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Ants ready to warm to their new homes.

Byline: By Tony Henderson

It may not quite be a case of Ant and Deckchairs...

But wildlife and forestry experts are going out of their way to ensure that ants in a North-East forest can enjoy a spot of sunbathing.

The Forestry Commission is helping the northern hairy wood ant ( the UK's largest ( bask in its place in the sun by tweaking the management of the 5,000-acre Hamsterley Forest, near Bishop Auckland in County Durham.

Forest chiefs have created 20 suntraps to give the warmth-loving insect a fighting chance of survival in one of its few North-Eastern locations.

The south-facing sun trap alcoves have been cleared of young trees, offering ant nests a direct view of the midday sun.

The northern wood ant (Formica lugubris) now merits its own UK Biodiversity Action Plan and is rated as "near threatened."

Until now, Hamsterley's colony has been constantly on the move as fast-growing conifer branches block sunlight.

Many of the dome-shaped nests ( made from thousands of spruce needles and up to two feet high ( have been rebuilt on sloping ground, causing them to collapse.

But now the colony can look forward to laying down more permanent roots.

Forester Mark Herbertson said: "Wood ants need to keep nests at a stable temperature and restoring their view of the sun will allow them to build bigger nests and maintain a healthy population.

"The work will produce a real dividend for the ants."

The sun traps were suggested by ex-forester Gordon Simpson, of West Auckland, who now works for the Forestry Commission as a wildlife consultant.

He said: "Wood ants have an important part to play in a healthy environment.

"They are a major food source for the green woodpecker and eat other insects to maintain a natural balance.

"They are also most impressive insects, up to a centimetre long, with black and red markings. The fact that they are restricted to just a handful of locations in the North-East England makes Hamsterley's colony very precious."

Wood ants live in colonies which can number up to half a million.

Nests are carefully maintained by workers, with the dome built like a thatched roof to shed water.

The south side of the nest is also flatter to present a greater surface area to the midday sun. Worker ants will also sunbathe and then go into the nest to release excess heat and keep eggs warm.
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Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Jun 12, 2004
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