Mar 18 2020

‘Veteranisation – Making it as Good as Old’ with Friends of Fingle

Following the volunteer signs through Fingle Woods felt like a treasure hunt. As I went past each yellow sign that was propped up against a tree and safely pinned down with a rock or clod of mud, I became excited about what I was going to find at the end of this woodland trail. I was heading down the beautiful riverside track to Upperton Weir to meet more of Fingle’s treasured volunteers and the weather couldn’t be more different to my last volunteer outing. When I met Fingle’s National Trust Volunteer Rangers in January, ice and heavy frost almost postponed the volunteers’ work, although the glorious sunshine more than made up for it. Mid-way through February it was torrential rain and the River Teign in flood that threatened to stop action, but once again Fingle’s intrepid volunteers didn’t disappoint!

The group I met on this rather cold and soggy day in February were all members of the ‘Friends of Fingle’ volunteer group, another unit of regular volunteers that give a lot of time and support to Fingle Woods. With a focus on traditional conservation methods the ‘Friends of Fingle’ mainly use hand tools when carrying out their work party tasks on the 1st Saturday and 3rd Wednesday of the month. By focusing on delicate conservation issues and using sensitive methods, the ‘Friends of Fingle’ are an inclusive volunteer group that appeal to a range of ages and abilities; and this dedicated February work party was no exception.


A beech tree that was veteranised two weeks ago; note the change in colour and appearance [Paul Moody]                                     Diligently taking notes!

When I arrived at the meeting place near Upperton Weir volunteer leader Jim White and his colleagues Phil and Callum, were already briefing the volunteers regarding the plan for the day and the subsequent tasks to be carried out. The focus of the day was the creation of standing deadwood and the volunteers were tasked with carrying out a technique called ‘veteranisation’ on specifically selected trees. The ‘veteranisation’ process consisted of removing the bark from an individual mature tree on selected root buttresses from just below soil level to varying heights up the trunk and then recording the statistical details of the now ‘veteranised’ tree. This may sound rather brutal and counter-intuitive as a woodland conservation project but there are several reasons why bringing around the early demise of a mature tree is good for a woodland ecosystem.

Throughout 2019 deadwood surveys were undertaken by the ‘Friends of Fingle’ (where do their talents end!?) to record the amount of deadwood in Fingle at the time and unfortunately deadwood was found to be severely lacking. The surveys revealed that less than 3% of Fingle is over the UK Woodland Assurance Standard (UKWAS) minimum threshold of 20m3 of deadwood per hectare. The evident lack of deadwood was due to Fingle’s historic past (before ownership and management by the Woodland Trust and National Trust) which favoured a ‘neat and tidy’ approach to blanket conifer plantations and the subsequent intensive timber production alongside game management. Consequently a woodland lacking deadwood has serious impacts on biodiversity, including: low nutrients within the soil; a loss in soil carbon content; reduced opportunities for saprophytic fungi; reduced opportunities for micro fauna and in particular wood boring invertebrate species; and a lack of nesting/ roosting places and feeding opportunities for birds and small mammal species (in particular bats). This is where the ‘Friends of Fingle’ come in, to remedy the situation and through their regular and continuous hard work create more standing deadwood at Fingle.


This tree shows the variation in the amount of bark removed off each individual buttress [Paul Moody]              Everyone has a preferred tool to work with! Here a crook knife is used                      Tools can vary when removing the bark. Here a hand axe is used

After the team briefing it was time to set to work and, once were all kitted up with the correct equipment, the volunteers followed Phil to a compartment where 20 trees had already been veteranised two weeks previously (some by the volunteers attending) but were yet to be documented. The seven volunteers that formed the work party that day included some long-standing ‘Friends of Fingle’ (Gill, Sue, Wendy, and Tim) and some relatively new members (Will, Paul and Graham). Everyone was in good spirits, despite the weather, and many were intrigued as to what the trees would look like two weeks on from the first stage of veteranisation. Once at the compartment the team split into two and began documenting the details of each veteranised tree. To begin each tree was given a sequentially numbered aluminium tree tag to help identify it in the future and when referencing paperwork.  This number was recorded for each tree along with the following – species (of the tree), location (British National Grid), height (using a clinometer or the ‘stick method’), size (using diameter at breast height (DBH)) and finally the orientation of the root buttresses which had already had the bark removed. Recording the details of each tree is a very important part of the veteranisation process, as it is still somewhat experimental, and depends on each individual tree and many other influencing factors (e.g. orientation, amount of shade/ light, size of tree, species etc.). As a result, the trees can be monitored in the future and the success of veteranisation evaluated.


Aluminium tree tags will help identify the tree in the future and correlate with the records          Using a clinometer to measure the heights of the trees could prove tricky at times. Especially on Fingles steep slopes!

As the volunteers assessed each tree and recorded their findings it was obvious that there was always an opportunity for a chat and a catch up, showcasing perfectly the social opportunities that being a ‘Friend of Fingle’ offers. The gentle and quiet nature of the task at hand allowed people to talk, share different skills and interests, whist also achieving an important conservation ambition for Fingle.

After an efficient and conclusive recording session in the morning with all the appointed trees being recorded, Jim appeared and suggested an early lunch as the volunteers had been so effective. Lunch was again a social affair with everyone sitting round the wood burning stove and a rather large kettle, discussing the work for the afternoon and there was even a bit of sunshine to keep the spirits lifted! Then it was back to work to continue the veteranisation of selected trees and record them along the way.  The correct tools were selected (there is always a favoured axe or crook knife) and the volunteers made their way to the next compartment to continue their work.  The relaxed and calm air that emanated from the group was palpable and perfectly suited Fingle’s peaceful atmosphere. The ‘Friends of Fingle’ are a perfect example of how a volunteer group, whilst fulfilling important conservation objectives to help create a healthy and dynamic woodland, can also provide an important social element and feeling of community within Fingle woods.

Treasured volunteers indeed!

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