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...