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  • Writer's pictureAlistair

338 reasons why natural regen beats planting trees ...

I told a lot of people that I was planting 400 trees over Christmas.  That was a lie on a number of counts.  Firstly, it turns out there were only 338 pots.  Secondly, they did not actually all contain trees, some were distinctly shrub like.  And finally, the idea of getting them all planted over Christmas was delusional. 

 

I could blame Rob, the ecologist who’s praises I normally can’t sing loudly enough.  Or Storm Gerrit, which has lashed this bit of Wales for the last couple of days.  But of course, it is mainly down to my own stupidity.  Ably assisted by the Galloways who decided to demolish a gate.  More of that later.

 

Lousy forecast on morning of 27th and resulting flooded supermarket carpark in Lampeter that night

But first, let’s back up.  Towards the end of November, Rob Parry, founder of the amazing Initiative for Nature Conservation Cymru (that was a loud, but badly sung, ditty of praise), came to Cefn Garthenor with Vaughn, another INCC ecologist who has done a great deal of work on the project.  The idea was to come up with a bit of a plan for the next couple of years.

 

Part of me bristles at this.  Isn’t the idea of rewilding to let nature take the lead, allowing me to sit back and watch?  Well, yes, kind of.  It works well where nature still has a grip on the land.  Fortunately for me, 80% of Cefn Garthenor was pretty lightly farmed.  Turn your back for a minute and a water vole has moved in and an oak tree has sprouted.  Add a small number of Galloway cattle and a couple Tamworth pigs to stir the pot and pretty quickly something good is cooking.  So, why meddle with what is working?

 

Well, 20% of the land, mainly the top fields by the house, would be termed “semi-improved” by an agricultural agent.  That means a real farmer would not be too displeased with them.  Hedges, rye grass and not much else.  If it weren’t for the odd buttercup, they would, perhaps, be considered “improved”.  Over the last 2 ½ years I have done my best to “unimprove” these fields.  I have not had the hedges cut, I have removed nutrition by harvesting the hay while adding no fertiliser, and I have not cut near the hedges to allow trees and hedging plants to move into the field.  I have added wildflower seed to some fields.

 

All of this is having an impact.  Blackthorn (with all its thorns and bitter black berries for sloe gin), in particular, is moving into the field margins and there is a bigger variety of non-grass species in the fields themselves.  However, I guess because there is not yet a critical mass of diverse species, progress is slower than I’d like.  I’m getting older and this is in part a selfish project.  There are around 14 of these semi-improved fields and Rob rightly felt that perhaps we should try something beyond the wildflower meadow idea which, as per a previous post, is happening in a number of fields.  So, for two of the larger fields on the boundary of Cefn Garthenor we agreed that it would be nice to create more of a woodland / scrub pasture.  The idea was to plant trees and shrubs to reduce the naked grass cover and create a much richer habitat for nature as well as a place for the Galloways to graze.  Sounds idyllic. 

 

Rob's plan for two of the fields in the semi-improved top block

Creating idyllic is not, as it turns out, for the idle.  By 5 December Rob had made his suggestions and on 11 December the trees and shrubs were ordered from Celtic Wildflowers (a nursery based nearby www.celticwildflowers.co.uk).  There is a list of species at the end of this post.  On the 18th of December we were unloading pots from the back of a van.  On the 21st Rob and Vaughn laid out one field, a euphemism for randomly scattering pots in an arc shape.  No digging involved.  You can now identify the point at which, with the benefit of hindsight, my enthusiasm turned bitter.

 

338 pots ... doesn't look very impressive here, but trust me ...

Just before Christmas I managed to get 22 Alder Buckthorn planted.  Not a helpful name as it is not related to the Alder and has no thorns, but great for bees and other insects, including the brimstone butterfly, as well as the birds, and loves wet ground.  One pleasing aspect of my decision to plant one species at a time (partly to make it easier to lay the other field out in a way which would not annoy Rob) is that actually I can identify what I have planted pretty well.  Trust me, when you’ve planted 50 Alder Buckthorns consecutively you will never mistake it for a Crab Apple.  Hmmm, perhaps too early to see if my tree ID have really sunk in or if this was the equivalent of cramming for an exam.

 

Plant ID 101: L to R; alder buckthorn, crab apple and field maple

Driving back to Wales from London on boxing day I was feeling confident. Yes, a storm was due, but my waterproofs are good.  Daylight hours are limited at this time of year, but with sun up at just after 8am and, despite sunset just after 4pm, there is light until 5pm ish.  Delusional.

 

The weather has been grim.  But the waterproofs were good (I recommend Austrian army surplus Gortex coats; cheap, indestructible, with huge pockets and totally waterproof).  The clay soil has been particularly wet and heavy, in places the water level meant that any hole became a small pond instantly.  When pot bound, cutting the pots around the roots is a bit of a pain.  Then you need to tease the roots out so they grow in all directions, rather than continuing to circle like a goldfish used to a small round bowl.  The end result was 6 x 10L pots planted an hour when it was going well.  Much slower when I was up a ladder nailing down a bit of corrugated iron which felt inclined to disengage from the barn roof or fixing a gate which the Galloways had decided to test to destruction.  Stuff keeps getting in the way. 


A line up of guilty looking Galloways eyeing up my embarrassingly shoddy repair job to the gate they had earlier flattened, and doubtless will again as soon as a turn my back ... "it was her", "I was only scratching my back", "I barely touched it"

Three days in, as I write, and I’ve only managed just over 100 trees.  Hopefully, as I move to smaller plants (I started with species which were already bigger so I could see the structure) things will speed up.

 


And there is upside.  Not much bird life out in the stormy weather, except the rooks which were having a whale of a time.  Riding the gusts of wind just because.  They may account for my slow planting rate.  And the colours are amazing … those dark brooding skies, the green of grass and the ivy on the otherwise naked trees and the hedges looking maroon and purple.  And as soon as the rain (or hail today) stopped, then the red kites and buzzards were back, groups of starlings are beginning to form, everything looking for a meal.  Very beautiful.

 

a break in the weather

I’m sure that the end result will be good.  We’ve picked species that are historically native to the area but which I don’t have many (if any) of and which are particularly good for nature.  But I am very grateful that it is only 338 and not 400 and more importantly that natural regeneration on a much, much bigger scale, is pushing up trees all over the rest of Cefn Garthenor with no human intervention.  Call me lazy …

 

The list:

 

Alder Buckthorn x 55

Purging Buckthorn x 25

Field Maple x 12

Crab Apple x 30

Wild Cherry x 5

Bird Cherry x 11

Bay-leaved Willow x 25

Dogwood x 51

Dog-rose x 10

Elder x 39

Spindle x 30

Broom x 30

Wild Gooseberry x 19

 

I’m pretty sure that adds up to 342.  I’m sending 4 back!


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