Woodland Management Demonstration Week – part 1
Looking back to last year, Fingle Woods hosted a Woodland Management Demonstration Week. Unlike this year, there were large groups of people walking together, discussing and learning about the restoration work.
After the heat of the summer had receded, the buzz of the woods continued with a week of action that was planned for partner organisations to visit Fingle Woods and share a conservation update. Late September was the time to reflect on the progress of the restoration so far and many groups from all walks of woodland conservation were welcomed to the woods.
On Monday, the Woodland Network were in the woods, followed by a large group of Woodland Specialist Advisers.
Wednesday was full day tour for the Natural England field unit training scheme to see how the European Protected Species were considered in the woodland management at Fingle.
After a morning trip to see some Dartmoor farm woodlands and meadows, Thursday continued with a tour of Fingle for some hill farmers and small holders under the RSPB’s Facilitation Fund.
On Friday, A’ level biology students from Torbay Boys Grammar School spent a day learning about a range of conservation subjects and the week finished in style on Saturday with an open event where the public visited in their numbers to ‘Meet the Tree Fellers’
Monday 23rd September 2019
The morning started with a short field trip along the riverside track to look at one of the plots where the woodland habitat is being restored to favour woodland birds. Around Fingle Woods, there are a number of areas where targeted management will help to give certain species a boost, including the spotted flycatcher and the pied flycatcher, but the subject of this discussion is known as ‘the marsh tit plot’. Working in a partnership with other conservation organisations has been beneficial in the development of the ‘Woodland Wildlife Toolkit’ and Helen Booker from the RSPB explained how this online resource could be used. It is designed to be a helpful resource for woodland owners to determine the likely woodland species in their area, followed by some recommendations on how to manage or improve habitat for a range of species including plants, lichens, mammals and birds. Helen explained that, “It can be particularly useful where little or no management is going on and can help landowners to take action to improve habitat for species they are interested in.”
The plot in Fingle Woods has been carefully managed to enhance the features that benefit the marsh tit. While walking around the site, Dave Rickwood (Site Manager) explained that improving the diversity and structure of the woodland could be achieved by removing some of the self-seeded conifer to favour the broadleaves while increasing the proportion of deadwood in the area. “The toolkit fits in well with PAWS restoration, it focuses on the connective features like ancient boundaries that link the habitat together.” In one particular area he demonstrated that small scale management could suit a small woodland landowner as they could cover part of their costs by extracting some firewood while leaving a sufficient volume of wood on the site to support microfauna and provide nesting habitat for birds. Tom Williams, a local bird surveyor described how this style of management was increasing the number of marsh tit breeding territories across Fingle Woods and not just in this area.
Later in the day, the discussion group swelled with people joining from Natural England, the Environment Agency, Forestry Commission and other national organisations with an interest in woodland management policy. Speaking to the ‘Woodland Specialist Advisers’, Dave introduced the site, explaining the history of the way the woods along the Teign valley have been managed since medieval times, giving us the landscape we have today. He said, “as well as being a steep site, there are lots of challenges. During the first six years of restoration, the conifer thinning rotation has come full circle and we are now working the areas that were worked first time round. The Douglas fir is still growing fast and the natural vegetation on the ground is responding in most areas.”
After taking a minibus ride to another part of the wood, Dave described the exciting developments that have taken place in the area known as Halls Cleave, “Historically, this wood is called Coleridge Wood which would have been managed to produce charcoal until the 20th century when around 15 hectares of larch was planted here.” The larch had to be clear felled in the winter of 2015/16 after a Plant Health Notice was issued due to the plant disease phytophthora ramorum. Dave said, “in a commercial situation, this could have been replanted with Douglas fir but we are taking a different approach. The felling operations were done with caution, leaving the small oak understorey in the places where it stood. In the areas with no understorey, we have restocked with broadleaves. Now, the broadleaves and areas of scrub are recovering quickly and a number of wildlife species are being monitored to assess the level of success of the recovery of the habitat.”
Bat sound recorders have been installed here for the last two years and have consistently recorded the calls of 11 species of bat, including the rare barbastelle and the lesser and greater horseshoe bats. Dormice have also been found in isolated areas on either side of the clear fell which has led to a research project that, part funded by PTES, is looking at how the habitat recovers and reconnects over time. Footprint tunnels have been deployed around the valley to study the pattern of their movements over a long period.
The successional scrub habitat provides dormice with ample food and shelter. Using dormouse footprint tunnels to monitor the recovery of the habitat after the enforced clear felling of larch
One of the issues Dave has had to tackle is a stand of very tall Grand fir. As this species of tree grows and regenerates quickly it has become a significant feature in the area and tends to spread, rapidly regenerating some distance from the parent plant. Adding to the challenge, it has a low timber value so is not in great demand, but with a bit of creative thinking, Dave has decided to use the timber on site. Last year a set of three ’leaky dams’ were built using these large trees with the brash being used as ‘woody debris’ to mimic the structures that a beaver may build. The aquatic and terrestrial habitats around this small water course in this part of the valley are changing which is becoming an interesting. Evidence is beginning to show that the water being retained is causing the vegetation to change, becoming more diverse. The ‘dams’ are also acting as silt traps as they slow the flow of water – this is likely to be improving water quality while simultaneously reducing flood risk. These innovative methods of conservation management are so often the cause for an enthusiastic debate about future land management policy and practice and this part of the site provided ample opportunity for discussion.
The next part of the excursion was a stop at the sawmill shed where a sawmilling demonstration was in progress. The team of sawyers explained how the local timber from the restoration could be converted, on site, into a number of other useful products and materials for supply into the construction trade. Among the range of interesting end uses is a set of wooden boards for a Dartmoor peatland restoration project. In a break from operating the mill, Phil Siddle explained that, “there are 8 kilometres of softwood boards required for the restoration project.” The eroding peat bogs are being restored by the construction of a network of little dams or ‘blocks’ that will retain water and allow the peat to regenerate, storing carbon, reduce flooding and re-establish breeding bird habitats.
Peterson sawmill in action – processing softwood boards for use in a Dartmoor peatland restoration project
From this point of the tour, the rest of the route was done on foot, but was mostly downhill. The group visited a fenced area where deer where excluded. A discussion about the issues of deer browsing and how to keep their numbers in check was, as usual, very engaging. Emma Goldberg from Natural England said, “we’ve buried our heads in the sand about deer management and we have to address it, now.” David form the Deer Initiative explained how the increasing numbers of different species of deer are a growing problem that requires a national strategy.” In the neighbouring woodland compartment, a discussion about the pros and cons of growing beech for timber was maintaining the interest in the site visit.
Further down the hill, a pair of timber logging horses were at work. Dartmoor Horse Loggers are often at work at Fingle Woods and, this time, were extracting larch thinnings from an area where it is intended to develop a strong and diverse understorey and plant some replacement trees before the eventual spread of phytophthora ramorum reaches these larch trees. Currently this uninfected larch is of a high quality and the economics of this method are favourable. This is a real benefit to the Woodland Trust as it helps to cover the cost of the conservation planting that will eventually replace the larch. Will Hampton from the horse logging team explained, “this is good quality, clean larch and there are 50 tonnes here to sell as 16-foot sawlogs. It’s good material with close grain and we can extract it without the need for a harvester that would cause a lot more damage to the ground.” As the group walked, they visited the circular remains of a Bronze Age dwelling, examined an ancient ‘corn ditch’ and walked to the promontory over the river to see the Iron Age hillfort. This was the perfect place for further discussions about preserving archaeology and heritage, bringing in the more recent history of the site when it was owned by the Elmhirst family as part of the Dartington Estate.
The final leg of the walk back took in an interesting solution to problems encountered with the extraction of small Douglas fir on very steep slopes. There are around 186 hectares of this difficult to access timber that needs to be thinned and, again, innovative solutions are required. A local contractor has adapted a mini excavator with a winch and cable so it can extract the small size timber up a steep slope. Yet another interesting demonstration of woodland restoration at work, and a method that is likely to be affordable to smaller scale operators too.
Fingle Woods has again, been able to show that many aspects of restoring PAWS woodland while maximising the benefit to both wildlife and the local supply chain and this kind of guided discussion is an effective way to demonstrate and share the positive work being done.
(48 people attended)
Written by Matt Parkins
Photography: Paul Moody