Fungi – Every year is different

Little Fungi - on the bank of one of our ponds

Little Fungi – on the bank of one of our ponds

One thing I find really fascinating about the wood is that every year, things are slightly different.  We have the same trees, same paths, same meadows, same ponds, but what you see there can vary an awful lot.  Although we may see some of the same wildflowers, butterflies, dragonflies and fungi, the relative numbers of different species can vary enormously year on year.

One of the few log fungi - a little tatty

Not fungi – but a symbiosis between fungus and algae – a forest of lichen on a log

Last year, we had a lot of little mycena fungi in the paths, and a lot of bracket fungi of various types on our logs.  We also had a lot of clouded agaric fungi and some fly agaric.  This year, although we had some mycena fungi, it was so dry during September and October that we had many fewer than last year.  Almost no ink cap fungi.  Very few bracket fungi on logs.  And I haven’t seen a single clouded agaric or fly agaric this year.

Fungi on Log

Fungi on Log

Last year, however, we had almost no parasol and shaggy parasol mushrooms, but this year there are enormous numbers.  Not just here, either – I’ve seen them growing in lots of places around this locality.  They are one of my favourite toadstools.  They can grow very large, but also they just look rustic and woody.  They look like they belong.  They look like proper fairy toadstools, perfect little parasol shelters for the fair folk.

This year the fungi have come late, and we may yet see other species, but for now, I’m enjoying these wonderful fungi – and next year I’m sure it will be different again.

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One of the few log fungi this year – a bit tatty

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushrooms

Parasol Mushrooms

Toadstools on Path - not many this year

Toadstools on Path – not many this year

Parasol Mushroom

Parasol Mushroom

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Parasol mushrooms

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

Coppicing

This year's coppice

This year’s coppice showing the cut stems and large amount of light coming into the area

Coppicing is a traditional form of woodland management.  It seems counter-intuitive to cut down trees when you are trying to preserve ancient woodland but this is exactly what is needed.

First of all, a lot of species do not live very long unless they are coppiced.  By coppicing I mean cutting the tree down to allow it to sprout again from the base.  Hazel, in particular, thrives upon coppicing, living many times longer if it is repeatedly cut and allowed to regrow than if it is just allowed to grow and decay.  Other coppice species include ash, sweet chestnut, sycamore (not in our ancient woodland!), oak, willow, birch and alder.  Shrubs such as hawthorn, crab apple, holly and elder also coppice well.  In fact most trees will coppice provided they are not too old when cut, and provided the stems are protected from browsing while they are regrowing.

Our great ancient oak trees are not suitable for coppicing, but a relatively large area of our woodland has young, scrubby trees growing fast and crowding out each other and the light.  It also has an un-managed hedge boundary between the main woods and Betty’s Wood that can be revived by coppicing.

We started coppicing in 2009-10, cutting an area of predominantly willow, hawthorn, oak and a bit of hazel.  Since then we have extended the coppice area.

The photos here show a sequence:  the top photo is what an area is like when it has first been cut.  It looks bleak and empty, but it is not.  The key thing is that we have let in a lot of light to the area and this will stimulate both regrowth and regeneration.  At this stage we can do some targeted planting if we want to improve the diversity of the area.

2 and 4 year coppice

Coppice from 2 (foreground) and 4 (background) years ago showing regrowth

The next photo shows coppice that was cut 2 years ago.  It is regrowing quite strongly.  You can see we have protected the stumps (called coppice stools) using a combination of stock netting and chicken wire to prevent browsing of the new shoots by deer and rabbits.  This is essential – browsing can easily kill a regenerating coppice stool.  You can also see that there is a lot more ground flora in this area. A lot of woodland plants rely on coppicing to thrive, coming up periodically in the cleared areas to benefit from the light.  As well as some bramble, we have a patch of violet in this area, and the bluebells are spreading into what was once a sterile piece of ground.  Finally, we get natural regeneration happening – willow and birch seedlings are thriving because they have access to light, and where they come up, we provide them with protection.

4 year coppice

Coppice cut 4 years ago showing strong re-growth

Above we have a piece of coppice that was cut four years ago.  The regrowth on the willow, in particular, is over 10 feet/3metres, and the poles are 3 to 5 cm diameter at the base.  The hawthorn and oak are regrowing more slowly and will be cut less frequently.  There are some young oak that we are leaving to grow up as specimen trees or “standards” in our “coppice-with-standards” system.  We have also done some planting to increase the amount of hazel and ash in this area.  The regrowth will result in us being able to cut it again at about 7 to 10 years, and thus have a sustainable source of wood for craft, habitat and firewood.

We do the work ourselves.  It is not always straightforward as you can see below with a sequence of photos from the past weekend.

Hooking up the winch

A difficult twin-stemmed holly needs winching down

This year we are, amongst other things, clearing a patch of holly.  This has been slowly invading the coppice area and the problem is that it cuts out the light, particularly in the spring, which holds back regeneration.  Holly springs back very quickly, usually from root suckers, so we are not destroying this patch of holly, just reviving it, and allowing the coppice to thrive too.  However coppice species often have multiple and quite inter-twined stems.  This particular holly was separated at the base, and had welded itself together higher up, which mean both stems had to be felled together.  The area was confined, and the holly got “hung-up” rather than falling straight down.  we had to set up a winch to roll the tree away from the branches that were holding it.

Setting up the winch

Setting up the winch

We were using another, larger tree as a winch point, and you can see in the foreground the log pile, a brash pile (leaves and smaller stems) and behind that a habitat pile.  About 1/3 to 1/2 the brash will be left as habitat piles for birds and mammals to nest in, and the rest will be chipped to provide a good, dry surface on our paths and they will eventually rot down.  The log pile will be used mainly for firewood but the straighter stems may be used for rustic furniture making and some green wood turning.  We select wood that has crevices and particularly wood that is already a little bit rotten for the habitat pile.  Very large logs usually come from fallen branches, and we use these as sitting logs around the woods, and they provide habitat as they gradually decay.

Felled holly tree

Felled holly tree

We finally managed to fell the large holly (about 40ft, 13 metres tall), and here it is on the ground.  The smaller stem is underneath slightly to the right and cannot be seen in this photo.

Felled holly

Felled holly showing just how much light is now coming in.

And here are the final results.  You can see just how much more light is being let in.  The ring of stumps around the large oak are all holly, and you can see just how much it was dominating the area.  We still have to cut the hazel in the hedge in the background, and then our coppice will be open to the sun and ready to regrow strongly.  There is a lovely standing dead tree in the background too, providing excellent habitat for wildlife.  We leave our standing deadwood as habitat, and have no plans to fell this old tree.

In future we will extend our coppice along Betty’s Wood boundary to refresh the boundary hedge.  We always leave joined-up canopies as a route for dormice (although we have no evidence that they are present despite a survey for them), and never fell old trees with holes and hollows that are good habitat for owls, bats and other creatures.  The younger trees, however, should respond very well and the whole woods should be rejuvenated.  The coppice only comprises about 1/5 of the woodland.  There are other areas and plenty of other habitats being managed in different ways.  We have some areas planted with young trees that will become coppice of the future in the ancient woodland and in Betty’s Wood which was planted in 2010-11.

Coppicing is part of the way in which we try to ensure that there is an excellent variety of habitats in our woods – we also have mature ancient trees, wood pasture, wildflower meadows, hedgerows, dead hedges, thickets, areas that will become continuous cover forestry, and wet woodland, as well as eleven ponds.  The wildlife has already responded and we hope to report more and more species making their homes in our woods in the future.

Backlighting

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

I confess to a weakness for backlit photos, as I just feel that backlighting, or at least light that is coming obliquely from behind, really brings out something mystical and magical about the subjects.  This weekend we were blessed with the most fantastic light for photography, with the autumn light coming in at a low angle and making the insects and plants shine in a way that it does not during the high summer.

Backlit Spider

Backlit Spider

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

Speckled Wood

I set out deciding to focus on this light and took some photos around our woods.  There has been something of a late summer revival in the weather, and it was very warm, with late speckled wood butterflies, large whites, brimstones and common blues on the wing, as well as emperor dragonflies, southern hawkers, common hawkers, brown hawkers and lots of common darters still basking and hunting around our meadows and ponds.

One particularly special moment came while I was photographing a lovely little spider, and a common darter dragonfly actually came down and landed on my hand.  I managed to move my hand and take one picture before it flew away.

Perched on my hand

Perched on my hand – a common darter dragonfly

Backlighting is special, although you need to make some adjustments to exposure or you end up with a silhouette – I use the exposure compensation setting to over-expose the pictures relative to the metred value, keeping the camera in aperture-priority mode to give me control of depth of field.  Sometimes you need to over-expose by more than you think!

Autumn is very fast approaching, but for the moment, there is still the opportunity to take some summery photos, and I was grateful for the light at the weekend to help me capture these backlit images.

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

Common darter

 

Dragonflies on sticks

Common Darter

Common Darter

For the last week or so, we have noticed lots and lots of common darter dragonflies around the edge of Betty’s Wood, our newly-planted area adjacent to the ancient woodland area.  At the edge of this site, we have a wide strip that is naturally-regenerating woodland, with a central area that has been planted.  Whenever we see a little sapling emerging, we protect it with a tree-guard and cane to help prevent it being browsed off by muntjac deer and rabbits, at least until it is able to take care of itself.  So we have a lot of these canes sticking up among the grass and wildflowers.  It is these canes that common darter dragonflies seem to love.

On almost every cane along the south-eastern border of the woods, in the shelter of the trees, sits a common darter.  Males and females are both sitting there, occasionally jousting for position on what is presumably a more desirable cane.

Dragonflies love to sit on dead stems of reedmace, sedges and other emergent plants in the ponds, but despite having a profusion of these emergent stems, the common darters seem to prefer the bamboo canes, and particularly like the sheltered section in the lee of the ancient wood, where there is little wind and lots of sun for most of the day.

I managed to take a few pictures of these beautiful dragonflies over the last few days in the midst of all our hay-making activity.

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Common Darter

Green Woodworking – A Developing Skill


It has been slow developing, but I’m now developing a real love for green woodworking, and in particular green wood turning using a pole lathe.
The first time I had a go was in November 2011, when Peter Wood from Greenwood Days came to the woods to give us an introduction.  Then in 2012 I attended a stool-making course with Greenwood Days, and Peter very kindly built me a pole lathe.  I also managed to get a shave-horse, and was now set up to do wood turning.
Of course that came at the wrong time of year – no new wood would be cut until the winter, so I had no green wood to play with.  I did a little bit of turning with dry wood, but it wasn’t really suitable.  I turned a few mushrooms from stems we did cut during the summer, but I was waiting for the winter with great enthusiasm.
Our winter started late, thanks to deteriorating health, and a stay in hospital, but having now got stuck in to thinning we have some green wood to work with.  So it was that my pole lathe and shave horse were moved into our new wood-drying shed, providing a great sheltered area to work in.
The pole lathe is adjustable in height, which means we can both use it, and also uses a bungee as this allows it to be moved around easily, and used both indoors and out (helpful when the weather turns really cold).  The first task was to get some billets large enough to work with – not easy, as most of the stems we were felling were quite small, at least initially.
So it was that I started off turning mushrooms from complete poles of sycamore.  In a way this is harder than working with a nice straight billet split from a log, as you don’t get a completely straight pole, so starting off on the lathe is quite jerky and difficult.  However I managed to produce some workable mushrooms of different sizes, and tried out some hawthorn and holly as well.  The hawthorn was surprisingly easy to work, considering how it is often very twisted, and also a very hard wood when it is dry.  But the holly was very hard to work – very dense, very wet, and in the end the mushrooms split too easily after working, early on in the drying process.  I will probably leave the remaining holly poles to dry a bit before working them.
I then managed to split some oak and ash logs and started working them.  Bearing in mind my entire pole lathe experience to date has been one not-altogether-great garden dibber, three stool legs (they were better) and a few mushrooms, this was a bit daunting.  I’d never really used the spindle gouge or skew chisel in anger, never turned a bead, could only work handles and knobs in one direction.  In short, I was a complete beginner.
But I tried to apply what I had learned to date.  Although I have a side-axe, I find it much easier to use my little Gransfors hatchet to axe off the corners of the split logs.  It is light enough for me to use, and although it isn’t a side axe, I find it works more like a knife, and it suits me.  I can certainly get the crude billets reasonably round and straight, whereas the heavier side axe is harder to use and I get fatigued more quickly.
I then used the draw-knife to shave the pieces into smoother, rounder, straighter billets.  I love shaving, and could honestly get carried away and shave too much before it ever gets to the lathe.  It is just a peaceful and therapeutic activity, sitting in the woods, listening to the woodpeckers drumming, sipping coffee and enjoying the winter sunshine.
Then the big test – the lathe.  It took a while to remember all the things you need to do.  Getting it centred, oiling the spindles, getting it set up so that the gearing is correct (how many turns to the cord to use).  But in the end, I managed to get started.
The roughing gouge is easy, and I wasn’t scared of using it, so I managed to get a round piece of wood quite quickly.  But then I had to move on to other tools, and just had to make mistakes until I got the hang of turning beads using the skew chisel, turning spindles using the spindle gouge, and smoothing it all off using the flat chisel.  Stephen also had some tools he has used on a powered lathe, and I had a go with these – various scrapers and a gouge with a different diameter.
Slowly and surely, I started to produce stuff that wasn’t too bad.  Lots and lots of cord-pulls, some toilet roll and kitchen roll holders, a couple of rolling pins, a few garden dibbers, and a honey-dipper.   I tried turning round knobs at the end of things – first at one end, and then at the other end of the piece.  I learned to turn things in both directions, so I didn’t get lazy and one-handed.  It was so exciting to start off with enthusiasm and no skill and very gradually start to gain control over what was happening with the wood.
One thing I really loved was putting the billet onto the lathe and then looking at the wood and deciding what the wood wanted to be made into, rather than starting with a pre-conceived idea of what I would make from it.
Now we have finished thinning, I have a window of a few weeks in which to turn the larger logs I have into stool legs so they can dry out, and be mounted into a stool, bench or table top made from seasoned wood (of which we have plenty).  I am enjoying trying out different types of green wood – ash is lovely, but holly needs a bit more work, oak can be a bit flaky, and I’ve got some sycamore, hawthorn and some larch to try (it didn’t work – but I had a go).
I find I can lose track of time with my wood turning.  I get up to the woods mid-morning, and forget to eat or drink, even though I have sandwiches and a flask.  I can spend all day there, and get home with something to show for it.  Something that feels special, because it is part of the woods, was made in the woods, and has a part of my heart and soul and toil in it.
There is so much more to learn.  I would love to make lovely handles for tools, for example.  I really want to learn how to make a bowl-turning pole lathe and turn bowls from green wood.  One day I want to make another shave horse from our own wood.  I am SO pleased I took the plunge, went on a course, learned how to do it, and then persisted.  I have made lots of mistakes.  The stuff I make is far from perfect.  But every little bit of wood is an exercise in which I can learn and gain skills.  And if it goes really wrong, the shavings can be used in the Kelly-kettle and the rest dried out and used as kindling – so nothing is wasted.

Autumn in the Woods



At the risk of sounding repetitious, autumn is my favourite time of year.  Oak trees aren’t usually colourful in autumn.  Many years they simply go from green to brown to fallen in a very short space of time.  But this year, we have had some amazing colours, enhanced by the fact that the young trees in Betty’s Wood are now head high, and are also changing colour.  We have some stunning colour from our field maple, rowan, birch, sweet chestnut, cherry and other trees in Betty’s Wood, as well as our beautiful oaks, which this year are turning wonderful shades of yellow, orange and brown.
It isn’t just the trees that enhance this time of year:  we have had a wonderful display of fungi, too – on logs, on the woodland floor, on twigs, on wood-chippings – a display of colour, shapes and amazing delicacy.
The birds are also active, looking for seeds and berries.  No fieldfares yet, but our flock of linnets are back in Betty’s Wood, eating the seeds from our wildflowers, skimming along at head height, chittering their happy little song.  The buzzard chick is still asking its parents for food, although it is fully grown, ranging over the fields and over Betty’s Wood, perching at the woodland edge.
The squirrels are busy burying their caches of acorns and seeds, and the jays are screeching as they too cache food for the winter.  Mice and voles are everywhere, building little nests in our spare boots that we leave at the woods for emergencies, as well as under the bonnet of the tractor and in many other not-always-appropriate places.

Our wood-drying shed is now finished, so we can dry our firewood much more readily with the aim that we can sell bundles at our open days next year.  We are preparing to do a bit more coppicing, and to do some thinning in our plantation area to let more light into the woodland floor – our bit of harvesting, but harvesting that will renew the trees and stimulate growth next year.

I love autumn because it is time of hope – things are dying back, but we are storing things away for the winter to see us through the dark days.  Things are dying but in amongst all the death and decay are signs of renewal – seeds are sown, the leaf litter provides a habitat, a home, material for nests, nutrients for the trees and soil.  Nature is taking a breath after the frantic activity of spring and summer, taking stock, marshalling its resources to have another go next year.   Nature’s breath of beauty, wonder, colour, harvesting, storing, renewal and hope.  I love it!