How to… Identify British Tree Species (Part 2)

A holly.tree shining bright with red berries and prickly green leaves in the grey of a wintertime woodland. An ancient evergreen yew standing watch over the final resting place of our ancestors. A colour-changing spindle cream flowered and glossy green in spring, turning to psychedelic pinks and oranges in autumn. Trees come in all shapes and sizes, often differing wildly from each other, but all can be found embedded in the landscape and culture of Britain.

In the last chapter of my How to… Identify British Tree Species guide, I focussed on 10 tree species that can easily be found across the UK, from the majestic oak to the graceful silver birch. These are but a few of the now 80 odd native and non-native species that can be found in the UK. From providing food to flood prevention, from the countryside to the city, trees can be found playing important roles across the country right now.

Following on from my last guide, part 2 covers 10 more tree species that can easily be found across Britain. This handy guide of facts, drawings, and photos is here to help you to identify these species at any time of year. Here’s to learning something new everyday!

Tree Species

Blackthorn (Prunus spinosa)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruiting trees such as cherry and plum
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Large shrub, occasionally small tree, up to 4m, forming impenetrable thickets
  • Stems and Twigs: Young twigs downy, maturing to dark brown bark, that shows orange beneath, with thorns
  • Leaves: Small, oval, alternate, tapering to a point, toothed margins, dull above and hairy beneath
  • Flowers: Flowers are white with 5 petals and red-tipped anthers. Flowers appear late March-April, before the leaves, often alongside cold weather known as Blackthorn winter
  • Seeds: Produces round, blue-black fruit (sloes) with a single seed (stone)
  • Range and Habitat: Grows on the edge of scrub woodlands and in hedgerows

In Winter: Twigs are dark and not shiny, with thorns at least 2cm long

Norway Maple (Acer platanoides)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced in the 17th century from Europe and Asia)
  • Shape and Size: Shorter and more slender tree, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is grey with many small fissures (not flaking), and twigs are slender and brown with tiny white spots
  • Leaves: Thin, light green leaves, opposite and have long pointed lobes
  • Flowers: Erect clusters of pale yellow flowers, before the leaves (April-May)
  • Seeds: Winged keys in opposite pairs
  • Range and Habitat: Increasingly planted and self-sown in parks, gardens, and hedges

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark, and individual buds that are green and red

Holly (Ilex aquifolium)

  • Family: Aquifoliaceae – holly trees
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Narrow-crowned, conical tree with regular branching, reaching up to 20m
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is green when young, becoming smooth and grey with age
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, glossy, spiny teeth, and waxy on top, matt and pale green beneath
  • Flowers: White, 4-petalled and in close clusters, with male and female flowers on separate trees (May-August)
  • Seeds: Red berries with small seeds, only found on female trees
  • Range and Habitat: Can be found everywhere across the British Isles but prefers drier soils

In Winter: Evergreen spiky leaves and red berries, a symbol of Christmas

Dogwood (Cornus sanguinea)

  • Family: Cornaceae – dogwoods
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall and deciduous sending out suckers to form dense thickets (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark grey and smooth with shallow ridges, giving off a fetid smell when bruised, attractive to insects
  • Leaves: Opposite, long, oval, pointed, hairy on both sides, side veins curving forward, and no teeth. Crimson colouring in late autumn
  • Flowers: Greenish-white 4-petalled flowers (June-July)
  • Seeds: Round, bitter, black berries in clusters (sometimes called ‘dogberries’), ripening in August or September
  • Range and Habitat: Frequent in Midlands and South, grows chiefly on chalk soils, but also found in woodlands, scrub and hedges

In Winter: New twigs are bright red

Common Lime (Tilia x europaea)

  • Family: Mallow family – related to trees such as cotton and cacao
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Tall tree with long slender branches that start near the ground (up to 40m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Young bark is smooth and grey, whereas old bark is fissured
  • Leaves: Long and heart-shaped with small teeth and tapering to a point. Dark green and hairless above, whereas undersides are paler with white or buff hairs in the vein junctions
  • Flowers: Greenish-yellow 5-petalled flowers that are sweet smelling (late June-July)
  • Seeds: Encapsulated in small round hanging fruits, hairy, faintly ribbed and with pointed tips
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread in rows or avenues in streets, parks and also hedges

In Winter: Red, hairy twigs and shoots

Elder (Sambucus nigra)

  • Family: Adoxaceae – previously in the honeysuckle family , but now reclassified in moschatel
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Bushy shrub with many stems or growing into a small tree (up to 10m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Light brown bark is thick, corky, fissured, and strong smelling
  • Leaves: Long, dark green, and opposite, with leaflets in pairs, rounded, stalked and with teeth
  • Flowers: Creamy-white, small, and sweetly fragrant in flat-topped clusters with yellow anthers (May-August)
  • Seeds: Produces a juicy, edible, purplish-black berry
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, particularly flourishing where nitrogen content high

In Winter: Pungent, hollow-stemmed twigs and often dotted with light-brown bumps

Hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna)

  • Family: Rose – related to fruit trees such as apricots and apples
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Quick growing, becoming a dense shrub or single stemmed tree (up to 15m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Bark is hairless and greyish-brown, with many small scales and sharp spines
  • Leaves: Alternate, long, toothed, shiny, lobed, and roughly oval-shaped
  • Flowers: Showy white and fragrant (sickly sweet) with 5 petals, and pink or purple anthers (late April-June). Become deep pink as they fade
  • Seeds: Fleshy fruits (haws) turn dark wine-red and contain a single seed
  • Range and Habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, in hedges, scrub or woodland margins

In Winter: Spines emerging alongside buds on the twigs

Beech (Fugus sylvatica)

  • Family: Beech – includes chestnuts and oaks
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Older trees have a massive, many-branched dome, whereas young trees are slimmer and more conical in outline (up to 36m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth grey bark may break into small squares
  • Leaves: Long, wavy margins, alternate, hairy leaf edges, and shiny green on both surfaces
  • Flowers: Young leaves appear with yellow long-stalked male flowers on tassel-like stalks, and greenish white female flowers (May)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed husk are two triangular nutlets (mast)
  • Range and Habitat: Native in woods in the south, but widely planted elsewhere

In Winter: Often hold on to leaves and have sharply-pointed buds

Spindle (Euonymus europaeus)

  • Family: Staff-vine
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Small tree or big bush up to 6m
  • Stems and Twigs: Young, smooth, greenish bark later turns grey
  • Leaves: Light green leaves are opposite, thin, oval-shaped, and pointed, with small finely toothed margins. Turn pinkish-red in autumn
  • Flowers: Small greenish-yellow flowers with 4 narrow petals (May-June)
  • Seeds: Four-lobed seed capsules, which turn a deep pinkish-red when ripe.
  • Range and Habitat: Grows throughout England and Wales, most frequent in the South, but rarer in Scotland and Ireland. Found in woods, scrub, and hedgerows, in particular on lime

In Winter: Buds and twigs are angular with four sides

Yew (Taxus baccata)

  • Family: Yew
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and Size: Round-headed tree with dark foliage, often has many trunks (reaches up to 20m)
  • Stems and Twigs: Smooth, light brown bark flakes to red patches
  • Leaves: Needles dark green on top and matt yellow-green on underside
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers are found on separate trees. Male flower is yellow, and tiny female flower is green (February-April)
  • Seeds: Bright red ripened fruits, much enjoyed by birds, partially encloses a single seed that is poisonous to humans
  • Range and Habitat: Found in woods, scrub, screes, downs and often on lime

In Winter: Evergreen needle-like leaves present all year round

Drawings are my own work

How to… Identify British Tree Species

A majestic oak standing tall in the landscape, watching as centuries pass it by. A silver birch with drooping branches, embellished with leaves, slowly blowing in the breeze. An alder leaning over the edge of a river, spreading its branches to shade the bank beneath it. From capturing the imaginations of children to symbolising strength and life for adults, trees in all their forms are an important part of the landscape and culture within Britain.

With over 70 species in the UK alone, trees come in all shapes and sizes, and can be found anywhere from our highlands to our cities. Trees colonised Britain following the last glaciation, and have since become intertwined with our very own history. They provide us with so much, including resources, such as medicines and building materials, improved air quality, homes for wildlife, and even cultural services, such as therapy through forest bathing. Thus, they are a very important part of our environment!

Now, as our reliance on trees grows and the threats to them increase, it is surprising how little people know about trees in general. For example, the average Brit is unable to name more than five tree species, and a third even believe a money tree is a real species! With two thirds of the public now wanting to learn a little more about the trees in their area, here’s my handy guide to help you identify 10 common tree species that can be found in the UK.

Tree Species

1. Pedunculate or English Oak (Quercus robur)

  • Family: Fagaceae – related to species such as beech and sweet chestnut
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Up to 40m tall, upward-reaching and broad crown
  • Stems and twigs: Massive rugged grey-brown trunk
  • Leaves: 10-12cm long, oblong, and lobed, turning brown in autumn
  • Flowers: On the same tree and flowering April-June. Male flowers= yellow-green catkins; female flowers= pinkish and on short stalks
  • Seeds: Produces the familiar acorn, with scaly cups and clusters carried on long stalks
  • Range & habitat: Widespread and common throughout Britain, found in habitats ranging from deciduous and mixed woodlands to open grassland and hedgerows

In Winter: Look for rounded buds that have overlapping scales and are found in clusters at the end of each shoot

2. Sessile oak (Quercus petraea)

  • Differs to Pedunculate Oak in that the leaves taper to an unlobed base and have long stalks.
  • Buds in winter have more scales (more than 20).
  • Also, the clustered acorns are almost stalk-less with downy cups.
  • Narrower in shape, prefers more acid soils, and is more common in the West of Britain.

3. Common Ash (Fraxinus excelsior)

  • Family: Oleaceae – related to olive trees and lilac
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Tall and domed with widely spaced branches, growing up to 35m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is pale brown to grey, becoming rugged with age
  • Leaves: Opposite and toothed, with 9-13 stalked leaflets that have long tips
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers typically grow on different trees, but both have purple flowers growing in clusters before the leaves
  • Seeds: Single seeds with a long wing (known as keys)
  • Range & habitat: Woods and hedges, in particular flourishing on a lime-rich/well-drained soil

In Winter: Smooth twigs with distinctive hairless black buds, and ridged bark on adult trees that resembles a diamond pattern

4. Horse Chestnut (Aesculus hippocastanum)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and maples
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced in the 1500s from the Balkan peninsula in southeastern Europe)
  • Shape and size: Arching branches, usually turned up at the ends, growing up to 35m tall
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is scaly and red-brown or dark grey-brown
  • Leaves: Five to seven large, thick, stalkless leaflets with pronounced veins and a long, tapering base
  • Flowers: Showy spike (candle) of white flowers with a yellow to pink spot
  • Seeds: Spiny fruit contains one or more shiny conkers
  • Range & habitat: It has now become a widespread and common sight across Britain, tolerating a wide range of soils

In Winter: Smooth bark and sticky buds

5. Common Alder (Alnus glutinosa)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to hazel and birches
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Regular branching and conical shape, growing up to 25m
  • Stems and twigs: Dark brown bark that is often rough and sprouts young shoots
  • Leaves: Alternate, rounded, sometimes notched at the tip, and dark green
  • Flowers: Male and female catkins grow on the same tree, before the leaves. Male catkins= lambs’ tails; female catkins= small and egg-shaped
  • Seeds: Female catkins turn into a small cone, drying from green to brown, releasing the seeds. The seeds have corky outgrowths that keep them afloat on water
  • Range & habitat: Thrives in wet ground and is often seen lining the banks of rivers and streams across Britain

In Winter: Appears dull purplish due to purplish buds

6. Silver Birch (Betula pendula)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to alders, hazels and hornbeams
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Erect with pointed crown and drooping branches, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and twigs: Young bark reddish, maturing to black and papery-white bark. Twigs smooth with small dark bumps
  • Leaves: Alternate, triangular and shiny, on slender stalks. Edges are ragged, with smaller teeth between larger main teeth
  • Flowers: Male catkins= purply-brown; female catkins= smaller and pale green
  • Seeds: Two winged and wind-borne, released in winter
  • Range & habitat: Form natural woodlands on light, dry soils throughout Britain

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark

7. Sycamore (Acer pseudoplatanus)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to maples and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Non-native (introduced from Europe either in the 1500s or by the Romans)
  • Shape and size: Massive domed outline, with dense foliage and heavy lower branches, growing up to 35m
  • Stems and twigs: Grey fissured bark ages to pinkish-brown
  • Leaves: Opposite, five-lobed, and upper side dark green
  • Flowers: Greeny-yellow flowers in hanging clusters appear with the leaves
  • Seeds: Hairless keys in right-angled pairs
  • Range & habitat: Grow vigorously in all parts of Britain, being widely planted on their own for shelter or in woodlands and hedgerows

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark

8. Wild Cherry (Prunus avium)

  • Family: Rosaceae – related to roses
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Pyramidal shape, reaching up to 30m
  • Stems and twigs: Shiny, red-brown bark peels in horizontal strips
  • Leaves: Alternate and oval with long points and regular, forward-pointing teeth, and two conspicuous red glands at the top of the stalk
  • Flowers: White flowers (blossom) appear before the leaves in small, loose clusters
  • Seeds: Produces round, red cherries
  • Range & habitat: Native throughout the UK, being found in woodlands and hedgerows

In Winter: Distinctive bark

9. Common Hazel (Corylus avellana)

  • Family: Betulaceae – related to birches, alders and hornbeams
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Many stems rise from the ‘stool’, which if left uncut can reach 9m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark coppery brown, smooth and tending to peel
  • Leaves: Alternate, almost circular with sawtooth edges, hairy, and soft to the touch
  • Flowers: Male and female flowers found on the same tree. Male= lemon-yellow lambstail catkins; Female= tiny buds with red tassels
  • Seeds: An edible nut encased in a thick-green husk, ripening in autumn
  • Range & habitat: Grows throughout Britain, often found in woods, scrub areas, and hedges

In Winter: Distinctive shape and bark, accompanied by the male catkins from December

10. Field Maple (Acer campestre)

  • Family: Sapindaceae – related to lychee and horse chestnut
  • Origin: Native
  • Shape and size: Round-shaped tree with branches that droop at the end, growing up to 26m
  • Stems and twigs: Bark is grey or light brown and twigs downy, later corky
  • Leaves: Emerging leaves have a pinkish tinge, turning dull-green, and are opposite and small, with three main, round-tipped lobes and two smaller basal lobes
  • Flowers: Small yellow-green flowers form erect clusters
  • Seeds: Each pair of seed wings lie in an almost straight line, are often tinged with pink
  • Range & habitat: Frequent in England and East Wales in woods and hedgerows

In Winter: Sinuous trunk and distinctive shape

Drawings and photos all my own

How to… Identify Animal Footprints

Often it can be difficult to catch a proper glimpse of the animals around us, especially those that are more active at night. Just because you may not be able to see them though, does not mean that they are not there. Instead, a great way to find out what is living near you is to play detective and look for the signs they leave behind, such as fur, burrows or droppings.

Here we take a look at a great sign of animals being present, animal tracks/footprints. Though they are best found in snow or wet mud, at this time of year the best way to look for tracks is after rain, hardened in drying mud, or by creating your own tracker. So why not have a go playing detective and see what you can find in your garden or wider countryside whilst getting out for exercise. To help you out, here’s my guide to animal footprints!

Guide to animal footprints

Badger

Footprint Size: 5-6cm long & 5-6.5cm wide

Badger

A badger’s footprint is large, broad and robust with 5 toe pads pointing forwards in front of a broad rear pad. They also may show long claw marks that are well in front of the toes. Claw marks are shorter and closer to the toe pads for the hind feet.

Badger

Fox

Footprint Size: 5-7cm long & 3.5-4.5cm wide

Fox, Cat, Dog

A fox’s footprint is a bit like a dog’s, but appear more narrow in shape with toes closer together, making a diamond shape. There are 4 distinctly oval toes, 2 at the front and 1 towards each side, and a roughly oval rear pad. Foxes do leave claw prints, unlike cats, but do not have the elongated claws that are visible in badger prints. Sometimes impressions of hairs between pads may be visible.

Rat

Footprint Size: Front= 1.8-2.5cm long; Hind= 3-4.5cm long

Rat

A rat’s footprints vary between the front and hind feet. On the fore, they have 4 toes, whereas on the hind, they have 5 toes and a long heel. Their footprints can be mistaken with a water vole’s, but a water vole’s tends to show more splayed toes and a shorter heel.

Rabbit

Footprint Size: Front= 4cm long; Hind= 7.5-9.5cm long

Rabbit

The hind feet of a rabbit are much larger than their fore feet. This means that their footprints will be grouped into a pair of long and a pair of shorter prints. Often you will also see lots of footprints crossing each other and signs of multiple rabbits together.

Hedgehog

Footprint Size: ~2.8cm wide & ~2.5cm long

Hedgehog

A hedgehog’s footprint is long and narrow in shape with 3 toes pointing forward and 2 pointing out to the sides, making a star shape.

Deer

Footprint Size: Vary from muntjac deer at ~3cm long to red deer at ~9cm long

Deer

All deer species have cloven hooves (2 toes), the same as a sheep or a cow. A deer’s toes are more slender and pointed though, looking like 2 teardrops or an upside-down heart. Toes may appear splayed in soft ground.

It tends to be difficult though to tell apart the footprints of different deer species, as they tend to be similar, only differing in size and subtly in shape. A muntjac’s footprint though, for example, will be alot smaller than a red deer’s.

Deer

Otter

Footprint Size: 6-9cm long & up to 6cm wide

Otter

An otter’s feet are webbed due to their semi-aquatic lifestyle, which can make their prints easy to spot if visible. Their fooprints are also round with 5 toes in front of a large rear pad. Short claw marks projecting from the toes may also be visible.

Small mammals e.g. Mink, weasel, stoat, pine marten, polecat

Footprint Size: Varies with species and sex

Small Mammals

Five toes splayed in a star shape

Birds

Footprint Size: Varies with species

Most bird species have four toes, with typically 3 facing forward and 1 backwards. Depending on the species, footprints on the ground will vary in size, shape and form. A common footprint seen in the english countryside is that of the non-native pheasant. Their footprint is fairly distinct due to their large size and looks like an arrow in shape (Footprint Size: 6-8cm long).

 

All photos and drawings are my own