Yellow – the colour of spring

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercup in evening sun

Buttercups in the meadow

Buttercups in the meadow

Buttercups

Buttercups in the meadow

Spring has been very late this year, but is now here in glorious colour.  I got to thinking about the colours associated with different seasons.  Winter to me is white, or rather, monochrome.  Colours are very muted, there is snow, and any plants that struggle through, like snowdrops, are white.  To me, the excitement of spring starts in the woods when we see a tinge of yellow, from our daffodils, but also from our lesser celandine in the shade of the trees and on our woodland paths.  Lesser celandine is like a herald of the beauty to come in the form of the showy daffodils.

Cowslip

Cowslip

Lesser celandine

Lesser celandine

Primrose

Primrose at Alvecote Wood

More spring yellowness comes from the primroses and cowslips that have been slowly and quietly spreading across our wet and shady areas in the woods, doing particularly well this year (and maybe producing oxlips in future – those showy primroses up on long stems that result from primrose/cowslip hybrids).  These little gems of brightness on cloudy and wet spring days are really cheering, particularly so this year after the dismal, long and dark winter.

 

White bluebell among blue

White among the blue

Then, ever so slowly, the palette changes.  Yellow stays with us, in the form of buttercups, but is joined, first by blue and then by white, pink and all the colours of the rainbow.  Blue is the complimentary colour of yellow, providing a wonderful counterpoint to the yellowness of the daffodils, buttercups and primroses.  We are so very lucky that our woods are full of bluebells, almost all of them blue, a few white and pink, and a stunning sight they make.  There is also a blue counterpoint in the meadow in the form of both germander speedwell, and forget-me-not – these two beautiful, complimentary colours enhancing each other.  Even the emerging leaves, acid-green with a strong yellow tone, and the yellow of the catkins and tree-flowers, add to this spring yellowness.  The first butterflies are also yellow – the brimstones that range along the woodland edge looking for buckthorn on which to lay their eggs.

Single bluebell

Single bluebell

The changing palette brings in purples and pinks (campion, snakeshead fritillary, early purple vetch) and white (greater and lesser stitchwort, Jack-under-the-hedge, early ox-eye daisy and mayweeds).  These are the colours of summer – along with the red of poppies, the blue of cornflower, the pink of corncockle, and a multitude of beautiful colours from clovers, vetches, sainfoin and our wonderful southern marsh orchids.  Summer to me is a rainbow, rather than one particular colour.

This year, spring has seemed the more spectacular because it has been compressed – coming late, and making up for that with a vengeance.  Let us hope it is a harbinger of a beautiful, colour-filled summer.

Tree Surgeons

We do a lot of the work at the woods ourselves, together with some fantastic volunteers, who give up their time and work hard to help us improve the woods for wildlife.  We are generally quite capable, able to do our own coppicing including felling the trees, manage our own young trees, sort out our own paths and rides and glades, mow our own meadows, manage our own ponds, do our own dead-hedging – in short, we do a lot of it ourselves.  We didn’t buy the woods so we could bring in contractors and other people to do the work for us.  We take pleasure in doing the work ourselves and that is what we do.
But sometimes, just sometimes, we need the help of professionals.  This year, we were doing some thinning in the area of the woods we call the “plantation”.  It is so called because it is clear that at least some of the trees have been planted there.  In particular the larch trees, which don’t occur anywhere else on site, which are not native to the site or area, and which are now of an age and size where they need to be felled to allow other trees to develop properly, to let in light to the forest floor, and to reduce the risk of importing Phytophthora ramorum infection into our oak woodlands.
We thinned out some other trees too – some rather poorly-developed oak, willow and hawthorn trees now shaded by the canopy, some dead trees, a very badly formed ash, and some holly (to let in light).  We were left with these enormous larch trees, over 40 feet high.
We could fell them ourselves, but the problem with larch is that they have a long, straight trunk and then a very bushy canopy.  Bringing this bushy canopy down without removing the branches first risked damaging the young trees in the area that were few in number and that we very much wished to leave undamaged to become the next generation in the woods.
So we got in the tree surgeons for a day.  Now this costs money, but we felt it was worth it for a number of reasons.  First, we got the larch felled without damaging the other trees.   Second, the tree surgeons we use are also chainsaw and tree surgery instructors.  This means we can get training, and we can do some of the work under their supervision (although we don’t do tree climbing).  We develop our skills, we help them out which helps to cut costs, everybody is happy.  We can also get other jobs done while they are there, using their chipper to chip the brash and line the paths with chips, something that helps improve their condition and reduce the muddiness.
So it was that before 8am, we arrived with the three tree surgeons and their equipment to start a busy day.  With a cold wind blowing, we needed to wrap up, and were thankful for our padded chainsaw trousers and gloves.  We watched with great respect as these very skilled guys climbed our larch trees, took off the limbs with a small chainsaw and then came down, leaving a lovely straight trunk for felling.
The surgeons then guided Stephen to help him improve the precision with which he felled these very large trees, allowing him to make the cuts.  They also watched my chainsaw technique as I tackled the very difficult task of cutting up a larch that was felled with branches on, as well as a very twisted ash tree, that had both fallen together.  I tried not to feel the pressure, as I tried to assess the task, decide which ways the stresses in the wood were working, and make the cuts cleanly and correctly using good and safe technique.  It isn’t easy to work when you are being watched so closely, but I managed a good job, only getting the bar stuck once (and that wasn’t predictable and the instructor confirmed that as I had tested the weight beforehand).  I was complimented on safe handling of the saw, safe starting, using techniques such as leaving a leg on the branch in case it rolled towards me, and generally doing a good job.
We also had to fell a dead sycamore that was next to a path, and hence a risk that needed to be dealt with under our tree safety policy.  We needed to do this without damaging some hazel saplings planted nearby.  Again, it was a pleasure to watch the guys climbing and how they carefully removed weight to ensure the tree fell in the correct direction.  We managed to bring the tree down precisely onto the path, and were left with the task of cutting it up and stacking it before it got too dark, as well as chipping the brash – we just got done in time.
We really valued our day with the experts.  They are lovely guys, so skilled and so willing to teach us – just as we are hungry to learn.  We were totally exhausted at the end of the day and are full of admiration for these skilled people, who will work just as hard the next day, and the next, and the next!  Yes, money can be tight, but there is a lot to be gained from having the experts visit your woods, do some work, and help you learn.
With many thanks to Mike, Paul and John from Arborcare (http://www.treesurgerytamworth.co.uk/index.html) for their hard work, skills and patience during their day at the woods.

The Meadow Comes to Life

Last year was a drought and this year has been a deluge – and it is obvious what Betty’s Wood meadow and trees prefer!  We have had some worrying moments since the meadow was planted in October 2010 and the trees in February 2011.  Despite a great display of poppies last year, the perennial wildflowers and the grass sward in particular were very sparse – after a year of growth you could still see the lines made by the seed drill.  The diversity was also low, with little in the way of the important butterfly foodplants, such as birds-foot trefoil.  Some areas had barely any growth on them at all, and newly-planted areas of wildlowers on top of the spoil removed when we dug the ponds had just a tiny green fringe.  The largest meadow was so sparse that when we mowed it, we were throwing up dust from the parched and cracked surface, and there were few clippings left from the sparse mayweed and poppy growth.

The trees, too, had suffered, despite our best attempts to water them.  Although we ended the year with 5% loss plus 1% stolen out of our 5000 trees, some were not in the best of shape.  In particular, the species we had planted in the area that is normally wet (alder, varieties of willow, poplar, aspen) had struggled to put on any growth at all, and in places, had managed only one or two leaves.

This year started badly too – a drought through March left us wondering how we were going to cope through the summer.  We needn’t have worried – although the rain has not been pleasant for humans, and at times we have had problems with the quantity (including a flood in the woods that almost washed away our bridge), the trees and meadow have loved it, and responded with growth that we could only have dreamed of last year.

Standing by the ponds last night, I could hear the leaves of our little aspen trees as they trembled against each other – aspen is the only tree in our wood that you can identify by sound!  Last year, they had a couple of leaves each, but this year, enough to make a noise.  Our cloned willows are growing enthusiastically.  Some of our trees are now about 5 feet high and others are showing great recovery growth.  Areas are now beginning to look a bit like a young woodland, rather than a parched meadow with a few sad trees in it.

And the meadow!  Oh my goodness, the meadow!  We have such lush growth it is hard to walk through it.  The grasses, yellow rattle, beautiful clovers, medick, sainfoin, tufted vetch and large patches of birds-foot trefoil.  And daisies.  Lots and lots of daisies.  Over a million ox-eye daisies.

With the meadow and improvements to our ponds have come insects – thousands of insects.  We have a really good show of common blue and brown argus butterflies this year.  We also have small heath butterflies for the first time, and to our delight, the dingy skipper has arrived too.  Almost every flower has a ladybird, some kind of bug, beetle, fly, bee, hoverfly, spider or other living thing on it, feeding from it, and enjoying it.  The grass is thick enough for us to see vole and rabbit tunnels and pathways.  A skylark is sussing out potential nesting spots.  Our ponds, too, are showing increased diversity of life, including common blue, azure, blue-tailed, red-eyed, white-legged and large red damselflies, as well as the four-spotted and broad-bodied chaser dragonflies.  As you walk through the meadow, little clouds of azure damselflies rise up and settle again.  The contrast with the agricultural land over the fence is staggering.

We complain about the rain.  We complain about having to wear wellies and a raincoat in summer.  But the rain has wrought a transformation that outweighs the inconvenience.  The meadow has come to life.