A weekend of consultations on woodland planting


Over last weekend I had a couple of meetings about the woodland planting project I’m managing. I also had lots of time on the planting site to think about things. Being in the physical location helped massively to visualise how the planting might work and it gave me a lot of inspiration.

My goal is to extend an existing woodland, approximate doubling its size. I’m hoping to increase the ecological benefits of the woodland by increasing the woodland interior, and to turn the additional land into something more productive. At the moment it’s just rough sheep pasture, and doesn’t support a lot of grass, mostly because it’s over-grazed. In total we are planting about four hectares. We have managed to get a grant which will pay for 75% of the cost of the trees and tree-guards. We just have to pay for the fencing and to provide labour for the planting, which I am hoping to accomplish mostly with volunteers.

It’s the first time I have managed a project like this, though I’ve found that many previous experiences have set me up well for the new challenge. For example, the team delegation aspect I’ve found myself drawing on fieldwork experience from my PhD, and the same with marking out the area to be planted, which is very similar to the way I mark out woodland plots in southern Africa. I’ve been using lots of GIS skills to make maps and estimate planting density. It’s unfortunate that I can’t share the maps in this post, but I want to maintain some privacy. I have been thinking back to old conservation volunteer projects when considering the best way to organise the actual planting of the trees. I’m hoping that my old conservation volunteer group might be able to help with the tree planting when the time comes.

I met with the current tenant farmers on the first day, and a representative from the tree planting grant scheme the next day. The tenant farmers were concerned about correctly marking the area to be planted. They rely on area-based subsidies from the Rural Payments Agency (RPA) for part of their income, and the RPA are unfortunately known for often laying out heavy fines and causing a lot of trouble when land-owners don’t accurately describe their land area. The RPA also get it wrong themselves sometimes, but it’s hard to get them to admit fault. I brought along a map of the area to be planted, on which I had measured lines along certain key boundaries which would allow us to define the southern boundary of the planting area, which borders the land which is let to the tenants. We used a surveyors trundle wheel to measure the distances of the lines on the ground and hammered posts into the ground to mark where the fence would eventually be placed. We agreed with the tenant farmers that we would install the fence before the tree planting and allow them to graze right up until just before the planting started, in order to keep the grass as low as possible.

The second meeting was much more interesting. We talked about the management of the current woodland and agreed that a long-rotation coppice system might help to bring more light to the understorey, which might help to get rid of the brambles and allow more wildflowers. We would also get more useful timber from the woodland with a coppice system. In the new woodland I want to have two main areas, a smaller short-rotation coppice with smaller species like Hazel and Silver birch, which I can take poles and hurdles off, and a larger area of long-rotation coppice, which includes larger canopy tree species like Pedunculate oak, Small-leaved lime, and Hornbeam. The Hornbeam is a bit of a gamble, as it isn’t currently found in the woodland. After some research however, I found that it can grow this far north, and it is found natively, just less commonly than down in the southeast. I’ve left a few open glades, and there is a wetter patch in the southwest which I will plant with a few Alder trees, but mostly leave empty.

We decided that we should take out the fence separating the current woodland from the new woodland before the new trees are planted. Without the trees we can get in with a tractor and pull out the fence, rather than painstakingly unstaple the netting and dig out each post by hand.

I did some research on the historic land use of the planting area. I used Digimap, which is provided by my university to find historic Ordnance Survey maps going back to 1857. It turns out that part of the land used to be planted with coppice woodland, which I had suspected but never confirmed. It also explained a few faint ditch and mound features visible on the land, which turned out to be woodland/field boundaries. We were initially worried they may have archaeological significance or that they might be land drainage, so this is a relief.

The next stage of the project is to submit a report to the grant scheme with the species I want to plant, and then they will send a contract. After that I think the bureaucratic stuff is mostly over and I can focus on the more practical aspects.

For the planting I am thinking of having gangs of three people. One person will measure the distance from one hole to the next with an appropriately sized stick, then dig the hole, the second person will carry the trees and plant the tree, and the third person will add a tree-guard and a stake. To measure out each planting area I’m hoping to use string and stakes to mark the outline, then mark rows along one edge of the area with more small stakes. In lots of online guidance they recommend to plant in “wavy lines”, but I just cannot figure out how to create a wavy line without sacrificing a lot of efficiency. The main thing I am anxious about at the moment is whether I will be able to plant all the trees in time. They estimate that the trees must be planted within 2-3 weeks of delivery to ensure the roots don’t dry out, which kills the tree. In terms of equipment we will need: