Trees are the dominant presence in Monmouthshire, particularly where I live – and a walk through my own half acre of copse – or out into the forests beyond – lifts me up after the long commute home. Sometimes I wander through it just get to know the individual trees there – mostly ash, beech and old coppiced hazels (below).
Each species has its own texture with hazel having a gilded quality to its bark while young ash is smooth and matt grey-green. Beech is dark and rough like sandpaper while birch is burnished, almost maroon and shiny.
Some people might use the disparaging term ‘treehugger’ – as if a love and respect for trees and other wild things were somehow irrational or feeble. It’s bandied around a lot and is perhaps the most absurd term of abuse invented.
From a purely aesthetic point of view – trees are beautiful. They create endlessly diverse shapes and structures, even within species – and then have the audacity to perform the most colourful striptease (striptrees?) of all in autumn. Although sweeping the wet, perilously slippery leaves off our steep lane is one task I could do without.
Trees provide homes and food for a multitude of marvelous creatures – and nuts, fruit and sap for us. Once cut down they offer timber for building or furniture and firewood to keep us warm. Treehugger? I’m suspicious of anyone who doesn’t hug these generous beings.
But it’s important not to get overly sentimental about them. My own little copse is very characteristic of all the neighbourhood woods – it’s neglected. Saplings crowd each other, coppices are old, ungainly and currently useless, and the canopy is virtually unbroken, meaning little light penetrates to the woodland floor. Once the leaves close over in late spring, there’s no life in the wood.
For more on this problem of under-mangement, don’t miss an excellent BBC4 series Tales from the Wild Wood. It was filmed about five miles up the road from me towards Pandy and features country writer Rob Penn and his attempts to manage the wood for wildlife and for profit.
Inspired by Rob, I’m going to take, axe, saw and chainsaw (trained by my infinitely braver father) and bring a bit of life to the wood with some selective felling.
First to go will be a lot of the young ash trees. These are about 30 foot high, spindly and jostling for room. They’ll make excellent firewood though I might keep a few of the straighter poles for temporary fence posts – ash rots quickly unfortunately. Sycamores will go the same way. I’ll also coppice some of the hazel to produce bean and pea poles, garden structures, firewood and to experiment with making charcoal (more on this in a later blog).
I’ve also got my eye on about five or six huge ash trees that hang over the house and garden – but I’ll need a professional to bring these down. And then there’s a horrible old conifer hanging over the pond that really needs to go.
We’ll have a lot of firewood but it will bring light into the wood again. Shoots will spring from the ash and hazel stumps (stools) and will provide a new harvest in 7-10 years time. In the meantime, I’m hoping for more woodland birds and butterflies to be attracted to the new glades and coppices… we’ll see.
But a huge dark shadow is being cast over all of Britain’s woodlands at the moment. It’s the awful prospect of sudden ash die-off sweeping the country. It is caused by the fungus Chalara fraxinea and leads to leaf loss and the dying back of the trees crown and usually ends in the death of the tree.
Five per cent of our woodlands comprise ash trees and we could lose them all. In Europe, the disease has been devastating – up to 90 per cent of Denmark’s ash trees have vanished – and it’s spreading fast. This year, it reached the UK.
To counter the problem, the Government has belatedly banned ash tree imports (why on earth do we need to import this common tree, for goodness sake?). But the disease has taken hold in East Anglia leading the forestry commission to cut down and burn at 100,000 ash trees there to prevent the spread. Drastic action that I hope will not be too late.
So I now look at my ash trees in a new light – tall, strong and worldly wise they may be, but they suddenly seem vulnerable (especially now they are leafless).
Will they be here in two years’ time?