Friday, 30 December 2016

The end of another year

Yesterday, two days before the end of the strange year that was 2016,  we spent a few hours at Old Copse, not doing very much except checking in with the wood. We re-stacked lengths of birch firewood, heated up soup, toasted marshmallows in the  log burner,  and  'beat the bounds'. All the trees are now bare, and the bracken well and truly flattened, revealing the piles of  brash left after the thinning operation.  Mist rose from the pond, which was covered in a thin layer of ice.

And  while we walked we made a mental note of  the woodland management tasks we've achieved this year :

  • Started the year by 'mattocking' the deep, mud filled ruts made by the Scots Pine thin machinery.
  • Continued thinning the thick holly 
  • Pollarded the north side of the willow grove
  • Propagated successfully 50 trees and shrubs from seeds and seedlings found in the wood
  • Protected 100 regenerating trees from fallow deer
  • Planted over 400 trees in the thinned Scots Pine

and  then planned our woodland management tasks for 2017:

  • Finish planting in the thinned Scots Pine (January/February)
  • Tackle halo thinning in the birch wood  (January/February- August to November)
  • Spot replanting in the birch wood  (November /December)
  • Finish the holly thinning (by the end of 2017)
  • Pollard the south half of the willow shoots in the willow grove (November )
  • Plant a mixed hedge along the border with Grouse Road (December)
  • In  addition to these main tasks, there is bracken clearance from late May to September, fence mending and maintenance, monitoring deer and squirrel impact, continuing to protect regenerating broadleaves, ride maintenance, ditch digging ...

Several people have asked how the two  of us, visiting the wood on average twice a week,  manage   the work  necessary to restore Old Copse. I suppose it must seem like a daunting task to someone who isn't as familiar with the wood as we are, but we seem to have found a rhythm that suits us. We have recognised that we can't easily manage to do all the  'heavy' work ourselves, without perhaps losing momentum and  ending up feeling a bit overwhelmed. So we find people with woodland skills,  willing to help us in exchange for what the woodland can offer them. This approach  works well. We tackle what we can, and get help when we need it.

Management Plans are ok as far as they go, but they are usually written at the start of a project, and can only be based on what you know at that point. They are good for setting out the general direction and certainly, our aim, as stated in the original plan - to restore the woodland and improve diversity - has not changed at all. In fact the more we learn about Old Copse - the more determined we are to achieve this. As things progress we've found that we've modified our ideas, and done loads of work that isn't even mentioned in our plans. The Woodland Management Plan has been good for setting targets and has helped us keep on track. We have returned to it - and not just to put in grant claims to the FC - but to remind ourselves of how all the little tasks fit together into the bigger picture. Work doesn't stop after the end of a five year management plan;  on the contrary, work in the wood is never finished as the wood is dynamic and ever-changing. This might be seen as a bit dispiriting, but for me the sheer power of the wood to change and keep changing is one of the most wonderful things about it.

Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Old Copse 60 years ago: aerial photos

Thanks to Cambridge University Air Photos we can now see what Old Copse looked like in the 1950's. The first two photos below were taken in June 1953: note how the whole area is wooded right up to the field boundary in the north. The larger older trees (which show as darker) follow the banks of Hawkins Pond and the edge of the field boundary.. The lighter grey areas - particularly in the north of the two pictures - show what is presumably regrowth where the area has been unmanaged during the war years.

Taken 29th June 1953

Taken 29th June 1953

The next two photos from 1958 show the beginnings of the clearance in preparation for the Scots Pine plantation. The large trees at the field boundary remain, but south of that there are clear areas where felling  has started. The second photo from 1958 clearly shows how felling has begun along the line of Grouse Road.

Taken 26th June 1958

Taken 26th June 1958

Saturday, 10 December 2016

After the Big Thin - the big plant

Plumpton students after a day's tree planting and their tutor, Sarah George (far left)
It's now almost a year since we (or rather, David Abbott and his Sparrowhatch Forestry team) thinned the Scots Pine Plantation by around 30%. This  thinning process created  gaps which we planned  to plant with native broadleaves. Gradually, the Scots Pine plantation will be almost completely replaced by native broadleaf woodland. The next pine thinning operation will be carried out in about 4 years time.While we encourage  and protect any natural re-generation  that we find, this is a very slow process and much hampered by the deer population. Besides, there is something very satisfying in planting lots of trees for future generations.

We wanted to ensure the local provenance of anything we planted at Old Copse, and found two excellent suppliers: Special Branch Tree Nursery, based at Stanmer Park on the outskirts of Brighton, and run by volunteers.  Their seed stock is all sourced from Sussex, and grown carefully to provide quality plants. What Special Branch was unable to supply, we bought from English Woodlands near Heathfield, a commercial business which also guarantees good quality trees, mostly locally sourced.

As this was our first go at  major planting, we were advised and helped by David Abbott, one of our deerstalkers, who kindly took a day off from his own  business to show us how it's done. We also had help from a group of Countryside Management students from Plumpton College, and their tutor, Sarah George. Before coming to Old Copse they had studied our management plan, to understand what we are trying to do. Management Plans aren't obligatory for woodland owners but writing them really helps to focus on the work needed to restore long -neglected woodlands, and, also importantly, enables applications for grant aid. For instance, we were given a grant for writing the management plan, and also grants towards the work. So this, and some future tree planting projects are partly paid for by the Forestry Commission. Thank you F.C.

 All 30 acres of Old Copse will need varying degrees of  re-stocking  eventually, but we decided to begin with the thinned Scots Pine plantation  to see how we got on.  Some of the planting material, plus tubes, stakes and temporary deer-fencing was delivered by English Woodlands the day before, and we collected our plants from Special Branch a week before that. These had to be 'heeled in' to keep the roots in good condition, in the vegetable plot at home, then lifted and taken to the wood.  On Thursday morning David loaded up his quad bike and ferried all the heavy stuff down to the pines, ready to start planting our collection  of 400 bare-rooted whips, saplings, and potted young trees. We chose a mix of species, based on what grows naturally at Old Copse and would have been there before it was felled in the late 1950's to make way for the Scots Pine plantation  - primarily oak and beech. To these we added hornbeam, sweet chestnut, wild cherry, hazel, lime, and also guelder rose, spindle, dogwood, and a few of the rare native Plymouth Pear, thought to survive in just two wild hedgerows in Plymouth and Truro. Apparently it has an inbuilt control mechanism called self-incompatibility which prevents in-breeding  - it produces very little viable seed. (note to self: ask Special Branch where they got their seed from......)

David demonstrates
The first thing we did was to go round banging  in  loosely, 450 wooden stakes (an extra 50 in case of breakages). These were placed in small groups in the many gaps and clearings. Then the trees were planted next to each stake, more or less at random - which gives a natural looking result. The students were extremely careful when planting these tiny trees, making sure that the planting holes were the right size and the roots were carefully spread out before laying them carefully in the soil - all  essential techniques for maximising the success of their survival. Lastly the tubes, mesh for the beech, and closed for everything else, were placed over the top, the stakes banged in hard, and ties tightened. The pot grown, and larger rooted stock, had to be given larger planting holes than the specially prepared whips, which have much smaller roots. We're not exactly looking forward  to having a forest of green tree tubes to look at for the foreseeable future, albeit, thankfully not planted in regimented lines, but there doesn't appear to be any alternative. The tubes are supposed to be bio-degradable but I think they will take a very long time to completely break down. I can envisage us getting fed up with them and removing them before we should. Anyway, we'll have to forget the aesthetics for now, and hope that the trees will grow so fast, they'll burst right out of their tubes very quickly.

We managed to get nearly everything planted out before dusk around 4pm, leaving about 30 more in pots, plus some barerooted hedge and edging plants to finish up the next day. All in all, it was hard work but a very enjoyable, fun day, and so nice to work in a team with such great people. We reckon that we need roughly another 100 trees to finish this particular piece of work, but now we know the ropes, we'll get those in much faster, and expect to get the job finished during January.  We didn't need to use our 100 metres of heavy duty deer fencing this time, but it is sure to come in useful at some point. The next planting project will be in the birchwood after we've done some more felling there.

Sarah the tutor supervises

Herbie works hard, i..e races about like a maniac with all the excitement

While Wren guards the quad bike for David

And to end, a lovely email from Sarah, -  Countryside Management tutor at Plumpton College. I somehow think we'll manage to find a few more things for her students to do at Old Copse! Many thanks to Sarah and her students, and to David, for sharing his expertise, and who is, incidentally, an ex -student at Plumpton.

Hello Sue and Sarah

I just wanted to email and thank you for such a brilliant day yesterday.  The students absolutely fell in love with your woodland and were completely enchanted with what you are doing there and how you are doing it.  From my point of view, they learnt so much simply from working alongside you and David – far more than listening to me or reading from a book.  Your delicious soup at lunchtime just sealed the day – thank you so much.

As you  heard, many of the students are very keen to come back and see you again so if you have any further work  then please do let us know!

With warmest wishes


And the result... 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Today we were....................

Today we were mostly removing pollard shoots...............

We finished felling birch and pollarding the Goat Willow (Sallow/ Salix Caprea)   in the willow grove almost two years ago.  Most of the willow had grown tall and spindly and was toppling over. We needed to lower the overall height in order to maximise the chances of  attracting the Purple Emperor butterfly and more Marsh Tits back to Old Copse. We couldn't coppice it  (i.e. cut it down to near ground level) because the deer would have eaten it, so we decided to pollard it  ie. cut it down to about 6ft, out of the reach of the deer.

We don't know if  our work has attracted any Purple Emperors because we don't have time to spend sitting around with a pair of binoculars looking for them. But it's reward enough that we've made a nice attractive home for them if  they just happen to wander over from Knepp Castle eight miles away ( the nearest known colony of the Purple Emperor). Who knows, they just might have been tempted to make regular visits. We hope so anyway.

Pollarding willow is not the most enjoyable job. The wood is hard and springy, and the ground is squelchy and uneven. So we were pleased to have completed it last year, with the help of Martha and Milo, our two volunteers. However, work in the willow grove  doesn't stop after the initial pollarding. The new shoots have sprung up 15feet and more, some of them very thick, and they now need to be cut back to the main stem.

It is not the right sort of willow for weaving, too brittle,  and as far as we know it cannot be used for anything very much nowadays. Traditional uses included clothes pegs, and the foliage was used as winter feed for cattle. The wood also burns well and makes good fuel. Apart from the latter,  I suppose we could use it for dry hedging.  Aspirin is derived from salicin, a compound found in the bark of all Salix species, but I don't think that producing aspirin from Old Copse willow would be much of a money spinner, so nearly all of the prunings will be left on the ground to rot down.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Bonfires, fireworks , and barking deer.

Pre-Bonfire Night fireworks in the Wood

Holly bonfire burning hot and fast. Herbie was interested but cautious.

When we started clearing the dense holly growing along the length of the ride, and by the pond , we estimated  that the work would take about 6 months. ( that was always optimistic.) Almost two years later we are still at it, but at long last we seem to have broken the back of this not very enjoyable  job. The most recent clearance was at the north end of the wood, next to Frenchbridge Ghyll,  the stream that flows down through St.Leonard's Forest to the North West of Old Copse,  and feeds into the pond. It is  lined along its length with a narrow band of shady woodland. Springs emerge from the steep banks and empty into the Ghyll, helping to keep the area wet throughout the year. The holly was particularly dense on the banks of the stream, but now it has been well thinned out, to encourage the oaks, alder, and other broadleaves,  allowing  us to see and enjoy this particularly lovely part of the wood .

Old Copse is in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) and  part of it, particularly the area bordering the Pond, is an SSSI, that is, a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Old Copse is at the Western edge of the Sussex Weald . Both the High and Low Weald have numerous Ghylls, steep sided woodland streams that have their own specific characteristics. Frenchbridge Gyll that runs through Old Copse and into Hawkins Pond is typical of Wealden Ghylls, though perhaps not quite so steep sided as some.

Ghyll woods constitute an important core area of 'primary woodland' , that is to say, wooded sites which have never been cleared within the larger semi-natural woodland of South East England. A Ghyll woodland has a humid and relatively stable micro-climate resulting from long continuity of shade and moisture. Such woods support ancient semi-natural woodland vegetation often with high bio-diversity value . Wealden Ghylls mark some of the oldest, least disturbed woodland in the South-East.

Now the Scots Pine has been thinned, the young beech trees can be seen in their Autumn colours.

The woods have been echoing with the sounds of barking deer, all competing with each other in trying to attract mates.

Monday, 24 October 2016

Mushroom season

 October marks the height of the mushroom season, and this year has been a particularly good year, even if the season is later than usual - presumably a knock on effect of the late wet Spring.

On Sunday 16th October, just over a year since their last visit on September 20th 2015, (see blog post) the Runnymede Ramblers made a return visit for a fungi walk. The foray was led by Dick Alder of the West Weald Fungus Recording Group. The star find of the day was the Purple Webcap  - Cortinarius Violaceus - a rare mushroom which has apparently never previously been found in West Sussex. The nearest known colonies are in the New Forest. In addition to the ones pictured in the previous post, we found a further specimen on the banks of the pond, and the group found another pair in the neighbouring wood. A sample has been sent to Kew, where it will be part of a project on DNA sequencing on the Cortinarius family.

Dick Alder's full list of Sunday's finds is shown at the end of this post and has been shared with the Sussex Biological Records office.

In addition to that list, over the past few days we have also found:

Black bulgar or Batchelor's Buttons - Bulgaria Inquinans

BB growing on dead oakwood

Aleuria arantia

List of fungi finds made 16th October Old Copse:

Amanita citrina
False Death Cap
Amanita citrina var. alba
False Death Cap, white
Amanita excelsa var. spissa
Grey Spotted Amanita
Amanita muscaria
Fly Agaric
Amanita rubescens
Amanita porphyria
Grey Veiled Amanita
Boletus badius
Bay Bolete
Boletus edulis
Cantharellus tubaeformis
Trumpet Chanterelle
Clitopilus prunulus
Coprinopsis atramentaria
Common Inkcap
Cortinarius violaceus
Violet Webcap
Daedaleopsis confragosa
Blushing Bracket
Entoloma nitidum
a Pinkgill
Gomphidius roseus
Rosy Spike
Gymnopilus junonius
Spectacular Rustgill
Gymnopilus penetrans
Common Rustgill
Hydnum repandum
Wood Hedgehog
Hygrophoropsis aurantiaca
False Chantarelle
Hypholoma fasciculare
Sulphur Tuft
Laccaria amethystina
Amethyst Deceiver
Lactarius blennius
Beech Milkcap
Lactarius chrysorrheus
Yellowdrop Milkcap
Lactarius deliciosus
Saffron Milkcap
Lactarius hepaticus
Liver Milkcap
Lactarius rufus
Rufous Milkcap
Lactarius tabidus
Birch Milkcap
Leccinum scabrum
Brown Birch Bolete
Leccinum variicolor
Mottled Bolete
Naucoria escharioides
Ochre Aldercap
Paxillus involutus
Brown Rollrim
Piptoporus betulinus
Birch Polypore
Russula atropurpurea
Purple Brittlegill
Russula claroflava
Yellow Swamp Brittlegill
Russula densifolia
Crowded Brittlegill
Russula nigricans
Blackening Brittlegill
Russula nitida
Purple Swamp Brittlegill
Russula nobilis
Beechwood Sickener
Russula ochroleuca
Ochre Brittlegill
Russula sardonia
Primrose Brittlegill
Scleroderma citrinum
Common Earthball
Suillus bovinus
Bovine Bolete

Saturday, 15 October 2016


The start of Autumn and time for  woodland activities to crank up a gear. The season's first trailer load of firewood negotiates the steep track down onto the Ride successfully, then out to the road via the bottom gate. 

Mushroom season has started, with the first edible finds shown below: two ceps (Boletus edulis) a bay bolete (Boletus badius) and a handful of hedgehog mushrooms (Hydnum repandum). 

A much more unusual find was a small group of violet webcaps (Cortinarius voilaceous) growing in the birch in OC1. These are rare in the UK, though rather more common in some parts of mainland Europe . 

Friday, 30 September 2016

The End of Summer

August 28th was the hottest day of the year. It was 29 degrees and too hot for the beach. We thought the wood would be cooler.

The wood in high summer is very different. Completely still and silent as all the small creatures are sheltering motionless in the shade. Even the Canada geese decided to shut up for a bit.

Now the Autumn equinox has been and gone, but the weather remains mostly warm and sunny. More warmth is forecast for the first part of October too, so perhaps it's a good time to remember the Summer before the clocks go back  and Autumn storms arrive. As usual, work in Old Copse slowed down a fair bit during the summer months. It was often too hot to do very much except bash the bracken, which at last seems to be getting the hint, continue with the holly removal, monitor the wood's recovery from the Scots Pine thin of last winter,  protect  tree seedlings from the deer,enjoy the beauty of the wood and its bird and wildlife, and start  planning for the coming winter.

One of the many new and so far unidentified plants springing up behind the cabin
The way Old Copse has regenerated itself since the big thin has been truly remarkable. Helped along by our mattocking work on the worst of the ruts, the ground has slowly settled down and been covered by new growth.  In many places where the tractor has been, long dormant seeds have sprung to life.  Prime opportunists, such as foxgloves, have seized their chance and sprung up thickly.

 Around the new entrance and on the new track, both of which took a hammering during the thinning operation, the common rush (Juncus Effusus) has rushed in to colonise the compacted, wet ground. We think that this will gradually be ousted by grasses  as the soil dries out. The main ride, which the contractors levelled and scraped at the end of their work, is now almost back to the way it was previously, the grasses having now crept back to the middle from the sides. By next summer it should be well covered once more. Towards the north end of the ride, the first grass to grow was very tall and tussocky. Like the common rush on the compacted wet areas, we think that this tall grass will be replaced by shorter varieties next year. Once the ride is completely recovered, we plan to start rotational mowing in the autumn, as advised by Natural England, in order to increase bio-diversity.

The grass started to come back

Looking forward to the winter, the next thing on our agenda after the Big Thin, is the Big Plant. We've been poring over forestry tree suppliers brochures, and drawing up our order, to be delivered, we hope by the end of November, and planted out during December. We'll be ordering 250 'whips', tiny trees,  50 each of Common Oak (Quercus robur), Beech (Fagus Sylvatica), Bird Cherry (Prunus Padus), Hornbeam (Carpinus Betulas), and Sweet Chestnut (Castanea Sativa). All trees are guaranteed to be grown in England, (with nothing imported to risk adding to the growing number of tree diseases). These, plus the 30 - 50 seedling trees from Old Copse being  lovingly nurtured at home, will be planted in the thinned pine plantation, on the SSSI part of Old Copse. Like all shopping catalogues, the ones selling trees are just as, or probably even more enticing. There were a number of trees listed that sounded very attractive, but sadly we don't have the right conditions for them. However, among our collection of pampered home grown trees, we have a Walnut and a Mulberry, both bursting out of their pots and looking for new homes. We think we'll plant them up by the new entrance where they'll have lots of sunshine and space.

We are considering protecting at least some of the new planting with temporary deer fencing, but all the new trees will be protected by individual shelters. It's still a battle with the fallow deer, so we expect a certain amount of young tree attrition, but  let's be positive that a good percentage will survive. All rather exciting. It's taken us a long time to get to this stage, which is only possible now that we've had the Scots Pine thinned.

Hedge Brown or Gatekeeper. There were many of these butterflies feeding on the nettles that grew up after the disturbance caused by the new entrance construction.

Herbie, you're too big for laps.

Monday, 19 September 2016

Deer, deer and more deer

Mark Chase from the Deer Action Group gave us this footage from the trail camera, showing just what the deer get up to when they think no one's around. These shots were all taken from the deer seat May- August - note how quickly the ground recovers in just one season.

This is August in OC1. 

Mostly they spend their time eating - as we thought - but there is also time for play.