Now that work is slowing down in the gardens, I return to the woods to rejoin the work of thinning the young trees and dealing with the huge amounts of brash, foliage and small branches that result from each felling. It is slow and careful work and decisions on which trees to keep, and which would be better removed, are not always easy to make. The work is progressing, though, and now the place is starting to look more like a wood and less a plantation of straight lines.
Getting creative with brash
The huge amounts of brash created must be dealt with. Not content to heap it up or simply burn it, a project is under way to create something both useful and lovely to see. The branches are cut from the fallen trees and woven together to form what we call 'dead hedges' – man-made hedges that snake through the woods, curving around those trees which remain standing. They are loosely formed to allow birds and mammals to get in, and yet being woven makes them surprisingly robust.
Now and then, an old brash pile is taken apart to make way for a new one and some of the old material is incorporated into the new, the remainder being left to rot down. In taking apart the old piles, we can see what has been going on inside and what we see is heartening, for we find the roosts and burrows of birds and small mammals.
Little by little, more wildlife are making this place their home, building nests and raising young. There are cup-shaped nests of birds, leaf and grass nests of mice, tunnels dug by voles, hiding places for toads, frogs and newts. Wild bees tuck themselves into the moss and leaf litter. Deer scrape the ground to make resting places.
The activity of birds amongst the woven brash suggests that the brash acts not just as a stopping-off point between the trees, but also as a larder, being habitat for beetles, flies and spiders. Walk through the woods at any time and you'll see them flitting in and out, from one to another. Even as we work on building the newest structure, the birds are there to see what they can find.
Plants are on the increase
As thinning continues, more light is being allowed onto the woodland floor and the number of plant species is increasing. Orchids and English bluebells are spreading themselves through the trees, cowslips have formed a growing colony in the grass along one wide path, ferns are starting to appear on log piles and there are more mushrooms each year. This last one pleases me for it tells of the growing threads of mycelium making their way through the earth, converting biomass into compost. Scrape back the thickening leaf mould and you can see the white mycelium threads and smell the lovely mushroom scent of healthy soil.
Just 18 years ago this area was overworked arable land, but now a thriving community of species is forming.
Given the parlous state of wildlife in the UK, places such as these give me some hope that good may be done if only there is a will to do it. Given the frustrations of modern city life, more people are making their way to woodlands such as these. The woodland I work in is private – albeit with a public right of way running through it, and the owners being happy for people to explore – but there are a growing number of community woodlands where members of the public can get involved in the pleasurable work of helping them develop and thrive. You don't have to weave brash of course – here you can work, learn, play and rest, enjoy the shade and feel the dappled sunlight warming your back.
Why not find a project near you, get involved, enjoy the fresh air and make a difference to your surroundings and the wildlife that share it.
Please note: the contents of this blog reflect the views of its author, which are not necessarily those of the RHS