Saturday, 20 December 2014

Can't see the wood for the holly

While trying to decide where to thin some Scots Pine on the north-west side of OC2 we saw that we would first have to remove a great deal of dense dark holly in order to see what we were doing.  

Holly has value in woodland. The berries are a valuable foodstuff for birds. It's a food plant for the Holly Blue butterfly. A holly understory is thought to help create a more stable micro climate for roosting bats. This can be very important as they risk frost damage to delicate wing, tail, and ear membranes. Dense groves of holly are characteristic of the woodland type we have at Old Copse: lowland acid beech and oak woods (NVC W15 /16).

But holly can form an underwood almost as effective as rhododendron in eliminating ground vegetation, so clearing it from around mature beech and oak will be necessary  if oak and beech are to regenerate. At present continuous belts of holly are obscuring large and small oaks, beech and rowan. The aim is to establish instead, holly stands with oak and beech between them. When the job is done the deciduous trees will have more light and space, and we will be able to see more clearly which Scots Pine needs to be removed and which can be left to grow on.

A dense holly wall blocks light and access

After a bit of clearance it's possible to see what lies beyond the holly

Veteran beech hiding in the holly
As in all aspects of woodland management, some sort of balance is needed. What comes first, protecting healthy deciduous trees and encouraging  natural regeneration, or making sure that birds have plenty to eat, and bats keep their ears warm? How do we make sure we  protect all woodland interests? Well, I think the bats' ears will be ok, it doesn't get that cold in the parts of the wood  with the densest holly, and enough will be left for them to keep their roosts warm. The same with the birds, not all the holly will be removed, so there should still be plenty of food for them. And for the fallow deer too.

Holly is a tough wood, especially when cutting with a bow saw;  a chainsaw is potentially dangerous in a holly removal situation as it's difficult to see what's what in the midst of the tangle of prickly springiness. Also, the worst of the holly is growing  in the steepest part of the wood, so for obvious reasons, handtools are best for the job. Cut trunks and branches are easy to haul about into bonfire piles, and results are gratifyingly speedy.

Happy Christmas 2014

Saturday, 29 November 2014

Late Autumn felling, bonfires and fungi

This time of the year until Spring is the busiest for woodland people. However adverse the weather conditions, it's a time for speeding  up the work of felling, thinning, pollarding and coppicing. One of our management plan targets is to remove a minimum 30% of the Scots Pine plantation. This was planted by the Forestry Commission in 1956/7, after they had clear felled nearly all the beautiful mature trees, mostly oak and beech, that then covered Old Copse . Yes I know, incredible, what were they thinking.

Anyway, the Scots Pine has not been properly thinned and are mostly weedy specimens desperately  reaching for the light. Although poor and thin, they are at least 60 feet tall, and each one, when felled, comes down with a great dramatic whumph!. 

We estimate that the 30 acres we are restoring contain approximately 2,400 Scots Pine. This means that we must remove at least 800. To date, only about 100 have been felled, and 43 of these went to build the cabin.  There currently seems to be little value in Scots Pine. Although in continental Europe and Scandinavia it has long been  used as fuel, in England it is viewed with suspicion. 'It spits, gums up the chimney' etc.

However,  there is now a growing pine biomass market. The problem is that contractors will do it for 'free' if they can take the profit on a clear fell, or at least  an 80% fell , and use huge machinery which will trample over the small broadleaves that we want to nurture. Well, we can't have that, we wouldn't have a wood if 80% of the trees were felled, so we are felling gradually and carefully, while protecting regeneration . A very expensive way to do things, paying foresters to take out specific trees. The small woodland grants currently available go nowhere near covering costs.

But, things might be looking up. Coming on stream next year are new grants for woodland businesses to help them with the costs of machinery. Our forester has applied for a grant towards buying a small harvester which will enable selective thinning and would work very well in our situation. He will be able to fell many more trees at any one time while preserving regenerating broadleaf saplings. Fingers crossed that his grant comes through.

David Abbott from Sparrowhatch Forestry

Today was focussed on felling pine near the cabin, to open up the view to the Pond and enable selected Scots Pines -which are after all very beautiful trees -  to grow on to their full maturity.

It was an eye opener  to watch our forester's impressive skill in felling these tall trees so near to the cabin; one of them falling in the wrong place could easily have demolished it. The trunks were cut and stacked and the tops made a huge bonfire. Lovely! A very enjoyable and satisfying day, added to by the discovery of large quantities of Winter Chanterelles.

 Seen and heard today: A varied  assortment of  birdlife enjoying a new source of drinking water, created by the run-off from the Ride-side drain cleared earlier this year. They flew off before they could be properly identified  A buzzard swooping over the Ride and circling in the warm air rising from the bonfire. A solitary young deer running past the cabin. A tawny owl hunting through the pines at dusk. Very noisy ducks  squabbling and settling down for the night. Wild geese flying low over the Pond.

Plate of winter chanterelles (Craterellus tubaeformis) gathered in the pines

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Autumn at Old Copse

Sometimes things don't go to plan. The BBC weather chart said sunshine all day, so it was off to the wood to get a few hours work in. But the sun soon disappeared and the rain poured down for an hour or more.  We just took to the cabin, brewed up tea and enjoyed the rain, the wonderful light and colours, from the shelter of the deck until it stopped and we could get back to work. But before we did that, we took time to look again at some of our favourite parts of the wood.

A particularly lovely view of the Pond

The cabin seen from the Pond

A continuation of Frenchbridge Ghyll which drains into the Pond. This is a very atmospheric part of Old Copse, secretive and hidden , a little like a Helford River Creek.
No idea how this old iron cart wheel got here. The whole area floods in the winter .This wet ghyll woodland is rich in wildlife including adders and slow-worms. 

Cabin Point:  A view of the Pond from the cabin 
Another view: from the cabin window

Our beautiful composting loo in the bracken, beech and pine

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Visiting Other Woods

Autumn was well advanced high in the Troodos mountain forest near Mount Olympus on a recent visit. The whole area is extremely rich in  flora including the wild service tree, juniper, oriental alder and plane; golden oak and black pine -  many of these over 500 years old, and some up to a 1,000. Plus waterfalls , and streams flickering with young trout. The major threat to these beautiful,  natural woods is fire during the scorching summers. At least we don't have that to contend with at damp Old Copse. Much birdlife too: treecreepers , woodlarks, warblers ,  nightingales  - and  Hoopoes, my favourite.

Strawberry Tree trunks, moss covered rocks. Looks like a Japanese garden.

Oriental Plane, Black Pine

Wednesday, 15 October 2014


Trying to decide if this archaeological feature marks an ancient cess-pit cover or a Spring

Today we welcomed Hilary to Old Copse. Under the auspices of the Woodland Trust/Sussex Wildlife Trust  'PAWS' restoration project  she is going  to research Old Copse's history by visiting Horsham Museum and West Sussex records office in Chichester to study old documents and extend our understanding of  the wood's past.

Hilary lives nearby , and in addition to research she has offered to help  with work at the wood , which is fantastic. We are slowly  building up a circle of  enthusiasts  who bring their expertise and energy to the restoration of the wood. Each brings different ideas/ life experience to the task , which can only enrich what we do.....and there is a great deal to do.

 And here is our spanking new entrance, gate, track, and parking area,  in the birch clearing on the east side of the wood. This gives us a safe turn in off the road, a firm surface to drive on, and space for timber extraction vehicles when needed.

Hilary spotted our resident kingfisher zooming along the pond, and last week, a stoat, (or weasel) was seen in one of the scots pine timber stacks. A magnificent  stag with huge antlers was in the birchwood, and a young one just developing its adult spotted coat, leapt past within 10 feet of me when I was outside the cabin. The owls seem to be getting out of bed early - we hear them at about 3.30pm. Perhaps they're practising for when the clocks go back.

Sunday, 5 October 2014


Back in August 2010 (see post 14.8.2010 'Still Working on the Ride) a friend's son,  Milo, 15 years old, came to help us in the wood. He was doing his Duke of Edinburgh's Award at the time and was interested in nature and the environment. He had tried scrub bashing on the Downs as a volunteer but that really wasn't his thing. He enjoyed working at Old Copse, and we were very impressed by his energy and enthusiasm. He went on to do his GCSE's and A Levels and could have gone on to university, but instead he enrolled on a course at Plumpton College for a Diploma in Forestry and Aboriculture, Next year he qualifies . It's nice to think that his experience of working at Old Copse had a role in helping him choose that path.

Yesterday, now aged 19,  he made short work of felling a section of ride-side birch, creating a large scallop to let in light and air. While he cut and stacked the timber neatly , we disposed of the treetops, off  the ride. Another job well done.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Conversations at the Woodfair

To the Bentley Woodfair on Friday to meet the experts and have wood-related conversations. Here's a record of some of the things we learned and the people we met.

Managing sallows (Salix caprea)
We  met an understory expert who was weaving willow baskets. He advised that sallows are short-lived and need active management. Pollarding is ideal. The pollarded tree will send out shoots that grown c 3ft each year. These shoots should be harvested in rotation cutting every one or two years. The one year shoots can be used for pea sticks, the two year shoots for creating in situ rough hurdles or for dry hedging. Sallow shoots are not suitable for basket weaving (unlike osiers) as they have too many side shoots, which even if cut off will leave the main shoot weakened. Regular pollarding and harvesting of shoots will raise the light levels and create the diversity of ages of growth that butterflies need for food sources. So, we really need to get on with completing the pollarding of the willow grove, especially if we aim to attract the purple emperor back to its historic breeding ground.

Old Copse pines were planted in 1957
Falling in conversation with a dealer in edged tools from Eridge, he told us that his first job in 1957 was planting and caring for the pine plantation in Old Copse. He witnessed 7ft wide beech trees being cut down and dragged out of the wood to clear for the pine planting. More than 50 years later, he still remembers the sight and thought it was a shame. His job was to weed between the newly planted pines. He worked alone and never saw anyone from one week to the next, apart from the forester who arrived in his landrover to pay him his wages.  Must have been a lonely job.

Growing oyster mushrooms
Had a long chat with Richard Mansfield-Clark of on cultivating mushrooms on logs. Unlike conventional wisdom (ie what I have learned from searching the Internet) he maintained:

  • once mushroom impregnated dowels have been inserted into logs, there is no need to seal the dowel ends with wax. It doesn't provide much protection and is expensive.
  • there is no need to put logs in a plastic bag. The important thing is to keep the logs damp. The best way to do this is to stand the logs on end, with the bottom ends buried c 6" in the ground. He showed me a picture of his mushroom logs standing upright, supported by a simple horizontal bar to stop them falling over
  • once mushrooms have fruited, they will continue for the following two/three years
SWA or SWOG - what's the difference?
There is a lot of crossover in membership. Small Woods Association has been established longer and typically members have slightly larger woods. SWOG is sponsored and supported by and reflects the interests of smaller woodland owners who are often newer wood owners.

Nice things to buy
Finally met a nice brother and sister selling all things fire-related at Based in Horsham, we have invited them to the wood to see the log cabin. Might buy a lantern as well!

Monday, 15 September 2014

A Busy Day

Waiting for Wiggo
Where's the breakaway?
A busier Saturday than usual  at Old Copse: First thing, opening the gates for Bob, plus Jeep and trailer,  to load some cordwood, When he collected some last February he got temporarily bogged down in the mud, but with the dry weather and our track repairs he had no trouble this time. He suggested doing regular felling for us in exchange for some  free wood - we're certainly interested in this sort of barter.

Then meeting the  neighbours lined up on the road waiting for the Tour of Britain to whizz by Old Copse .  After a longish wait, the cyclists were  heralded by  motorbikes with headlights blazing, and followed by support cars  - like the Tour de France, only smaller.

Well, we meant to enter this year - we've got all the gear!
Here they come

And they're gone

All the excitement was over in 10 minutes, and it was back to the wood to meet a contractor for the planned new entrance and track into Old Copse. Then coffee with friends camping in the wood over the weekend. They were using a simple small tarp slung between the trees, open at the sides and front. It looked far preferable to being zipped into an enclosed plastic tent but a trifle chilly perhaps at 5am. We soon set them to work thinning the birch on the ride.

Camping under a tarp

The endless task that is ride-side clearance
Making stakes for tree guards
The rhododendron never gives up, still making an appearance after numerous bonfires on it.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

How to dry mushrooms

Stage 1- first pick your mushrooms. This is a collection of various Boletus.

Stage 2 - slice them and leave to dry on newspaper for a day, either indoors or outside in the garden.

Stage 3 - thread on strings and hang somewhere warm and airy until completely dry. These ones are hanging by the loft window. 

Monday, 8 September 2014

Visiting another wood

Such an enjoyable and interesting  visit to Sylvia and Steve's wood, 4 1/2 miles south west of  Old Copse.  The wood , on flat land,  is  part of a narrow 'shaw' surrounded by fields. It is designated ancient woodland, and the structure of it is perfect,  with  many mature trees, a canopy of mainly ash ( no sign of ash die back disease)  with  beech, oak and birch,  -  a mature  hawthorn and even  a wild service tree.  The understory has much hazel,  some crab apple and  bird cherry. The floor is smothered in dog's mercury,  and sedge which they are controlling in the wet and compacted areas. As for woodland 'thugs', there are a few small patches of bramble, and a bit of bracken around the edges - lucky people.  This structure is exactly what we're aiming for at  Old Copse.

The farmer who sold them the land had previously used the wooded section for an  off road 4 x 4  business which caused extensive  damage to the ground. But it is now slowly healing, and at this time of the year the scars are difficult to see. In time, though many of the worst compacted ruts will remain, they will soften and eventually blend in. It's good that Sylvia and Steve have stepped in to look after this lovely piece of woodland.

There is not much evidence of deer, though they are certainly around. Their deer stalker seems to have done a great job in reducing their numbers .  In addition to the woodland there is an adjoining  2 acre field. 3 years ago they planted up most of it,  leaving an open area in the middle, with a mixture of native broadleaves, and a variety of fruit and nut trees. These have suffered periodic deer attacks, but the majority have survived and many of them  are now just about above deer munching height. They made simple (and relatively cheap) deer protectors of stakes and fencing wire (bought by the roll from Horsham Fencing).The deer have tried, with some success, to push these down, but overall this protection has been adequate.

One of our management plan targets is to clear fell 1/2 hectare in the OC2 birch and replant with native broadleaves.  Old Copse topography is different to Sylvia and Steve's, though the underlying soil is more or less the same. One of the difficulties in doing something similar to them is that Old Copse is on a slope and the top soil is probably a great deal thinner and less fertile than their flat open field. Next time we visit we will check the depth and take a soil sample. Sylvia explained that most of their trees were supplied by Ashridge nurseries, which we will investigate.

Other useful tips  included their lighting system, which consists of LED bulbs connected to a battery. They use a 15W solar panel to recharge the battery. This is not permanently mounted, but moved in and out as required and to catch the sun. They also have an inverter to run laptops. Suppliers include LED Hut (online)and Maplins. They suggested that we try a strimmer for bracken control. This is another good idea, and we may try hiring one for a day to see how effective one is before we take the step of buying one.