We are coming to the time of year where you can get a lot of work done in the woods. The birds have finished nesting, but the mammals are not yet hibernating, and the ground is not yet waterlogged, limiting your ability to get around. So, for this reason, I am sitting here aching in many places, and with scratches and insect bites competing with the aches for attention.
Progress. What actually is progress in terms of the wood? At the time it seems like you have made a tiny incremental change, but when you look back over a period of weeks, months or years, you find you’ve made a big difference. It also isn’t a straight line – sometimes you have to go backwards to go forwards in the long run.
We are seizing the opportunity afforded by the dry weather to complete some work on internal tracks and drainage that was started last winter, but then abandoned as the ground got too waterlogged to continue. Here, it seems we are going backwards a bit – we’ve had to grade and level the ground to prepare to place the roadstone so it doesn’t just turn into puddles and do no good at all. This makes the ground look bare and unpleasant. Then we have to brush-cut along the drainage trench so we can get to it and put in the land drains and gravel and sluices to control water flow. And we’ve had to move some of the piles of roadstone left through the summer – they have been colonised by plants, so we have gone from green to bare again.
Access tracks are a necessary evil for us. Any road or track that reduces the ability of plants to grow also reduces the opportunities for wildlife. A green track allows plants to grow, and we have a lot of green paths around the site. The problem is that we need access to the woods through the winter when the ground can get waterlogged. Failing to put in proper tracks just means you damage the ground and may even sink in and damage the tree roots below. Access tracks are also important for disabled visitors and people who are unsteady on their feet – uneven grassy tracks can be difficult for older visitors but our new track will be level.
And then most of the time it is just the two of us working there. If you have regiments of volunteers who can do all the work by hand, using light hand-tools, and can carry large quantities of timber around by hand, well that is fine. We don’t have this – so we have to use tools that allow us to do the job, such as a chainsaw and brushcutter.
Last weekend we went on a coppicing course to learn how to establish our own coppice in our woods. This will have many benefits. It will bring neglected areas of the wood under management again. There are areas of dense growth of saplings that are far too close together. In this area there is no ground layer – it is like the sterile brown earth under a conifer forest. The trees are growing weak and some have already died. Management will allow new standard trees to grow strong, with a proper understorey and ground layer beneath. It will also produce dense re-growth on the coppiced stumps that is favoured by certain animals and birds. And in a few years’ time it will produce a sustainable source of wood that can be used to make things and for firewood as we start the coppice cycle again.
Today I have been marking the trees with coloured wool – orange for oak, yellow for willow, grey for ash and so on. This will ensure that when we cut some of them, we leave an appropriate mix of species and a good age distribution. It gave me a feel for the size of the task that we will be doing when we start to coppice the area. It also showed me that the task would be impossible if we can’t get our Land Rover down there with a trailer and some tools. And for that we need a weatherproof track part of the way (some of the ground doesn’t get soft and waterlogged). Either we have no track and no management or a track and good management for wildlife and to establish healthy trees for the future.
Is drainage progress? We definitely don’t want to drain our boggy area, which is a valuable habitat with some plants like bog stitchwort thriving on the waterlogged soil. But the area has been drained before – a broken land drain was found. And we can clearly see that some mature oak trees have died where the area of waterlogging is extending – failing to do something will result in more trees being lost. So we are establishing a drainage system to take water away from the trees and into the boggy area. If this gets too wet (as a result of more water coming in) we are going to put in sluices to allow the water to run into the ponds. This gives us a controllable drainage system that will permit us to divert water to where it can do most good, and away from where it has been doing harm.
And are the ponds progress? Well, last year they weren’t there. There were a few dragonflies around but nothing special. Now, on a beautiful late summer day, the ponds were alive with dragonflies. Wasps and other insects were coming down to drink. Muntjac prints abound in the mud around the side, as well as other mammal prints, so they are being used as a source of drinking water. I sat watching a squirrel run down the drainage trench to the pond, take a drink and hop away again – something I could never have seen before the ponds were there. Take a look in the ponds and you will see plants establishing, diving beetles, water boatmen, pond skaters, frogs and all kinds of other creatures. On the soil around the ponds that was just a spoil heap in February, we now have wild flowers some of which are new to the site.
So yes, it is all progress. If we can hand on a healthy well-managed woodland with a wide variety of habitats with their associated flora and fauna, then we will have done a good job. But at the moment it is very much work in progress…