Coppicing the Hedge

A huge tree casting a lot of shade

A huge tree casting a lot of shade – and it’s supposed to be a hedge!

Over the past three weekends, we have been working on a very overgrown hedge between Alvecote Wood and Betty’s Wood. In particular we have been working on several very large holly trees, about 40 feet/15 metres high. These had been cut about 30 years ago, but the hedge has not been maintained since then. In consequence these trees have grown huge, and were cutting out a lot of light on the southern boundary of the wood. Behind the trees was some poor sycamore scrub and some bramble. We tried to get hazel established here, but it was just too dark. Nothing would grow.

So this year we decided to coppice back this holly hedge, removing three enormous holly trees (some with up to eight stems each), a couple of sycamore, hazel and hawthorn to open this area up and let in light.

We have also cleared the bramble, and plan to plant this area up with some hazel, birch and cherry, and also encourage oak seedlings to grow between these trees.

The photos tell the story: before, during and after.

There are also two videos showing how Stephen felled a particularly awkward twin-stem holly.

Felling the large holly

Felling the large holly

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

After, hedge is coppiced and a lot of light coming in

Shows the light coming into the area

Shows the light coming into the area

Apologies that the first clip of this video is out of focus.

Hopwas Woods Saved – Ancient Woodland Still Needs More Protection

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

Stunning Woodland View at Hopwas Woods

A few days ago, I wrote a blog about why ancient woodland is special, and why Hopwas Woods need to be saved.

Well, people power has worked.  After a huge public outcry, a massive campaign on social media with over 10,000 followers on Facebook and a petition on Change.org, today we heard that Lafarge Tarmac have withdrawn their application to Staffordshire County Council to quarry under this beautiful ancient woodland.  The campaign attracted national media interest, the support of the Woodland Trust, and of the local MP, Christopher Pincher.

This is fantastic news, and a demonstration that if people club together, it is possible to overturn corporate decisions.

It does not, however, take away from the fact that ancient woodland is special, and that it needs to be protected.  This blog could have been written about any number of sites across England, Wales and Scotland that are threatened by development.  The fact is that protections for ancient woodland are very weak.  Ancient Woodland is one of a number of irreplaceable habitats that need additional protection under wildlife and environmental law.  Exactly what those in power don’t understand about the word “irreplaceable” I do not know.  Perhaps by reading the blog, they will gain some understanding.

Meadow Maintenance – Part 1

Cambridge Roll

Cambridge Roll

Our wildflower meadows were originally sown in 2010, as part of Betty’s Wood.  We used the best wildflowers and grass mix that we could afford at the time, but there have inevitably been compromises and setbacks along the way.  First of all, we had a drought in 2011, which meant that not only did the meadows not grow well, but we didn’t have much time to attend to them, as we had to spend all our time watering the 6000 little trees planted at the same time.  In 2012, everything grew quite well, but we were unable to find anybody who could cut and bale the hay for us.  We were only able to cut properly and bale the hay in 2013.

This year, unusually warm spring conditions combined with lots of water in the soil led to a massive growth of grass – so tall that it was actually taller than me (OK, I’m not very tall, but even so…over 160cm tall).  The wildflowers were struggling.

Some plants have done well – clover, birdsfoot trefoil and knapweed.  Some patches of yellow rattle are keeping the grass in check.  The meadows have been successful in attracting a good variety of butterflies and moths to our site.  But overall, we felt that the meadows needed improvement.

Using the chain harrow

Using the chain harrow

This year we decided to top-seed the meadows.  We got as much advice as we could before starting.  We cut the re-growth from haymaking to about 6 inches /15cm.  This would allow the harrow to get into the ground and create some bare patches.

We then harrowed with a chain harrow.  The aim of this is to chew up the grass, create some bare areas into which wildflower seeds can be sown, and to give them a chance before the grass comes back next spring.

Using the chain harrow

Using the chain harrow

We top-seeded with a wildflower mix that we had specially recommended by Butterfly Conservation and designed for our soil.  This includes wildflowers that should bloom from March (cowslip) to September (daisies, yarrow and knapweed), giving a long season for pollinators.  Our meadows are fairly small (between 2/3 and 1 1/2 acres), so we used a hand spreader – obviously if they were larger, we’d need a mechanical spreader.

Spreading the seed

Spreading the seed

We then harrowed again, to ensure no seed was left on top of the leaves.  Finally we rolled the seed in with a Cambridge roll.  This will push the seed into the soil and stop it from blowing away.

Using Cambridge roll

Using Cambridge roll

You’d normally do this maintenance earlier in the year – usually in September. However with the very dry weather, the clay soil was like concrete.  Conditions are just about right now – warm, but also damp enough to prevent the harrow jumping off the surface and allow it to do its job.  The soil is also still warm enough for the seeds to germinate and start to grow before winter, thus giving the wildflowers a good start on the grass in the spring.  At least that is the hope!

We also have a video, demonstrating the process.

Betty’s Wood – Three Years On

Young woodland path

Young woodland path – trees 2-3 metres tall

In October 2010, we bought a 9 acre field to add to our 11 acres of ancient woodland. During the early part of 2011, it was planted with 6500 little trees, and we carved out wildflower meadows, hedgerows, ponds in the wet areas, open areas, and areas for natural regeneration to take place. In summer 2011, it was a field populated by canes and tree-guarded, the little trees just peeking over the top of those guards in places.

Planting young trees

Planting young trees

Seasons came and went. The little trees were subjected to a drought during their first year, an extremely harsh winter in 2012-13 with a lot of snow and freezing weather, and floods earlier this year, during which you could paddle in the lower part of Betty’s Wood.

Betty's Wood from adjacent field

Betty’s Wood from adjacent field

We were very careful to choose our species mix well. We wanted to improve the site for wildlife, but could see no advantage in planting species that do not grow well in the local area. We also took account of the lie of the land and microclimate – one of the reasons why we didn’t plant trees immediately, but took a few months to get the feel of the place. Wet-tolerant species went in areas inclined to be damp. Species that like fertile soil nearer the top, where the former arable site is quite fertile. Cloning willow already growing on the site. Using self-set seedlings of birch, willow, oak and ash. But also choosing species that produce seeds and fruits for wildlife, good shelter for wildlife, and will produce a sustainable coppice and timber crop in future – hazel, willow, alder, oak, ash, cherry, rowan and others.

Mowing the meadow

Mowing the meadow during the first summer

It has not been all plain sailing, but the woods are really starting to shine now. Instead of walking in a field with sticks, we are now walking along young woodland paths. We can stand in the shade of our own little trees. We can sit with our backs against the trunks of these little trees and enjoy the view. The little trees offer shelter from the wind for insects and people alike. The ponds are really coming alive, with 16 species of dragonfly and damselfly seen here this year. Target species of butterflies have come into our meadows. Little birds are now perching in the young trees, particularly goldfinches and blue tits. Long-tailed tits and other birds are using our hedgerow as a pathway between our own woods and another piece of woodland, just as we hoped. We are producing an increasing quantity of hay for local horses. This year we harvested hazelnuts from our young trees for the first time. Leaf litter is starting to build up in places under the clumps of trees. In the wet areas, marsh orchids and cowslips are spreading and increasing in numbers.

Young trees in the landscape

Young trees in the landscape a few years on

It is not often that you get the opportunity to change the landscape, and make something that is both beautiful and functional. We were very privileged to be able to do this and it is very exciting. Every year turns up some surprises. What is particularly lovely is to see the self-set regeneration areas merging with the planted areas, possible because of what we think is a good choice of trees and careful attention to the landscape, soil and microclimate. It will not be long before we can take our first coppice cut in some places, nor will it be too many years before we can lay the hedge. It is truly becoming a woodland, as we hoped it would.

Young trees with woodland ride

Young trees with woodland ride – trees now over 2 metres tall

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Ponds are now vegetation rich

Haymaking – the Video

Our second year of making hay from our meadows at Alvecote Wood. Five days of very hard work, but very lucky with the weather. We got 153 bales this year (141 last year) and sold and delivered it all to the stables next door to the woods.

This is a video of the whole process. It gives you an idea of what we have been doing over the past few days.

We did it again – best in England

Oak glade in spring

Oak glade in spring

A year ago, I reported that Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society competition for the best small woodland in the Midlands and North West of England, something that was honestly beyond anything we had dreamed of when we bought the woods in 2007.

https://alvecotewood.wordpress.com/2013/06/10/alvecote-wood-is-top-of-the-tree/

In 2014, all the previous winners and runners-up were entered into a champion of champions competition to find the Best of England, and we were entered in the small woodland category.  As the judges had visited us last year, we weren’t visited again but other woodlands were visited, to see what they had done in the meantime.  We had not stood still either – this winter we extended our coppice into the edge of Betty’s Wood to revive the hedge, increase light in the lower woodlands, and remove some very large holly that was blocking the light.  All of this should help regeneration in an area previously showing very little.  We also put up a QR code trail in the woodland so that visitors could use smartphones to scan the codes, bring up a web page with information about that location, with links to activities for all the family.

Evening bluebells

Bluebells near our coppice

At the weekend, we heard that we had won, and we are now officially the best small woodland in the whole of England!  We started from very humble beginnings, but tried to take a professional approach to ensuring that the site became as valuable as possible for wildlife, as quickly as possible.  We were novices, and we are still learning all the time.  To be acknowledged by experts in the field is a real surprise, and gives us the confidence to move forward, always with advice and help, to ensure our woodland is a resource for generations to come.

Read more about the Royal Forestry Society competition and this year’s winners using the link below.

http://rfs.org.uk/node/1193

You can also read our story, from the Quarterly Journal of Forestry (pdf) here

Irreplaceable means just that…

Yesterday I attended a meeting in London about Biodiversity Offsetting, and the idea that nature can be bought, sold, traded and moved around for the convenience of humans. In particular, the idea that it can be reduced to units that equate large amounts of low quality habitat with smaller amounts of high quality and irreplaceable habitats. The forum was the 2nd Forum on Natural Commons. You can follow it on Twitter under #naturenot4sale.

I wrote this blog last year, and it formed the basis of my presentation to that meeting. It still holds true. Our woods cannot be replaced by anything else, anywhere else. Nor can many other special places. Biodiversity Offsetting is a flawed concept in itself, and even more flawed when we consider how humans can, do and will implement it in practice. Nature will become something from which money is to be made, not something that has intrinsic value and that belongs to everybody. Please do read this again.

Alvecote Wood

Irreplaceable ancient woodland Irreplaceable ancient woodland

The Government recently published its paper on Biodiversity Offsetting, a scheme whereby damage caused by development can be offset by creation or improvement of habitat elsewhere.  On the face of it, this seems very reasonable.  You build a supermarket on a meadow, and make another meadow elsewhere.  Simples!

The problem is that habitats are not simple things, and this simple scheme is fraught with hazards for our wonderful wildlife.  Look closely at the document and you will see not all is well with this proposal, which proceeds on the premise that a small amount of high distinctiveness (i.e. high quality) habitat can be replaced by a large amount of poorer distinctiveness habitat, that this can be done in an area remote from the community of people and wildlife affected by the development, that developers can in effect choose the type and location of “offsetting” that they…

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Blossom

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn and other trees of the genus Prunus are usually the first trees to come into flower.  Blackthorn blossom is so delicate and pretty, dusting the bushes and hedgerows with a light frosting that looks like sugar, or light snow.  As well as looking beautiful, it is really important as a source of nectar for pollinating insects that are becoming more active at this time of year.  It also promises a harvest of sloes later on in the year – wonderful for including in hedgerow jams and jellies and for making sloe gin and vodka.

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn

Blackthorn blossom

Blackthorn Blossom

Blackthorn Blossom

Blackthorn Blossom

Blackthorn Blossom

It isn’t just blackthorn that we find in bloom at the woods.  Our orchard also has blossom on the plum trees.  Most pleasing of all is the blossom on our cherry trees.  We planted some wild cherry in Betty’s Wood in 2011.  Not many trees were included, just a few, to provide birds with wild cherries as food in autumn.  These trees have now grown large enough that they have blossomed for the first time.  This is really exciting for us – our little trees are now producing nectar for the bees and other pollinators, and later in the year will provide fruit for birds, small mammals and insects.  It is a sign that the young woodland is developing into a resource for wildlife.

Cherry blossom

Cherry blossom

Wild Cherry

Wild Cherry

Plum Blossom

Plum Blossom

Plum Blossom

Plum Blossom

Finally, not strictly blossom but lovely to see nonetheless, last year we had just one cowslip in Betty’s Wood.  I have now given up counting – there are at least 50 of them growing on the mounds by our ponds and in the grass nearby.  They are visited by the bees, as are the ribwort plantain which are just coming into flower, and provide another good source of nectar and pollen for the hive.

Ribwort Plantain

Ribwort Plantain

Cowslip

Cowslip

White snakes head fritillary

White snakes head fritillary

More Little Birds

Scruffy Blue Tit

Scruffy Blue Tit

Spring is definitely upon us.  This weekend, I noticed that we could no longer see through the woods, as the elder leaves are coming out and blocking the view.  The catkins are almost finished and the leaves on hawthorn and hazel are also starting to come out.  It will not be long before the oak leaves are out too.

Of course this makes it harder to photograph the little birds, as they become progressively obscured by foliage.

I haven’t spotted the willow tit for a week or so, but we do have a good collection of reed buntings, including at least three males and one female, and these have been coming to the feeders as well as settling down into the reeds on our small ponds in the clearing.  I hope they are nesting.

Reed Bunting

Reed Bunting

Long-tailed tits are difficult to photograph, but I finally managed some shots this weekend.  The little birds have been seen collecting feathers and moss, so are clearly nest-building at the moment.

Long-tailed tit

Long-tailed tit

This weekend I also noticed an absence of cackling redwings, although no sign yet of spring migrants.  I will be listening for chiffchaff and blackcap (they overwinter in the garden, but not at the woods) in the next week or so.

Another really excellent piece of news is that the lesser-spotted woodpecker is around.  Not seen, but the high-frequency drumming and song have been heard and this points to its presence again this year.  The song/call and drumming are quite distinct from the greater-spotted and it is fortunate we have both as it allows us to compare.  The buzzards are also thinking about setting up home in our woods after a year off – we think this may be the chick from two years ago.

There are at least three skylarks singing from the set-aside strips in the adjacent fields, which is brilliant news.  The mallard are also taking a keen interest in our ponds as a slightly quieter option when compared to the adjacent nature reserve and canal.

These are a few shots of the little birds around our feeder and around the woods taken in the last couple of weeks.  Soon it will be in leaf, and it will be time to swap the long bird lens for the macro lens when the butterflies emerge – a few brimstones are already on the wing.

Robin

Robin

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Buzzard

Buzzard

Blue Tit

Blue Tit

Great Tit

Great Tit