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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.