Farming Today

Presenters, producers and owners at Alvecote Wood.

BBC Radio Four Farming Today at Alvecote Wood

It has been too long since I updated this blog – and too many other things have got in the way.  But last weekend we were invited to take part in the BBC Radio Four Farming Today programme feature all about woodlands and forests.

The presenters and producers were extremely nice people.  They visited the woods, along with the Chairman of the Royal Forestry Society, and we recorded the whole programme from the woods, including links to other segments recorded on other days.

We were keen to point out the multiple uses to which woodland can be put, as well as its value for wildlife, and the importance of management.  Leaving it alone generally results in one or two species becoming dominant.  In order to maintain a variety of habitats, particularly in smaller woodland that has been affected by human activity in the past, you need to do some management.

The programme is available as a podcast and on iPlayer if you live in the UK.

Alvecote Wood on Farming Today.

Bugs (and weevils)

Curculio venosus - an acorn weevil

Curculio venosus – an acorn weevil

Bugs are often overlooked and ignored, and often misunderstood as well, but are really very beautiful and spectacular when you get in close. Yesterday, I was lucky enough to find a wonderful collection of several species of shield bug as well as two species of weevil on one small patch of nettles at the woods.

Shield bugs are flat bugs with a back that resembles a shield, and sucking mouthparts which extract sap from plants. They are also called “stink bugs” because they exude foul smelling and tasting fluid when threatened to deter predators.

Hairy Shieldbug

Hairy Shieldbug

Woundwort Shieldbug

Woundwort Shieldbug

Dock Bug

Dock Bug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Green Shieldbug

Weevils also have a bad reputation as plant pests, with different species specialising in different plants. In our case, in an oak woodland, we found an acorn weevil, looking like a truly alien being – a bit like StarBug from Red Dwarf!

This set of photographs shows some of the variety and beauty of these overlooked creatures.

Bluebells

Bluebells

Bluebells

English bluebells. To me the are the English countryside in spring. We are so very fortunate to have a lot of English bluebells at our woods, concentrated in two main areas, but with patches scattered throughout the whole woodland.

This week they have really started to come into flower, just a little bit early this year thanks to the mild March and April that we have had. There are two main areas – an area we call The Plantation because of larch that was planted there, and the bottom part of the woods. Both of these areas have bluebells with bracken developing later in the year.

Over the last two years, the exceptionally mild winters have meant we had no frost under the trees, and this has led to brambles taking over, particularly in the Plantation area, because they have not been killed off by the frost. Letting them get a head start in the spring means that they dominate the bluebells, and last year the display suffered. This year we have cut back the bramble to allow the bluebells to recover.

We have not been disappointed by the display!

Bluebells

Bluebells

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells

Bluebells

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bluebells on Woodland Floor

Bracken among the bluebells

Bracken among the bluebells

A Tour Around the Woods

Our woods are probably at their most beautiful during the spring. This week we welcomed the Royal Forestry Society here on a visit, and I filmed some video as we went round, adding some stills and a commentary afterwards. This really gives you a feel for the woods and their wildlife. It lasts about 11 minutes, but in reality it takes about an hour to walk round.

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.

Helpful Robins

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin looks like he is sitting in a bubble

Robin on a Stick

Robin on a Stick – sitting on the cloned willow stick

Round Robin

Round Robin

Robins nearly always show up whenever you do any work in the woods. Last week I was cloning some willow. This means you cut about 18 inch/50 cm lengths of wood about 1 inch/2.5 cm diameter.  Then, making sure it is the right way up, push it into the ground about 15cm or so, put a guard around it to prevent browsing, and the vast majority of willow will re-sprout into a new tree.

I nearly didn’t take my camera.  But I was glad I did.  The little robin was waiting for me to hammer in one of the sticks, then coming down to perch on it while I went to fetch the guard from the wheelbarrow.  And when he wasn’t doing that, he was perched in the tree close by.

I managed to snap one photo of him with the light just right – he looked like he was sitting in a bubble!

 

Early Spring

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Alder Catkins

Birch Catkins

Birch Catkins

Willow Catkins

Willow Catkins

Golden Tassels - Hazel Catkins

Golden Tassels – Hazel Catkins

I’ve seen hazel catkins out in January before (just!), but never seen willow or alder catkins at this time of year.  Yet that is what is happening at the woods right now.  The lack of a really harsh frost this winter has led to everything being extremely early.  We have buds on our daffodils, bud burst on elder, and a load of catkins coming out, producing pollen and giving me hay-fever!

These photos were all taken last week.  Hazel, birch, alder and willow catkins coming out.  It really seems crazy.  We have had frost, but not a hard frost, and no frost under the trees themselves.  I hope we don’t get a hard and late frost to set everything back now they have started to come up.

Mystical Winter Light

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

Mystical Light and Frosty Path

As a photographer, I am always interested in light.  So it might seem strange that I love the winter, because it tends to be dark and grim, at least in the UK.  However the quality of light at this time of year can be absolutely magical.  We all know of the golden hour near sunset and sunrise, when the light is warmer and more gentle, lighting subjects from a low angle.

Angled Shadows on path

Angled Shadows

However in winter in the UK, the light is always coming from a low angle because the sun never gets very high in the sky – and while it may not have the intoxicating warmth of a summer evening, it does have a lovely gentle and watery quality that simply isn’t available at any other time of year.

frosty-walk-102

As well as a low angle and gentle watery quality, winter light is also enhanced by the cold weather bringing mist, frost and occasional snow.  The other day I was privileged to walk round the woods at just the right time of day.  There had been a very heavy overnight frost which was melting in the sunshine, adding water vapour and mist to the sense of wonder.  There was also mist rising from the ponds and canal and settling in the flood plain where the woods are situated.

Sun on the boundary

Sun on the boundary

So we have the wonderful quality and angle of the light, frost, mist and the wonderful bonus of the trees without leaves.  The form of the trees can be clearly seen at this time of year too.  In summer, all is lost in the confusion of leaves, but right now, you can see every detail, every shape.  The shadows also have much more form than in summer.  The combination of light and form is quite intoxicating.  The beauty gives me a squeezy feeling in my stomach.

Winter light in the plantation

Winter light in the plantation

I took a series of landscape shots as I walked round, trying to capture that squeezy feeling – the mystical beauty of mist, light and trees.  You don’t get the mystical winter light every day, but when you do, it can take your breath away.

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Frost Mist Trees and Shadows

Winter colour in the plantation

Winter colour in the plantation

Yet more amazing sunsets

Painted Sky

Painted Sky

This year seems to have been a really special one for sunsets at the woods. Following on from the unreal skies I posted a short while ago, we had another stunning and unexpected sunset just before Christmas.

Not a promising start

Not a promising start

I had actually just gone to the woods to feed the birds, and only took my little camera with me.  As I hung up the last of the feeders, I thought that the light was looking quite good, so I decided to go for a little walk.  The sunset was not that promising, and a bank of cloud was coming over, but I decided to wait a few minutes longer.  And then the sky started to turn pink and orange.

Starting to go pink

Starting to go pink

More and more colour

More and more colour

The colour started to develop until the whole sky was scarlet.  I headed down to the ponds to try and catch some reflections in the surface of the water.  I was rewarded with some great colour and photos.

Red sky

Red sky

Reflections

Reflections

The colour started to turn from orange/red to magenta, pink and purple as I walked round the bottom of Betty’s Wood and up through the meadows back towards the main woods.  Even as I arrived at the main clearing, there was still some pink in the sky, and I caught the last rays of the sun before heading home.

Getting darker

Getting darker

Pink and purple

Pink and purple

Sun setting

Sun setting

The colours were totally unreal – as if a child had some pots of bright-coloured paints and mixed them all up and threw them across the sky.  Winter is a really special time of year for sunsets.  What has been most interesting this year is that the best colour has been in the north-east, and not in the south-west where the sun is actually setting.

I hope you are not bored of seeing pictures of winter sunsets – I never tire of their beauty.

The last rays

The last rays

Unreal Skies

The Sunset Starts

The Sunset Starts

Sky on Fire!

Sky on Fire!

A few days ago, I was at the woods at sunset, when an absolutely astonishing sunset began to happen. As the sun started to go down in the south-west, as it does at this time of year, the clouds opposite, in the north-east, started to take on an amazing colour.

The Colour Starts to Build

The Colour Starts to Build

The Colour Spreads

The Colour Spreads

At Its Glorious Peak

At Its Glorious Peak

Slowly the colour began to get progressively more intense, and the colour started to change from yellow, through orange, to pink. The clouds looked like a scene from the movie “Independence Day”. Every cloud seemed to be affected and the sky looked as if it were on fire.
Every minute, the scene was changing, as it faded through shades of red and pink to darkness.
I have never seen a sky like it over the woods. It was quite incredible.

Fading to Pink

Fading to Pink

Continuing to Fade to pink

Continuing to Fade to pink

Sun Disappearing

Sun Disappearing

Last Pink Clouds

Last Pink Clouds

The last rays

The last rays opposite the entrance