It’s been a good mast year for acorns and we’ve collected plenty. We are planting up about 7 hectares (17.3ac) of the steep north facing banks. Bracken is rapidly taking over on these banks and with Azulox being phased out, it is almost impossible to control it. The banks are too steep for a tractor (a previous owner rolled one to the bottom) and we don’t keep cattle anymore because bovine Tb is rife. So we decided to plant them up in deciduous trees and applied for a grant. This has been a tortuous process of inspections and edicts. Our latest instruction is that they are disallowing a 15 metre margin all along the hedge boundaries because they are ‘under the drip line’. This means that the effective grant area has been reduced by around 3ha of course we cannot claim for it as agricultural use any more, so we lose out in both directions. So much for encouraging environmental schemes!
The next stipulation is that the species should be restricted to local indigenous ones. With ash and elm being off the agenda, and wych elm and aspen being virtually unattainable, this boils down to oak and birch. But the squirrels do horrendous damage to our oaks, wrecking about 60% of them within the first twenty years by stripping the bark. And it is impossible to control squirrels; we just don’t have the time and resources.
Actually, if these woods are to live for the next two or three hundred years, what are the best species to plant? Should we use history as our guide, or the future? In my lifetime I have seen elms disappear, and now ash. Natural Resources Wales say we cannot plant beech or sycamore because they are not native. So what choice is left? My view is to plant a diversity of species, both of trees and shrubs, to help prepare the new woods for what is to come.
Then the forestry people want to plant everything in rows. It makes it easier for them. Now we are left with woods with regimented rows that will look artificial for a century or more. For me, this kills the spirit of a wood. It bears for ever the heavy stamp of the administrator. We have a fifteen acre wood on our north bank that we grant planted about 18 years ago. What a disaster! They insisted that the top half should be larch and the bottom half should be ash. Both these species now have serious disease issues. We now have seried rows of dying ash and dense larch that has killed the understorey. Being steep, there is no way we can get this timber out economically without making a hell of a mess. So I am slowly trying to remedy the damage. I’m cutting down all the larch which are poor or with bent stems and leaving the timber to rot where it falls. This is good for wildlife. In the open glades this creates I am under-planting with anything I can lay my hands on: oak, beech, birch, field maple, hazel, even hawthorn. Slowly the rows will give way to a diversity of species of multiple ages….
There is also the question of what stock to plant. Should we plant acorns from existing oaks on the farm, most of which grow poor timber? Or should we select acorns from the best timber trees we can find, so that perhaps someone in the future will have timber worth using? So we have compromised, using a bucketful of local acorns and about three bucketfuls of acorns from specimen trees from Duncombe Park in Yorkshire.
And what is the most cost effective way of planting? Acorns are already sprouting; should we just plant them straight out and mark them with sticks so that we can spray around them when they come up in the spring? We have high vole densities at the moment and they will no doubt take a toll. Or should we pot them and plant them out in a year or two when they are 60cm high? This is a lot of work, but more will survive. The grant trees will all be bare rooted 60cm with plastic tree guards. These tree guards make massive litter scattered around the countryside. The whole process is environmentally unfriendly.
As for the margins that we cannot get grant for, I was planting up a gulley the other day, a steep bracken and bramble bank hosting a centuries old badger sett. For the first time in history this sett is now disused. People forget that the Tb doesn’t just affect the cattle. It kills the badgers too.