There are twenty-two species of fern recorded in Nottinghamshire since 2000, but this article is an introduction to those most easily found in Rushcliffe.The commonest are, in approximate order of occurence:
In winter, when the scope for field botany is restricted, the ferns offer a great opportunity for field work because the commonest by far, Male Fern, dies back either entirely or nearly so, thereby making it easier to hone in on the others.
To the absolute beginner, all ferns might appear to be 'bracken' but Bracken is quite distinctive and easily separable from the others given an element of applied observation; unlike most ferns it does not grow in tufts (shuttlecock-like) but rather, it produces individual fronds rising in patches - often very large, dominant patches where nothing else grows. In winter it dies back completely. Bracken occurs here and there in woods such as Cotgrave Forest and and verges as along the A6006 west of Rempstone. In the autumn, the current year's growth dies back and by the end of winter it is brown and fallen to the floor.
The easiest to identify, by a considerable margin is Hart's-tongue Fern. It is fairly common and distinctive as well as being familiar to many naturalists without a specific interest in botany and it stays green all year round. Perhaps the only difficulty is in recognising it as a fern at all, though a glance beneath the fronds, which are undivided will, on a fertile frond, reveal the characteristic linear sori (the spore-bearing organs – singular = sorus).
If you know of a wall that is well populated with ferns, you have a head-start in fern identification as Hart's-tongue is the commonest of three species likely to be present and the other two are also quite straightforward; Wall Rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort are by no means ubiquitous, but because there is a restricted choice, walls are a nice introduction to ferns.
Wall Rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort grow only on walls (or rocks) but Hart's-tongue can also be found in woodlands as well as, occasionally, in the wider Rushcliffe countryside.
There are two other wall-growing ferns; the rather rare Black Spleenwort
and the very rare Rustyback.
All the others with the exception of Bracken, are almost exclusively woodland plants for they need moisture and shade. Most moisture and most shade is to be found on north-facing slopes, so the woodlands that shroud the steep cliffs to the south of the River Trent between Radcliffe on Trent and Flintham, Old Wood and Windmill Hill Wood as well as some aspects of Cotgrave Forest are good places to search.
It is in such places that you will discover the three Male-ferns plus Soft Shield-fern and Broad Buckler-fern.
In winter (November to March) the only ferns (other than the 'wall' ferns; (Hart's-tongue, Wall Rue and Maidenhair Spleenwort) that look fresh and vibrant are, in approximate order of verdancy:
Scaly Male-fern and Soft Shield-fern in particular can be extremely obvious even as late as March as in these images taken on the same day in March 2016 as the Bracken above:
Hard Shield-fern is also found in Rushcliffe though it is the scarcest of the Dryopteris ferns. It also stays fresh and green through the winter and it is more common in the rest of Notts
Male-fern will, in winter, be seeing the current or previous season's growth dying back so it will appear flopped to the ground; some fronds still green, though generally wilting and some brown and perished. In a mild winter, the die-back will be less advanced than in a frosty one, but by March virtually all traces of Male Fern will be brown and dead.