On a recent visit to Sheffield for Countryfile, I helped to remove trees to let life back into one of the city’s rivers, and that got me thinking about our long-term plan to make our own woodlands healthier back on my family farm in Durham.
When you’re gardening, it can be daunting to look at a large, overgrown plot and attempt to tackle it and take out the weeds. So imagine embarking on bringing 20 acres of woodland under control.
Over the past year, our woodland has been a hive of activity. It has seen a lot of changes as we’ve started to implement a 10-year plan that we drew up with the Forestry Commission on how to manage our ancient woodland to create a better habitat for a variety of species. And both the wood and wildlife are really starting to benefit.
We began by taking down a small number of birch trees that had self seeded over the years; then we lopped other trees at 1.5m (5ft) high and ring-barked (removing a strip of bark around a tree’s outer circumference) a few others. These methods mean the trees will die, slowly dry out and rot, encouraging insects, which will in turn provide food for a wide variety of birds.
Our tree removal has created beautiful open areas of light in the woods that have – surprisingly quickly – encouraged other plants to grow where they would never have had a chance. It also allows us to enjoy parts of the woods we would never have ventured into. As well as the clearing and coppicing, we have also just finished planting 300 new native trees.
Of course, all this woodland work sounds like I’ve been very busy at the weekends, but when I’m not travelling and filming for Countryfile, I’m sat on The One Show sofa in London. So we enlisted the help of students on the local college’s forestry and arboriculture course. They have used our wood as their classroom to learn all about woodland management.
Our tree work has now taken a natural break to allow the spring nesting birds some peace. We’ve put up more than 50 different bird boxes in preparation for the arrival of a range of woodland species, including pied flycatchers and redstarts.
And we have erected two owl boxes to give barn owls somewhere to nest.
I’ve always felt the only wildlife element missing on the farm was water, so we scraped out two pond areas that follow the natural watercourse and that are kept constantly filled by the run-off from the hill fields. They are starting to look quite established, helped by some new willows on the bank sides. I can’t wait to see this area in a few years time, hopefully teaming with invertebrates, willow tits and the occasional water vole.