Elm, creating a future from the past

Once a commonplace tree, elm was favoured for furniture making and wheel building for its dense grain and strength as well as its use with water, for bridges and even pipes, due to its durability.  These days however elm is rather absent from the landscape particularly in its larger, older forms.  The majority succumbed to a fungus spread by beetles best known as Dutch elm disease that saw a rapid drop in elm numbers since the 1960’s.

The Dutch part of its name comes from much of the early study of the disease being conducted in the Netherlands.  Beetle larvae hatch and grow from dead elm, picking up spores from the fungus as they grow.  When they become beetles they fly off in search of fresh elm bark to feed on, at which point they introduce the fungus to a new tree and the cycle starts again.  The beetles favour trees over 20 years old and few elms make it beyond 30 years.  Even their regeneration is thwarted by the fungus.

The Conservation Foundation has set up The Great British Elm Project to try and bring this once common tree back to our landscape.  On a positive note not all elms have succumbed to the disease.  This could be through isolation or, as the project hopes to find and benefit from, a natural borne resistance to the disease.  Cuttings have been taken from a selection of these survivors that have lived through the last 60 years and continue to thrive.  The project has distributed these now saplings around the country where they are to be grown on and monitored to see if the survivors hold the key to the future.

Having seen the effect of the disease and its ongoing breakdown of trees, just as they seem to be getting into their stride, to come across this project towards the end of last year certainly got our attention.  Our five trees arrived in March which was getting close to the end of the planting season as sap was starting to rise, so we decided not to plant them out this year.  For now they have been potted up into bigger pots of compost and placed in our tree nursery.  This will give us the chance to plant them at a better time of year as well as giving them time to become slightly more hardy trees.

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More preparation work

This project comes at a good time.  With the threat of Chalara fraxinea, there is the risk of a disease that could seriously reduce our woodland cover as it threatens one of our most prolific trees, the ash.  Ash and elm favour a lot of similar conditions, so if ash were to be seriously affected, it would be great to have a viable elm population that could help fill the gap.

We have a few thoughts on where to plant them out, certainly at Clytha in Monmouthshire where we see existing elms getting knocked back each time.  We will probably also add some to the new planting at the Skirrid car park, near Abergavenny, where they will be visible below the ancient woodland that covers the southern slopes.  As for the remaining one or two, we still have a few months to decide, so will be keeping an eye out for suitable spots across our sites.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

New Beginnings

This winter we have planted 1450 trees across the sites we look after.  Some are direct replacements for felled trees, whilst others have supplemented existing planting or were entirely new.  We plant over winter as the trees are in a dormant state whilst they wait for the warmth of spring and longer days before pushing their sap up and forming buds that will be that year’s leaves.

On the Skirrid we have completed planting of the hedge banks around the new car park.  It

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Hedge planting at the Skirrid

was mostly planted in the first winter after construction, but there were some gaps at the ends where we had run out of trees.  Now the whole bank is planted and we have had a chance to replace any failed trees from the first year, a process known as ‘beating up’.
We have also been making plans to trial some elm trees that have been bred to be resistant to Dutch Elm disease.  We are just waiting for the nursery to be happy with them before planting.  We will be able to plant these later in the year as they will be bigger pot grown plants with a more developed root structure.

Jess has also planted some trees down at Lanlay Meadows following on from some hedge laying she has been doing.  In places the hedge was a little thin, so some new saplings will help to add a bit of thickness and continuity to the hedge.  Hedges are a good food source and provide features that help all sorts of wildlife travel across what would otherwise be open ground.

We have also been continuing to plant at Pont ar Daf as part of our ongoing work up there.  In the clear felled areas we have been planting a mixed upland broadleaf selection to help increase the nature value of the woods and soften its appearance in the landscape. Predominantly made up of birch, rowan and oak.  In the damper spots and along the stream edges we have been planting alder as it is very tolerant of wet ground, in fact, it rather thrives in it.  The last lot of planting has just been finished with the help from Gower National Trust Thursday Group Volunteers who also did some burning to help clear the ground for planting.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

 

Volunteers in action

Our volunteers help us massively and hopefully, we help them too.

In the woods team we quite often have a full-time volunteer working with us.  They get to shadow us, join in our day to day work and gradually we introduce them to the skills of our trade and collectively we get a lot more done together.

Our most recent volunteer was Henry.  Henry was with us for a little over a year and saw the whole cycle of our work schedule, there’s more to forestry than just cutting down trees.  Over the period of a year our volunteers often get to be involved in all the stages of a woodland’s life; preparation, planting, thinning, harvesting, milling and construction. Not to mention all the side roles of a ranger, whether that be digging drainage ditches or being dropped up the hill by helicopter.  See some of Henry’s year in the slideshow below.

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Henry isn’t the first of our volunteers to move on successfully, you can find quite a few of our previous volunteers working in the trees or in the conservation sector.  It is great to see them all develop and get to grips with the work and move onto employment.  The only downside is they leave just as they get really good.

Some haven’t left; it is now 10 years since I turned up in the yard as a volunteer with the aim of getting better at forestry so to find work in the sector.  Some would say that progress is questionable, but I am still here and learning and getting to share the experience I have gained with other newcomers, but now as a member of staff.

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Here I am in my early days, clefting oak for a tree guard – with a four-legged friend checking out my work

We will start recruitment for a new woods volunteer at the beginning of 2017 where they’ll get to hit the ground running in the midst of our felling and planting seasons.  Keep an eye out on our Facebook and Twitter pages or take a look at the National Trust Volunteering website where there are even more opportunities and locations if the woods of the Brecon Beacons aren’t for you.

Tim
Woodland Ranger and former full-time volunteer

Stop looking and let your senses take over

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Coed-y-Bwnydd bluebells

Whilst we have been busy encouraging you to go and see the bluebells at sites such as Coed-y-Bwnydd (Woodlands at Coed-y-Bwnydd article) and on the Skirrid (article on the Skirrid) with a good dose of images, what these don’t share with you is all the other senses you can only experience by getting out there.

This struck me recently after a recent walk around Coed-y-Bwnydd after installing a new information board by the main gate – more here on our Facebook page.  Walking around to see the progress of the bluebells; experiencing the cool and the warmth as I caught the sun’s heat that was waking the bluebells in between the dappled shade of the emergent leafs on the trees.  More so was the smell of the bluebells, growing stronger as the clusters of flowers got denser.

The smell of different trees is something I have been aware of for quite a while as a forester whilst we are felling or again as we process the timber into sawn wood or firewood.  A selection of smells, some trees are fruity like citrus or a watermelon, others are more plain like school dinner mashed potato and oak just smells like oak and nothing else.  The flowers and blossom that are now present on the trees are also intense and sweet, particularly hawthorn and burr cherry and especially gorse on a hot day.

Not all smells are so welcome, silage is a divisive one (that I like) and some go out of their way to smell bad, like this Stink Horn fungus.

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You can’t see how bad it smells, but you can see how popular it is with the flies

As you walk around, the sound of the birds builds and builds.  The distinctive call of the cuckoo is one that people listen out for.  At the start of the month we heard their return to the Upper Tarell Valley from where we are based and heard through Twitter of their return to the Sugar Loaf at the end of April (how odd does that phrase sound?).

There are a few tastes out there too for the forager right now, but the real bounty comes at the end of the summer as everything comes into fruit.

Stop looking at pictures and start being part of the scenery, close your eyes and see what you discover.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Let’s go down to the woods today

It has been just over 4 years since we started our work at Pont-ar-Daf, the woodland at one of the busiest access points to Pen-y-Fan.  When we first arrived on site, it was a neglected and unmanaged commercial crop.  A study of the site carried out by our nature conservation team considered it to be of little value to nature, the highlights being a strip of old birch and oak wood running through it at the north end, a drainage ditch at the south end and a failed Scots Pine crop in the middle, each being quite significant for the species found in them.

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Work only just starting at the beginning of 2012

The wood has changed somewhat since then, rapidly at first with the discovery of a disease in the larch trees (Phytophthora ramorum) and more gradually as we have improved access around the woods to allow for future management.  We are looking to maintain a mix of species of varying age.  The new tracks intersect old plough lines, in turn reducing run-off.  The intention is to keep these tracks as wide corridors to let light into the wood and give space for woodland floor species.  In other sections we are maintaining cover to preserve the humidity and moisture for ferns, mosses and other damp loving plants.

What has impressed us the most is the explosion of wildlife we’ve seen in the wake of our work.  One of our aims is to increase the nature conservation value of the site and by spending a lot of time there, we are seeing all sorts of things take advantage that weren’t before.

Frog spawn was probably the first thing we spotted.  With the harvesting machines not

Frog spawn

Frog spawn

long off site, they were quick to make use of the puddles left behind by the machines tracking across the hillside.

Apart from the trees we have planted (with varying success until we fenced out the sheep that wander the road), there has been a gradual increase in the natural spread of plants across the site.  Taking advantage of the light now making it to the floor, lack of competition and particularly the disturbance of the ground where we have been working and landscaping.  Various grasses and reeds have come up along with primroses, rosebay willow herb, foxgloves, heather, bilberry, marsh violets, gorse, bramble, bluebells and colts foot as well as some natural tree regeneration of birch, rowan and some of the conifer species that were on the site.  All the seed has been unlocked from the soil or come by natural means.

We have noticed a gradual increase in bird sound, particularly noticeable in the breaks from using machinery.  Just as the sound bursts in and you start looking around, you can see the birds.  Ravens, buzzards and red kites circle overhead, occasionally taking a perch in the tree tops.  Lower down, below the canopy and hunting for insects, we see tree pipit (a rare red status species), redstart (amber), treecreeper, robins and many members of the tit family.

Some species which may be considered shy can be quite brazen.  A quite unexpected spot

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Red Grouse in flowering heather

by Stuart our Lead Woodland Ranger was a Red grouse, walking past him as he stacked timber with the tractor.  It was picking its way through the heather, grazing its way up the hill, taking advantage of the new, young growth.

This was not the only brazen visitor to the woods.  We saw footprints and tracks in the snow criss-crossing the site, but one afternoon during a chainsaw course we were hosting, a fox popped up from the lower part of the woods, trotted over the top of a timber stack, observing the trainees and taking a leisurely walk around.  The fox watched them from a relatively short distance in the trees; one of those moments too busy watching to take a picture.

The increased sunlight and extra ground vegetation cover has allowed for a great increase in the number of sun loving creatures.  Butterflies and moths seem more frequent across the site, following access tracks and floating over the clear fell areas.  Pictured below is one we found whilst fencing the southern tip of the site.  It really stood out with the bright pink on black, sat on top of a yellow flower, unusually bright for a moth.

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Five-spot Burnet moth, spotted whilst fencing

Another sun worshipper, spotted sunning themselves on the tree stumps, or here on one of the old boundary walls, is a common lizard.

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Common Lizard sunning itself

As we walk across the site we have seen various small mammals running through the maze of brash, only the briefest of glimpses as they run for cover, but looking like shrews and mice.

This leaves us with our most recent spot.  Most likely feeding off the small mammals and

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Kestrel, hovering

reptiles, we’ve been watching a kestrel hunt for its lunch while we stopped to eat ours, watching it hover and dive, completely unfazed by a busy car park and walkers making their way up and down the hill.  So a plan for this year is to build a nest box for the kestrel, place it high and sheltered and see what happens.

A lot of this increase is benefiting from the work we are carrying out, but we have been spending a lot of time up there too and just being out there increases your chances of seeing the wildlife.

Tim – Woodland Ranger

Hungry?

Now is not a time of year to find yourself going hungry whilst outside, so here is a quick look at what the woods team have been eating and keeping an eye out for and where.

First up, the staple of our outdoor diet currently, the blackberry.  Cursed all year for its thorns, now it is giving up it fruit.  We have mostly been working on our Monmouthshire sites where there is a great abundance of blackberries.  Up at Coed y Bwnydd, despite cutting back a lot of the vegetation, there are still plenty to be found at the boundaries and now we have cut the ramparts, you can walk their bases and get to the blackberries on the banks.  We are also finding a fairly plentiful supply on the paths around Clytha and over on the Skirrid.

Lots of big juicy ones this year.

Lots of big juicy ones this year.

We have seen a few plums and damsons on our travels, dropping their fruit and have been keeping an eye out for sloes, just out of the woods, through the wall and on to the hill at Skirrid is normally good.

Earlier in the year we found a good number of bilberry on the Sugarloaf and in some of its woodlands, but they are less plentiful now.

Bilberries earlier this year.

Bilberries earlier this year.

Keeping an eye on the hedgerows is a desperate race to beat the squirrels to the hazel to claim its nuts.  A common hedgerow tree, it can be found most places, but Coed Carno in the Upper Tarell Valley is our go to place.

This is also a time of year we start looking for fungus, initially to inspect the health of trees that we look after.  As they fruit they can confirm concerns we may have for a tree or reveal the start of an ongoing process of decay.  Whilst some are edible (such as the field mushrooms we found on the lawn at Berrington on a staff day out), others are very much not.  Later this year, we are running a fungi foray with the help of local experts and our volunteers on the Skirrid, more details here.  Incidentally, we also spotted this Shaggy Parasol up there today.

Shaggy Parasols, spotted today.

Shaggy Parasols, spotted today.

So there is some inspiration.  Only eat what you are confident is safe to do so, there are plenty of guides available (I quite like Food for Free by Richard Mabey) or join us on our Fungi Foray.
Don’t forget, if you are doing the 50 things challenge, blackberry picking is one of the challenges and possibly the tastiest to complete.

Stuffed full of blackberries,
Tim –Woodland Ranger

Sat in the sun, thinking of rainy days

Looking ahead to summer with its long warm days, firewood is on our minds.
Whilst summer doesn’t seem the right time to be thinking wintery thoughts, you need to plan ahead.

Once dry, the energy contained inlogs by weight is much the same, as demonstrated by the graph below taken from a Forestry Commission publication, so by weight, hardwood and softwood are on a par with each other. This doesn’t mean they are equal though.

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The hardwood is far denser and will release its energy slowly, this also means that you have less volume than the equivalent weight of softwood. So softwood gives you more logs for the same weight that release their energy quickly. As with so many things, a balance is the best thing. Softwood helps get a fire up to temperature whilst hardwood can then hold it there.

A key word in the above diagram is ‘dry’, oven dry may be taking it a bit far in terms of efficiency of production. Also, unless you keep the wood in similar conditions, it will reabsorb the moisture. How long to dry wood? This varies between species and we find that a lot of wet timbers (Lawson cypress, alder, willow) give up their moisture quite readily when exposed and that denser, drier feeling timbers (oak, sweet chestnut) need a bit longer to dry out. I think it is best summed up by Celia Congreve in ‘The Firewood Poem’.

The Firewood Poem

Beechwood fires are bright and clear
If the logs are kept a year,
Chestnut’s only good they say,
If for logs ’tis laid away.
Make a fire of Elder tree,
Death within your house will be;
But ash new or ash old,
Is fit for a queen with crown of gold

Birch and fir logs burn too fast
Blaze up bright and do not last,
it is by the Irish said
Hawthorn bakes the sweetest bread.
Elm wood burns like churchyard mould,
E’en the very flames are cold
But ash green or ash brown
Is fit for a queen with golden crown

Poplar gives a bitter smoke,
Fills your eyes and makes you choke,
Apple wood will scent your room
Pear wood smells like flowers in bloom
Oaken logs, if dry and old
keep away the winter’s cold
But ash wet or ash dry
a king shall warm his slippers by.

Keeping firewood stored somewhere dry with good airflow then is essential to keep the wood at its driest so that the most efficient burn can be had from it.
The wood piles also provide habitat for insects including bees, nesting places for birds, as well as sunny piles being popular with reptiles. We have quite often found lizards in stacks, or recently this slow worm in the stack of one of our customers.

Slow worm making a quick exit from our camera lens.

Slow worm making a quick exit from our camera lens.

Seasoned and dry is the key thing, which is why we have spent spring filling our log sheds for next winter with timber that has laid to dry for a year or more before being split open to further dry in sunny vented sheds for the winter ahead.

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Henry loading the firewood processor.

 

Tim – Woodland Ranger