40 years of woodland management

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERACongratulations to The Wychwood for surviving for forty years and for keeping us so well informed about the goings-on in our communities!

As it happens 1980 was a marked year for me as both my parents died that year. In the case of my father, who died on the last day of February 1980, it meant that I became responsible for the Bruern Estate. I was working in London at the time and left the running of the farm to David Wilson, who had been the farm manager for many years. However, I decided to take a detailed look at the trees on the farm as they cover about 250 acres and I put in place a twenty-five year plan. I engaged an expert consultant, Rodney Helliwell, and we set to work.

Of course, like everyone else in the country, we were still clearing up after the catastrophic Dutch elm disease. The demise of the majestic elm tree really did change the landscape. Anyone under fifty years of age today should go to their nearest library and find any book with landscape photographs of England before 1970. They will be astonished at the grandeur and prevalence of the elm tree. Here, the elm tree continued to tease us by growing for about twelve years before succumbing to the beetle, after which it became no more than useful firewood.

There are many views about tree planting. Some purists seem to want all hard wood in one place and soft wood in another. They might also restrict themselves to native species. I don’t share those views although the 17,000 trees which we have recently planted as part of a flood management scheme are native species as required by The Environmental Agency. However, I soon learned that if we planted an oak tree and surrounded it with larch, the fast growing larch would encourage the oak to grow straight and once we had cut down the larch and sold the timber for fencing we would be left with a potentially magnificent oak tree, to me the king of all British trees. Helliwell also advised us to stagger the felling of existing plantations over a period of years to encourage irregular and more attractive woods. We did have a sawmill at the time which helped to generate some revenue although never enough to justify its existence.

The elm disease had left us so battered (for example, the avenue down to Bruern Abbey, which is now a lime avenue, was a majestic avenue of elm trees and most of the hedges were dotted about with elm) that we were determined to plant a wide enough variety to ensure some continuity even if one or more of the species succumbs to disease. This is already looking prudent as ash dieback has struck and I have been told by those in the know that I can expect to lose all the ash on the farm. So, although I have continued to plant large numbers of oak trees, I have included limes, hornbeams, Douglas fir and the colourful acer. Even cricket bat willows have found a place. On most farms there are areas where it is difficult to plant high-growing trees because of power or telephone lines. We are no exception so we have used these areas for planting Christmas trees which we sell. Please remember that next December!

One major difference to the way we manage the woods has been the coppicing. Now we coppice regularly and produce thousands of stakes and heathers (thin strands to weave along the top of cut and laid hedges) which we sell for hedge laying. As I write this, demand exceeds supply. But we have enemies. Roe deer and Muntjac and to a lesser extent Fallow deer nibble away at the coppiced trees making it hard for them to re-establish themselves. And grey squirrels do as much damage as anything, so much so that I won’t plant any more beech trees as they bark them and kill them.

Trees to combat climate change, trees to hide modern developments, trees for their utility value – these are all considerations that will take us into the next forty years.

David Astor

April – May 2020