Saturday, 30 January 2016

In praise of the humble mattock

It's been a bit dispiriting at Old Copse this month. Mid-winter, post woodland operations, too much rain, gumboot sucking mud, and lots of repair work to do on the rides. Our contractors repaired the damage caused by machinery,by scraping the two rides. but inevitably, during this process, the excess squidge was moved to the sides, forming lava like waves of mud. In the pines the tractor carved out a pattern of ruts, which filled with water. We decided that to give the wood the best chance of a fast recovery we needed to smooth out the edges of the rides and to fill in the ruts. Perhaps, if we had left it to take care of itself,  in a couple of years we wouldn't know the difference. But we wanted to give the bluebells and other ground flora as much encouragement as possible. So, we set about repairs.

We decided that a particular tool was needed for this job. This tool was a mattock. It has different names in various parts of the world, and if you are ordering it off the internet, you need to look for an 'Azada digging hoe'.  You can forget about hi-tech solutions, in fact, I doubt there are any for this type of basic ground work. I believe that nothing works better for the job we have in hand than this ancient tool. It's unbreakable,  multi-use, cheap and simple. It's ubiquitous in developing countries, where it is a favourite with women  -  used for breaking up soil prior to planting, for hoeing, and on building sites for moving aggregates about. I've seen it in use in the paddy fields of S.E Asia,  in African villages, and in Indian towns and cities. Only £13 online. What a bargain.

First prepare and assemble your mattock; heat the metal part up in the oven, or on the hob to let it expand, then place the wooden  handle into the round slot provided for it, and bang into place with a hammer. Then put the whole thing into a bucket of water to allow the wooden handle to swell and form a tight fit with the metal.  It's then ready to use.

However, mattock use incorporates a particular technique. For our rut filling and flattening purposes we found that it's important to let  the weight of the mattock head do most of the work, and use your arms not wrists.  I clearly haven't yet mastered the technique because I have a slight case of mattockitis  at the moment. A bit like repetitive strain injury perhaps.

Here are some experts showing how it is done.

New bluebell shoots emerging - and it's only January
Last year, our new ride/bluebell walk  through the birch was looking promising, with lots of bluebells and other ground flora. After the tractor had been up and down it a few times we thought that there would be no hope of the bluebells making a recovery this Spring, but how wrong we were; with the unusually warm winter they are already making a comeback, shooting through the mud and the clay.

The wood is at its most 'bare' at this time of the year, with only pine and holly providing greenery, but it's  encouraging to see the effects of the Scots Pine thin. It's actually very difficult to remember exactly what it looked like 'before' . There still seems to be lots more to fell, but this will have to wait for another 5 years or so. In the meantime, our tree planting work will be going ahead, and should be well advanced. by the time the next  thin is due. What is already evident, is how much better the wood looks with the previously serried ranks of pines now not so prominent, allowing the sun to penetrate more. Also appreciated is the improvement in the view. We can now see shining glimpses of the pond to the South from the cabin.

A glimpse of the Southern end of the Pond through the newly thinned Scot's Pines
The view from the highest point of the new ride, looking across at St. Leonard's Forest