Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

In Praise of Restraint – Autumn in the Woods

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Gentle yellows and greens of oak woodland in Autumn

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

Dew on the woodland floor on an autumn morning

I keep going on about Autumn, but I make no apology for it.  It is my favourite time of year.  The spring flowers are magical, and the Summer meadows glorious, but there is nothing quite like the fungal smell of autumn in the woods.  What I particularly like is how oak trees don’t “shout” about autumn like many other species.  Maple and cherry have been particularly loud this year – flaming orange and yellow, and stunning reds lighting up the trees along the roadside.  Almost all the trees in the ancient part of our woods are oak, which takes a more restrained approach.

Some are still quite green right now, others have a gentle yellow tinge, and others simply go brown at the edges and fall.  Against this restrained backdrop, the yellow of field maple, willow and hazel, and the shocking reds of spindle, cherry and some rowan leaves, as well as a gentle pinks and purples of elder can stand out.  Betty’s wood in particular with its greater variety of young saplings shines out in orange, red and yellow against the darkness of the old oak trees.  Oak provides a pastel and gentle canvas against which the other species can stand out.

Yellows in Betty's Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Yellows in Betty’s Wood standing out against the green oak and ash

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty's Wood

Cherry leaves turn orange red in Betty’s Wood

On the forest floor, things are changing too.  It hasn’t been very wet this year and the fungi are yet to get going, but we have seen some amazing hyphae on one of our fallen logs.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

Fungal hyphae form a net on a fallen log.

The lichens are also coming into their own, forming a miniature forest with the various species of moss, topped off by the fallen leaves covered in dew in the early morning.  The grass also shines with dew, giving the woods an autumnal feel, and a softness that is missing at other times of the year.

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

Dew on a fallen oak leaf on a bed of lichen and moss

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

A tiny forest of moss and lichen

The leaves are gently falling now and autumn is in full swing.  There is no sadness – nature is beautiful all year round.  Winter is round the corner, and with it the milky low sunshine and stark beauty and form of our lovely trees.  The turn of the seasons is something I really treasure.  For now, I will enjoy the restrained beauty of an oak woodland in the fall.

 

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.

Butterflies Count

Common Blue

Common Blue

It is the time of year to count butterflies.  The Big Butterfly Count is a citizen science project, aiming to get people all over the UK counting butterflies so we can build up a picture of how butterfly numbers are doing for the commonest butterfly species.  Butterflies are great to count.  In general, they are easy to identify.  They are pretty and therefore popular insects.  And they depend on food sources being present for both adult and larva (caterpillar).  As such they are an excellent indicator of the health of ecosystems.  Plenty of butterflies, and plenty of butterfly diversity indicates that there is plenty of plant food, and a diversity of plant food.  It is also an indication that there is plenty of food available for birds, bats and other insectivores including reptiles, amphibia and mammals.

Small Skipper

Small Skipper

We have counted butterflies in our meadows for a number of years.  The numbers of different species do fluctuate from year to year, as weather and other conditions change.  What has been remarkable is the steady improvement in diversity of species and count within species, although there have been a few blips.  In the first year our meadow was planted, we saw quite a few brown argus;  this year we haven’t had any.  But last year we only saw one dingy skipper and this year we have seen several.  Common blue numbers have been quite constant, but six-spot burnet (day-flying moth), meadow brown, ringlet, gatekeeper, small skipper, large skipper and Essex skipper have all gone up.  The white butterflies are also doing well this year, as are speckled woods, which were almost totally absent last year.  Tantalising glimpses of the purple hairstreaks among the oak canopy also suggest their numbers are holding up.  Brimstones and orange-tips were present in relatively large numbers this spring, as were green-veined whites.  In general, the situation is improving in our meadow, and this is exciting.

It has not just been a good year for butterflies:  there have been good numbers of dragonflies and a good diversity of species too.  We have noted common blue, large red, azure, white-legged, blue-tailed, emerald and banded demoiselle damselflies, and common darter, four-spotted chaser, broad-bodied chaser, brown hawker, Southern hawker and emperor dragonflies.  And a hobby (falcon) has moved in to feed on them!

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

What this shows is that in spite of dreadful weather over the past two years (drought, washout summer last year, extremely cold and late spring this year), insect numbers can flourish provided the habitat is provided for them.  It doesn’t even need to be a huge amount of habitat, just a bit of connected habitat makes all the difference.  Butterflies abound in the hay field opposite our woods too.

The problem is that this good news is not typical.  Grassland butterflies have declined by 50% in Europe over the last 20 years.  This has been put down to intensification of agriculture in easy-to-farm areas and abandonment of areas that are not easy to farm.  Both result in degradation of grassland habitats, and in turn, the reduction in butterfly numbers and diversity.  Meadows need maintenance, be it by mowing for fodder, or by grazing, or both.  This strips off the grass that would otherwise dominate, allowing wildflowers to grow.  Abandon the meadows and they revert to grass.  Plough them up, and it is very hard, if not impossible to return them to their unimproved state.  Added to that, widespread use of insecticides reduce the opportunities for those butterflies that can find foodplants for their caterpillars and nectar for the adults.

Essex Skipper

Essex Skipper

Meadows are very precious, but many butterflies can live on very common plants, and leaving a corner of the garden unimproved, letting it go over to nettles and wildflowers can really make a difference to nettle-feeding butterflies such as small tortoiseshell and peacock.  If we manicure our gardens, cover them in gravel and decking, squeeze productivity out of every inch of farmland, and stop mowing or grazing our meadows, we will lose butterflies, and with them, many other species.  We also mow our roadside verges short, several times a year.  Letting areas run to wildflowers would also make a massive difference, as the Plantlife roadside verge campaign points out.

Large White

Large White

Do we care?  I don’t know.  Almost everybody I know bemoans the loss of butterflies and birds over the last 50 years.  But whether they are able or willing to do so is another matter.  Are we willing to tolerate a bit less tidiness in our roadside verges and gardens?  Or will we complain to the Council the minute the grass gets longer than 3 inches?  Will we complain about our neighbours letting the garden run to weeds?  Are we willing to pay a bit more for good hay, for naturally-grazed animals, or to allow subsidies to go to those who uphold the most valuable habitats?  Or do we just want cheap food at any cost?

Comma

Comma

The fact is that the butterfly-filled meadows of my youth are rare and getting progressively rarer.  If children today don’t experience them, they won’t be able to appreciate their importance, won’t value them, and won’t protect them in future.  Butterflies DO count.  So, please, do count your butterflies this weekend, and contribute to the project.  And DO think of them and the habitat they need.  A little bit of untidiness won’t kill anybody, but too much tidiness will definitely kill off the butterflies.

Alvecote Wood: The Story So Far

Mature Oaks

Some of our lovely mature oak trees

Alvecote Wood won the Royal Forestry Society Excellence in Forestry award for Small Woodlands in 2013.  So how did we go from complete beginners in 2007 to winning this award in 2013?

First of all, it was never our intention to try and win an award.  All we really wanted to do was taken a neglected piece of woodland, and through good management, improve it as a habitat for wildlife and make it available for use by community groups.

A lot of visitors to our woods ask us why we need to manage it; surely, if it is for wildlife, isn’t it best to leave it alone?  If we were talking about pristine wildwood, stretching over a large area, then this idea would definitely have merit.  Trees would grow and die and fall down, leaving gaps in the canopy into which other trees would go.  Beavers would undertake natural coppicing of waterside trees.  Flexibility and resilience would be built in to the woods by virtue of its size and extent.

Daisies in Meadow

Daisies in our meadow

Sadly there are no wildwoods left in England.  Even worse, the small remnants of ancient semi-natural woodland (ASNW) are shrinking and irreplaceable.  Our little fragment of 11 acres of ASNW had also, like many other such sites, been heavily modified by animal grazing over the past 100-150 years, as well as showing evidence of being clear-felled (or nearly so) about 150-200 years ago (no trees over this age, and a relatively even-aged stand of oak).  Grazing increases fertility of the soil, leading to overgrowth with bramble, nettle and elder, as well as depleting the seed stock for natural regeneration.  Grazing by deer and rabbits compounded the problem, leaving almost no room for new trees.  Open habitats are gradually encroached by brambles and nettles, and the net result is loss of habitat niches and loss of diversity.

So management is important to preserve and enhance habitat and expand ecological niches, encourage regeneration, and improve the site for both wildlife and human use.  A large site has some resilience and can recover from extensive human influence over time, but our site was isolated and unable to do this without some help.

So how to do it?  The key things we did to improve our wood were:  get advice, and get more advice; research the history of the site so we knew what we were dealing with; get a management plan in place; get help with costs via Forestry Commission grants;  get good equipment; get training; then do the work.

Traditional or Industrial?

Managing meadows with our tractor

We had excellent advice from a wide range of sources including the Forestry Commission, Warwickshire Wildlife Trust, an experienced local naturalist called Maurice Arnold, Pond Conservation, Butterfly Conservation and the Warwickshire County Forestry Officer.  Obviously not all of this advice is compatible and some of it is contradictory, but we pulled it all together, and blended it with our own knowledge of the site (both its current state and its history) to come up with an appropriate plan.

We also needed to secure access around the site, security for the site, and get appropriate equipment.  We were lucky to get some grants for fencing and making forest tracks from the Forestry Commission, and were also very lucky to get a good, if elderly, Massey Ferguson tractor from a local farm auction, and a rotary slasher at a good price from a local dealer.  We do have, and do use, hand tools, but given that there are usually only the two of us, and that I am not in good health, or able to do heavy physical work, we felt that the benefits of using mechanical tools outweighed the disadvantages.  We simply would not have got anything like the necessary work done without them.

Nuthatch

Nuthatch

Habitats were relatively few in number, with no glades or rides (woodland wildlife predominates around the edges of clearings and rides), little in the way of regeneration, a single silted-up pond, a meadow that, without management, lacked diversity, and a lack of a shrub layer, and lack of diversity within that shrub layer where it existed.  Our response was to institute a programme of clearing rides and creating glades, restoration of the meadow, restoration of land drainage, reduction of bramble, nettle and elder, and targeted planting of species already on the site, but in lower than expected numbers, such as hazel, ash and field maple.  We also re-instated an over-stood coppice, to provide a supply of firewood, as well as rejuvenating the habitat for wildlife and planted a new roadside hedgerow.  Finally, we put in six ponds, as part of a project that involved moving the road entrance, building a forestry road into the site and building a barn building for our tractor and other equipment.

Bluebells

Bluebells in a thinned area

We didn’t do any of this stuff overnight.  It was very important to nibble away at things a little bit at a time, over the course of our five-year plan, so that no habitat was drastically changed all at once.  This would allow any creatures dependent upon that habitat to adjust to its changed status and extent.  None of it was easy, and we had a minefield of regulations to get through, including a site-wide tree protection order (TPO) on our woods, which meant planning permission was needed for much of our work, including pruning and tree-safety work alongside the road.  A woodland management plan was put in place, together with a felling licence, which allowed us to fell trees provided it was part of the management plan.

Our plans were proceeding nicely when in 2010, three years after buying the woods, we were approached by a neighbouring farmer to see if we wanted to buy part of an adjacent field.  Now this was an opportunity too good to miss, since this would allow us to link our own woodland to a small patch of woodland that we didn’t own, and also create a wildlife corridor linking to land in higher level stewardship, land owned by the Council, and other wildlife sites along the Anker Valley.

Betty's Wood Planting Plan

Betty’s Wood Planting Plan

We were already too busy with our existing woodland, but took the plunge and bought another 9 acres of field, taking the site up to 20 acres in total.  We carefully planned new woodland on this site, to include the maximum allowable open space (40%) to include meadows, rides and five more wildlife ponds in the damp areas of the field.  The woodland was planted in 2011 and included a large segment of native broadleaved woodland (oak, birch, ash, rowan, field maple, hazel, crab apple plus a few others), a large swathe of wet woodland (two types of willow, cloned local willow, alder, poplar, aspen and alder buckthorn), and an area of natural regeneration around the borders (predominantly oak, but including birch, willow of several types, ash and hawthorn).  We also planted a hedge connecting our woods to a ½ acre patch of ancient woodland on the opposite side of the site.  Some trees were planted in curvy rows, taking note of the fact that this site is visible from a country park, the canal towpath and the M42.  We wanted it to look natural and nice for humans to look at, as well as being good habitat.  The rows will mainly be managed as continuous cover forestry, so be thinned around year 15, and then harvested to create areas of light and allow natural regeneration.  Other areas were planted as clumps and will be largely managed as coppice.

Betty’s Wood came into being in a snowstorm, and suffered a drought in the first year, and needed to be watered to prevent massive losses – this scheme worked, and our overall losses were 5% died and 1% stolen.  2012 was the complete opposite, and our struggling alder came into its own in the damp summer.  The meadows were seeded after the last harvest with a grass and wildflower mix, incorporating seed that we specified in consultation with Butterfly Conservation, to form a meadow into which planting took place.  Every tree had a cane and guard (largely to prevent rabbit grazing), and weed control around each tree was carried out.  We did not want to use chemical control but there was really no alternative, given that mulching was too expensive, and you cannot readily weed 6000 trees by hand. All of this work was supported by a woodland creation grant from the Forestry Commission, and tree planting was undertaken by a stalwart group of hardy volunteers.

Four-Spotted Chaser

Four-spotted chaser dragonfly

This has led on to us trying to establish a new landscape-scale conservation effort along the Anker Valley, in conjunction with the Wildlife Trusts (Staffs and Warks), and other organisations including Natural England, Environment Agency, Canal and River Trust, and the County and District Councils.  This is moving slowly, but has potential to make a big difference in this area.

Although it is our own private woodland, and has never had public access, we wanted to strike a balance between access and privacy and peace for wildlife.  So we instituted a programme

of open days, which we gradually expanded, so we are now open on the last Sunday in every month, and every Wednesday evening during the summer.  We also hold events for groups, including schools, Scout camps, local wildlife groups, walking groups and others.  Our photography workshops are also popular.  We offer a programme of talks for local natural history, wildlife, and general interest groups.  But it is mainly closed, and mainly kept for the wildlife.

As for the woodland produce – we don’t cut wood for the sake of it, but as part of operations, we have generated a large amount of firewood, which we use ourselves.  This winter we built a wood-drying shed which should allow us to dry enough to sell firewood to other folks too, on a small scale, having been previously limited by lack of drying capacity.  We also do some wood-turning, and a bit of chainsaw carving, and sell these items on craft stalls at open days.

We have seen an increase in wildlife diversity since we started managing the woods, and we keep records for lots of people including records of birds, mammals, butterflies, moths and wildflowers.  It is lovely to see wildlife moving in when we create appropriate habitat, including the brown argus and dingy skipper butterflies that we have targeted.

We did not set out to win an award.  We set out to do the best job we could for the local wildlife, and then to make it possible for local people to enjoy it, without compromising the wildlife.  We love working at the woods, and are very lucky that we live a little over a mile from it, so we can visit every day.  Why we won, I am not quite sure, but I’m glad our little woods found favour with the judges.  We love it, and were glad they did too.