Tales from the Wood

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Hazel Coppice
There’s very few hazels up in the wood and they have been left to their own devices for decades so are in need of serious attention. Here though, is a little gem of a hazel coppice which, although ‘overstood’ for a while has plenty of straight rods ready for harvesting. These rods are known as sun-shoots and hazels throw them up regularly as part of their natural life cycle. Not quite the same as the new growth one gets with properly coppiced specimens, but they do never-the-less, provide some useful relatively straight material.

The owner of the coppice has very kindly agreed that I try and get it back into cycle and he’s really keen to get involved too. Deer browsing will be a real problem: the low vulnerable re-growth can be browsed of successively and the coppice stool can be killed for good. You can see here that I have taken some sun-shoots out already. Soon we hope to coppice back a couple of complete specimens and see how they get through a season with maybe a brash covering for protection. On the bottom right you can see I’ve used a woodbine (honeysuckle) to bind the hazel rods for carrying. I tried a number of traditional binding knots unsuccessfully, but finally this constrictor worked brilliantly. It avoids any sudden changes of direction in the binding material and so prevents fracturing; I really like it, it locks up like a ratchet strap and it certainly looks better than my usual orange bailer twine.

I’m in Northrepps get me out of here!
A visit from this charming North Norfolk community group started with a tour of the fen and then a stroll through the woodland. Of course, we had to have a short practical session and it was great fun using local materials and getting everyone to bunch up reeds and tie knots simultaneously. As you can see, all they all left with a trophy of their visit and a lot of very big grins!

Logs drying, coppice growing, a new watering hole and an overgrown meadow
As August approaches the log piles seem to be drying out nicely. This year we’ve built a simple windrow of split wood plus a more experimental range of stacks, with logs in the round. The windrows logs are exposed to the summer sun and the wind and the top layer is stacked bark side up which helps shed a little rain. The roundwood stacks are made from a single plane of fairly short logs. The thinking being, that water moves through wood longitudinally 10 to 15 times faster than it does perpendicular to the grain. So by exposing as much end-grain as possible and keeping the bark on as a rain guard, you should get fairly rapid drying. We shall see what happens when moisture readings are taken again in autumn. (I guess I might have lost a few devoted readers after that, even I’m yawning).

The coppice area is now beginning to shoot up and the unguarded sycamores have even survived the attentions of the local deer population. The young hazels and hornbeams seem to have all taken, despite a very dry spring - and they are nearly to the top off their tree guards.

Lots of crossbills are now feeding in the wood (flocks of 16 are not uncommon) so we installed a little watering hole for them. Crossbills need a plentiful supply of water, as the pine seeds on which they feed are exceptionally dry. Maybe they can even be attracted close enough for a photograph, all I usually see is a fleeting glimpse as they flit between the pines calling with that distinctive ‘chip-chip-chip’.

The meadow has reached a good hight this summer and it’s still to be grown on for another two years to attract a healthy field vole population. It’s hoped that the local barn owls will visit in the evenings, plus of course, I don’t have to mow it anymore - but it’s the barn owls mostly!

The Harleston Spider
Another spider, that’s two in all, but this one is the work of Harleston School pupils who are getting to be dab-hands at animal sculpture. They’ve already made an antelope and an emu plus a couple of butterflies. It’s my last session with them next week as the ‘Creative Partnerships’ programme draws to a close, What we shall do is anyone’s guess, but I’ll keep you posted.

Norfolk Reed
Norfolk reed, or to be more accurate Phragmites australis is the signature plant species of our village common; it’s what makes the common so environmentally distinctive and visually exciting. It’s the backdrop, against which, everything else: willow, willow herb and rush, takes its place. I was walking through the boardwalk just this afternoon and once again marvelled at the contrast between the fresh vibrant green stems, springing from last winter’s cut and the mature parchment-tinted reeds, matured and sun-dried for three years. Of course this is entirely due to management– a well rehearsed regime of cutting, clearing and rotating, all designed to mimic what was, after all, a genuine working environment, where the reeds were cut, not for the amenity value of the landscape but for the material value of the crop.

Harvesting reed for Thatching has a long tradition in Norfolk but thatching-reed has to be of a particular quality and cut on a yearly cycle (which they call single wale). The common’s reed beds are cut in a way that is more environmentally focused (a two or three year rotation is actually better for wildlife). This also suits the volunteer workforce who, after all, are driven by the joy of it all, rather than the sale of the harvest.

For many years now I’ve been trying to find ways in which reed can be used for projects other than for thatching and in particular for sculpture. Of course Norfolk reed is perfect for thatching because it’s stiff, smooth and, when dry, sheds water. As a medium for sculpture however, it’s not particularly forgiving or easy to work. One thing’s for certain, it doesn’t bend, and belief me, I’ve tried everything from steaming to (very toxic) chemical treatments – it just won’t budge. Reed is particularly high in the glass-like material silica, which explains why the ancient Chinese potters used reed-ash as the basis for their glazes. This also goes some way in explaining its brittleness.

It does however bundle and bunch very beautifully and this is key to working with reed – you have to use methods that are sympathetic to its working character (which is another way of saying: ‘do what it tells you and stop trying to be clever’). As the photographs below go to show - you can bunch it, bind it and bundle it, but whatever you do, don’t bend it!

Cleft Chestnut Lids
I’ve made quite a few turned wooden lids for pottery jars in the past and always from seasoned wood. Greenwood is almost impossible to turn successfully for lids because they need to be flat, thin, and well fitting; fine when first turned, but all over the place when they dry out. Cleft greenwood slatting is a different matter; the grain can be orientated to remain fairly stable as it dries and you can increase the size indefinitely. It’s a traditional technique and very often uses clenched (or clinched) nails to hold it together - very strong and quick to assemble. Here I’ve used copper nails rather than iron as the tannin in sweet chestnut reacts with iron staining the wood black. The idea of wood-fired pottery with wooden lids is appealing - the clunk of wood against ceramic is far less alarming than the chink (or crack) of pot against pot. Have you ever wondered why there are so few complete examples of functional lidded pots around? Even that mighty collection of English slipware in The Potteries Museum has to show off a few lidless pieces.

Barnham Broom Workshop
Another Creative Partnership project - a week long outdoor workshop working with children from 6 to eleven. The theme here was shelters and dens, although on one day, the wind blew so hard we had to make a windmill. A lovely village school and the children, as always, were simply brilliant. If you want to see more there’s a new entry in the workshops section.

Creative Partnership with Harleston Primary School
Another very rewarding time working at Harleston. We spent the early part of the morning collecting hazel and willows from the school grounds and then started to build a four-legged structure. The children decided it was going to be a deer - and so it evolved. An unsolicited side-line development involved the making of bows (without arrows I hasten to add). Who started off this ‘extra-curricula activity I have no idea, although the concept was adapted by two very creative girls who made a rather nice willow bower.

First coupe thinned and underplanted
At last the under-planting of hornbeam and hazel is complete. The first coupe has been thinned and all the conifers felled.
Hazel and hornbeam have pretty good shade tolerance and the tree guards are set at 1.2 metres to protect from deer. As an experiment, the coppiced sycamores have been covered with brash which, by some accounts, does help to give the new shoots a chance to get away before they’re grazed off. We’ll see what happens!

Norfolk Wildlife Trust Crafty Creatures Workshop
This weekend we ran the Crafty Creatures workshop for the NWT. It seemed to be a great success which was no doubt helped along by the glorious weather. We collected materials from the marsh and the wood and then all the children (and to be honest quite a few adults) made a reed, rush and hazel bird.

School Workshops
As part of the ‘Creative Partnership’ Scheme I’ve started this years environmental arts workshops at three Norfolk primary schools. Mattishall Primary is the first to go, and I’ve had as splendid time working with the children in their lovely school grounds. We spend a good deal of time collecting materials and then go on to develop some fun practical themes. As you can see here, we’ve made a range of individual and group-work, ranging from word sculptures to willow woven masks representing ‘The Green Man’ (not to be confused - as it often has been this week - with ‘Green Giant’).

Reed Cutting
This years cutting programme on the common is almost complete. And as we’re into some really good clean reed, I’ve bundled some up for the spring workshops. Thatchers need reed that’s one year or two year old (traditionally called single and double wale) However our rotation cycle is much longer (generally four years) but it’s still good for construction. In a couple of weeks I hope to be cutting some soft rush, juncus effusus, which will provide a more pliable material to use with the reed.


Bonfires and Habitat Piles
As coppicing progresses and the produce graded, there are always bits and pieces (lop & top) which need to be managed somehow. Although most of the stick-wood has been stacked for kiln firing, some of the more twiggy stuff has to be cleared from the forest floor and burned. Now, there is some debate about this: where the bonfires are located, there will always be an area of burned ground and ash, this can be minimised by well designed fires and reducing the number of fire sites. The ash hyper-enriches the immediate ground layer and can encourage species untypical of English woodland. However the ashes could be scattered more sparsely through the woodland as, after all, the minerals and nutrients it contains, once originated in the same soil. Another approach is the humble ‘habitat-pile’. This is in reality a stack of woodland waste which is left to rot down and thus encourage insects and of course insect eating birds and beasts. I’ve opted for both techniques and use habitat piles mainly on the forest boundary. My reckoning is that this will be enhance the ‘Edge Effect’: that ecological paradise between wood and meadow.

Talking of bonfires, when I started hedge laying, many years ago, the gentleman that taught me, Bill, always maintained you could burn any wood - wet, green, thick, thin. The secret was, that you started with any dry wood available, brought it up to a ‘good orange heart’ and then laid anything over the top in a good straight line and always lying with the breeze. Never use un-snedded wood (branchy un-trimmed wood ) which creates a cold hollow and will be sure to kill the fire. Below you can see this in action. The fire consumes wood faster than you can feed it, and at the end of the day all the unburned ends are ‘turned back in’ to keep it tidy and safe. The bottom left. shows a habitat pile after a year of rotting down next to a fresh pile of ash ready for scattering.

Coppicing Begins
After a seemingly endless period of snow and frozen ground, coppicing has at last begun in earnest. There’s some chunky specimens about. These might still throw up some good stems over the 10 year rotation and the timber will go for firewood, but the slimmer broadleaf seem more promising. Rob, who is helping me this season, is here logging up some sycamore while I’ve sorting the brash and cordwood for kiln firing. This coupe will be fenced off in March to protect it from deer, and then, with the canopy opened up, the ground-cover and coppice growth should off to a good start. Hopefully this will attract all sorts of new species to the area. I’ll be keeping a close record of progress.