Red deer in Windsor Great Park

These are some photos I took in Windsor Great Park in July. The park has been royal forest and attached to Windsor Castle itself since the time of William the Conqueror. As well as general pictures of the park, its open spaces and woodland, I took photos of very well established rhododendron (showing just how bad it can get unchecked) and the park’s herd of red deer.

I spent about three hours walking from the Virginia Water visitors’ centre to the middle of the Long Walk and back. I noticed some striking fungal brackets and decaying trees; fencing made from machined posts and roughly worked rails from the park itself; a table dedicated to woodland books in the Saville Garden shop; a curving walk with rhododendron bushes either side, some of which had grown into small trees, with dense rhodo undergrowth going back 10 or 20m on each side; in the deer park, the herd of red deer established by the Duke of Edinburgh, showing their division into a small male group and a much larger group of females and younger deer before the rut starts at the end of summer. Red deer are really woodland animals, with adaptations like the stags’ roar to call to females that are out of sight. The deer park has a mixture of open spaces with trees (like wood pasture) and woodland, and is probably closer to their natural environment than the denuded uplands that they now inhabit in the Highlands of Scotland.

In this gallery click on the thumbnails to get a larger version. After the gallery there’s a short video of red deer stags.

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Brown bears at JuraParc

Around the same time I photographed lynx, wild boar and wolves at the La Garenne zoo in the Jura mountains of Switzerland, I also had the opportunity to see the smaller JuraParc with its group of brown bears.

JuraParc is essentially a restaurant in a mountain pass which added a herd of North American bison, and then wolves, bear, and deer in a sheltered valley. The bison aside, all of these species are native to the Jura and Alps and exist in the wild to varying degrees. From the end of the ice age into the Middle Ages, wolves and bears were common in British woodlands too. Reintroducing them is less realistic than bringing back boar and lynx, but it’s certainly being suggested in fenced areas.

You can see in the first two pictures the layout of the site in the valley, with raised walkways which also form boundaries between the different enclosures. It’s much bigger than La Garenne, and they make use of the cliffs at the edge of the valley for the wolves and bears. I’ve included a short video which gives a better impression of the bears moving around the space and interacting.

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Creating the Glade

The glade at the centre of Century Wood was the first major feature I established after buying the wood almost ten years ago. I photographed the process as I went along and in this post I’ve brought the story together.

When I started there were no open spaces in the wood and just a short ride running from the gate but going nowhere near the wood’s centre. So I pretty much had a blank canvas. I roughed out some ideas for how to lay things out at the same time as completing the purchase in the first winter, but didn’t start work until the autumn – almost a year after first viewing and photographing the wood. In online woodland forums one of the first pieces of advice people now get is to wait a year before doing anything, and back then I knew I certainly wasn’t going to commit to any significant changes until I’d seen things in high summer.

In that first winter, I worked out the OS grid reference of the centre of the wood and then located it on the ground with a GPS receiver. I used this area as the initial “base of operations”, and the place where I kept the stuff I left on site, including a trolley, some hand tools, and a couple of benches. You can see this area in the photograph, with larger plantation poplars interspersed with natural regeneration including hazel, sycamore, and elder.

When I was ready to start felling, I worked out the placement which would require removing the least number of trees and bushes, which had the centre point of the wood near the north boundary of the clearing rather than at its own centre. My plan was to edge the glade with sections of the poplar trunks, and to drag all of the smaller branches and trunks past the boundary and allow them to rot away. I wasn’t going to burn any – apart from some hazel trunks I cut up and stacked as firewood. Having a definite, easily identifiable edge has made it easier to maintain, whether when mowing the ground vegetation or cutting back bushes which start encroaching. It gives you a clear line to work to.

To minimise the amount of hung up trees during the felling, I started near the centre and went round in a spiral felling the trees towards the centre into the increasingly large space I was creating. Doing this created the big mess shown in this photograph but it meant that when I came to cut the trees up on the ground, I did so from the edges inwards, with clear ground to drag branches across to the edge once I’d cut them free. Elsewhere in the wood I’ve cut up each felled tree as I’ve gone along as I’ve not been faced with the same scenario again. I still think it was the most efficient approach overall, but it was messy at the time.

The next pictures show some of the process, with the smaller branches removed first until I was just left with trunks, which were then cut up and used to edge the glade.

At one point I was joined by this mousey friend who I found hiding in amongst the logs waiting to be cut up.

I tackled the big trunks by making spaced cuts in the top sides, using wedges where necessary to stop the chainsaw getting pinched and trapped, and then turning the trunks to expose the uncut lower side. I didn’t have a cant hook for manhandling the trunks at that point, so I tended to turn them by getting them rocking back and forth until I could turn them over by giving a big heave at the right moment.

These next two pictures show the glade with the trunks cut up and used as edging, and only the stumps left. I cut all of the poplars at this height for safety (it’s easier to get away if you’re standing upright) and because I knew I was going to cut their trunks up into sections anyway. Over the next year or two I removed the stumps too, first by cutting them to ground level and then digging round them to be able to cut them down to below ground level. That’s a messy job that also blunts the chainsaw chain as you hit things in the soil, and it would probably have been easier with a stump grinder.

Finally these two pictures show the glade at the start of its first spring and in summer. You can see a couple of the poplar stumps with green shoots of regrowth in the summer picture. Now that the light could get in, a different mix of ground vegetation took hold. Still nettles, but increasingly being out competed by grass encouraged by mowing.

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Cheshire steam fair

Last weekend I was at the Cheshire Steam Fair, and one of the stands had a collection of vintage chainsaws and a portable steam saw. You can see some photos and video of them here.

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Mowing woodland rides and glades with a scythe mower

I started sketching out routes for the ride network when I bought Century Wood but only started work seriously about a year later. Before then as the first summer bloomed I was faced with ground vegetation, especially nettles, which threatened to become impenetrable. Over the years I’ve employed various techniques for mowing the rides and glades, or even just getting around. Eventually I settled on a scythe mower which is still serving me well seven years later.

The first few times I was faced with getting through stands of nettles above waist height I grabbed a stick and whacked the stems to break them. It’s surprisingly effective as long as the nettles aren’t too dense, and was ok for wading through as long as I had decent jeans to deal with the surviving stumps round my shins. Later I bought a machete and set about it in a more professional manner, but it’s a very labour intensive way of going for a walk through your wood. These tracks did last a week or two though, and so could be used for cutting out a route that less intrepid visitors could use. I still use this kind of approach if faced with nettles barring my way somewhere off a ride.

I experimented with using a garden roller, with its drum not yet filled with water, sand, or cement. That worked a lot better than you’d think too as nettles and cow parsley have stems that break rather than just bend as long grass does. You do feel like you’re walking on a rather springy bed make of the stems though, and it sounds like a ridiculous idea when you try to explain it.

I stepped up to a cheap no-name petrol brushcutter which was my first proper solution. With this I was able to cut all the rides to about eight foot wide, by making two trips over their one kilometre or so distance, and mow the glades and car park too. This took me about two days of work, so was feasible to do bit by bit more than once per season.

However, I knew a better solution was a petrol scythe mower. This is effectively a hedge trimmer set horizontally just above ground height and mounted on a pair of driven wheels with handles for you to steer and work the controls. These are extremely effective and tackle small woody growth in addition to anything green you put in their way. Since there are just two wheels with the cutter itself on skids, they also deal with uneven ground and small obstacles like logs that hide in the undergrowth.

The mower I bought is made by Al-Ko in Germany, and I managed to get a much better price by buying it online from France. I took a bit of a risk about the complications of returning it if faulty, but for ongoing maintenance and servicing buying a brand name rather than a “no name” machine from China was worth it. Plus the engine is Briggs and Stratton which most lawnmower workshops are familiar with already.

One of the key things about a scythe mower is that there’s lots of vibration. The springy handle bars don’t transmit it uncomfortably to my hands (unlike my no-name brush cutter) but you need to check for loose nuts and bolts each time. I lost one key plastic part of the cutter by not checking this enough, and the rapid side to side motion of the top blade threw it off into the undergrowth never to be seen again. Back home I tried welding together a replacement piece, but that started wearing down the adjacent pieces and I had to get (inexpensive) replacements from Germany. It’s worth getting more spares than you need, and carry spare nuts and bolts too in case things rattle free on site.

This year I decided to repaint the body of the mower, which started life at silver grey but inevitably got scuffed and rusted at the corners. I chose black to match the engine block and handle bars, and because it’s a discreet colour for equipment parked in woodland shade. Not that I leave it at the wood overnight. I also attached a small toolbox for things like a bottle of water and some bug spray.

The cutter consists of a fixed bottom blade and a moving top blade, each with triangular teeth about 5cm apart at the points. These slide over each other to cut, and that defines the thickest stem which can be cut through in one go. That’s about the size of a fat thumb, but in reality thicker ones can be cut by letting the blades chew at the sapling from one side. I’m cautious about doing this aggressively though, in case I overheat the engine.

For the nettles, cow parsley, saplings, grass, and other ground vegetation that I mostly deal with, the mower works very well. It’s also fine with isolated brambles which give up after a few passes over the year, but isn’t effective where the brambles have formed clumps woven in and around other plants. In that case slicing away at ground level doesn’t disturb the brambles very much, and they tend to spring back once the mower has gone past. So it’s necessary to do something else (machete, bill hook, secateurs, chainsaw?) to disconnect the brambles from their root and then start shredding them with the scythe mower.

These two pictures (click for bigger versions) show a before and after in the main glade of the wood last week. You can really see the height of the vegetation which the mower dealt with in a single pass. It hasn’t been mowed since 2015 so the grass has been suppressed by the other plants. I hope by the autumn it will have reasserted itself again.

It really deserves its own post, but I’ve also observed significant recolonisation of the rides by grass after repeated mowing. I also vary the edges of the rides that are mowed to encourage a variety of ground plants, but in some areas I just want grass for the amenity value.

These pictures show two sections of ride after mowing, and again you can get a rough idea of what the mower cut through from what’s still on either side.

In terms of protective equipment, the requirements are less than a brush cutter because you’re safely standing behind the handle bars while the engine is running. Especially, while the clutch for the cutter is engaged and the blades are moving. With the two clutch levers for the cutter and the driven wheels on different handles, it requires you stay safely at the back. All this goes out the window for other people around you of course and so it’s really a machine to be using without other people nearby.

I just use rigger gloves and a chainsaw helmet with visor and ear defenders beyond what I normally wear in terms of decent boots and thick jeans. I find gloves and visor to be essential when tackling nettles and cow parsley that are up towards eight foot high and tend to topple over towards me as they are cut at the base. The helmet itself protects me from any other surprises.

My reason for moving up from the brush cutter to the scythe mower was to reduce the time and effort taken to maintain the rides and glades, and this worked out very well. It’s less tiring but also faster, certainly in my amateur brush-cutting hands. What used to take me two days if I mowed everything, now takes a long afternoon and early evening, and when I was establishing the rides I did it all once a month for two summers.

I found that the least tiring pattern is to walk in straight lines or long lazy curves. Good for rides, and something that works in glades if I go in a spiral. What is very hard, harder than the brush cutter, is tight corners where you need to manhandle the mower round. So up and down stripes like you might do with a lawn mower aren’t a good idea. Reversing out of a clump of nettles that is just too thick and heavy to push through becomes very tiring too: it works better to keep trimming away at one edge so you’re always walking forwards.

All in all, the scythe mower has been one of the best investments I’ve made, especially for the amenity value of maintaining the grassed rides and open glades.

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Lynx, Wolves, and Boar at La Garenne

I had the opportunity to visit La Garenne in the Jura mountains of Switzerland earlier this year. The zoo takes in and treats hundreds of injured wild animals, with most released back into the Swiss countryside. It also participates in breeding and reintroduction programmes. The focus is on animals which are native to the region, and this includes lynx, wolves, and boar which were once native to Britain too. In the Jura mountains, all three are now present in the wild to varying degrees, either by deliberate reintroduction or after recolonising the region from refuges elsewhere.

In Britain, boar have already escaped back into the wild from farms, and there are rewilding groups working to reintroduce lynx in several parts of the UK and even wolves in Scotland. All three have implications, some very positive, for woodland and so it was fascinating to see them up close, in another landscape they are native to.

This first picture shows about half of the three hectare site, with the wolf enclosure in the centre.

The following pictures show wolves, lynx, bearded vultures, eagle owls, goats, and wild boar.

 

Finally here are three short videos of wolves and lynx:

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Deadwood

Woodland continually creates deadwood, as branches fall or trees die. It used to be something that people “tidied up” and some still do. I came across a couple of lovely examples in Century Wood last week which show how wonderful and important it is.

Now and then we get reminders of the old attitude. The National Trust was pilloried last year for a TV advert where the ad company filmed people pretending to sweep up leaves and collect fallen branches in an SSSI … where that is illegal. And I joined some bushcraft Facebook groups recently, where many people believe that while trespassing and camping in woodland without permission, it’s ok to collect deadwood to build fires!

The thing is deadwood isn’t dead. It’s full of life. Like the skeletons of dead coral creatures that gradually build up a coral reef, deadwood is dead parts of trees, but provides structure and also sustenance for the plants, fungi and animals that inhabit it.

Deadwood is also a process, that starts with the time the branch or the tree itself dies and ends with it finally melting into the soil of the wood. The picture to the right shows the whole process in a single piece of wood. At the top it’s still a recognisable log, a bit decayed and holed, but nevertheless solid and round. As we follow it down the image, past the green moss, the decay increases until at the bottom it is crumbling away until eventually you can’t tell where the wood stops and the preexisting soil starts.

You don’t just meet deadwood on the forest floor. Standing deadwood occurs when a tree dies but is still strong enough to stand. For a time. There are risks with it, as it might topple over when someone is around, but if it’s safe to do so then it’s good practice to leave it, and I try to do that at Century Wood.

The tree I have in mind to show this is one of the plantation poplars. It’s already lost the branches above the first fork of the trunk but is still about 20 foot tall. You can see the base of it here (click on these pictures to enlarge them.) Some of the bark is coming off, and there are flat fungal “brackets” jutting out in the middle. On the ground are chips of wood, and these are the result of woodpecker activity. We often hear them in the wood and occasionally we come across the physical evidence.

You can see the woodpecker’s black nesting hole in the centre of this picture, with a scar through the bark above and even more so below the hole. Woodpecker’s don’t just use their remarkable ability to create nest holes. They also chip away at deadwood to get at insects living in it, and in this case the tree has lots bark stripped or fallen away and wood with scars from the birds’ beaks.

In the first picture you could see one of the columns of fungal brackets or shelves growing out of the remaining bark and here is a close up. Just like mushrooms and toadstools, these are their fruiting bodies that scatter spores on the breeze from gills or pores on the underside. The spores hope to land on suitable deadwood elsewhere in the woodland or beyond, and so it depends, like the other deadwood specialists, on the continued presence of it.

This last image is a close up of one of the scars where the wood has been chipped at by a woodpecker. At first I thought the little black circles were holes made by its beak, or burrowing by insect larvae. But closer inspection reveals it to be more fungal growths, this time like the mushrooms and toadstools we are more familiar with. Some of the stalks are clearly visible. Isn’t it fascinating how the ecology of those two species, bird and fungus, so far apart in form, fit together to make a life in the deadwood?

Edited to add: a month after this post I took this picture of striking fungal growths on another decaying poplar. Probably Dryad’s Saddle.

 

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