“One man went to mow, Went to mow a meadow” is how an old song begins, and it was certainly true in 1979, although it wasn’t exactly a meadow, and he didn’t have a dog.
In 1979, we began working on the Lolly Moor nature reserve, and our first job there was to create the figure-of eight footpath which many of you will have walked around, but another task was carried out that year by just one volunteer.
…One of our number, being a student at the University of Excessive Abbreviations (U.E.A.) at the time and therefore having lots of free time in the summer went to the reserve every day for a period and mowed the then largest open area, mowed it with a scythe, raked and tedded the mowings until they had turned into hay, then took all the material off and burned it on the newly created footpath.
In the early summer of 1980, six cowslips appeared on an edge of the mown area, and this came as a great surprise to the Hon. Warden, a local botanist who had caused the site to be adopted as a nature reserve by The Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust. He had had no idea that there were cowslips on the site.
This was an excellent example of why we do all our mowing tasks. The first mowing of Lolly Moor, done in early August, removed a very large amount of nutrients from the site, locked up in the plant bodies, and turned it all, when burned, into oxides and dioxides which went away in the breeze, off the site. It also meant that sunlight could reach the ground for the first time in many years, and the six cowslips which had survived the constant shading and which had just been growing vegetatively, could flower again and set seed.
The site was mown again, this time as a proper Norfolk Conservation Corps task, on the tenth of August, 1980, and fifteen cowslips appeared in the summer of 1981; the site was mown again in 1981, and there were forty-two cowslips in the summer of 1982; and so it has gone on, the site being mown every year. At the last count, there were three thousand, five hundred and forty-six cowslips in this area, the cowslips being counted every year because they come up early, before most of the other flowers and are thus easily counted – but the site now has to be divided up with strings to enable the counting to be done.
While the cowslips have been increasing, the other flora has greatly benefited from our work. There are now masses of yellow rattle and common twayblade to be seen every summer, a large number of common spotted orchid, several fragrant orchid, a few marsh helleborine, a surprising number of the rather uncommon adder’s-tongue fern, and so on. At the same time, there now being such a variety and quantity of food-plants for the caterpillars, the butterfly population of Lolly Moor has greatly increased in number and variety. Lolly Moor is a great success story for the volunteers of the Norfolk Conservation Corps, and it is not the only one.
We began mowing on Scarning Fen on the seventh of August, 1983, this time not only for the same reasons as on Lolly Moor, but also to try to control the spread of reed. Scarning Fen is considered by experts to be the most important site of its kind on this planet, and in 1976 local politicians, being only concerned with money, caused a new road to be constructed across the lower four acres of the site. The siting of this road was also wrong in that Scarning Fen is a valley fen, so a huge embankment had to be created to bring the road up to the same level as the surrounding countryside, i.e. a major dam was built across the lower end of this phenomenally important wetland site. As a result, reed has been spreading across the whole fen since 1976.
At Scarning Fen, we have no cowslips to count to judge the success of our work. We had, instead, something even more precise. In 1991, the site was visited by Professor Francis Rose, author of the best wild flower identification book, The Wild Flower Key, and a very great expert on sites such as Scarning Fen. He came to Norfolk to study a series of sites which he had last visited in 1956, helped then by his young assistant, a chap called David Bellamy (I wonder what became of him?). In 1991, revisiting all these sites, he found that the only one in as good a condition now was Scarning Fen. (The Norfolk Conservation Corps has never worked on any of his other study sites.)
In his official report for English Nature, Francis Rose wrote: “I have known Scarning Fen since 1955 … I was impressed, even then, with the remarkable, and indeed exceptional, nature of the site. … [A combination of factors, including lack of management] has led to the deterioration of the majority of these sites, and the total spoliation of most of them. … At the present time, it is clear that Scarning Fen is the best example by far of the spring-fen type of community remaining … By far the most interesting species present at Scarning Fen is the hepatic Leiocolea rutheana.
This is still present in great abundance. … Elsewhere in Britain, it is only known at Frilford Fen, Berks., last seen in 1984! … I visited Scarning Fen on 9.9.91, 23.10.91., and 24.10.91. … Leiocolea rutheana is very plentiful… The present management of the fen is excellent and I wish to pay a tribute to the fine work done there by the Norfolk Conservation Corps in keeping the fen mown in recent years. I understand that it was not in nearly such good condition some years ago*, but this management work shows how a fen of this type can be restored …” *i.e. before the Corps started working on it.
Potter’s Fen has, fortunately, been managed by us ever since management began on the sixth of November, 1988. Francis Rose again: “Potter’s Fen: This is really an extension of Scarning Fen. I had not visited this part of the S.S.S.I. until October, 1991, but it holds plant communities rather similar to those of the main Scarning Fen. … Potter’s Fen was, until recent years, heavily overgrown with Molinia, fen scrub, etc.: it is only due to the valiant efforts of the Norfolk Conservation Corps’ volunteers that these richer communities have been restored, even in part; hopefully, continued drastic management will lead to improved development of the short sedge – Schoenus communities in future years.”
Francis Rose, however, does not know the whole story. The management of this site began when, at last, it was learned who actually owned the site. The Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust were then able to get a management agreement, and we could start work, so we did. A clever know-it-all of the Norfolk Conservation Corps planned and arranged everything. He borrowed Mad Milton and his chainsaw from George Taylor (of the Broadland N.N.T.), who was his boss at the time, and had a huge amount of scrub, very big trees, cleared from one corner of the site, and the Corps’ volunteers came along, on several visits, and gathered and burned all the felled material.
The same know-it-all then borrowed a mowing machine, again from George Taylor, and mowed the whole of the open area of the fen, quite a large area. The Corps’ volunteers then came along, turned the mowings into hay, gathered it all up, took it off the site, and burned it, and the fen began to improve almost immediately. In the area from which the very heavy scrub cover had been removed, forty-seven columbines were seen in the following summer, columbines in flower not having been seen there for many years; some common spotted orchids were also seen out on the fen area which had always been open but had been dominated by the tall, thick, coarse vegetation of an unmanaged fen; and several other interesting things were seen.
Things then got better and better, as things tend to when a site is being managed by the Norfolk Conservation Corps and its volunteers. We mowed the fen every summer, and, after a few years of our work, summer saw the fen covered in common spotted orchids, marsh helleborines, grass of Parnassus, marsh fern, the (not so common nowadays) common butterwort, and lots of other good fen flora, yet another great success story for the Norfolk Conservation Corps.
It was such a great success that the know-it-all responsible invited Peter Lambley and Steve Rothera of English Nature to the site one summer, after we had been working on the site for several years, to show them what we had achieved and they were very impressed, and said so. Peter Lambley then smiled and said to Steve Rothera, “The funny thing is that I cannot remember the licence application for this work coming in to the office, or our granting the licence.”
The know-it-all had not thought at all that to carry out work on a Site of Special Scientific Interest one has to apply for, and receive, a licence from English Nature, otherwise one gets taken to court and is fined £5,000. For some reason, the know-it-all was not taken to court. Instead, English Nature bought him his own mowing machine, so that the good work could be continued more easily, which is why we no longer have to do what we used to do on Lolly Moor, Scarning Fen, and other sites, i.e. using scythes to mow these large areas. All we have to do now is what we have done lots more of this summer on these three sites, making (and moving) hay while the sun shines.
The sun shines on the righteous, so the saying says, so let us hope that it is just as true next summer as it has been this year.
Rhododendron is quite nice when in parks and gardens, but it becomes a menace when it escapes into the countryside, which is why we treat it so badly, though, in fact, our treatment is rather good.
Rhododendron ponticum, the species found all over Great Britain, is native to countries in the eastern and western Mediterranean, such as Spain, Portugal, and Turkey, and also occurs through Asia into China. It was first introduced into Britain in the late 18th century, and became particularly popular on country estates in Victorian times, these introductions mainly coming from Spain and Portugal.
It thrives in milder, wet climatic conditions on poor, acidic soils, and, because it thrives, it has to be kept permanently in check. At Felbrigg Hall, where we worked sixty mandays in 1978 and 1979 on clearing rhododendron from the beech woods, they had a head woodsman, who told us that, when he started working there as a boy, there were forty men on the woodland staff dealing with the fourteen hundred acres of beech woods. When he became head woodsman, forty years later, the staff under him consisted of one man and a boy, showing why the problems have arisen.
Rhododendron invades new areas by seed and by vegetative growth. Each flower head can produce up to seven thousand seeds, each bush producing several million seeds per year, seeds which are tiny and can be wind-dispersed over large areas. Rhododendron also spreads by creeping up on new areas. It has the power to grow laterally, and, wherever the horizontal branches touch the ground, they will put out roots, increasing the plants stability and ability to continue moving sideways. Thus, because of its extremely lateral form of growth, rhododendron plants are capable of extending into areas which are otherwise unsuitable. Large areas of wetland can thus be dominated by the canopy of rhododendron while the main stem and roots of the plant are still on suitably dry land.
Having become established, the rhododendron stays established because no herbivores will eat it. Apart from the fact that it is a foreign species and its natural enemies do not live in this country, rhododendron has the protection of being poisonous. Toxic chemicals, particularly phenols and diterpenes, occur in significant quantities in the tissues of rhododendron, making the plant unpalatable to herbivores, and phenols are particularly abundant in the young emergent tissues, such as leaves and buds, enabling rhododendron to become established more easily.
Young emergent leaf buds also produce a sticky exudate, containing phenols, which means that smaller, insect herbivores would get stuck, if not put off by the unpleasant flavour. Even honey produced by bees which have visited rhododendron is poisonous, causing what is known as mad honey disease, which causes intestinal and cardiac problems, though is rarely fatal. The plant is also not touched by larger grazing mammals because of the toughness and unpalatability of the leaves, but sheep or cattle which eat rhododendron because of lack of experience or extreme hunger then become poisoned by the chemicals in the leaves.
Rhododendron also has an allelopathic property, rhododendron inhibiting the establishment and germination of other species. Because of this, and because of the severe shading caused by the evergreen nature of the plant, few native species survive once rhododendron has entered an area. Once the native plants are gone, another problem arises in that the animals which rely on the native plants, either directly or indirectly, cannot survive.
Even where trees survive above the rhododendron, species such as woodland butterflies disappear because the caterpillars of woodland butterflies need the wild flowers and grasses which normally exist in woodland rides. Also, if there are no herbivores eating the rhododendron, there are no predators to eat the herbivores, so species such as song birds cease to live in these areas, which also means that there are no sparrowhawks and other such species.
Rhododendron is also very difficult to treat with chemicals. The first area which we cleared at Winterton Dunes, in 1990 and 1991, was treated successfully, but that was because it was treated by a member of the Norfolk Conservation Corps who is an expert on conservation management techniques, and was treated by hand, i.e. a hand holding a paint-brush. For the most part, the rhododendron has been treated by professionals, using spraying equipment, and the treatment has, consequently, not been very effective.
Since the beginning of the 1990s, we have cleared a huge amount of rhododendron from the Winterton Dunes National Nature Reserve, doing it the very best way, i.e. with axes, billhooks, and bowsaws. This is the only efficient way to deal with established rhododendron, and we have dealt efficiently with large areas of it, and some excellent results have been seen, including considerable reinstatement of heather. (There have also been nightjars nesting on areas which we have reinstated, and the rare natterjacks have been heard, in the spring, singing merrily, presumably because of what we have done for them.)
Unfortunately, there are still the millions of seeds laying there, waiting for us to expose them to the sunshine, and then up comes the new rhododendron. Fortunately, Mr. Cawley is slightly more intelligent than rhododendron, and, on more recent visits, he has had us sneaking up on the new rhododendron and pulling it out of the ground, which it doesn’t like at all.
Ideally, cleared areas should have the toxic, seed-filled humus layer removed and all herbicide treatment should be done by experts, not by professionals. Unfortunately, in nature conservation, the absolute ideal is rarely achieved, so Winterton Dunes has to make do with the next best thing to ideal, the Norfolk Conservation Corps.
On the fifteenth of January, 1978 (in the good ol’ days) seventeen volunteers were on a task at Barton Broad, under the direction of Peter Stevens, then the Director of the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust. (This really was the good ol’ days.)
“I would like these trees felled,” said Peter.
Eddie, looking at the trees in question, said, “Do you really mean felled, or do you actually mean coppiced?”
“Do you know the difference?” asked Peter, apparently surprised.
“But of course,” said Eddie.
“In that case,” said Peter, delightedly, “I want them coppiced.”
The Norfolk Conservation Corps was, on that day, only forty-two days old and this was only our third task, but it was an indication of how wonderful it was for wildlife in Norfolk that the Corps had been set up. We’ve done an awful lot of work since then, and we’ve certainly done a lot of coppicing, thereby not only conserving wildlife, but also conserving an extremely ancient practice.
Coppicing is a very old woodland-management technique, which is thought to have been used for nearly six thousand years, the evidence for this coming from the Somerset Levels. Ancient trackways, laid to provide a firm footing for people crossing these fens, have been discovered, and some of the material used seems to have been harvested coppice poles. The Sweet Track was the first of these to be found, one and a quarter miles of it, and it has been dated back, by radio-carbon dating, to 5,765 B.C. (Before Corps’).
In Wayland and Honeypot Woods, for example, the period of rotation was seven years, and the harvested coppice poles were used in thatching. The reed is held in place by wooden pegs, called spars, made from coppiced material, and the sedge used on the ridges of the thatched roofs has a criss-cross system of hazel, from coppice, holding it in place.
At Matfield, in Kent, however, the period of rotation in the coppice there, chestnut coppice, is fifteen to twenty years, and the coppice poles become fence-posts. At Watery Grove, Hertfordshire, the hornbeam coppice was left for twenty or more years, as the coppicing there was simply to create an endless supply of firewood.
In the good ol’ days of the original Corps, the Council for Nature Conservation Corps, the coppicing was done by volunteers using perfectly sharpened racing axes, the wood being so hard, and material was put onto the bonfires by standing back and throwing it, a hornbeam bonfire putting out so much heat that one could not get near it.
In other woods, and probably the woods already mentioned, coppice material was used to make tool handles, and seven-year coppice was used throughout the country to make hurdles for keeping sheep where it was desired to keep them. Coppice was also used to make faggots, as mentioned above in the task reports.
In the coppiced woodlands throughout the country, and throughout the long history of coppicing, the oak trees were always left to grow to maturity, these being called standards, and the woods are all called coppice-with-standards woodlands. The original forest was thus transformed into a much more open woodland with a varied age-structure, and making areas available for a much wider range of plants.
Before coppicing, only woodland specialists could live in woodland. These were plants, such as bluebell, lily-of-the-valley, cuckoo-pint, ramson, early purple orchid, and many others, which burgeon early in the spring, produce their aerial structures, flower, and set seed all before the leaf canopy closes over them, cutting out the full sunlight.
Coppicing is a way of harvesting wood from the wood without losing the wood, and it was probably “invented” by chance by Neolithic man. The Neolithic people would have cut down the trees in an area for their own purposes, leaving the trees which were too big for them to handle, then would have moved on. Eventually they would have returned to the original area to find that the stumps left from the previous felling had thrown out many side-shoots, and these could now be harvested.
This management system was later refined and developed into the system we use today. Now coppicing is carried out on a precise rotation system. A wood is divided into enough sections to cover the rotation period to be used, then one section is cut each winter until all have been cut. It is then time to harvest the regrowth from the first section. The felling technique has also been refined so that the trees are now felled using a steeply sloping cut, this cut sloping outwards so that rainwater will run off to the ground, and the cut stumps, the coppice “stool”, will not rot.
After a tree has been correctly coppiced, many new shoots grow from the coppice stool, each developing into a leading shoot, each stool thereby producing many coppice “poles”. The size of these poles is governed by the size and age of the original felled tree, the height of the coppice cut, and the period of time for which they are left to grow before they are harvested, i.e. the period of rotation.
In coppiced woodland, the sunlight can reach the ground all summer for the first few years after the coppice has been harvested, so other plants can come in, seeds always being on the wind, looking for suitable places on which to make a landing. Insects are also often on the wing, so, if new plants come into the woodlands, insects which feed on those plants will also come in.
Similarly, birds which feed on insects will also come in in greater numbers, there now being more insects available. Birds will also increase in number simply because of the new openness of the wood. Birds, in general, do not actually like woodland very much. Even so-called woodland birds tend to use the edges of the wood and rides and tracks which go through the woods, rather than the body of the wood, and coppicing creates more woodland edge, and more apparent and very big rides, thus improving things for the birds.
After a few years, though, everything changes. The point about coppicing is that every tree cut down originally produces many new shoots from just below the coppicing cut, so the regrowth is much more overcrowded than the original trees. This means that the new growth grows tall and straight, reaching for the light, thereby producing nice, straight poles for use when harvested, but the overcrowding means that, when the new growth has reached a certain height and thickness, the woodland floor is shaded throughout the year, not just as originally, in full summer.
This shading does not matter, however, because, in every managed woodland, these are always other areas in different parts of the seven-year, ten-year, fifteen-year, or whatever cycle is being used. If coppicing ceases to be carried out, however, that is very bad news for the woodland and its wildlife.
In Wayland Wood, for example, coppicing ceased around 1940, so the coppice regrowth was forty or more years old by 1980, was very thick and there was almost nothing growing on the woodland floor. Fortunately, on January 6th, 1980, seven members of the Norfolk Conservation Corps went to Wayland Wood and began the reinstatement of the coppice.
In Honeypot Wood, there was a different kind of problem. Here the coppiced wood had been purchased for many years by Anglian Water, who used the material in river maintenance, but Anglian Water used to harvest the entire wood in one year, the relevant area only being twenty-one acres. The whole wood would then be left for seven years until the next harvest, again of the whole wood, so even the woodland specialist species were having a hard time in Honeypot Wood, the woodland floor being shaded for the whole year for perhaps half of each seven-year cycle.
Fortunately, the wood was purchased by the Norfolk Naturalists’ Trust, so the management could be put back onto a proper seven-year rotation system, and, on 17th September, 1989, the Norfolk Conservation Corps came to Wendling and began coppicing Honeypot Wood.
Coppicing has been going on for six thousand years and the wildlife has adapted to it, but, as you can see, for the wildlife to survive, coppicing has to continue to be carried out in just the same way as before for the next six thousand years and preferably longer, so keep up the good work as you’ve done very well so far. Also, come out more often. Time flies when you’re having fun, so six thousand years will soon pass.