“The Wood: the life and times of Cockshutt Wood” by John Lewis Stempel

I was very impressed by “The Wood: the life and times of Cockshutt Wood”. John Lewis-Stempel rented a farm in Herefordshire and had the wood for four years. The book is written as a diary of the last of those four years. Some people have made very snippy comments that he was playing at farming and forestry, but that misses the point that the emphasis of the book is on the trees and wildlife of the wood, and how they change during the seasons.

It starts in December with the wood entering its winter quiet time, and goes through the seasons until his final farewell in November. I do find diary (and letter) format books tricky to adjust to but it worked well here given the seasonal frame and his many short visits to the wood.

Some of the diary entries are little more than notes or lists. Others are little essays. A typical one is that he shoots a pheasant on the 8th of December for Christmas lunch, and then tells a short anecdote about poaching and the number of pheasants released each year. Many anecdotes were the kind of thing curiosity would lead you to via Google or Wikipedia. The kind of thing people now check on their phones and then blurt out “Just looked it up. Did you know that such and such is actually something or other!!!” There are also poems, block quotes, and recipes.

As part of his farm, he keeps pigs, cows and sheep in the wood, grazing them and using them to suppress the brambles which originally smothered the woodland floor. Some of the wood is also coppiced, and he harvests mushrooms, elder flowers, sweet chestnut and the odd pheasant and woodpigeon. He also shoots American grey squirrels.

Frankly, I think this is the best book at capturing the feeling of having a wood that I’ve come across.

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Smallwoods, Issue 73, New Year 2019

The postman delivered the current edition of the Small Woods Association’s “Smallwoods” magazine today, for New Year 2019.

As well as the usual news roundup, letters, and book reviews, the feature articles include:

  • Carbon capture in wood
  • Identifying signs of mammals
  • The first in a series of articles on woodland planning permission and other controls
  • Buying and selling woods
  • 100 years of the Forestry Commission
  • The Oliver Rackham archive of books and papers
  • Weaving a willow basket
  • One member’s wood, planted by them in 1995
  • Blue tits in woodland

I was really pleased to see the planning article, which again brought up some of the themes of the Long Tail essay. I’m looking forward to the next article in the series, on the details of the planning system (the bare bones of which are in the Planning Law page on this site.)


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Burnt oak trees at Dunham Massey

To the southeast of Island Pool in the deer park of Dunham Massey in Cheshire is a group of burnt oaks. I came across them today on a New Year’s Day walk. At first I thought they might be due to a lightning strike, but further digging reveals they are the result of a bracken fire.

This first picture sets the scene of the small group of oaks, which have lost their tops at about the same height. Some have started to regrow crowns, but others are dead. You might be able to convince yourself that they got a fork each from a large lightning discharge, destroying their tops and (on closer inspection) leaving them as charred hollows. You can see lots of charring in the second picture. Lightning can also travel through the bark, burning and shattering as it goes.

These next six pictures are from two trees. The second large picture is a hole burnt right through the wall of the shell near ground level. In the fourth picture, the whole of the inside of the tree is charred. The bottom left and bottom right pictures are views up the charred hollows extending the full remaining height of each tree.

Naturally, there is a history of lightning strikes at Dunham Massey. John Boultbee painted “An oak tree struck by lightning in Dunham Park” in 1808. Other paintings of the deer park suggest it was denser than it is now, with something like a closed canopy of oak trees. In Boultbee’s painting there is not much evidence of burning, and instead the tree has just exploded when the lightning struck, leaving shards of pale wood strewn around. People are taking photos of very similar aftermaths around the world today.

So far, so plausible. But then it begins to break down. Another of the trees in the group looks just the same, but has no charring at all. Its hollow, rotted-out structure is the same, and it has a missing crown at the same height. That strongly suggests that the other trees were like this, and then set alight. It means that lightning can’t be explanation of the lost crowns, at least.

When I got home I had a look for anything online and the the National Trust website has an “ancient trees walk” at Dunham Massey which explains it:

Burnt, decayed, twisted, hollow, but still alive and healthy, the trees damaged in a past bracken fire show the tenacity of trees to survive.

The final three photos show another hollow but surviving oak in a different part of the deer park, and a big hollow branch on the ground. Finally a really cool den to the east of Island Pool.

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Woodland book list

I’ve added a woodland book list to the Century Wood website. It ranges from conventional forestry management and the natural history of trees to American books about rural buildings and their archetypical “cabin in the woods”, and roughly corresponds to a real shelf in one of my own bookcases.

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Woodland planning

I’ve been writing about woodland planning permission issues for several years now, first in the context of hutting. Questions about the topic come up frequently in woodland discussion groups (“Can I put up a shed?” etc.) Today I’ve published “Woodland planning law” as a guide to the various pieces of legislation. This is enough to work with, but in the future I plan to write some guides or FAQs which give people the bottom line and link to “Woodland planning law” for the gory details.

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“Broadleaf” magazine, Winter 2018

The winter issue of The Woodland Trust’s quarterly “Broadleaf” magazine dropped on the mat today.

This edition’s features are:

  • the Trust’s new landscapes programme, that aims to connect up woodlands to allow wildlife to move around and be part of larger populations, which in turn has benefits for genetic diversity and disease resistance
  • an article, with some striking photos, on the reintroduction of beavers and their impact on water quality, flood control, and recreating habitats – the original British coppice workers
  • a walk through Lineover Wood in the Cotswolds (with an accompanying map) and some information about the volunteers who manage it and their Christmas campfire feast (which sound like a great idea!)
  • and an article on Orienteering as a way of enjoying woodland and how to get involved

News items include:

  • wildcat reintroduction, including the possibility to bring them back to England and Wales as well as extend their range in Scotland
  • an update on the Northern Forest, including the Government’s desire to use it as a testbed for the reforms of agricultural and forestry funding after Brexit, as we leave the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy rules and target more of the money at wider environmental and social benefits from flood control etc
  • the huge Summit to Sea rewilding and restoration project in mid Wales

There’s more about “Broadleaf” in the Trust’s blog.

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Pine martens and Glen Affric

I’ve already written about visiting Glen Strathfarrar in the spring. and the next day I went 10 miles south to Glen Affric, one of the main areas where Trees for Life has been working to preserve and extend the kind of Caledonian forest which once covered most of the Scottish Highlands. Unlike Glen Strathfarrar, Glen Affric is mostly owned by the Forestry Commission so access is straightforward with car parks, maps, and marked trails. In one area I saw evidence of pine martens, although not the creatures themselves.

Some of the pictures at the end of this post were taken from the side of the road, but they are mostly on the walking trails which start at the Forestry Commission car park near Dog Falls. My route was mainly to walk up the hillside to the south of the car park and then down to Coire Loch which is surrounded by the forest.

Near the loch, I saw a lot of toads on the paths – almost standing on one as I tried to avoid stepping on another at some points! Then on the trail from the loch to Dog Falls I saw some pine marten droppings (“scat”), as shown in these two pictures. They both have a UK penny for scale (similar in size to a US or Euro one cent piece.)

The pine marten was almost driven to extinction due destruction of its woodland habitat and persecution because of its perceived threat to nesting birds. In 1981 it became protected, but surviving populations were only known for certain in the Highlands. Gradually numbers have risen, and pine martens have been discovered in the lowlands and Borders, and in parts of northern England and Wales. It’s not clear which of these are surviving populations and which are recolonisation from the Highlands.  There have also been reintroductions, notably in mid-Wales, and these may account for the recent sightings of them in Shropshire – only 40 miles from Century Wood!

As well their own value, there is strong evidence that pine martens help red squirrels to increase in numbers in grey squirrel areas, as numbers of greys decline.  Several mechanisms have been proposed but it’s likely to be fundamentally that reds evolved to succeed despite the presence of the pine marten, a tree-climbing predator, but the American grey squirrel didn’t.

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