Very satisfying to spend the afternoon visiting one of my little half-acre plantations which I scattered around some of the lower ground in 2010 and 2011. I’ve been trickling trees into these patches for the last five years and some of the first are now really getting away, with several aspens and birches well over fifteen feet tall. Ironically, one of the best birch trees was self-sown – I don’t know where it came from, but it has been racing far ahead of all competition for the last three years. I can no longer get both hands around the base of the stump, and the summit is now a stringy whip over twenty feet high.
I found extensive evidence that roe have been using my little woods, and a few of the aspens have been frayed into non-existence. I’m not bothered by this in the slightest – I want these trees to grow ragged and patchy, and I hope one day to establish a steady population of roe on the hill. As it is, the ubiquitous sheep deter most prospective roe, and any deer willing to explore the hill are usually mopped up by forestry stalkers on neighbouring ground who mistake annihilation for management and see march fences as no obstacle.
Long-term readers of this blog will remember my fixation with planting hedges a few years ago. This was partly to encourage grey partridges by lowland methods and also to find a way of introducing corridors over open ground to break up wide-open vistas and provide wildlife with some safety and cover. These hedges have all done really well, and while some plug hawthorn plants have grown to six feet tall, the bare-rooters have been superb slow-burners, creeping outwards into huge, straggling spiders which now stand at belt-buckle height. I also inherited a sack full of iris tubers and these have gone from strength to strength in the wetter areas – altogether, these little patches look much better than they did. Paying for their improvement ourselves without grants or funding also adds a fresh degree of freedom, experimentation and flexibility.
While all of this work was carried out to provide additional feeding and cover for black grouse, it’s important not to see the job as done. There is a school of thought which views little copses and spinneys as the very pinnacle of habitat work for black grouse. I’ve seen thousands of pounds spent on black grouse conservation over the past seven or eight years, and almost all of it has gone on planting native woodland, as if trees were the sole panacea for black grouse declines.
Having been brought up in one of the most staggeringly afforested counties in Britain, I am generally cynical about the value of planting trees for black grouse, particularly since this planting usually comes at the expense of open ground that is often a far more crucial habitat type. I’ve still never seen a conservation project where simply planting trees produced a sustainable improvement in black grouse numbers, and I don’t think I ever will. The small, experimental plantings on the Chayne are part of a wider approach which also balances the value of predator control and the management of open ground, farmland and moorland. Unfortunately, money and the impetus lies entirely with the tree-planters, and thousands of pounds will continue to pour into woodland creation when the answer is clearly so much more complex.