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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Glen Strathfarrar

At the start of the year I blogged about natural regeneration of woodland, and the land’s ability to regrow trees and resurrect forests from seeds waiting in the soil if deer, sheep, and humans allow it. One of the examples I used was a dramatic photo from Alan Watson Featherstone’s blog which he took in Glen Strathfarrar. It shows the effect of deer fence in allowing trees to come by themselves if left ungrazed. In April I visited the valley myself.

There is a 17 mile long private road running most of the length of the glen, with the low land and the hills also part of a private estate. Scots law has always allowed access to private land on foot and wild camping, but car access is controlled by the land owner. In this case, there is a gate near the village of Struy and 25 cars per day are allowed in. You get a ticket and your registration is noted to prevent overnight stays with cars. There is also a hydropower station in the glen, so there is some engineering traffic too.

These pictures show the lochs and islands driving westwards along the glen:

I saw several deer, including this one which kept ahead of my car and couldn’t go off up the hillside due to the deer fencing running parallel to the road. At one point a couple of buzzards were also circling.

Apart from construction activity around the hydropower station, the only people I saw were in two four wheel drive pickups (gamekeepers?)

The picture on the left shows a derelict house and in the distance on the right you can see the estate owner’s house in the distance, surrounded by trees.


Coming now to the purpose of my visit, this is what I wrote in January:

Alan took this striking photo there of forest regenerating naturally, which he has kindly allowed me to reproduce from his blog post. There’s a deer fence in the middle. To the left, trees are coming back naturally with deer excluded. To the right, the trees are scarce and the deer are free to browse any saplings that emerge.

This picture shows the new woodland in context, with the surrounding ground in April not as green as in Alan’s photo from May.

The road is near the bottom of the picture and I parked up and walked up the deer fence boundary on the right hand side of the wood.

This is the fence itself, as it heads up the rather steep hillside. The effect is particularly striking in the photo on the right.

The day after I visited Glen Affric and saw evidence of pine martens, which I’ll post about next.

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“Leave No Trace” and “Winter’s Bone”

I watched the film “Winter’s Bone” from 2010 last night and then went to see “Leave No Trace”, both directed by Debra Granik. The two films are set in American forests and show non-conventional families finding ways to survive.

“Winter’s Bone” has Jennifer Lawrence’s 17 year old character trying to keep her sisters and virtually speechless mother in their cabin in their woodland. Most of the film is her search for her father who has put the cabin and land up as bail. Now he has disappeared, they face eviction. The film briefly touches on learning to hunt and dress kills, when to fell hundred year old trees, and rural isolation when you don’t have your own transport. It’s not a stereotype “hillbilly” film, but it does tick a lot of the boxes. Neighbours butcher a deer carcass hanging by their barn and lots of people have banjos. I was waiting for moonshine to appear but it’s the 21st century so they’re cooking crystal meth instead. Mark Kermode’s DVD review.

Eight years later, her “Leave No Trace” has a father and 13 year old daughter living in the forest itself. They have semi permanent camps, make their own fire but fall back to gas bottles when they have to, read books a lot, and make occasional trips in Portland, Oregon to buy provisions they can’t source themselves. Eventually they get caught and the to and fro of being in and out of “civilisation” leads them to question what they each want: living in a farming community? An isolated cabin in the forest? Or a trailer park community not unlike “Winter’s Bone”? Mark Kermode’s review has more and you might still be able to catch it in the cinema.


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