Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Beech Life

There has been a lull in the weather  recently, almost enough to make you think that Spring is  around the corner. Then, just when  the first celandines  flowered in the woods and wild garlic was in the air, another blustery wind blew through with driving rain and hail, and we were back slipping through the mud again.  Despite this, we have got off lightly, the land is not underwater and it has even been possible to get a bit of tree work done between the squalls.

Back in the late 60's they felled most of the trees here that had any timber value, leaving any that were gnarly, forked or badly barked by the cattle that wintered beneath them. Some had been pollarded, perhaps to feed the cows in late summer and are now growing thick, multi stemmed and greedy for any available sunlight.
We over- wintered our cows here in '95 and '96 and the neighbour's pygmy goats used to be frequent visitors, leaping the fence to feed on anything and everything that grew there. Add  red deer, roe deer, wallabies and hordes of marauding grey squirrels and it's a wonder that there are any trees here at all.

Natural England suggested we took down all the beech trees as they were not native to the area and they were keen to see a return to ancient woodland species like oak and thorn, but beech trees bring something else to the woods, not least the luminous green moss that coats their trunks like velvet socks.

Although we have decided not to follow Natural England's advise, some of the beech that have been most damaged by the squirrels are starting to shed big limbs. Beech are also notoriously shallow rooted and so we have started to take out some of the weakest trees opening up the canopy to let more light in to the woodland floor.

Some of the trees were leaning over shading out the younger trees beneath
 We have also started running our Bushcraft and Nature Awareness sessions here and it is important for obvious reasons that the weakest trees are made safe.

The long crack running up through this trunk makes it ideal insect habitat.
Taking out some of these big old beech will let plenty of light into the wood, giving other species a chance to survive. The beech woods are beautiful especially in May when the bluebells are out, but they can be cold, windswept places in winter giving little protection or cover for the birds and other wildlife. Even at the height of summer they are dark almost gloomy places, shading out any new life that tries to establish itself.

Beech was traditionally used for furniture making up around the home counties, but this beech wood has a distinctly Cornish character to it and doesn't easily lend itself to fine woodwork. It would be shame though if it was all to end in the wood burner, so there are plans to make some big bowls and a wooden spoon or two.

Sunday, 9 February 2014


It is not always easy feeling optimistic in February, the farm animals are hungry, the birds and other wildlife too, are short of food and shelter, and the gales have left the land looking battered and worn out. Spring still feels some way off, but it is a time when the bare bones of the fields, hedgerows and woodlands reveal most and it is a great time for seeing what there is, stripped of all that verdant summer overgrowth.
Daisy the cow tree climbing on an old tumbled down hedge
 It's the time we tackle the last of the hedging and fencing work before the birds start nesting. Most of the hedges around here are traditional Cornish* -  earth filled, granite faced and topped with blackthorn, oak and hazel. They are a bit tumbled down in places, generations of cattle sensing that it's always greener on the other side has taken its toll. Countless rabbits too, have burrowed into the heart of the hedges so they sag and slump.

Hedge before laying
We are slowly trying to put them back up if they are not too far gone and wherever we can we lay the trees and shrubs that grow along the top. Hedge laying or steeping is  a practice that has gone on for hundreds of years  although it was never that common in these parts. This hedge in particular doesn't look like much but there could well have been a hedge of some sort here for a 1000 years or more. I like this about hedges, they are  easily passed by but like old bones they are remnants of a very long ago past.
S. on the last stretch 
I learned to lay hedges with the help of the Devon Rural Skills Trust and used the skills for  several years in combination with post and wire fencing work. Back then it was rare to see a hedge laid in Cornwall and if you did it was usually lashed down with orange baler twine. Most of my jobs came from Devon and even then it was not always easy convincing customers that a laid hedge was the way to go. Nearly 20 yrs on the situation hasn't improved much, and although awareness about the value of hedges has grown, few people can make a living from this old craft. My hedge laying skills are a bit rusty so Steve, a local hedgelayer, took the job on.

Laid and crooked to hold it in place
One of the reasons for laying this particular length is to lower the hedge line so the butterflies can cross more easily. You would think they would be able to fly over the hedge even with trees on it but the Pearl Bordered Fritillary is not so bold; wary of heights,  they are easily discouraged when they come up against a tall hedgerow.

The hedge will reshoot in the spring

Unfortunately the mechanical flailing of hedges has almost completely extinguished the beautiful craft of the hedge layer. It has also had the same effect on  the wildlife and wildflowers that depend on them. Some say that flailing is good for  hedges on the general principal that a cut hedge is better than an overgrown one, but  there is now plenty of evidence to show that the repeated flailing of hedges is killing off the hedgerow trees and shrubs  and the diversity of wildlife that live in them has suffered as a result. 
Flailing hedges in Devon
It's unlikely that the hedge laying craft will return in a big way any time soon, as it is not seen as cost effective, but when whole species disappear from an area as a result of flailed hedges how much richer are we?

As soon as economics is the dominant factor in countryside management it rarely bodes well for the creatures that live there. Perhaps the more awareness grows of these almost extinct heritage crafts like hedge laying and the benefits they can bring, the tide may slowly turn. After all, the riches of the countryside should continue to be a reference to the variety of life that lives in the country and not to the money that is to be made there.

* The Cornish Hedges website is a great source of information and includes a detailed history of a single mile of Cornish hedgerow from the 60's to 2008 by Sarah Carter. Her 90 page study soon dispels any preconceptions that  flailing is not so bad after all.

Sunday, 12 January 2014

Slow Start

 It has been a slow start to the new year but slow, I am sure, is good. We have started cutting, clearing and burning on some land  that has been mostly left alone for the best part of 50 years, so there is no need to rush it.
Gorse bushes grow as tall as trees
It is one of those places where Nature has been left to do its thing. The trees have grown tall and lanky. The gorse, moss covered and luminous green, is 25ft tall in places. Honeysuckle curls and twists around the thorn trees. Granite boulders stick up like giant stepping stones in the bracken. Last years nests are cradled but crumbling in the forks of branches. It is one of those long forgotten corners which a large part of me wanted to leave well alone.

Some of the gorse will be left for nesting birds

"But it's no good for butterflies" said the man from Natural England who had come to assess the habitat for butterfly potential. He cast a despairing look over the hillside covered in a tangle of thorn, gorse and bramble. " It will all have to go, it has almost no wildlife value at all."

Since then it has taken a few years to fully embrace the butterfly project on this patch of hillside but on reflection the  wildness of this place is not ancient, there are signs everywhere of human activity; the old granite hedges, the leats and tailings of an old copper mine, hazel and oak coppice stools, granite boulders split and cut for lintels and gateposts, even an old hammock made from a fishing net 35 years earlier. This is a place that has known people for centuries.

Clearing the scrub around the old copper mine
And as for the wildlife, the trees have grown up in all their beautiful moss covered  lankiness, but it has got darker, damper and the variety of species of plant life, has grown less.  Barely any sunlight penetrates even in winter and apart from a bit of ivy the ground is bare and the understory hollow. What I once thought of as a wildlife sanctuary, has become more and more like a wildlife dead zone.

The cows follow the saw browsing on hazel tops and ivy
Although it is a radical approach, any management, that increases the biodiversity of a place, must be a good thing and although the work here is targeted particularly at the butterflies, I am sure that other species will benefit  as well.

 So now when there is that smell of two stroke in the air and the sound of the chainsaw rips the air,  it feels brutal,  but I know it will bring more, not less, life to this tiny patch of land. After all, the chainsaw work will soon be done, the fires burned out,  replaced by the gentle foraging of the cows.