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Birch vs Bracken

Thriving birches
One of the first birches, thriving in the bracken

It’s well worth reporting on the progress made by the trees I planted in 2010 at the back of the farm. This three acre enclosure has been rank with bracken for as long as I can remember, and it serves no real conservation purpose beyond providing the foxes with a handy bolt hole or two for their cubs in high summer. These holes go deep through a seam of massive boulders and provide the only situation where I’ve ever seen a terrier give up and come out again.

Until 2011, the sheep had full access to the area, meaning that any promising young rowan trees that had succeeded in punching a hole through the dense canopy of bracken were then ripped up and munched down by hungry sheep looking for something to eat before the grass rose. And when the grass did rise, the sheep went elsewhere to look for it, meaning that any help they could have lent by trampling the new year’s bracken growth was missed. This combination of seasonal overgrazing and undergrazing meant that aside from one or two extremely geriatric oak trees, the area was essentially barren of all life except thick, monstrously dense bracken which, at its peak, was difficult even to walk through.

As soon as I blocked off the lunkey and shut out the sheep, all kinds of trees started to show up. The old oaks spat out viable acorns which drew the jays and grew into promising young saplings. I put tree guards on several of these so that they wouldn’t be swamped by the bracken growth, and in the first year, I added fifty birches. Some of these tucked their roots into the ground with such startling enthusiasm that they had grown more than five feet in their first year. Several of the birches are now ten feet tall, and they have been bolstered by more recent plantings in subsequent years.

The tree guards have given the birches a protective start in life, but they have tended to mean that the trees have grown tall and spindly until they reach the bracken canopy, then bush out to catch the light (as in the photo above). By way of responding to this, I have removed the guards once the trees are tall enough to overlook the bracken canopy, and have been encouraged by the fact that the birches have started to shoot from further down. In time, I hope that these trees will suppress the bracken sufficiently to allow birch seedlings to establish, and while I imagine that there will always be bracken in this enclosure, I would be keen to see it in the context of a birchy little spinney.

I have experimented with spraying and crushing bracken in this area, but I have no interest in keeping this as open ground and the heather has long since vanished. The best option would be to hasten and facilitate its natural progression into a little wood, and while it is not in a good spot to encourage the blackgame, it may serve a purpose in the future. More immediately, I am excited by the fact that it has drawn in a roe doe this year, and some of my early attempts to plant were heavily frayed by a hormonal buck earlier in the spring. There were no deer in this area when I started planting, and I am always thrilled to find the roe responding to my handiwork. At the same time, woodcock are starting to use the wood by winter, and there are all kinds of future possibilities as the bracken slowly gives way to scrub.

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