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GPS used to protect ant 'skyscrapers'

[Friday 06 November 2009]

Nests made by the formidable hairy northern wood ant – the UK’s biggest - have been given a unique GPS address and plotted on hi-tech maps to protect them during forestry operations.

The amazing conical structures - some up to seven feet tall and made of millions of conifer needles - have grown progressively taller over the years on the Forestry Commission estate in 150-hectare (375-acre) Holystone Wood, near Rothbury, Northumberland.

Now the next phase in a project to restore part of the site to its ancient roots as an oak wood is underway – and ants will stay snug in their nests. Jonathan Farries, from the Forestry Commission, explained:

“Holystone is one of the most important ancient woods in Northumberland and also a Site of Special Scientific Interest. This long-term project will see many of the conifers planted in the 20th century removed to allow native species like oak and birch to regenerate. But we are tweaking our plans to ensure that the wood ant nests continue to thrive.”

Over 10,000 tonnes of timber are due to be felled and rangers have identified 69 ant nests in the areas affected by the work. The co-ordinates of each have been recorded using GPS devices and then plotted onto a computerised mapping system. This will allow foresters to take them into account when planning forest operations. Some conifers will be left in situ, as the ants like to build their amazing structures in sun traps, with trees providing sheltered alcoves and also needles for building materials.

The northern, or hairy, wood ant is Britain's biggest and has become so rare that it merits its own species action plan. Red and black in colour, it occurs at only two other Forestry Commission locations in the North East. Nests are maintained by worker ants that also 'sunbathe' before going inside to release heat and keep eggs warm. Such is the scale of the nests in Holystone that on a human measure the tallest would exceed the height of the Empire State Building in New York.

Richard Pow, Forestry Commission Regional Development Manager, added:

“The project will contribute to the restoration of ancient woodland in the region, one of the priorities in the Forestry Strategy for North East England. A survey completed two years ago revealed that more than half of such woods in Northumberland – which date back at least 400 years – were in a poor condition. We have pledged to restore all the ancient sites on our 80,000-hectare (200,000-acre) estate in the region and we’re also offering generous grants to encourage other land managers to follow suit. Such woods are wonderful places for wildlife, including the remarkable hairy wood ant.”

Nick Brodin, Natural England’s Regional Biodiversity Officer: added:

“Hairy wood ants are a very uncommon species in the North East of England and it’s great news that these amazing ant nest stacks in Holystone Wood will be safeguarded thanks to satellite technology. Use of GPS technology has revolutionised nature conservation research and habitat management and this project will make it easier to find the nest stack of the wood ants.”

SSSIs (like Holystone Wood) are nationally important nature conservation sites and cover one million hectares (2.5m acres) of land in England. They support an enormous range of habitats and species, many of which are endangered and listed under the UK Biodiversity Action Plan.

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