Regular readers of this blog will have realised long ago that woodland management is a big part of our work in the countryside, both at Trelissick and along the North Helford River, but many of you will surely have asked, ‘Why do we need to manage the woods? They have been here for many millions of years – can’t they look after themselves?!’ Indeed, we meet many visitors, when we are out working during the forestry season, who are distinctly unimpressed with all these trees that have been cut down and areas, previously shrouded by canopy, that are now filled with light and open to the sky – ‘It looks like the Somme!’, one visitor exclaimed unhappily, and ‘you’re killing the trees!’ shouted another…..
The following two-part article seeks to provide at least some of the answers to what is a very complex question and demonstrate why our woodland work is beneficial and how it fits into the cultural and ecological history of the area. The first part offers a brief introduction to traditional woodland management and will serve as a useful context and reference for all future woodland blog articles. The second part of the article, to be published soon, will give an overview of our current work and the outcomes we hope will come about as a result.
It has often been written that long ago, much of Britain (although not necessarily Cornwall) was covered in a primordial blanket of woodland, sometimes called wildwood or natural woodland because it was unaffected by the actions of humans. None of this woodland is believed to exist today because it has all been either cleared or managed in one way or another.
Most ancient woodlands across Britain have only survived into antiquity as a result of some form of traditional management. A number of the techniques that were used are relevant to both the historical and the ongoing management of the woods on the estate and are greatly beneficial to the overall health of the woodland and its inherent wildlife:
Generally speaking, ancient woods were either managed as coppice or wood pasture. The following definitions of each borrow greatly from Woodland Management and Conservation by Charles Watkins, which was published in 1990 and is a fantastic introduction to managing woodlands for the benefit of wildlife.
Coppicing is a system of management where trees are felled, almost at ground level, and the next crop grows as shoots from the old, cut stumps. This system is only viable where grazing animals can be excluded from newly cut areas. Coppice can be re-cut at intervals of anything between 5-40 years depending on the growth rate of the tree species and the use to which the poles are to be put.
Generally, some trees are spared from each cutting and allowed to grow on to a large size. When eventually felled, at between 60 and 100 years old, these trees (referred to as standards) yield construction timber, bark and firewood.
Worked coppices often have a particularly rich flora and fauna. The repeated cutting of the underwood opens up the canopy and encourages a wealth of varied flowers and herbaceous plants. Coppiced areas also provide a wide range of habitat for woodland wildlife because within each is a number of conditions, ranging from open ground and abundant plant cover, to dense thickets of trees which are suitable for species that favour shade.
Wood pasture and pollarding
Wood pasture is a management system where woodland is permanently used for grazing animals, with the trees providing both shelter and produce. Historically, it was mainly restricted to deer parks and commons and the trees were usually managed by pollarding. This technique involves the repeated (and rotational) cutting of branches above the browsing line of the grazing animals and often resulted in sustaining the vitality of the tree and greatly prolonging its life. Many examples of ancient, veteran trees around Britain were historically pollarded.
Pollarding is fantastic for wildlife because the main stem of the tree is retained and never felled. This means all the nooks and crannies, crevices and fissures that are associated with older trees and so essential for beetles, bats and birds are undisturbed whilst the gathering of woodland produce continues…..
So, we can see that the woodland itself has benefited from traditional management but there is a significant difference in ideology and motivation between what would have been carried out historically and the work of a conservation charity such as the National Trust. Historically, the aim of management was purely production; techniques were designed to maximize yields and minimize losses that would otherwise have been sustained through the actions of grazing animals. All materials would have been removed and utilized and nothing would have been wasted. The peoples of the past would obviously have had an awareness of wildlife but, with the needs of the woodland workers so much more keen and visceral, its survival and success wouldn’t have been central to their work like it is to ours.
Historical woodland management at Trelissick
Our oak fringe woodland (so called because of its situation next to the river – a rare habitat in itself) would have been coppiced for the tanning industry; the appearance of the sessile oak areas today is almost entirely down to the intensive management of the past. Oak is used for this purpose because the bark is very high in tannins which are used to make leather from animal hide.
Each area would have been cut on a rotational basis every 30 – 40 years from May to June, when the sap has risen and the bark peels away from the wood cleanly and easily. The bark would most likely have been sent up to Cornwall’s last tannery at Grampound whilst the wood was used to make charcoal, as pit-props or for boat building around the river. The last areas to be cut in this fashion are at Cadodden on the other side of the river.
Something useful to remember is that there is a great deal more woodland on the estate today than there would have been in the past. As was alluded to earlier in this article, Cornwall has always been a wood poor county with timber usually being taken from hedgerows wherever possible, owing to the absence of significant tree cover. This is one of the reasons that our sessile oak woods are classed as a SSSI (Site of Special Scientific Interest) because they are so rare, culturally and ecologically, in the context of the landscape.
Large scale planting took place in the mid 1800’s at Trelissick, as was the case with many wealthy estates during that time, with the rich landowners attempting to develop an attractive landscape by using a variety of then exotic species to bolster those native to Britain. These mass plantings reflect the financial successes of these families (often linked to mining), with tin and copper prices soaring, their status was enhanced through botanical collections and expeditions.
The tools might have changed over the years, from stone axe heads to modern chainsaws, but the principles of growing and harvesting, with respect for natural processes, remain the same. In the next blog post we will examine out current management in detail – its methods and motivations – watch this space!.
All illustrations: Sonia Hensler