly and Elder bushes between them and Yew trees. Around the monkey-bars (away from the path, towards the Wisp), there are Hazel bushes as well. These have many-stemmed trunks and browny-grey bark. In early spring, they produce delicate catkins that dangle from their elegant branches, before the leaves come out. There are many old Scottish beliefs about Hazel - and particularly the nuts it produces. These were seen as the fruit of wisdom, and finding two nuts joined together (St. John’s nut) was a good omen. Hazel wood was used for tool-handles, shepherd’s crooks and shinty sticks. The strong, rot-resistant stems were woven into baskets for farm and lobster creels and house walls.

Hazel used to be used for firewood, fence posts, hedging stakes and small wood for every possible local use. Mice and squirrels like to eat the nuts in autumn and Hazel can also support Shield Bugs.

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Huge Beech tree beside main path through woods

Back to the path, we have the first of some very large Beech trees, planted on either side of the path. Beech trees have smooth grey trunks and small, smooth, oval-shaped leaves. In winter, they have long, pointed golden brown buds. Beech nuts (‘mast’) are produced in the autumn and, in the past, have been dried and ground, to be used as a coffee substitute! Wine and liqueur can be made from the leaves, which can also be eaten in salads when they’re young and fresh. Beech supports around 64 different insect species.

Past the first Beech tree, away from the path and further into the wood, is a small Norway Spruce tree - otherwise known as a Christmas tree. See if you can find it. I wonder whether it will survive here!

Back on the main path again, there’s another Beech tree on the left, with some huge Holly and Elder bushes behind it (towards the Wisp). Behind these is an Elm tree-stump and fallen trunk. Growing on the stump is a white fungus. Dead wood is very important in woodlands, as it provides a habitat for the plants and animals that recycle nutrients. ‘Decomposers’ such as fungi, bacteria and invertebrates (e.g. woodlice (slaters) earthworms, slugs, snails and millipedes) feed on dead wood and leaves and release nutrients back into the soil for other plants to use as they grow. The invertebrates are themselves eaten by small birds and moles, which are then eaten by owls and foxes.

Through the Holly and Elder and the undergrowth of Ivy, Stinging nettles, Brambles and mosses there is a large clearing with Beech and Ash trees in it. There's not many ground plants here, because Beech trees don't let a lot of light through to the ground. But, look out for dead tree trunks around this area, with bracket fungi growing on them (hard fungi, often with stripes of colour).

Back to the path, which turns a corner. At this corner there is a large Sycamore and underneath it, the second channel of the Niddrie Burn disappears underground. From here, this Burn goes through the old Niddrie Collieries, across to Newcraighall, where it separates the City of Edinburgh from Midlothian, then disappears and re-appears just before Wanton Walls. It then goes through the Newhailes Estate, re-joins the other channel of Niddrie Burn (now the Brunstane Burn), and they both reach the sea by Joppa! The remainder of the path we’re following through Skinny Woods follows this channel of the Burn upstream.

The Sycamore here has many mosses growing over the bottom of its trunk. 

And if you’re quiet, you may see small Treecreepers creeping up the trunk of the Sycamore and picking insects out of the bark. 

Common Reed also grows here – which shows the ground is moist.

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Sycamore at corner of path

Through the Holly, with the Burn on the left-hand-side, there are Rowan trees, with Hazel, more Holly and Brambles. There is a huge Beech along here, next to an opening to the playing field. This Beech has been hollowed out by a fire, which was lit at its base. There are many more large Beech trees spaced out along this stretch of wood, some of them also charred by fires.

In the next section there are a lot of Aspen trees. They are distinctive by the diamond-shaped crags in their otherwise smooth bark. These are sometimes called 'Money Trees' because their leaves look like coins, especially in autumn when they are golden. They are also called Trembling or Quivering Aspen because the leaves tremble in the slightest breeze. This happens because the leaf stalks are very flat and flexible. 

There is a section of old, crumbling sandstone wall next to the burn here. It is covered in thick vegetation, but would be a good hiding place for insects.

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Rhododendrons taking over!

Through more Holly and past another burnt Beech, we encounter the beginning of the Rhododendron jungle! These plants are very vigorous and do well in acidic soils. They have beautiful clusters of pink or white flowers in summer, and they create wonderful tangles for exploring and hiding in! However, they are plant monsters! Their canopy is so thick that they create a very heavy shade on the ground, and their roots give off a chemical that stops other plants from growing. 

This means that ground plants don’t stand a chance of growing under them, and because they are not native to Britain (they come from China and the Himalayas), they do not support so many of our insects and other animals. They’re not particularly good for Scottish wildlife, then! They don't let go, once they have a hold on a patch of ground, and they spread rapidly. This means that to prevent plants in the surrounding area from being overtaken, the Rhododendrons need to be cut back over and over again, or uprooted.

This part of the path can be difficult to get through, as there are the rhododendrons on one side and holly on the other. You can get through it - if you're feeling in an Indiana Jones kind of mood!

The jungle ends in a clearing at the other corner of the Skinny Woods. At this corner, you can see the 'No Road' going off over the fields, towards the new hospital.

The hedge that joins Skinny Woods with Greengables’ garden contains Ash and Horse Chestnut. The shrub layer here includes Wych Elm, Holly and Hawthorn. There are a few Yew trees in here as well.  

The birds in this area include: Blackbirds, Robins, Wrens, Great tits, Crows, Gulls, Wood Pigeons and Magpies.

What to look out for and when

Spring Summer Autumn Winter
Catkins on Hazel bushes.

Downward-hanging spikes of green flowers on Sycamore trees

White/pink blossom on Hawthorn bushes

White/pink flowers on Cherry trees

Wood Avens - yellow flowers on long stems

Big, soft, hairy heart-shaped leaves of Lime, and delicate flowers. Wood good for whittling.

Holey leaves of Common Lime – some completely shredded by insects!

Knobbles on leaves, left by various insects (look at Beech, Sycamore and Oak leaves).

Oak/Beech clearing with flowering Meadowsweet (creamy/pink) and Common Rush (brown) beside the burn

Pink flowers on Rhododendron bushes

Himalayan Balsam with white/pink flowers and gorgeous smell.

Bright red, hard Rowan berries by monkey-bars 

Wood Avens – spiky, hooked seed-heads

Red 'arils' on Yews 

Beech leaves glowing copper against the light 

Ivy flowers

Ripe, red Hawthorn berries

Brambles in fruit - blackberries

Small, dark purple, shiny Elder berries in clusters

Small clusters of bright red, shiny Honeysuckle berries draped over vegetation

Bright yellow/red Norway Maple leaves and 'helicopter' seeds

Seed-pods on Rhododendrons

Tiny white flowers on Holly, by Rhododendron jungle

Ivy flowers and berries

Solid Brambles at tips of stalks.

See if you can still find White Deadnettle in flower

Oak apples on Oak trees (made by gall wasp).

Ash trees – no leaves, only brown clumps of ‘keys’. Look a bit like wet dish-cloths! 

Red Holly berries

Rooks in Ash/Beech clearing – Beech leaves carpeting ground.

Bracket fungi on tree-trunks (living and dead)

Listen for birds rustling in leaves

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Go explore for yourself!