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Village Nature Diary with Mary Green

Shady groves

Posted on September 21 2011 at 11:21:31 0 comments

Beech mast

Mary Green explores the diverse woodland in our area.

This was the driest January to August period in the Midlands since 1976. There was a good, early crop of fruit, grain and vegetables, but the leaves also started to turn and fall early. By the end of August horse chestnut, hawthorn, hazel and field maple were all going golden. Soon afterwards the non-native maples went beautifully red.

The harvest was good to gather but lower in yield because of the dry weather. I have noticed far more fields of oats this year, presumably because of an increase in demand, and it seems every field that could be cut for hay or silage has been. Mowing grass fields is good for their diversity and wildlife.

I went to Eades meadow in late summer and it had been mown for hay much earlier than usual, as the flowers were all finished. Sometimes I’ve been in September and there have still been flowers on the knapweed, scabious, saw-wort and other late summer flowers. However, the meadow saffron was gorgeous this year, springing up on the mown grass as well as the patches between the trees which weren’t mown.

You could see much more clearly the curious growth cycle of these now rare plants. The leaves come up in spring and then die down in summer to form the bulbs. These then come into naked flower in late August, looking like pink crocuses. It doesn’t matter if the field has been mown because all the goodness of the leaves has already gone into the bulbs.

Talking of meadows, The Meadows in Alvechurch park were good this summer. As well as increasing amounts of knapweed, they had a big patch of sneezewort this year, and are getting a true meadowy look.

I came back from my holiday in Pembrokeshire, where the hedges were laden with wild plums, to find that there is a new farm shop open in Alvechurch, on Cooper’s Hill. It’s always good to see local produce available.

I am back in the woods this month. Earlier this year, you may remember, the government issued a consultation on disposing of much of the national forest, which they quickly retracted when they found out the strength of opinion against it!

However, the Forestry Commission control only a small proportion of our national woodland, with a further tiny amount managed by the Woodland Trust and other conservation bodies. At least three quarters of our woodland is in private hands, mostly in small woods and shady groves not used commercially. To me, this is the really important stuff.

Britain still has one of the lowest proportions of woodland in Europe. No-one doubts now that trees are vital for control of the oxygen balance in the environment, for maintaining the diversity of our eco-system and hosting other wildlife. Now their benefits have even been quantified in money terms, because they aid health and well-being. They can also be of economic value in the use of wood.

For many people woodland is connected with peace and solitude, and it is a place of myth and magic, often representing an escape from normal society (as in Robin Hood or several Shakespeare plays).

My view is that the first priority is to encourage everyone who owns woodland to manage it and use it. Truly wild woodland, like any other uncared-for land, becomes overgrown and lacking in diversity, the trees crowded and weakened.

By using it, I mean harvesting the wood sustainably and using it. This can be for wooden products, which are still surprisingly diverse, but it can also be for fuel, whether as logs for burners or as biomass. It is sad to think that we import tons of wood and wooden products when we have woodland unused.

Using the wood can mean coppicing and pollarding, which allows young wood to be cropped in rotation so the trees stay in place, or cutting down older trees after planting young ones to replace them.

Using wood actually improves the environment for wildlife and for human access for pleasure. Wild flowers can thrive, trees are maintained in health, animals and birds have habitats, and undergrowth is kept in control. It was interesting to see, in Hannah Genders’ gold-medal winning garden at Malvern, hazel obtained from local coppicing being used in parts of the structure.

Wood-burning is having a revival too. Unfortunately, since the Second World War there has been a tendency to plant quick-growing non-native timber trees, which are then just mass-felled, leaving the land deprived of nutrients and other wildlife. But we could have a thriving sustainable forestry.

The next priority, of course, is to plant more trees. I’m glad to say that locally we seem to be doing well at this, so long as these groves and woods continue to be managed.

In our locality, there are woods old, new, managed, unmanaged, native and non-native, small and medium-sized, conserved and neglected. I briefly mentioned in February a wood local to me, which is a good example. This is Withybed Wood, planted and maintained by Jeremy Plewes. It is about 20 years old and now looks like a real wood.

It is an excellent example of how woodland used to be before the coming of the mass conifers. It contains predominantly native species – 60 specimens of oak, ash, hawthorn, birch, field maple, cherry, willow, holly, yew – taken mostly from local sources. This includes good specimens, now flowering and fruiting, of the uncommon wild service tree, taken from suckers in a neighbouring dingle, and a lovely walnut.

Walnut has been established for so long that there is a variety called English walnut, though it was probably introduced from elsewhere in Europe. The leaves smell of apple when crushed, and of course the nuts were much used for food in the past. Smaller shrubs include dogwood, which provides winter colour in its red stems and lovely white summer flowers.

There are also non-native species, for variety. There are a few conifers, such as spruce and larch, and holm oak to provide winter green. There is a beautiful flowering winter honeysuckle and some naturalised roses.

There are plums (the local rusty-golden egg-plum), apples and a black mulberry tree, with native red and yellow cherry plums and an introduced pissard plum at the entrance. Planting orchard trees among woodland trees has a fine tradition.

As the wood is still young, the ground is relatively unshaded, so there are good flowers underfoot. At the entrance is a patch of creeping comfrey. Further in are cowslips, primroses, campion, cow-parsley and hedge parsley depending on the season.

Among the primroses are some lovely pink cross-bred ones that I remember being common in my Devon childhood. You can see it isn’t an old wood because it doesn’t have dog’s mercury, though this is nearby in The Birches bridleway and may spread in.

The wood is well-managed. Jeremy visits it early every morning with Misty, his dog. Some of the willows are pollarded – cut back to a few feet tall to allow new growth. All the trees are checked regularly and dead wood taken out (but not taken away) and new ones planted. The wood has rabbits, badgers, hedgehogs, voles, foxes and muntjac deer, and birds include jays and green woodpeckers.

A wood like this is a labour of love. It will continue to develop and provide habitat and human pleasure for decades to come. Though it is private, you can see it from the adjoining bridleway.

I have also seen some really old woodlands this year. One was introduced to me by a lady who contacted me after reading these articles. She owns an old stretch of woodland and wanted me to see it. She didn’t want me to tell you her name or the site, so I’ll call her M.

It was a beautiful wood with big old oaks, and when I visited in April had cherry and apple trees in blossom. Underneath were carpets of bluebells, primroses, garlic, stitchwort, and the lovely yellow archangel.

This is the relative of the dead-nettle, which occurs in hedges around here (there’s one a few yards from me) and shows where old woods were. In old woods, flowers really only thrive in spring, before the leafy canopy shades them out.

A public footpath runs alongside the wood so you may have seen it! M is in her eighties now and still enjoys walking through it. She was wondering what will happen to it after she is gone. Many people worry that trees can be lost in minutes, having grown for centuries.

Now to some woods where you can walk. One obvious one is Newbourne Wood in Rowney Green. This has a public footpath and permissive paths through. It is in some ways a bad example of woodland.

The majority of trees are non-native pines, larch and firs planted in the 1950s. However, round the edges and scattered throughout are some fine examples of native trees: oak, beech, holly and chestnut, and some blossoming cherries and blackthorns.

The wood now belongs to the Worcestershire Wildlife Trust. In the later part of the 20th century, they began to remove the conifers, felling them and selling them for timber, thus opening up glades and encouraging the growth of native deciduous species and woodland flowers. So far, so good.

However, this felling has more or less stopped, perhaps for financial reasons. So it remains a wood without a lot of the interest of native woodland – there are not many wild flowers, for example. There are some fungi, and I have found a lovely cauliflower fungus there. This is an unmistakable, large fungus which is all crinkled up like a cauli, and is edible.

There is also a good bird population, and the views are superb. It’s certainly worth a walk through, and can be combined with my walk to Rowney Green described last year.

A little further afield are some other very interesting WWT reserves, which have been well managed. Within a short drive is Lion Wood, at Portway just off the A435. You will find it on the old Alcester Road which runs parallel, and you can park on the roadside near the gate (grid reference SP045716).

There is a figure-of-eight footpath through the wood. It is very unusual for this area, being on acid soil. This means it has an undergrowth of bilberry (delicious berries in summer!) and in open glades, a carpet of common heather or ling. The heather glade also had St John’s wort, tormentil, foxgloves, wood-sage and sedge when I visited, and plenty of bees and butterflies. There is so much holly in the understory that they have to keep under control.

Trees include oak, rowan, birch and yew. Many are not very old, and they grow very tall, competing for the light, though there are a few older ones on one side. There is an unusually large number of rowans, which love acid soil, much larger than the ones we usually see and full of lovely scarlet berries.

There are bird boxes galore, and the bird population is very good because of the wealth of berries – the rowan, holly, yew and hawthorn. I saw green woodpeckers: in spring you would see and hear spotted woodpeckers, in winter tree-creepers and nuthatches, in autumn fieldfares and redwings.

A working party from the Trust were actively managing the wood while I was there, and it looked really well cared-for.

This year I have also visited woods at Abberley and Woodbury, Piper’s Hill near Hanbury, Chance Wood near Kinver, Kinver Edge itself, Broadmoor Wood near Rubery, and a wonderful wood near Stourbridge being used to train young people with learning difficulties. I will write more about these later!

I’ve also noticed Cock’s Croft above Barnt Green, where I understand they intend to restart the management of the wood, and the progress of Mick Robbins’ Wood between Alvechurch and Hopwood, where hawthorns have blossomed and produced berries now.

Woods are a lovely place to walk at this time of year. You will find beautiful leaf colour, an amazing array of fungi, and bright berries. Wild fruits are especially good this year. But remember you don’t need actual woods – most of the walks round here have old hedges and small spinneys full of old trees, bushes and flowers.

The walks described in my articles last year suggest some good places to look. Remember a compendium of these walks is still available by email if you contact The Village.

This month there are two short poems on the same theme. One is a sonnet – an old European form which has 14 lines in a particular rhyming pattern, aiming to compress a theme into a small space.

The other is a haiku, an old Japanese form which is even more miniature: it has seventeen syllables arranged 5-7-5, and aims to catch a moment in time and space. I think both were old equivalents of Twitter!

Withybed Wood

Sonnet

People who plant woods believe in the future.
Alchemy turns European cash to wood
Twenty years so far, true force of nature
Bigger than dinosaurs, older than the flood.
Oak and yew are slow, willow and birch fast,
Wild service trees magicked from spinney growth
Apple and golden plum making a feast
Of jam and chutney, sweet and clear as truth.
He walks there every morning in the dew
Pyjamas and wellingtons in the cool breeze
Watches the spaces where the dead trees grew
Touches each of his live and singing trees.
Rabbit, badger, hedgehog, vole, fox and deer
Watch him, whose human work is growing here.


Haiku

Towards the willow
Padding in striped pyjamas
Here comes the badger


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