Trees and Sleet

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Alders (invisible) planted alongside downy birches in tree guards

Between curtains of sleeting, miserable snow, I spent an hour this afternoon sticking in some new alder trees to a particularly wet wood that I have been curating for woodcock and blackgame on the Chayne. Strategy in this area redefines the meaning of “low density planting”, and I’ve concentrated (with help) on creating scattered patches of twelve and fifteen trees across an eight acre bog of molinia grass, heather and the ubiquitous self-sown sitka spruce.

This spruce is potentially problematic in the longer term if left unchecked, so I have a policy of cutting down any sitka which grows more than ten feet tall. I try to make my cut as high off the ground as possible so that the tree does not die but is instead allowed to re-establish itself as a shrub – in that way I can preserve their structural value, creating a kind of mid-tier canopy which is reminiscent of juniper. There is little nutritional value in these trees, but I do sometimes find black grouse shit under them to suggest that they have at least provided shelter on a wild night.

I planted this patch with some downy birch three years ago and have been rather unimpressed with their progress to date. Many have made it over the tops of their tree guards, but none are showing the initiative of silver birches I planted on better ground elsewhere. I felt that the tree guards were worth the initial investment to protect them from browsing deer, but in reality the only damage has has come from bucks fraying one or two trees here and there. Roe are just beginning to colonise this space, so the guards remain as a safeguard against a problem that is not yet fully upon us.

Of all the many hundreds of trees I have planted over the last few years, alders have been the real champions. They thrive in any condition, grow at an impressive rate and are relatively (if not totally) deer-proof. Provided they aren’t squeezed into tree guards, they tend to produce a thick, low-set tree which provides superb cover for blackgame and woodcock, and I am always impressed to see how quickly they reach seed-bearing maturity. I can hardly rate them highly enough, although it remains to see what value (if any) they will have as firewood. Probably none.

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