Monday, 26 May 2014

A Spot of Essential Navvying

Entrance ruts being filled with sticks

Much as we enjoy  just sitting in the sun watching the birds and butterflies in Old Copse, there is always work to be done.

The Ride suffers from intermittent flooding, making it difficult and sometimes impossible for vehicles to drive up it,  for example, to load  timber. The Forestry Commission,  owners of the woodland until about 1987,  hard surfaced the entrance and a small turning area. In the following  quarter century plus of total neglect, these surfaces have become lost in a thick layer of grassy mulch which becomes mud in the rain, especially during exceptionally wet winters. Further up the the Ride drainage is needed urgently.

We tackled the drive in problem by our patent method of filling the soupy holes and trenches with small logs and sandstone rocks from the wood,  and covering these with a layer of  'Type 1'. We hope this lasts a couple of years until we are forced to scrape and re-surface the area properly.

Top layer of Type 1

Sarah then discovered the drain was blocked at the lowest point of the Ride where flooding is worst. After digging out a new channel with a spade and unblocking the pipe with rods,  the drain is now working again . Very hard and muddy work, but very satisfying. The water can now drain under the ride and down into the wood.  At the higher end the ditch which should feed it is completely blocked, so clearing that is the next task. This area becomes very flooded and overgrown with common (or soft) rush (Juncus effusus). We hope that this drainage work will help the area revert back to fine grass and allow a variety of flora to flourish.


Drain rodding

Job done

Next job - clear out the ditch

Monday, 19 May 2014

Oh Deer

Fallow deer originated in the Mediterranean and Middle East, and introduced to Europe by the Romans. The Normans  then introduced them to Britain for hunting where they were originally kept in royal forests and deer parks. Over the centuries they escaped, hunting  ceased and their natural predators, wolves and bears,  exterminated. Their numbers grow, largely unchecked.

Some localised culling of UK deer is carried out occasionally but increasing numbers are having an adverse impact on natural habitats , wildlife and the foodchains they support.In 2009/10 the largest herd of deer counted in Old Copse numbered twenty. In January 2011 (this year) on one day thirty were counted and it's thought  there were more as they were difficult to count in dense birch.

They feed on virtually anything green and will strip the bark from young saplings and shrubs, both grazing and browsing up to a height of 1.8 metres,  causing damage above that height by biting through thin stems to make them fall within their reach.  The males  cause damage by stropping the felt from their antlers on thin saplings, often fatally damaging the bark in the process. Fortunately, bluebells are poisonous to them and they don't like foxgloves.

 Most surviving understorey plants are above browsing height. Honeysuckle and ivy only exist where they have reached above browsing height in the past and there is minimal bramble despite there being plenty of seedlings.There are  saplings  a decade or so old but few escape an are new and less than browsing height.  There is a continually regenerating seed bank as, in the spring and summer,  new seedlings can be seen, but   these are soon grazed. They are quite often seen on the increasingly grassy and (in the damper parts) rush covered Ride. but don't appear to eat much of this, preferring young oak leaves etc Their  increasing numbers have an adverse impact on natural habitat, and the foodchains they  support, not only at Old Copse but all over the UK.

Beautiful as these creatures are, there are far too many for our 30 acres to support as can easily be seen by the poor  regeneration in the wood. They are remarkably unconcerned by our presence. Seen browsing on the ride,  they have a good stare until we get quite close, when they amble off  into the wood. In contrast, as soon as they see Stuart the deerstalker, with his camouflage clothing and rifle, they make themselves scarce.  In 2009/10 the largest herd of deer counted in Old Copse numbered twenty. In January 2011 on one day thirty were counted and it's thought  there were more as they were difficult to count in dense birch.These numbers will keep increasing without regular (successful) stalking They are remarkably unconcerned by our presence.

Stuart just emailed the records of his two seasons deer stalking at Old Copse. The fallow season runs from October 1st to March 31st. During the first season -  2012/13  he managed , with the occasional help of a colleague,   to pot 11 out of a target of 12.  Only 6 were bagged in the 2013/14 season, possibly because of  disturbance caused by timber felling and subsequent cabin building from mid-February this year. I should think that this rate of attrition barely covers the rate of fallow deer reproduction, so we will have to step up our efforts if we are to have much hope of successful regeneration at Old Copse. We are looking for someone  certificated and possibly retired who lives nearer to the wood than Stuart, and willing to sit in a deer seat for the necessary hours it can take to get lucky. Perhaps this, plus temporary deer fencing might make a difference.

We had never tasted venison before, and though we tried hard  -  roast haunch, braised shoulder, pan-fried peppered fillet with a wine and blackberry sauce - we've come to the conclusion that we don't  actually like the stuff. It's something to do with the texture,  both grainy and mushy. This is a shame as wild venison is supposed to be healthy , and the deer have been despatched swiftly and humanely. Still, friends and family seem to like it , so I expect we'll manage to find a home for some more of it next winter. 

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Keeping a record.

Rather late in the day I've started a visual record of  some of the changes our interventions have made in Old Copse. Thinning and felling to let in more light brings gratifyingly fast changes. Plants  spring up immediately -  though frustratingly, most of them are soon devoured by deer.

The photographs below attempt to show the effects of making clearings and Rides, and controlling the bracken. Three years ago a clearing was made at the northern end of OC1 in the birch near the road boundary.  We bashed the bracken throughout the subsequent summers, the result being a significant  increase in  bluebells and foxgloves. However, here we go again, as this season's bracken returns with a vengeance.

Bluebells in the clearing in OC1 after three years of bracken bashing

Adjoining this area is another clearing in OC2. There are not many birch, so there is plenty of light, and the bracken is particularly gigantic and thuggish. At the end of the winter the clearing is choked with heaps of the remains of last years bracken, resulting in a struggling flower population. This area, together with the 'new ride' will be kept free of bracken to encourage the bluebells to re-colonise . It would be great if there was an easier way to keep the bracken down. Herbicides are an option, but we are reluctant to use these.

Bluebells in adjoining area in OC2 (no bracken bashing)

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Cabin almost finished

Almost there. The chimney is on and the log burner works fine. Only a couple of rows of chinking to do (hurray) , and two windows to be fitted  - we decided against getting them from France as they wouldn't be in stock until the end of May,  perhaps even later, so Krystof said he'd knock a couple up when he returns from Poland after attending his God-daughter's First Communion . He mustn't miss that. Haven't yet decided about guttering. It wouldn't be good if the ground was badly eroded in one place by rainwater off the roof, but we might put some on one side of the cabin, and carefully direct the run-off. One nice job will be to use some of the sand-stone (which is everywhere in the wood) , to clad the visible footings.

It's been such an enjoyable experience, we've learned a great deal about log cabins and have been very much involved with all stages of the project. As a thank you, Sarah is building Krystof a web-site to advertise his many skills and tell people about traditional Polish log cabins. Ours is the first ever in England, I think there will soon be a lot more. But perhaps he should re-think the chinking, it looks lovely, but next time he might want to consider a less labour intensive alternative. Though I doubt it, because to do it differently  wouldn't be traditional. 

Thursday, 1 May 2014

Spring Bluebells

Here are a few photos of this year's bluebell display, fading a bit now, as they've been early this year due to the warm  Spring. The cabin may just be glimpsed  between the trees in a couple of the photos. I wish I had recorded the absence of bluebells in previous years in this area. While, in theory, bluebells are unaffected by the bracken as they flower before it is full grown, in practice we have noted that a thick covering of dead bracken definitely inhibits them. By dogged bashing every year from May to September the bluebells are now thriving.

The absence of' understory is very noticeable, as the deer eat everything that tries to come up. At this time of year, thousands of rowan, and other seedlings can be seen in the ground layer, but they'll soon be browsed off by deer. We are considering  enclosing a section of the wood in the SSSI  with temporary deer fencing (depending on cost) , to monitor the difference made by excluding deer .

Pollarding the willow grove

In a damp area that we call the willow grove, which contains many ferns, mosses and liverworts, there is a fairly large group of willows, mostly  'sallow', surrounded by weedy birch.  The willow had grown extremely tall and spindly as they were being crowded out by the birch,  and some had fallen over.  Much of the birch was removed , which let in a lot more light. Coppicing,  i.e. cutting them right down to the ground,  would strengthen the willow and encourage vigorous new growth . Unfortunately this wasn't an option,  as our excessive deer population would have soon made short shrift of  juicy new willow shoots.

Instead it was decided that pollarding would be the best treatment. By cutting them off at head height, rather than at ground level,  new growth would be out of reach of  browsing deer.  Sarah had  experimented successfully with a few willows in another part of the wood, so some more were pollarded  in the willow grove. This Spring some encouraging results may be seen. The pollarded willows have now begun to put out strong new growth.  This provides a very welcome element to the woodland structure. But there is still much to do.

 Some of the remaining willows are still too tall and remain vulnerable to keeling over and being devoured by the deer.

Recently pollarded willow (foreground),willow pollarded last year with regrowth (background)

Willows in need of pollarding

These remaining uncut willows have been drawn up by the dense birch which grew around them. Now the birch has been removed they will have the light they need when they are pollarded.