Thinking of bracken (as I often do), it’s been interesting to revisit some of the new woods which I began planting almost a decade ago. One of these was on a three acre outcrop of stone and bracken, bounded by a tall dyke. Lunkeys in this dyke allowed the sheep to come and go as they pleased, and they were helping themselves to any grass or fresh young trees which dared to emerge from the undergrowth. I found several oak saplings which had been munched away into besoms by sheep, and my prevailing impression was simply that this place had died many years ago; all signs of life were absent. Aside from a beautifully hidden fox earth in a slip of scree, the enclosure had very little to show for itself.
I started planting birches here in the spring of 2010. I blocked off the lunkeys to keep the sheep out, then followed this initial push with further instalments of other species in subsequent years. This was heavy going at first; the bracken rose so tall that many of my trees were lost and smothered by the summer growth when it came. Experiments with juniper and hawthorn were a disaster because neither were able to rise fast enough to hold their own.
Birches did reasonably well (one of the original trees is now twenty five feet tall), but the real heroes have been rowans. Perhaps they went in on a good year, but many rose from eighteen inch whips to well over four feet in height during their first summer. This allowed them to stand above the tidal blast of bracken, and while others were buried in the darkness, the rowans held their leaves high up on their heads like people escaping a flood. In terms of tallness, they’ve never again done so well as they did in that first year, but much of their work now goes into consolidating their initial gains. They thicken and broaden, expanding their branches over the bracken; turning the tables and shading out the shader.
Elsewhere in the enclosure, oak saplings have achieved the same victory over the bracken – despite a reputation for slow growth, oak trees seem to vault out of the ground with extraordinary enthusiasm in their early years. The bracken is nonplussed by this reversal. It recedes from around the rowans and slinks away in search of something smaller to bully. There will always be bracken in this enclosure, but it is surely a good thing to break up the monotonous sterility which used to be the status quo.
There comes a point when trees reach a critical mass and begin to occupy a space; that’s how you know that your planting work has been successful. I’m told that greyhens have been seen picking at rowan berries in this wood, and that observation repays the effort and investment of this work. After ten years, the empty bracken enclosure can now be described as a young wood, and I suppose that’s something to be pleased about.