Great Oaks From Little Acorns Grow.

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.

acorns

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.

Nick.

Squirrels!

We were asked by the Caldey Island Estate some time ago if we could help them achieve a long held ambition for free living red squirrels on the island. It’s been a long haul and the first job was to eradicate the rats. Quotes were gathered and funding sought and 18 months ago West Wales Pest Control started the arduous job of ridding Caldey of the rat population.

Simon and his team have done an incredible job and there is now not a single rat left on the 538 acre island. An achievement that ranks with the clearance of rats from other islands such as Lundy. Already we are starting to see puffins and other ground nesting sea birds returning. Rat monitoring will continue to take place in case they manage to hop onto a boat and cross to the island.

NIC_3628
A carload of squirrels!

A call from the wonderful David Mills of the British Wildlife Centre last week told us the squirrels were ready and there was a mad dash to collect them from Surrey and get them back to Tenby in time for the tide on Saturday morning.

The squirrels have now settled in well and are seen regularly in the trees and on the feeders Ben has put out for them.

sq1

Drew

 

Beaver Study Days

We’ve had two beaver study days this week hosted by the Bevis Trust and Alicia Leow-Dyke from Wildlife Trusts Wales. On Tuesday we had 11 staff from Natural Resources Wales, two from Welsh Government and ten from local councils. On Wednesday we had 20 representatives from a variety of NGOs and Universities. It was a chance for visitors to get a first hand view of the effects beavers have on habitats and the techniques used to manage them. They were able to find beaver trails and field signs, see different dams, how some trees are targeted for food, others for building materials, and others avoided. We also had PowerPoint presentations and discussion sessions followed by BBQs and an opportunity to spend the evenings beaver watching. The three beaver families on the farm all have young kits just emerging so visitors were able to enjoy seeing them emerge from their lodges. As beavers expand both in numbers and range in Britain it is urgent that a proper management strategy is developed, under-pinned by appropriate legislation, so that the species can regain its place amongst British fauna with a minimum of conflict with other land-uses.

nickgroup

Meanwhile we have been busy with the fencing and planting at Ricketts Mill. The predator fence will soon be complete. It is buried into the ground, and has one inch mesh to stop mink, with two electric strands to stop foxes. We are still planting reed beds and some of them are rooting well now. In a year or two they will start to provide habitat for a variety of species and it will be exciting to watch the gradual restoration process.

Nick

A Busy Time

It’s been manic on the farm recently. This prolonged wet and windy weather has made silage making a gamble and Eirian just got the last lot in at two in the morning before the heavens opened yet again. Many big tree branches, heavy with wet leaves, have been blown down in the strong winds. The swallows and martins, and many other species that require insects for feeding their broods, are really struggling. Let’s hope second clutches do better. The wagtails love to nest in the turf roofs of the buildings and are successful there away from ground predators. Cats are quick to mop up fledgelings making their first fluttering flights.

On Tuesday and Wednesday the Countryfile film crew were here filming and we managed to shoot all the falcon flying shots in good weather before the rain came in again and we got soaked filming beavers. Various visitors have been visiting and watching the beavers and everyone has managed to see them. The family of beavers down at Skinny Dipping Pond have been particularly active and have two new burrows, one of which we think contains this year’s kits. They’ve been building a dam above their pond and it is interesting to see how much water they can hold back. The other two beaver families are also taking food into their lodges so we will soon be keeping an eye out for emerging new kits.

We have had 15 students here over the weekend led by Alicia. They are from Bangor, Aberystwyth and Oxford universities and are studying the effects beavers are having on the habitats. They’ve been camping at Waunlas in pouring rain but the canteen has been a life saver for them and they have been able to get on with a lot of species identification work in the dry.

Meanwhile we have had at least one mink around and have failed to catch it in cage traps. These very agile little aliens can devastate the water voles and the water fowl and are very versatile predators. Especially in this wet weather they lay up in rabbit burrows but while you are busy searching soggy hedges they can just as easily be watching you from up some ivy covered tree.

Down at Ricketts Mill Drew and I have been planting reed beds and these are settling down well. We’ve managed to keep most of the geese away because these pull up the reeds as fast as we plant them. Once the reeds are rooted and the beds thicken up, some geese will be welcome. We have harvested most of the reeds from the Penllynin lake but Drew has been successful at growing phragmites from seeds. Ross and the fencers started last week. Modern fencing uses only very weak chemical preservatives and rot away quickly so Drew has been busy soaking them in creosote for extra protection before they go in. The fence is designed to stop mink, otters and foxes getting in and to prevent beavers getting out, and will enclose about nine acres including four ponds. But it will be another couple of years or so before the habitat has developed enough to support beavers. In restoring ecosystems one has to work from the bottom up, literally. So bringing the raw clay exposed lake bed to life is the first task, with suitable plants that can host increasing populations of invertebrates that in turn will become food for predators such as dragonflies and kingfishers.  Beavers of course are strictly vegetarian. At the moment they are targeting lush herbage but spend a lot of time steadily eating bramble leaves.

With this wet weather, the ground has gone soft again so I have taken the opportunity to plant out a number of trees that we have pot grown, or self-sown birches growing on the tracks that would otherwise get topped off. I’m under-planting areas of woodland that are suffering from ash dieback. The dying ash trees are acting as nursery trees for the new small trees and by the time the ash is completely dead the new trees will be waist high and on their way. We are leaving most of the ash to rot where they stand, but one or two big hedgerow trees will need taking down in the winter. Others seem unaffected so let’s hope we have some resistant ones here able to re-colonise.

A Little Piece of Upland

Here on the farm we have a tiny vestigial piece of upland, it’s tucked away on a bank alongside a farm track and is so tiny you’d barely notice it. There are a few tufts of heather, some rowans and a fair sprinkling of blaeberries. It’s wonderful to see the tiny berries starting to appear but I’m pretty sure the birds will beat me to them (and so they should of course) but it would be nice to find the odd one or two they’ve missed.

blae

With this dry spell the water level in one of the beaver ponds has dropped considerably and it’s a great chance to see how beautiful is the sub surface construction of a beaver dam. It doesn’t show too well in the photograph but the face is beautifully sculpted and faced with clay. The thickness of the bottom of the dam is so much greater than the top ensuring the water pressure at depth does not cause a breach. Amazing what instinct can do!

dam

Drew