This weekend we killed a tree. It isn’t something we are proud of, or even happy about. I don’t mean we cut it down, I mean we deliberately tried to kill it and leave it standing. Why? Why on Earth would somebody who loves trees, who is a guardian to our beautiful woods, do something like this?
The answer is that the tree is a sycamore. What is wrong with sycamore? Well, sycamore is non-native – it was introduced some time in the 16th Century. It is a lovely tree: beautiful leaves that turn a glorious colour in winter and those lovely little helicopter seeds that we all played with as children. The wood is beautiful – hard, even-grained, nice to work and reasonable as firewood too. It grows quickly and can act as a good nurse tree for other species including oak. However, sycamore in the wrong place can be very destructive. And our beautiful, magnificent sycamore is in the wrong place.
In an ancient woodland, sycamore can invade. It grows more quickly than oak and shades out the oak seedlings. It is also against the southern boundary of the wood, which aids spread of seed through the wood. If we left it, in 100 or 200 or 300 years, we would have a sycamore woodland, rather than an oak woodland. And all the species that depend on oak would also be lost. We will have to deal with the seedlings for many years to come: the daughter trees are being coppiced, and we aim to cut them for wood before they are producing seed. This will give a chance for new oaks to start growing too.
Why did we leave it standing? Well, this is actually quite an old tree – could be up to 100 years old, but more likely about 60-70 years. It has lots of little crevices and a few lovely holes for nesting birds. The standing dead wood will continue to provide a habitat, and a feature in the woods too. As it gradually rots, it will be home to insects, mosses and lichens and become a small ecosystem in itself.
Was there an alternative? This is something we have asked ourselves many times. It pains us to kill a beautiful mature tree, and we have taken 4 years to reach this decision. However the problem of sycamore invasion needs tackling and we could no longer put it off. This tree is the source of the seed, and the source of our invasion problem.
Woodland management is essential in a wood like ours. It is lovely to leave woods wild, and we do this as much as possible – there are areas we are not touching as nature is doing very well. In a large wildwood, trees live, grow, die and fall, and the regeneration process moves around from place to place: a clearing appears, new trees start to grow, and finally it reverts to high forest, only for another clearing to open up elsewhere. Deer browsing new trees create natural coppice of multi-stemmed trees. A wide variety of self-sustaining habitats. A lovely, natural cycle. But these woods were huge. Ours is small, long and narrow. It is the only island of ancient woodland left over a huge area of North Warwickshire. The rest of the ancient forest around it has been cut down, leaving it without the capacity to self-heal. We have to intervene to produce a coppice habitat. We have to thin trees to give them the space to grow. Failing to make provision for regeneration of the oak trees will mean this resource is lost for all time, something we cannot let happen.
The right tree in the right place. The sycamore, a beautiful tree, was not in the right place. As it dies, it will provide new habitat and new life, and allow new life to emerge in its shadow. We give thanks to this beautiful tree, and for the pleasure it has given us. It is now time to move on.