Tales from the Wood

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Hazel Coppice 2nd Season
There’s been some interesting developments in the hazel coppice. Last season we tried different ways of protecting the cut stools from browsing deer and it’s clear that some techniques are better than others. Perhaps the most surprising success has been with the pollarded hazel. You can see (2nd row below) that last years experimental pollard has really got away and so we’re cutting new pollards this year ; it’s inexpensive and simple to cut, but you do of course lose about a metre of usable wood to the longer base stems. The individually-fenced specimens worked really well but are labour intensive and costly, however we have used them again this year (3rd row below) to protect a few of last year’s brash-covered stools which were grazed off but not quite back to the stool - I think they will recover.

Not to give up on the brash protection, it seems that you really need to submerge the stool with very twiggy branches and keep topping up through the growing season. You can see (last row below) a lovely new stool with it’s individual crate which really deserved the best, and one of the last year’s more successful brashed stools being topped up.

Hazel might well be a successful subject for pollarding but it remains a matter of time before we know how useable its stems will be. I shall also have to sift through the literature to see if this has been done to any great extent in the past but I would be surprised if it was. Hazel is by nature a woodland species which in the past would have been protected both directly through boundary barriers and indirectly by a closely managed deer population (and in the absence of muntjac). Pollarding was used (and still is) on bankside willows and other odd broadleaf specimens to provide protection in grazed pasture. It provided some useful sticks and rods above the grazing line, and like coppice, was cut on a rotational basis. As I said last year: pollarding could well be the answer to bringing back into cycle our many derelict hazel coppices. After this year’s successes, I’m more convinced than ever.

Meet the New Woodland Helper
Its a lovely little Fergie TEF20 which I found for sale in a local village. It was in really good fettle and mechanically very sound. Obviously I’ve been tinkering with it: new tyres, reclaimed seat pan and a massive new tractor battery. The quad bike I was using has gone back to the farm in Staffordshire so I’m totally dependent on this new arrival for all the day to day work in the woods; I’m sure she’ll do just fine (I presume tractors are shes). We’ve had to make Fergie sized rides throughout the woods but she’s so very maneuverable, I was amazed.

You can tell I’m impressed, so in future, as a sort of pictorial quiz, see if you can find her lurking around in the background of ‘Tales from the Wood’ photo’s... even the ones indoors !

Letter Cutting and Chainsaw Planing
I never turn away a letter cutting job: it gives me an excuse to sit in the workshop, drink cups of tea and listen to Woman’s Hour. Normally, I tend to cut letters the traditional way: using a variety of chisels and gouges to make a fairly deep V cut into the wood. This time, however, I’ve been looking at ways of constructing versals: a type of built-up letter involving an outline which is then filled in - or in this case cut away. I’ve used iron-stained sycamore as the base-board and I’ve been making a new letter-cutting tool which simplifies the cutting process enormously. Without giving too much away (I may run a 1 day workshop in the future) using 2, or maybe 3 simple tools you can cut some really sharp signs.

A new batch of wood-turned sycamore vessels has given me the chance to try to speed up the preparation process. Whatever you think of the chainsaw, You just can’t help marvel at the detail and precision the experts achieve with this usually un-subtle machine. This week, I’ve been planing sycamore blanks using a handy lightweight model. As you can see from the before-and-after shots you can achieve a fairly flat planed surface which is fine for moving on to the band saw. It’s not as scary as it looks and it’s much faster than hand planing. If I’m honest, I prefer using the side axe but it’s a technique certainly worth pursuing.

Seasoning / Rhododendrons for Hot Water / Coppice or Pollards
All the wood is cut for the coming winter and now it’s out in one large windrow for seasoning. Despite the wet spring and summer, I’m confident that this is the best way to season wood: lots of air passing lots of endgrain. In this double-stack configuration every split log has an end grain face exposed, so moisture is wicked out by the wind and any moisture from rain is soon blown dry. A roof at this stage I think is counter-productive, creating a damp micro-climate as the warm damp air can’t get away. As soon as Autumn comes and the stack is dry I’ll put on a lid; but not before. For the hot water boiler we’ve been burning rhododendron; it burns furiously and seasons where its stands (after being cut back viciously at ground level).

The sycamore coppice is getting well away now; the deer seem to just pass it by (yet another benefit of the poor maligned sycamore). Also, the chestnut that I had an attempt at pollarding is shooting where it ought to shoot and the hazel looks promising as well . I wonder if this could one tactic for coppice-woodland with high deer populations ?

A Thetford Beetle
Working on Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s ‘Wild about the Brecks’ event, I came up with this little pole-lathed beetle. Turned from a green hazel sun-shoot, cleaved in two and then skewerd with beech twig legs it made a great little children’s project. Part of the deal was that all participants had to memorise the name of this entomological Breckland speciality: Ophonus laticollis. As rare as it is unpronounceable.

A High Diver Joins the Team
I’ve been back at Harleston Primary School to continue the olympic-themed sculpture workshop. This character is perhaps a little less graceful than the others: it’s all about keeping those legs under control isn’t it.

As a point of arboreal interest, the feet are made from freshly-cleft sweet chestnut; the legs: coppiced hazel and the cyclists amongst you will recognise the clamping system as a bicycle workstand.

Olympic Sculpture Workshops at Harleston Primary
I’ve been back at Harleston to do a series of workshops based on Olympic themes. I must admit it was a bit of a challenge but the children, as usual, were brilliant. We searched out sticks and branches that resembled the ‘human figure in action’ (you have to look very hard and from every angle - often upside down), We then decided on an Olympic event that might fit the ‘action’.

Whilst it poured down outside we took over the school hall to make grass-rope using those remarkable and ancient devices the
whimbel and the twine-binder. Well to be honest, the twine-binder I invented the day before, but it definitely looked ancient. It has to be said, wrapping grass-rope around a stick skeleton with thirty pairs of helping hands does have its moments, but it’s a great method which I have adapted from a technique first shown to me by an ex-student of mine, Anthony Hammond (now an accomplished community artist). As you can see - well I hope you can see - we ended up with a gymnast and a Javelin-thrower, and with another 5 sculptures to be completed, it won’t be too long before every tree on site has an athlete-shaped hole in it.

Garden Structures at Yarmouth
Another busy workshop for the Norfolk Wildlife Trust this time using hazel and willow. In 4 hours we managed to get from some very basic materials to these jolly little structures learning along the way: riving, weaving, coiling, and knotting. Thank goodness for the ‘transom knot’ second cousin to the ‘constrictor’ and just as useful.

Cleaving Port Orford Cedar
There are lots of conifer species in the wood but one of the most interesting is Port Orford Cedar or Lawson Cypress. Revered by the Japanese for its straight grain and fragrant timber it’s also the wood of choice for arrow shafts. It hasn’t a reputation for working ‘in the green’ but some of the stems I’ve felled looked so clear and straight I thought I’d give it a go. You can see here that it cleaved amazingly well and it’s really nice to work shave. I’ve heard that the volatile oil it gives off is used as a diuretic in some cultures but I can’t really comment on that other than Bertie (our dog) likes peeing up Port Orford Cedars. Anyway, that aside, I ended up with a half-decent gate-hurdle which although perhaps not as crisp as one cleaved out of chestnut or ash suggests that certain conifers can be worked with traditional green wood techniques. Anyway that’s all for now - I need to ‘spend a penny’!

The restoration of the ‘overstood’ hazel coppice has started. It looks fairly dramatic but the area has been left for several decades and needs quite severe cutting back. As usual the big problem will be deer browsing so we are experimenting with a number of protection measures including brash-covering and individual wire cages. We’ll have to wait untill mid-summer to assess their relative merits.

“It’s an ill wind”
A friend recently posed the interesting question ”what earthly good is the wind: rain we need; even the frost and snow have their place in the grand scheme of things; but the wind?“ Well, looking around over the last two days and surveying the recent storm damage i’ve been pondering this dilemma. And I’ve come to the conclusion, that although I can’t say I’m over fond of high winds, if it wasn’t for regular gales and storms the trees and branches that have to fall would come down at any old time. At least I know not to wander through the wood when the wind sounds like an express train charging through a tunnel and I wouldn’t even think about going into the shed having seen the great limbs of oak waving ominously above. So yes, I guess the wind does in some ways portend the coming of a natural selection process, albeit at times a very destructive and frightening one.

Interestingly, the wind has a lot of influence on a tree’s fitness for purpose: the specimens which are subject to the highest winds have the most stable root structure and their trunks and limbs are built in answer to the winds constant torments. Looking at windblown trees today you can clearly see this: all the trees that have suffered are those that were relatively sheltered and in particular when an old or sick tree goes down, it’s often the newly exposed trees which, no longer sheltered, are most susceptible to damage. The birch you can see here was pretty much dead and went down during day-one of the gales; then after a ‘lull in the storm’, the young and healthy but modestly rooted scots-pine followed suit.

I think I’ll just keep well away when the wind blows and think of all that warming firewood (but i’ll try not to think about the hole in the shed roof)!