Along the lines of the “one hand clapping” question, can a place be beautiful if you are unable to see it? Improving access to the woods has been one of our main objectives from the start. Almost two years after we took ownership, and despite a lot of hard work, there are still a few places we have been unable to access.
Access is essential for all kinds of reasons. First of all, it is essential if we are to make improvements to the site for wildlife. A site overgrown with bramble has low biodiversity and a low range of habitats – something we are seeking to change. In order to address this, we need to get through the brambles and to wherever they are growing to be able to manage them. Obviously we don’t want to remove all the brambles, because they are a valuable habitat, not to mention a source of delicious blackberries for crumbles and wine-making. The problem is that they were seeking to make themselves the only habitat and that would not be right.
Over the past two years we have developed several strategies for dealing with bramble. We started off rather naively thinking we could deal with them using a brush-cutter. This thought was rapidly put to rest – the brambles grew faster than we could cut them. Bulldozing them with the front of our tractor and brush-cutting the remains was our second strategy, but this was very hard work and resulted in very slow progress. In the end we opted for a rotary slasher for the back of the tractor. But whilst this is a very effective tool, there is more to making access paths than simply wading in. For a start the site was peppered with multiple generations of barbed-wire fences – not something you want to get tangled up in the mower, or indeed get tangled round your feet. This needed careful removal. Bramble can also conceal a multitude of things you don’t want to hit with a tractor or mower – ditches, holes, large fallen logs, piles of stones. All of these things need to be sought out in advance of making a path or clearing a glade to make way for new trees and ground flora.
We have gradually become more adept at the mechanics of making paths and clearing brambles, but there is another consideration – you can’t cut bramble when the birds are nesting in it, nor can you cut it when the mammals are hibernating in it. And you can’t get a tractor into the woods at all when the ground is too soft to bear the weight of the machine. So we have a limited time of the year when we can get to grips with our access problem, and that time is now.
This Bank Holiday weekend we aimed to improve access. We have never been able to get the tractor or any vehicle into the lower part of our woods. We definitely don’t want to drive around willy-nilly, but getting a Land Rover to the lower area would be important for establishing a coppice, for example. Not to mention the fact that older visitors such as my mother-in-law, who has never seen more than a small part of the wood, can be driven down to see the beautiful sights of the deep woodland.
The process started with access that was more difficult than normal – our entrance had been blocked by a huge amount of fly-tipped rubble and soil, so we couldn’t get the car in. A morning was wasted in clearing this with the tractor so we could start the task in hand.
We had identified a route that skirted an elbow in the ditch and made use of a dam created when a previous owner had diverted the ditch. We obviously wanted to avoid cutting down any trees, and we managed to plot a route that involved felling only two elder shrubs, and pruning back a few others. We spent two days chainsawing, sawing, cropping and lopping, moving prunings away from the path and mowing back brambles and bracken until we broke through to a clearing we had never been able to cross before. The tractor made short work of the bramble that was smothering this clearing, and we broke through to our lower ponds. At last the whole of the woods was now accessible to our Land Rover, and our winter coppicing work, and clearance of invading sycamore, will now be much easier.
But aside from doing work, and allowing my mother-in-law to see the wood for the first time, access is important for all sorts of other reasons. You can see the wood from a whole new perspective. You can even see things you have never seen before, such as a fallen tree we knew was there, but now we can explore the spooky depths of the fallen branches on the ground. We can photograph well-known trees from different angles. We can attempt to record the way in which wildlife makes use of the new paths. We can walk around our own woods at night seeking bats and owls without risk of tripping on narrow footpaths.
Beauty may well be there when you can’t see it, but it is very pleasant to be able to appreciate it.