Living on the edge of the South Downs National Park when you see a woodland you can often be mistaken for thinking its always been there. That the surrounding fields, houses and roads had been carved in and around the trees. So, to find original planting plans and photos for our small section of wood, crafted a mere 25 years ago, was momentarily disarming. (if I’m being totally honest the ‘woodland’ as we call it, being only a third of an acre, could technically be referred to as a copse – but the kids call it the woods and we’ve happily indulged them)
The initial plan contained a rather ambitious selection of trees for the size of plot including Hornbeams (Carpinus), Limes (Tilia), Cherries (Prunus) and Birches (Betula) to name but a few. The initial spacing of less than 6 feet between each tree would have been fine if further management had occurred, however looking at the growth of the trees, woodland management had not been our predecessors strong point. Due to their proximity, from day one each tree would have been in battle with its neighbours, fighting for light and nutrients, trying to establish itself and stand dominant. As a consequence the majority of trees have grown tall, with thin trunks resembling bean poles and with high sparse canopies.
There are some clear winners that have emerged from these conditions. The two Hornbeams have grown full and thick, setting their place firmly within the wood (although still slightly impeded by the other trees). They took hold so well that many of the adjacent trees (mainly the Birch) had no option but to weave their way through the canopy, only producing their own once clear of the Hornbeam’s branches.
When buying a property with a small woodland we had envisaged our children spending their days off on woodland adventures, exploring the undergrowth, climbing the trees and making endless forts and tree houses. Unfortunately what we currently have for them is an area of the garden where you are presented by an array of poles between 6 and 10 feet apart, with even the lowest of branches far out of their reach, and unless they master the art of the shimmy, possesses very little in the way of entertainment.
After talking through our dreams with a local tree surgeon we developed a plan of attack. The first and most obvious matter to be addressed was the proximity of some of the trees to the adjacent lane. Where trees hadn’t grown tall and thin, they had grown small, scraggy and underdeveloped and many of these were along the boundary. A large tree had previously fallen, running along the fence line and had continued to grow on its side, shooting branches across the lane. To avoid any potential litigation from passing cars or cyclists, we thought it best to clear the boundary of these underdeveloped and overcrowded plants with plans to replace them with a mixed native hedgerow. This will not only give us privacy and peace of mind but will provide the local wildlife with an extremely valuable wildlife corridor.
A wildlife corridor, for those unaware, has many benefits. It can be anything from a dense hedge to an un-mown area of grass adjacent to an agricultural crop. It allows wildlife to move safely between different habitats and (not wanting to stray too much into population dynamics and unleash the trained ecologist within me) a corridor will allow for a mix of genes, providing access to other communities and help produce more viable populations. Plus, who doesn’t like a nice thick hedge teaming with all manner of animals.
With the boundary cleared we then moved onto removing some of the trees currently intertwined with the Hornbeams. This freed up many of the branches, allowing them to now grow uninhibited by competing trees helping to produce a healthier tree structure moving forward. A few of the taller trees were topped and branches reduced to encourage a spread of growth lower down the trees, hopefully again ultimately strengthening previously weak structures.
There is still much to do, including reshaping two large limes, but finances dictated a staged approach and we will address the other matters later in the year. Plus…….we quickly realised that there was another more pressing task which had arisen from these activities. Sat in the middle of the now thinned woods was a somewhat mountainous collection of cut logs and it slowly dawned on us that the splitting and storing of which was likely to take us the best part of the remaining winter months. Although rather rapidly our grand plans to embrace our inner lumberjack, getting all rugged with our new splitting axe, were sidelined to play with the much more realistic hydraulically driven electric log splitter. Engine whirring and logs gathered we actually found it immensely satisfying and surprisingly mesmerising as we sat watching the splitter in action, moving through the logs like a hot knife through butter.