Somerset Wildlife Trust

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December: Deck the halls with cut saplings

 3rd Jan 2017

And I’m back, happy new year to all! I trust the festive season brought all the traditional bloating and borderline unacceptable alcohol consumption that the yuletide spirit demands!

And now, to confuse matters, I am obliged to step back a month. Back to the first of December, when Christmas was a mere blink on the horizon.

My December has been dominated by the removal of trees. This is a continuation of the work being performed in November, so apologies if I cover some of the same ground. It’s one of the eternal confusions of conservation; at first glance it seems odd for the people whose sole purpose is to preserve the natural heritage of our country to be cutting down trees. There are however, several very critical reasons for this.

The first is access. Trees will often come down across paths in adverse weather, or through decay. In the case of larger trees, limbs and branches will often die without affecting the whole tree, and the dead branches will fall. So obviously, in this case we are not removing the tree, merely a part of the tree.

The second reason is because of succession. I’ve mentioned succession in previous blogs. It is the tendency of a habitat to revert to woodland. An open grassland can become fully fledged secondary woodland in fifty years. However, our reserves are carefully managed ecosystems. With much of the surrounding land put over to other uses, such as farmland, forestry plantations or urban development, it is very important that any rare habitats we have are kept, and not allowed to succeed to woodland. Some of our tree species are very pioneering, and will seed very quickly into open grassland. Two great examples of this are Hawthorn and Ash, which have kept me very busy this month.

At the end of November, I began cutting and stump treating hawthorn at Tannager. The saplings here have been allowed to grow for a number of years in the species rich grassland, but this will eventually throw much of the hillside into shade. This will be hugely detrimental to the wildflowers that grow here. And while the twisted, gnarled forms of hawthorns have their own ragged beauty, it is important to preserve this calcareous grassland where the rarer plants grow. And so I assisted in the removal of the saplings; a slow process of zigzagging back and forth across the slope, cutting each establishing tree and applying herbicide to prevent it bouncing back. Needless to say, after this had been performed, the cut thorn needed to be removed, as it would deter livestock from grazing the patches where it lay. This in turn could initiate the establishment of scrub, all to the detriment of the grassland. So began several days of wandering up and down a very steep slope, shunting and dragging hawthorn saplings. Hawthorn saplings grab everything. It’s not merely like herding cats; it’s like herding cats into a bath.

I did however get a nice day of heavy frost while doing this, which is particularly nice on the spider webs.

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A frost hung web at Tannager


I also got to lead a work party at Gilling Down this month. This was removing mixed scrub and coppicing the Blackthorn. The process has several benefits, including helping the declining Brown Hairstreak Butterfly, which selectively lays its eggs on new shoots, which are encouraged by coppicing.


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Removing bramble from the coppiced area


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A finished blackthorn patch, with cut plants protecting the new growth


Another major part of the month has been the maintenance of a hazel coop at Dundon Beacon. A coop is the term given to an area of coppice cut in a single year. They can vary greatly in size. This coop, however, has been different. It is not as densely populated with hazel as it should be. As a result, rather than cutting all the branches down, some of the limbs were ‘layered’. This technique is camparable to radial hedgelaying; each of the stems is cut most of the way through, shaved partially of bark, laid flat to the ground and pegged down. There is a chance that branches laid in this way will take root, and can then be separated from the parent tree to establish a new plant. Quite a miracle of biology really.

The trees in the coop were managed in this way to fill gaps in the area, and the cut tips of the branches were piled onto the cut stools to protect them from browsing by deer. Opening out the woodland in this way is a very traditional practice, going back millennia, and benefits many kinds of wildlife, including some species of butterflies and birds that are adapted to live in newly growing woodland, which this practice simulates.

I’ve also done a bit of hedgelaying, though using a chainsaw, something which would have traditional hedgelayers rolling on the floor in tears. I’ve got a course to learn how to do it properly in January, so I can hopefully redeem myself then…

A particular highlight of December for me has been participating in WeBS (Wetland Bird Surveys) in the Brue Valley. It’s always nice to see wildlife enjoying the spaces maintained by the Trust, and doubly so if you’re helping to monitor it. I always enjoy watching Snipe erupt from the ground, whirring away like wind-up drunks, their grating call giving them away. We also found brown hares, only a couple of miles from my house, which was very gratifying. It was a real pleasure to see them burst from their grassy starting blocks, all legs and ears, before pressing themselves to the ground again in the distance, vanishing seamlessly into the landscape.

You have to try a bit harder with much of nature in the Winter, look with that little bit more determination to find it, but Somerset has great opportunities. The Brue Valley is a wonderful spot, as the waders have arrived in force, and many of the fields appear to crawl as the flocks of Fieldfare and Redwing hop across their surfaces.

It’s also worth a visit to the coast, especially around our estuaries, as the waders will be out in big numbers in some places.

And so we arrive back at the festive season. I write this in the New Year, my belt slightly tighter than last year, getting back into the swing of working life. If it brings the breadth of knowledge and experience that 2016 did, it’s no great hardship to return.

I wish you all a great start to the year! And so do the rather over friendly ponies at Dundon Beacon.

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Ooh, a chainsaw…’