Thistle Wood posts

October 2020: ups… and downs

As autumn kicks in with longer nights, lots of rain and wind and the trees gradually taking on their skeletal winter form, there is much to look forward to – winter is the time for working on trees in preparation for next spring.  It’s also a chance to take stock: you can, at last, see the shape of things.

Ups: our mammal camera has picked up our brown hare, several pictures of the barn owl and, wonder of wonders, a badger.  We occasionally suspect we have one, because of low trails in the grass, but to have it on camera is great, shuffling around looking for worms and such.

We now have final confirmation that the new plot, 15 acres near Edmunbyers, is ours; so we have been over there a few times to check it out and to start addressing the tumbled down drystone walls that need plenty of attention.  I’ve had meetings there with various tree and woodland officers, and it seems they like our vision to turn this slightly bleak pasture into a magical, productive and ecologically rich woodland for the future.  We can do little in the way of planting this autumn, because the Rural Payments Agency have to process our registration of the land before we can apply for a Woodland Creation Grant – and that can take months.  The WCG is by no means a formality, because it’s a big change in land use and it needs properly considered planning permission.  The many plusses of creating woodland have to be set against the minuses of affected a breeding curlew population; and they are a valuable and under-represented species – one of my favourites.  So, no substantial planting before next autumn.  Meantime, we plan to fix some of the dilapidated walls, plan where rides and trees will go (about 10,000 of them) and get our eye in with the subtle variations in topography, soil, aspect and moisture.  You want trees to go where they will be happiest and contribute most to the landscape; and you want to be able to get at them for years to come.  I am impatient; but by next autumn we’ll be ready to go; and hoping for lots of help from local volunteers.

Downs: A friend called on Monday morning to say that the double gates into Thistle Wood had been trashed; and that the small cabin yacht that sits on the ranch (my daughter’s play home) had been broken into, stripped of the few things in there, and generally left in a bit of a state.  It seems personal; and it makes me angry.  But sadly it’s what I have come to expect in a rural area where there is local social deprivation.  I’d love to catch them in the act; but you can’t be there all the time; and you cannot fortify the place.  So I’ve re-hung the gates, put another camera trap up and tidied the boat.  You hope that one day they’ll get bored of being anti-social.  What a waste of energy.

The trees don’t care much: they’re just getting on with life: drawing the last of the energy from their leaves before cutting them off and, in most cases, shedding them.  Oaks and beeches keep many of their brown leaves as a winter cosy – for reasons not entirely understood; whatever the reason, they look great.  It’ll soon be time to start pruning and checking and patching neglected fences.  I’m looking forward to bonfires in the snow.

September 2020

A colleague, Rannoch Daly, has sent me this: it might have been written as a charter for woodlanders.

A well-kempt forest begs Our Lady’s grace;

Someone is not disgusted, or at least

Is laying bets upon the human race

Retaining enough decency to last;

The trees encountered on a country stroll

Reveal a lot about a country’s soul.

A small grove massacred to the last ash,
An oak with heart-rot, give away the show:
This great society is going to smash;
They cannot fool us with how fast they go,
How much they cost each other and the gods.
A culture is no better than its woods.

In fact it comes from WH Auden’s collection Bucolics, published in the 1950s.  Poets and Shakespeare fans will immediately spot the iambic pentameter rhythm of the lines.  Environmentalists will see a fierce and eloquent defence of woods and tree planters.

I suppose, then, that I must count myself among those who are laying bets on the human race; so much so, in fact, that my wife Sarah and I are just about to take a punt on 15 acres of sheep pasture called South Field, which lies about seven miles away from Thistle Wood, further up the Derwent valley and at a height of nearly 800ft.  From the woodsman’s point of view it is a blank canvas: just short clipped grass and fat rabbits.  There are two smallish native woodlands within a mile or so along the same small peaty burn; and the small village of Edmundbyers, close-by.  Otherwise all is sheep, the scars of long-abandoned lead mines, heather, lapwings and curlews.

We aim to create a productive native woodland here; and to do that we’ll need help from the Woodland Creation Grant Scheme.  I’ve already indicated in another blog that because the plot (actually three contiguous fields) lies within the bounds of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Beauty (AONB), our plan has a few hurdles to overcome. 

For anyone thinking of planting trees on a large-ish scale (i.e. over 3ha or 8 acres: roughly 300 paces by 100 paces) the Woodland Creation Grant is designed to cover your immediate capital costs – that is, the trees, shelters, stakes and possibly fencing.  It does not cover labour.  Furthermore, the grant, open all year round, is competitive: an applicant needs to score a minimum number of points to qualify; and it needs to score as many points as possible to have a chance of making through the WCG’s budget allowance for any one year.

The scoring system is not entirely straightforward – but you can read and download all the criteria from the Government website: WCG Annexe 2.  Points are scored for size (the bigger the scheme the better); for areas where there is a high priority for woodland coverage; where biodiversity for certain bird and mammal species is a priority; for woods close to rivers etc.  Planters will, understandably, hope to find out without too much hassle and cost what designations their prospective plot has or does not have with regard to these priorities.  Well, there is a web-based map that displays all those designations and many more.  It is maintained by DEFRA (Dept for Food and Rural Affairs) and is called MAGIC.  Beware, it takes a bit of getting used to.  Each layer can obscure others beneath, so you have to switch off all layers before you start, and turn them on one by one, through a series of bewildering sub-menus, to check what applies to your patch.  You can, then, roughly work out a score for your scheme.  Any less than 12 points and you won’t qualify for a grant.  So far as I can tell, our new project will get us about 40-50 points.  Even so, there is a long process of negotiation to go through with our local woodland officer from the Forestry Commission.

If you are successful – and the application is, effectively, subject to all normal planning regulations – you have to pay for the capital costs up front before you can claim them back.  You have two years to complete the planting and must prove that you have done it as per your agreement with the relevant body – i.e. The Forestry Commission.  You also have to register with the Rural Payments Agency – and that is another matter.  If you are awarded a grant you will then be eligible for a maintenance payment, roughly £150 per hectare per year for ten years, to ensure that you look after your new trees.

At Thistle Wood, despite all the hassles, it has been worth it.  And if you ever begin to doubt your sanity for undertaking such a challenge or your energy for carrying it through, remember Auden: A culture is no better than its woods.

My trees: progress report

It’s July 2020; and in this strange new world it’s a relief to watch the natural cycle of the seasons offer some sense that the world still turns.  Except that, this year, even the weather has been weird.  We had one of the wettest winters I can remember in the North-east; then a very warm, very dry April and May, before something more familiar: a breezy, mild but quite rainy June and July.  Last winter I planted a score of Scots pines – nice plants with good roots – scattered in small clumps where I wanted a little extra shelter or a clump of more architectural shape.  Scots pines are pretty hardy, but few trees can tolerate drought in their first season before their roots have established themselves.  The ground cracks around them leaving air pockets; the roots dry and the young tree can fail rapidly.  So I lost maybe ten of them – very disappointing.  On the other hand, the hot spring brought many trees early into leaf and while a few of the more recently planted trees, especially silver birch, were a little stressed by the heat, in general the trees have recovered well.  Almost all the trees that suffered heavy deer browsing over the last few years have now recovered after having been coppiced – cut down to ground level – and then protected with translucent tree shelters, supported by firm stakes.  Thistle Wood does, now, look like a young wood, rather than a field of sticks.


It’s often said, and written, that ancient native woodlands are irreplaceably rich habitats; and that is quite true.  But it’s not the case that newly planted woods have little to offer in the way of wildlife.  Thistle Wood has not seen a plough, sheep or chemical for six years.  Tree cover is beginning to offer shelter for birds and many rodents; young trees, thistles and other wild flowers attract insects.  We have often seen foxes, brown hare, a pair of kestrels and the red kites for which the Derwent valley is famous.  But this year we have been blessed with no less than three pairs of hunting owls – seen almost every evening during the breeding season when their hungry young have kept them busy.  We have two pairs of barn owls and a pair of long-eared owls – acrobatic, long-winged, amber eyed predators who thrive on our very healthy rodent population.  They have been quite something to watch; and an indicator of the environmental health of our land.

Tips and tricks: fore!

On my routine patrol through the trees, checking for deer damage, wobbly stakes and wind damage, I carry a more or less standard kit: a sharp hatchet, which I use mostly as a hammer to bang stakes in more firmly; a pair of secateurs for trimming; plastic cable ties (a necessary evil); a small pruning saw; and a bag to carry tree protection tubes and stakes.  I’ve tried using a rucksack, but always find I have too much to carry.  I’ve tried using a wheelbarrow, but plastic tubes and stakes always seem to escape it.  What I need is something that will handle the terrain – smoothly mown rides and very tall, clumpy grass off piste – and can carry everything I need accessibly.  Eventually inspiration struck, and after a call to my mother-in-law (a keen golfer), her spare gold cart appeared.  I’ve rigged it out with a small cylinder made from offcut fencing and a work belt.  Voila: on the fairway and in the rough, it’s the perfect woodsman’s kit carrier. 

Summer 2019

It’s now the end of a very warm, sultry and pretty wet July. Thistle Wood looks like a jungle; but the trees have been lapping up sun and rain and growing fast. Oaks are in their second spurt – so-called lammas growth – of the summer. Grasses are tall; vetch, clover, creeping and crown thistles attract bees and butterflies. The tadpoles that were spawned at the end of March have grown into frogs and left the pond. There’s plenty of water still in it for dragon and damsel flies to lay their eggs – compared to last year when it almost dried up. The triumph of the summer has been the appearance of our first hazelnuts on trees planted just four years ago; and I’ve just spotted an oak with baby acorns for the first time. Most of the trees that had been badly deer-browsed and which I coppiced and sheltered last winter are thriving; many of them have topped out their tubes, which means more than 4 feet of growth in the season. But the highlight of the summer has been regular late afternoon visits to the plantation by a snowy white barn owl – not sure if it’s a male or female. They quarter the plantation, systematically tracking up and down looking for rodents; perching a while on a tree shelter before scanning again; occasionally swooping to pick up prey. What a privilege….

In other news, Ethiopia has just set a new record for tree planting – 350 million in one day. In Britain we are told we need to plant billions to offset our carbon breathing lifestyles. There’s a lesson there somewhere…

The beginning of June: all is now green and jungly after warmish weather and bucket loads of very welcome (for the trees) rain. This is a time to trample weeds, strim the rides (I reckon to walk about 6km every time I have to cut them – which, at this time of year, is every two to three week. Some of the trees, in particular the Scots pines, have already put on more a that a foot of growth. The oaks and ash (always the last to come into leaf) are now out with their fresh greeny-brown leaves all shiny and translucent. This time of year, before all the leaves become one sort of dun green, the palette of yellowy greens, orangey greens, the claret of field maple and jade of grey willow, are dazzling.

In May I did a couple of days’ filming with The Ethnographer. The results can be seen here…

On a cool late afternoon in the middle of March 2019, some firsts in Thistle wood. We have our first frogspawn on the winter 2017-18 pond – noticed on March 4th after that warm spell of late February. The tiny black dots inside their jelly cluster have elongated just a little now – perhaps held back by the last two weeks of cool weather. The pond is overflowing for the first time this winter, a reflection of both recent rains and previously dry weeks in January and February. On the 18th of March we heard our first woodpeckers and skylarks of the year – a sign of longer days and the impending breeding season. The blackthorn that I planted on the edge of a clearing three winters ago is about to bear its first white blossom. The first silver birch leaves of the season are just about to burst, and between them the little female flowers, looking like small elongated green cones. The larger male catkins have been out for a couple of weeks already. This is dichogamy at work: male and female flowers coming out at separate times so that trees don’t pollinate themselves but a neighbour. The alders have already been doing this in early March; so have the hazels, whose droopy tennis ball green males catkins are very obvious but whose female flowers – tiny red sea anemone like things on the end of greeny brown buds – require a closer look to spot them in early March. Spring is poised in its blocks…

February 25th…Today I got the first copy of my new book, The Little Book of Planting trees. It looks good.

Previously… We are in the middle of a late arriving winter – the end of January 2019. We had snow and some frosts in December; then most of January was dry, quite mild and often sunny. Up on the plantation I have been busy. I bought a thousand tree tubes and stakes and set-to coppicing the same number of trees that had been badly browsed by deer over the last four years. I cut them right down to the ground, clear any weeds around them, remove any old rabbit spirals and they should now have a new lease of life.

It’s amazing how quickly trees respond to such treatment: they will grow one, two or more stems from the small stump, and should reach the top of the new tube (4ft or 1.2 metres) by July or August this year.

This last week of January we have had our first meaningful rain; I can see snow on the Pennines and we have had some sharp frosts – all good, because a good spring needs nature to be reset by this period of real cold. I look forward to March when the seeds I sowed last autumn should sprout and produce saplings to fill in various bald patches where the deer won out: holly, Scots pine, hornbeam and oak.

In the last two weeks, taking advantage of oddly dry and firm rides, I have been attacking the hawthorn edge along the east side: cutting the outgrown shrubs back to about 2 feet high, from where they will re-sprout so that I can eventually lay a strong hedge to keep out deer and neighbouring horses. As a nice bonus, we now have about a ton of logs and sticks for next winter’s fuel supply.

Last winter’s new pond is quite full now, and the water clear: we wait with impatience to see if we’ll get any frogspawn; and the plants I put in last year will start to show green in the next six weeks or so.

My next task is to make up some specially shelters for coppiced hazels, which will sprout multiple stems when I cut them. They won’t like to be confined in tubes, so I have got some rolls of 1.2m fencing wire, and I cut them up into sections to make circular mini-fences, about a foot across, and stake these over hazel stumps when I cut them. Establishing a hazel coppice rotation is one of the first priorities in a new wood; the previous owner, who planted the original trees, didn’t see fit to have any hazel or Scots pine, but for me they are must.