The farmer here before us had grazed the land hard with the precious pasture or ‘grub’ taking precedence over the trees. Our neighbour has shown us photos of the valley when she was a girl, unrecognisable for the majestic elms in every hedge. When the elms came down during the 1960’s and ’70’s, their demise opened up the landscape and, save a handful of mature ash that run along the lane, the hedges have remained low and uninterrupted. On his last winter here, the year before we took over the land in 2010, the farmer scaled the solitary ash that stands proud on the slopes of The Tump and pollarded it back to its torso. The ancient pollards are a feature of the valley, for ash (Fraxinus excelsior) burns green and so is a valuable wood for winter fires.
Our limbless pollard stood starkly that first November, just a small amount of regrowth marking the time the property had taken to come into our hands. Representing, as it did, the end of an era and the start of a new chapter, we immediately marked about thirty hedgerow ash so that, when the hedges were cut, they would be left to rise up and away to become new hedge trees. Though not a brilliant hedging plant, ash in a hedge are more than happy to take a yearly cut and, with the advantage of being already established in the hedge, they have raced away. In that first winter I planted another thirty ash whips that were winkled in where gaps opened up after removing elder and bramble. The young whips have to be watched for the first three years as they have competition for light and water from the hedge to either side, but as soon as they were tall enough I tied a ribbon to their leader so that the farmer who cuts our hedges can work around them.
It was a good plan, or so I thought, to have my hedge trees on a ten year rotation and pollard enough every year to fuel our wood burners. The spectre of ash dieback was first confirmed in the UK just two years later in 2012 and it is now sobering to think how quickly things can change. We discovered the first signs in some seedling trees about three years later and, although none of the trees I planted have been affected yet, my own plans of ash pollards are now in question. And then, as with the disappearance of the elms, there is the visual change we will inevitably see in the landscape, since ash is such a key and widespread component of our woodlands.
The initial panic that circulated in the press soon after the discovery of Chalara eased a little while we waited to see what happened. However, caused as it is by a fungus with wind-borne spores, it has taken only 6 years to become widespread and is now present in most of the country, bar the north of Scotland. What has become clear is that, once a tree is infected, the disease is usually fatal. However, mature trees can survive for some time and during that time they continue to make a valuable contribution to the local ecology and landscape. Ash are also profligate with their seed and scientific study into variability has already shown that a small number of trees are able to tolerate or resist infection.
Hopefully the strong will win out and, with that belief, my plans seem not entirely without hope. But what is becoming increasingly clear is that diversity is important and that no one environment should have all its eggs in the same basket. With this in mind, I have been widening my net and, every year since we came, I have made it a mission to broaden the palette of native trees on the land. There are several projects on the go and winter work includes hedge improvement and extension and the finding of places for long-termers that can step into the fields without making them difficult to manage with machinery.
Every year I have planted a handful of English oaks (Quercus robur), using them as markers by gates (main image, the large trees are ash) so that you can both locate the breaks in the hedges from a distance and to make a place of the gate; a place to stop in the shade or somewhere for the animals to gather in the heat of the day. Although with climate change there is some speculation as to the long-term suitability of oak in Southern England, my hope is that the combination of our hearty soil and the spring lines that run through the slopes will give them their best chance. Oak has the highest biodiversity count of all native trees and so I am also planning for the life that comes with them.
As gaps have opened up as I upgrade our old hedgelines by stripping them of dominant runs of bramble, elder and old man’s beard, I have been adding common lime to replace the ash should they fail as hedge trees. Tilia x europaea is a beautiful tree if you have the room, not just for its vibrant leaf colour, but for the perfume of the flowers and the benefit these have for the bees and us, as it comes in quantity and makes a delicious tea. Once again, the trees will need extra care and, with this in mind, I made sure they were all planted before the end of the year so that their hair roots can get the best possible chance of being in contact with the soil before the spring. The trees were also given a good mulch of compost to hold in the moisture.
Hedge trees are space efficient and their presence along the lanes as another storey above the hedgeline produces protected microclimates and a stillness that harbours insects. The bats run through these fertile air pockets, using them as feeding corridors, as do the birds that benefit from cover from predators. When we first arrived here one of the first things we noticed was the lack of birdlife near the house, with no trees and scalped hedges. We have quickly seen them return, as the trees have risen up to provide shelter, shade and perches for chatter or prey-watching.
For the last five years I have been slowly extending a new coppice in the hollow where the field dips away too steeply to the stream edge for haymaking. Thirty trees a year now sees the beginnings of something. Oak, to form a high canopy, and hornbeam and hazel, which will be put on a coppice rotation of twelve and eight to ten years respectively. This year I added some sweet chestnut to see if we can harvest our own poles for fencing in years to come. The coppice will provide the firewood I might be short of should the ash fail, and species variation within it will be good for ringing the changes in the ecology as we work from end to end over the course of a cycle.
It is a good feeling to this year have reached the end of the planted area and to be able to look back from the little whips which have just gone in to the progress mapped in year-on-year growth on the slopes beyond. This next chapter is begun.