New life for an an­cient wood

Two broth­ers are restor­ing a long-ne­glected wood to cre­ate a thriv­ing haven for both wildlife and peo­ple

Landscape (UK) - - Contents -

A s the pale spring sun­light starts to fil­ter through the canopy of an an­cient wood­land, the si­lence is bro­ken by a burst of song. In the tree­tops, the early birds can be spot­ted in fleet­ing, fran­tic sil­hou­ette against the bright­en­ing sky. They dart from podium to podium, pro­claim­ing their dom­i­nance. Be­low, in the still-dark un­der­growth, mam­mals mark the start of the day. A deer barks in the dis­tance, wood mice and voles rus­tle in the long-fallen leaves on the wood­land floor. Squir­rel claws clat­ter on tree bark. The clap­ping of wings in­di­cates the wood pi­geons are leav­ing their reg­u­lar roosts for break­fast. From afar, a cuckoo, per­haps the first of the year, coos ap­proval. As the light in­creases fur­ther, del­i­cate white wood anemone and greater stitch­wort blush pink in the weak, early morn­ing light. Black­thorn blos­som ha­los thorny thick­ets with white within the shady un­der­storey. The brash yel­low of lesser celandine out­shines the pale sul­phur prim­roses. All are soon up­staged by a car­pet of blue­bells, ready for a bright dis­play to­wards the end of April. Riddy Wood in Cam­bridgeshire is wak­ing up. These 21 acres of an­cient wood­land cling on amid a ver­i­ta­ble ocean of prime agri­cul­tural land in Eng­land’s Fens. It is an is­land both metaphor­i­cally and his­tor­i­cally, as­cend­ing a gen­tle slope which marks a bor­der be­tween his­toric wet­land and rel­a­tive high­land. Its north­ern edge may have dipped its toes at high wa­ter be­fore the Fens were drained in the last 200 to 250 years. The ma­jor­ity, how­ever, would have been high and dry. For many years, hu­man ob­ser­va­tion has been miss­ing from dawns such as these in Riddy Wood. Then, in 2015, two broth­ers, Ge­off and Richard Guy, took over the man­age­ment of the wood­land. Their aim is to re­store and man­age it in a way that it can be used for both con­ser­va­tion and ed­u­ca­tion pur­poses.

Place of dis­cov­ery

Both have back­grounds that in­volve work­ing out­doors. Ge­off lec­tures in coun­try­side man­age­ment at Rease­heath Col­lege in Cheshire. At the same time, he is study­ing for a BSc in con­ser­va­tion, as well as an MA in out­door ed­u­ca­tion. Richard has de­grees in en­vi­ron­ment con­ser­va­tion and ecol­ogy. He works as a con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cer for a part­ner­ship car­ing for Peak District moor­land. The broth­ers were in­spired to take on Riddy Wood as an op­por­tu­nity to turn un­man­aged land into some­where peo­ple could come to find out more about nature and wildlife. “It gave us the chance to do more wood­land man­age­ment work, which we en­joy,” says Ge­off. “At the same time, we can pro­vide a ben­e­fit to oth­ers in the form of ed­u­ca­tional and en­vi­ron­men­tal en­gage­ment op­por­tu­ni­ties. To this end,

we have set up a not-for-profit com­pany to pro­vide cour­ses for peo­ple.” The first sign of hu­man pres­ence is a thin col­umn of smoke, rimmed with gold, ris­ing leisurely from a work camp. Ba­sic shel­ters are roofed with tar­pau­lins, while a rus­tic tri­pod over the small cook­ing fire sup­ports an alu­minium ket­tle. As­sorted tools, both an­tique and mod­ern, such as bill­hooks, are care­fully stored. Mud-caked boots and a pair of camp beds sit in­side an open-fronted shel­ter.

Left un­har­vested

It had been decades since the wood­land was man­aged. Swollen stumps, or stools, of for­merly cop­piced hazels now sup­port dead, twisted and over­grown shoots. Field maples ex­hibit the multi-stemmed growth in­dica­tive of pre­vi­ous har­vests. Older still are the ash trees, stand­ing along­side neat cir­cu­lar holes in the ground. Here, the an­ciently cop­piced stumps have rot­ted, leav­ing only one or two ad­ja­cent stems of re­growth to carry on their legacy. These signs are all that re­main of pre­vi­ous work­ers who man­aged the wood­land. “Al­though it seems counter-in­tu­itive, cut­ting trees down can ac­tu­ally ex­tend their life­span,” ex­plains Ge­off. “Most na­tive de­cid­u­ous trees in the UK will re-grow from the stump when cut down. This is un­like conifers in com­mer­cial forestry plan­ta­tions, which die when they are felled. For mil­len­nia, this trait has been utilised by hu­man civ­i­liza­tion to gen­er­ate a crop of ma­te­ri­als for a range of tasks. These in­clude fur­ni­ture mak­ing, build­ing, stock fenc­ing, thatch­ing spars and hedge lay­ing stakes. The list goes on.” This process is known as cop­pic­ing, and has been prac­tised widely in the UK since at least Ro­man times. Pin­ning a pre­cise date on when peo­ple started man­ag­ing Riddy Wood is close to im­pos­si­ble. How­ever, a group of ex­per­i­men­tal ar­chae­ol­ogy stu­dents have found worked flint mi­croliths, or small stone tools, in ad­ja­cent ploughed fields. These in­di­cate peo­ple have at least been vis­it­ing the wood for thou­sands of years. To­day, the har­vest of us­able wood is just one of the recog­nised ben­e­fits of cop­pic­ing. As trees are cop­piced, the wood­land canopy is opened up. This al­lows more light to reach the wood­land floor, en­cour­ag­ing ground flora, par­tic­u­larly flow­ers, to flour­ish. In its turn, this sup­ports both a greater abun­dance and a wider di­ver­sity of species of in­sects than would oth­er­wise thrive. All this pro­vides more food for species which prey on the in­sects, and so the food chain be­comes rich and di­verse.

Ben­e­fits to wildlife

Cop­pic­ing is done on ro­ta­tion, with dif­fer­ent ar­eas cut each year. Through an es­tab­lished wood­land, there are ar­eas at all stages of the growth process, from freshly cut through to ready to be cut. In­sects par­tic­u­larly can have very spe­cific habi­tat re­quire­ments, met by one stage, but not an­other. They move round the wood from year to year to the area at the ideal stage. This may be a par­tic­u­lar species of plant that only grows when an area reg­u­larly reaches an op­ti­mum tem­per­a­ture. “We’re not at that point yet, be­cause this is only our sec­ond sea­son work­ing here,” says Ge­off. “By our cur­rent plans, we won’t be ready to re-cut any­thing we’ve cop­piced for an­other five years. It will most likely be two or even three full ro­ta­tions, that’s 14 to 21 years, be­fore the cop­pic­ing el­e­ment of the work is run­ning smoothly. But our fo­cus is on the ben­e­fits to the wildlife, not com­mer­cial­ity. What we’d like to do is use the wood as a re­source for peo­ple to learn wood­land man­age­ment.”

Wood­land like Riddy Wood, once man­aged, but ne­glected for years, pro­vides an op­por­tu­nity to demon­strate the re­sult of dif­fer­ent strate­gies. One of the most im­por­tant could be show­ing the re­sult of ceas­ing all man­age­ment. The plan is to cop­pice ap­prox­i­mately half of the wood. The rest will be left as the broth­ers found it, to show the con­trast be­tween cop­piced and un­man­aged wood­land. The dif­fer­ence is al­ready no­tice­able. The ar­eas cop­piced last year have far more flow­ers grow­ing, and are at a more de­vel­oped stage. The un­cut ar­eas are darker and denser. All are an im­por­tant part of the over­all habi­tat di­ver­sity within the wood, en­cour­ag­ing greater bio­di­ver­sity. “If this was a purely com­mer­cial op­er­a­tion, we’d prob­a­bly take out dozens of trees,” says Ge­off. “These would be re­planted heav­ily with hazel, or other pro­duc­tive cop­pice. In­stead, we are try­ing to work with what is in the wood. We aim to start with ar­eas where ma­ture trees have fallen, or are dan­ger­ously close to fall­ing. The plan is then to work around these ar­eas in or­der to make the most of the light which has been let in. “We’ll tar­get ar­eas where good cop­pic­ing species are most abun­dant, rather than cut­ting any­where then hav­ing to re­plant. Our aim is to thin cer­tain ar­eas, rather than clear them en­tirely, so we keep many of the older trees. “Dead wood will be left be­hind, as the in­sects which are as­so­ci­ated with dead wood form a key part of wood­land di­ver­sity. They per­form a vi­tal role in break­ing down or­ganic ma­te­rial and re­turn­ing nu­tri­ents to the soil.” A lesser stag bee­tle is spot­ted on a pile of wood left to rot. This species spends its early stages of life as a larva feed­ing on dead wood. Shar­ing this habi­tat in the wood­land are two dif­fer­ent species of longhorn bee­tle, as well as hun­dreds of

wood lice, smaller bee­tles, worms and other in­ver­te­brates.

Space filled with life

By now, the sun is well and truly up. Pools of sun­light are filled with in­sects jostling for the best bask­ing spots to warm up. After a few min­utes of soak­ing up the warmth, they zoom off with re­newed en­ergy. Hover­flies share the airspace with the oc­ca­sional sleepy-look­ing bum­ble­bee. Wasps and, now and again, their larger cousins, hor­nets, buzz around. Bee flies are present in abun­dance, with their cu­ri­ously long pro­boscis, used to ac­cess the nec­tar of a range of wood­land flow­ers. More del­i­cate are the but­ter­flies. At this time of year, the ear­li­est emerg­ing species are start­ing to be seen. Reg­u­lar sight­ings in the spring­time wood in­clude small tor­toise­shell, orange tip, brim­stone and speck­led wood. Reg­u­lar vis­i­tors in­clude buz­zards, red kites and spar­rowhawks. Both kestrels and barn owls have nested in dead trees on the north­ern edge of the wood. Tawny owls call through the night.

Star­ring roles

Camera traps have cap­tured sight­ings of three species of deer. These are the na­tive roe and two non-na­tives, the munt­jac and Chi­nese wa­ter deer. Other sight­ings in­clude brown hares and foxes. Last year, the broth­ers found a nest in a stack of fire­wood with pieces of squir­rel and a re­cently half-eaten wood­pecker in it. A camera trap caught short but cap­ti­vat­ing footage of a stoat stash­ing a rab­bit un­der the pile of fire­wood. For now, the work in the wood is man­aged around full-time jobs and fam­ily com­mit­ments. The hope is that us­ing the wood for ed­u­ca­tional op­por­tu­ni­ties will al­low the broth­ers to spend more time there. “We recog­nise how lucky we are to be able to in­dulge our love for these ar­eas and this type of work,” says Ge­off. “We think that many more peo­ple would de­velop that same ap­pre­ci­a­tion if they had health prob­lems One of the chal­lenges wood­land man­agers across the coun­try face go­ing for­ward is the ever-present threat of dis­ease. “Dutch elm dis­ease, back in the 1970s, had a dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect on elms across the UK,” says Ge­off. “We have elms here in Riddy Wood, but there are as many dead as alive, if not more. The ones which are alive are mostly younger trees. The dis­ease hasn’t gone, and the older elms show signs of poor health. “We are po­ten­tially look­ing at a sim­i­lar sit­u­a­tion all over again with ash dieback (pic­tured be­low). This is a fun­gal dis­ease af­fect­ing ash trees which, over the last three years or so, has spread through­out the UK from Europe. As its name sug­gests, it kills ash trees. Fears are that it will do to ash what Dutch elm did to elms. There are al­ready signs of it here in the wood in young re­gen­er­a­tion. If it takes hold, it will make ash un­vi­able as a species to cop­pice. Worse is that ap­prox­i­mately 60 per cent of our ma­ture canopy trees are ash. “We are pre­serv­ing other species wher­ever we can, espe­cially oak. If the worst does hap­pen and the ash all die, we have a small head start on re­plac­ing those canopy trees.” the chance to ex­pe­ri­ence it for them­selves. Groups who have al­ready vis­ited the wood have been pos­i­tive and en­cour­ag­ing.” Dawn is over, and the day moves on. “It is hard, phys­i­cal work, which can be both cold and wet,” says Ge­off. “But look at our ‘of­fice’; it is our very own nature re­serve. And when the sun shines, we share it with a myr­iad of wildlife, of­ten very close by. The robins, wrens, wood mice and voles of­ten share our shel­ters. Stoats live in our wood­piles, wood­peck­ers, owls and deer are con­stant com­pan­ions. Watch­ing all of that close up is all the mo­ti­va­tion we need to get out in the woods again.”

Ge­off splits fallen trees for fire­wood, which is then stacked neatly (far left and cen­tre).

Cook­ing over an open fire (left). The wood is from over­grown cop­pices be­ing re­stored.

A pale tus­sock moth cater­pil­lar, Cal­liteara pudi­bunda, feeds on a range of trees in the woods (top).

Rhag­ium mor­dax is one of two species of longhorn bee­tle that call Riddy Wood home (cen­tre).

The lesser stag bee­tle, Dor­cus par­al­lelip­ipedus, grows to ap­prox­i­mately 1in (2.5cm) long (bot­tom). The num­ber of small birds in Riddy Wood, such as this long-tailed tit, is no­tice­ably higher now than be­fore cop­pic­ing restarted. To the right is an area that was cop­piced in the past, let­ting the light in. Here, the ground is car­peted with blue­bells, com­pared to the area un­der the larger trees to the left, where less light gets through the canopy.

A Chi­nese wa­ter deer, Hy­dropotes in­er­mis, show­ing its tusks. These small deer are de­scended from deer who es­caped from Bri­tish zoos and parks in the 20th cen­tury.

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