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.


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.


Visits and Events

Yesterday we hosted a group of interested folks from both NRW and Carmarthen Council. Organised by Craig at JCR Planning, it was a great opportunity to talk to people about the work we are doing at Ricketts Mill and the broader beaver project. Over the past couple of weeks we have also attended the PONT conference, given a talk to the East Carms. Wildlife Trust Group and were given the opportunity to put in our opinions at the Natural Resource Policy Consultation Engagement Event in Cardiff. Jo and I were pleasantly surprised by this last event. It had all the makings of a dreary, slightly pointless event but in actual fact it turned out that it was the Welsh Government actually wanting to hear the opinions of rural stakeholders and turning it into policy. A great step forward.


Natural Resources Policy

Last week Jo and I attended the Natural Resources Policy Consultation Engagement Event in Cardiff. The title is certainly a mouthful and it was with some trepidation that we traveled to the capital, fearing perhaps some jargon laden attempt at schmoozing the environmental ‘stakeholders’. We could not have been more wrong, yes, of course there was a bit of jargon but the event was a real opportunity to engage with the policy makers and make our voice heard. There were perhaps a disappointingly small number of attendees but they did come from a good cross-section of rural land users from moorland restorators to large estates, waterways officers to conservation bodies. The purpose of the event was to seek, discuss and inform the priorities of Natural Resources Policy under both the Nature Fund and Sustainable Management Scheme Projects.

By the end of it we all felt that out voices had been heard and that some very important issues had been tabled to be included in the final report next month. The discussion groups were asked at the close of the session to come up with the single issue that we felt was the priority. It was interesting to see that all the groups came up with the same answer – education for hard to reach groups. It’s quite right, if we want to run this country sustainably into the future then we must engage with everyone, it’s no good preaching to the choir.

You won’t be surprised to hear that we managed to weave beavers into most of the topics we covered – issues such as reducing the risk of flooding, water quality and ecosystems recovery. In many cases, the answer is beavers!


Establishing Wetlands

We have been very busy down at Ricketts Mill. The plan is to turn the old trout farm into a focal point for the Trust’s activities where students and land managers can come to get first-hand experience of management techniques. The existing lake was built for trout fishing and drops sheer at the banks to about 10 feet deep. So our initial task is to pull back the banks to create areas of shallow water and reed beds. Steve Reed has been busy with the digger sorting out the area in line with the plans from the planning permission. Because the area is a flood plain we have to be careful that water from the river is still able to enter and flood the whole area, and then drain away. The reed beds will help this process because they act like a sponge, first accepting the water but then releasing it again slowly, reducing flash flooding down river. The previous owner had triploid rainbow trout in the lake with grids to stop them escaping during floods. We are keeping the grid system but getting rid of the rainbow trout in favour of brown trout and indigenous aquatic species.

So now we have large areas of bare earth and mud. We could just leave these and see what comes. If we do this we know that we will get docks, brambles and Himalayan Balsam. So our next task is to transplant phragmites reeds and other water edge plants, from some of our ponds up on the farm. These have to be raked up, bagged, transported and then planted out like a hair transplant. There is a limit to how much we can harvest because we don’t want to upset our Water Voles, so we may have to source some from friends with spare reeds. Meanwhile a Cattle Egret has already been in checking it out, and some snipe. Back from the water edges we will do some patch planting of wild flower meadows and a lot of tree planting, mainly aspen and willow. Only once these trees have sufficient biomass will the area be ready for beavers.

The electricity engineer inspected yesterday and we have agreed a route across the site to put all the overhead wires underground. This will reduce the risk of bird strikes. We hope to get this done in mid January and we have to dig the trench ourselves, 75 cm deep.

Graham has removed the old wire netting fence along the river and we have taken down some of the falling over trees, mainly willows. They are cut up and replanted on site to start new trees. The main perimeter fence will go up later on and we hope it will be good enough to stop mink and foxes, so that we can work on Water Voles, amphibians and reptiles.

Along the road some of the hedge banks were non-existent and in places the road was subsiding. Steve has built up earth hedge banks and packed the tops of them with the soil from the old hedge. This contains all the seed bed, bulbs and seedlings which will start the re-colonisation process. We will replant these hedge banks this weekend with mainly hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel and other local species. In a year or two you will hardly know they are new.

There were some big old oak trees over hanging the car park where the mill used to be. Sadly some of these were dangerous and Frank and Pete have taken them down. This has let in a lot more light. Frank is our ‘tree monkey’ and climbs right out into the outer branches to take them down section by section. Scary stuff! We have also been clearing along the old mill leat and Frank has more leaning trees to take down along there. Many have already fallen across the leat, pulling up massive root plates. Eventually we will get them clear and haul out the timber and mill it into beams and planks. That will leave an attractive walkway up along the river and later we will establish more reed beds which we hope can outcompete the rampant Himalayan Balsam.

Spot the Frank!
A bit more obvious!

Meanwhile up on the farm I checked out the beavers in the new enclosure at Skinny Dipping pond. They have settled in now and are not going near the fence. A couple of weeks ago, in the cold weather, all the beavers on the farm were very active, even coming out in daylight. They were busy collecting and stashing willow in the bottoms of their ponds. But now they all seem quieter and although I waited for an hour after dark, nobody emerged. Instead, in the thermal imaging scope, I could see the warmth from the beavers lighting up their lodge like a glowing campfire. A cosy family scene. I almost expected to see a stick with a Christmas stocking hanging on it!  Along the fringes were three wary teal, and in the muddy clearings the beavers had made, a snipe or woodcock was busy probing for worms. I crept quietly away, watched by a fox up on the hill.


Looking Back

The summer seems so far away now. Daylight seems so brief and the mist lingers all day. However, my day was brightened immensely when a DVD containing lots of wonderful photographs from our friend David Woodfall arrived. He spent many happy hours in the summer photographing the top pond beavers and their kits. Seeing all the greenery transported me back from these grey days to the height summer.

Enjoying some bramble leaves

Nibbling on some alder leaves
Kit feeding on alder


Frosty Days

It’s been a busy time with the beavers. We worked flat out to get the new beaver fence ready at the new enclosure, trapped a family of five and got them in, only to find that one of the adults found a weak place in the new fence and escaped. To make matters worse, three of us were away for a week at a conference in Ireland. However Sion, Pete and James got the traps out and caught him on the second night. The problem was that in one place the fencers had used C clips to join the above ground part of the fence to the below ground part. This need to be well over-lapped and twist wired together.

Now the family has settled down and they are occupying the artificial lodge on the island. This lodge has an underwater entrance and is a big cavity covered in green willow logs. It must be quite a squeeze for all five of them but they have been working on it and adding more sticks on top. Most beaver watching at this time of year is done in complete darkness using a thermal imaging scope. You can see the heat signature of the occupied lodge. There are also mice on the island and it is surprising how much the mice and rats climb right up into the tops of trees. They must be very vulnerable to tawny owls.

Meanwhile the great news came in that the Scottish Government has now accepted the Beaver back onto the list of native British species! Now it is just a matter of time before the English and Welsh governments follow suit. The plan is to set regulations in place so that beavers can be actively managed but at the same time properly protected. This is a massive hurdle overcome and will influence our licence application here in Wales.

We’ve also done a newsletter for farmers along the river but Jo has been away for three weeks so we have had a delay in sending all of them out. Thankyou Graham for translating the Welsh version.

While we are having this frosty dry spell, Steve and John have been busy with the digger and dumper truck down at Ricketts Mill. They are clearing up around the buildings and building up the hedge banks properly. It all looks messy at the moment, but once the banks are all planted up it will look good in the spring. There are a number of overhanging oak trees and branches that are dangerous so we are doing those as well to make a clean sweep of things. We will save any straight bits for the timber mill and the rest goes to firewood. There is plenty of natural regeneration but we have new young trees ready if there are any gaps needing filling.  The surveyors and planners have been out and given us the all clear so we will soften the edges of the two ponds to create some reed bed areas and overhanging willows. This will provide shelter for wildlife, better than clean hard edges.

A Frozen Skinny Dipping Pond

The hoar frosts are building up in areas that don’t get the sun. On the north banks of Blaencwm it looks black and white, stark like a Breugel winter painting. Just across the gulley, with the full sun and remnants of golden autumn leaves, the grass is still green and it looks quite benign and warm. At lunchtime in the conservatory the dogs are lolling about panting, but coming home in the evening on the quad bike my cheeks are totally numb with cold. The beaver pond has frozen over and I watched as one of the adults surfaced in the only clear spot and then systematically set about breaking the ice over an area of about three double beds near the dam. Having only been in a couple of weeks they have not had time to embed winter stashes of willow in the bottom of the pond, but with the ice broken the kits can still get out and forage on the banks.