Free the Oak Trees – Green Recovery
If you start to read about “Green Recovery” you are likely to see the term being used to describe many worthy causes but, you may be left thinking, “what is it all about?”. One good example is the Green Recovery Challenge Fund; set up to “… kick-start environmental renewal whilst creating and retaining a range of jobs. It is open to environmental charities and their partners to deliver projects in England. The aim of the fund is to support projects that are ready to deliver and focus on nature restoration, nature-based solutions and connecting people with nature …”. If you are still none the wiser, perhaps this might shed some light on a green Dartmoor recovery project.
Ausewell Wood in the Dart valley is a mixed woodland site, recently taken into restoration management by the Woodland Trust and National Trust. From the rocky heights at the crest of the ridge to the humid ancient oak woods in the deep river gorge, many opportunities for woodland and heath restoration are already underway. Several areas of the site are covered with introduced conifers or ‘Plantations on Ancient Woodland Sites’ where the straight rows of evergreens can suppress much of the local flora and fauna unless they are well managed by expert foresters. As the experience of the conservation team grows from work in other Dartmoor valleys, there is much to do and many challenges ahead, but focussing in on one area where Green Recovery is making active progress, this Challenge Fund is the perfect way to bring back nature.
Small scale ecological forestry improves woodland habitats
Blocks of dense conifer plantations are being carefully thinned to improve the diversity that is hanging on in the woods that stand over the river Dart. Work continues right across the site but as an example, some spruce thinning work is being taken on this autumn. Sam Pyne and Barry Green are experienced conservation foresters and are well practised in woodland management with plans for a more ecologically diverse future habitat. Hard at work on a misty September morning, they explained how they were tackling the thinning of a stand of Sitka spruce. Standing among the tightly packed and shady conifers they explained, “We’re doing a 30% thin to take out some spruce and leave the Scot’s pines which should go on to reach maturity and become ‘Granny’ pines that this site is well known for. This mix of trees improves the wildlife potential”. This is one element of a view of the future with sunlight piercing the canopy to support a vigorous greening of the forest floor and a more diverse mix of trees in the canopy.
Hauling the winch cable into the woods Tractor mounted winch hauls the timber trackside
Once the spruce is felled, the timber is winched out to the track side and this is when the care taken during felling reveals small broadleaved trees; rescued fragments of the ancient oak wood that have been struggling in the dark for years. Barry, taking a rest form hauling the steel winch cable uphill for a moment said, “It’s very satisfying to liberate the broadleaves, particularly the oaks. It’s one of the really nice things about doing this”. Adding to the habitat benefits, brash piles will increase the volume of deadwood, where life begins in the woods. This decaying material supports the many fungi and invertebrates that provide for the whole ecosystem.
Thinning the shady Sitka spruce trees leaves small oak trees to grow up into the canopy
Sam described how the timber is graded on site and moved on by his tractor and trailer. “The best quality logs are stacked for the timber lorry to collect and take them to a sawmill, but the lower grade wood has many uses too. Usually, it would become woodchip, but these logs are being used to build dams and conserve peat bogs and mires on the moor. I have taken a few trailer loads of small and knotty logs a few miles to Buckfastleigh where they are being used in the moorland restoration project”. Pointing to an adjacent area where they had been working the week before they said, “It’s interesting down there, we have opened up space around some of the larger oaks. You can already see there is more light in there so the wildlife will benefit”. In years to come, this part of the woods will be another area where nature will be making a comeback. Thanks to the Green Recovery Challenge Fund, this project is creating work and volunteering opportunities in woodland conservation management, timber processing and moorland habitat restoration, one of the most valuable ways to capture carbon.
Thinned conifer trees provide the ancient oaks with space to grow
by Matt Parkins
Aerial photography: Sam Pyne