Post written by Jonathan Dent, St Nicks Nature Reserve Manager, who leads our heritage skills courses
As the seasons change, our attention shifts from work in the grasslands and becks to our maturing woodland areas. We are in the middle of a five-year plan of thinning, developed with the help of our local Forestry Commission Officer, during which over 40 trees will be felled. This will open up closed woodland canopies (such as the one pictured here) in order to allow light in for various grasses, wildflowers, scrub and low-growing understory trees to develop and establish. Creating such diversity of structure and species is vitally important to support an equally diverse range of our native woodland wildlife. We have also been helping the process along by planting the felling areas with woodland floor plants such as wild foxglove, red campion and wood sage.
The majority of the trees we fell are then managed as coppice. Coppicing is an ancient form of woodland management where trees are cut periodically to ground level to encourage regrowth from the stumps. Done on a rotation this process further contributes to increasing diversity in the woodland and the wood can be used to make a diverse range of products – from spoons or charcoal to hurdles.
It is believed that native trees such as hazel, lime or ash respond particularly well to coppicing because they evolved to cope with being damaged by wind and browsing cattle (or beavers, elephants and other herbivorous animals that used to roam these isles in prehistoric times). You can learn more about coppicing either by googling it or by actually having a go on our Coppicing Workshop on 4th March 2017. If you know someone else who might enjoy it, please note that we offer gift vouchers for our training days so you could treat a loved one this Christmas – just get in touch if you’d like to know more or go on the workshop page.
Another great heritage skill is hedgelaying. We have been expanding hedges on the reserve in the last few years, planting over 300 metres of species-rich hedgerows. These provide valuable refuge and safe passage for wildlife which makes them extremely important habitats, not to mention great foraging places. If you enjoyed sampling St Nicks sloe gin at the Autumn Fayre, you will understand why we are upset that our blackthorns grew too few sloes for a new batch this year…
Hedges have been disappearing from the landscape in the last century due to changes in farming practices but we’re very keen to keep the tradition alive (not just because of the gin!). Similarly to coppicing, hedgelaying promotes new growth by cutting tree stems but only partly and these part-cut stems are then laid on top of other stems. This instantly creates a thicker structure as some parts will die off, leaving valuable dead wood within, while new growth ensures the sustainability of the habitat. It may look brutal at first but it is amazing how quickly the trees regrow and birds such as sparrows move in to chirp away from a safe perch.