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Friday, 30 October 2015

Woodland Management in Riddy Wood; before and after

Here are some before and after shots of the coup I was working on in Riddy Wood this week;
We originally cleared this area to re-open an old access point to Riddy Wood and to provide a bench and an area for people walking their dogs to rest or just to sit and enjoy the scenery.  
That's the finished picnic area and you'll notice the thick growth of elm trees behind it.
You'll notice a bit of a change, the bench hasn't moved at all and that thick growth of elm is gone, it may look a bit extreme and almost seem like  deforestation or that we have damaged the habitat but I will post pictures next year and you will see a remarkable change, there will be massive growth from each of the 'stools' or stumps. The trees that are left are known as 'standards' or have been left to become standards and may be removed later or allowed to become veteran trees.  The new growth will be allowed to grow on rotation and probably be cut again in about ten or twelve years time. This method of management has another advantage of preventing the elm trees getting to a size where they will become susceptible to Dutch elms disease. 

This is a panoramic picture of the coup I was working on, the new track into the wood that was cleared earlier in the year can be seen on the left and the original bench on the right.  

This coppicing produced plenty of timber ready for sale these are just a few of the stacks of timber that I produced this week.. There is still brash to remove from the coup which will be turned into dead hedges, allowed to dry before being tied into faggots for use on the camp fire or chipped. This single coup probably amounts to about two thirds of an acre we will be coppicing several more coups this winter. We will hopefully see the benefits not only in the health and productivity of the woodland in general but all the new dead-hedges will provide nesting habitat for small birds and the now open canopy will let light into the woodland floor and promote the growth of wild flowers. 

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Woodland management in Riddy Wood day 3

I have almost finished coppicing the coup I was planning on doing, everything is felled that needs to be I just need to drag a bit of brash and stack some more timber and it will be done. 

The weather has been horrible most of the day, it started raining a little last night but by this morning it was really pelting down and it didn't let up until about one o'clock, after that it was nice but by then my chainsaĆ” trousers, gloves and everything was soaking.

So while I cooked dinner this evening I made the most of the warmth and dried some of my kit as well.

The warmth from the stove while my eggs cooked dried out my trousers and boots too. 

I made an interesting discovery this evening, a squirrel has made it's winter stash in one of the beds in the main camp at Riddy Wood, the beds are made of two simple A-frame's with poles attached on either side with a tube of fabric in between, this gives a nice dry, warm sleeping platform off the cold hard ground, but one of the ones that hasn't been used for a while had this in it under the carry mat that was laying on top;

So the squirrel will be disappointed when he comes back for his acorns, and if he times his return really badly, he'll become dinner himself.

More tomorrow


Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Woodland management in Riddy Wood, day 2

It has just St started raining after a beautiful day so I have retired to bed in Riddy Wood. I can still see the flickering of  the camp fire from my shelter and am planning an early night after a hard days work. 

I have been coppicing elm today and it has been really fun, often in Riddy Wood the felling is a pain because, as it hasn't been managed for so long and is in many ways derelict there is often a lot of tangled blackthorn to get through or trees with rotten tops that threaten to drop limbs on you as you work on them at ground level but this elm has been lovely. It's mostly tall and strait with not too much brash at the top so felling and cross cutting it is fairly strait forward. 

A Robin has been following me around all day as I've been working which is nice and I've seen green and greater spotted woodpeckers, coal tits, great tits, wrens, kestrels, grey partridges, pheasants, buzzard and raven.

I've also coppiced some spindle today, spindle gets it's amen from the fact that it's wood has in the past been used to make... Yes you guessed it, spindles. It's incredibly hard and has also found use a ox goads, tooth pics and skewers. In the states it's sometimes known as burning bush due to the bright seeds making it look as if it's on fire.

The seeds are poisonous, in extreme cases potentially fatal but this is unlikely. I'll be experimenting with the wood for some whittling and carving projects but may also use some of the smaller stems to make some charcoal pencils.

More tomorrow 


Monday, 26 October 2015

Woodland Management in Riddy Wood

I arrived at Riddy Wood to do the first lot of this winters coppicing earlier today, it was a beautiful day when I arrived and I hadn't been here since the leaves started to change into their autumn colours. 

The field maple and blackthorn were bright gold, there were bright red patches where the dog roses were laden with rose hips (a foragers diary post will be coming soon with a recipe for a Swedish dish 'Nippon soppa' or rose hip soup) here and there the bright pink of the spindle and the blue/purple of the sloes. From amongst them the larger trees protruded, oaks still holding onto their leaves, some still green, others beginning to turn, ashes already naked. 

I'm sitting here now listening to the nocturnal rustlings, calls, chirps and whirs and will be 'live blogging' from Riddy wood the whole time I'm here. Since it has grown dark I have heard, tawny owls, barn owls, little owls, the whir of bats wings, a tiptoeing fox, a barking muntjac and right this second I can hear a pheasant adjusting his position in the wild service tree where he is roosting. 

I have made use of the hours of darkness since putting away the chainsaws by bundling up some pea sticks which we will be selling to fund the programmes of environmental education that we will be offering here at Riddy Wood and at the other sites we manage. 

The moon is just about to clear the top of an ash tree which is between it and camp and I'll be able to turn off the lanterns in camp soon, it probably won't quite be light enough to sharpen the saws without a torch though. 

Yes we do use chainsaws at Riddy Wood, and I'm not afraid to admit it, as nice as it would be to make more use of traditional tools the time we currently have to dedicate to the project demands the use of modern tools and there would be no way we could achieve what we need to without them. You will soon see some blog posts on old tools though and maybe if you come on one of the woodland management courses we will be hosting you will get a chance to use some old two person cross cut saws and other more traditional woodland management tools.

Tomorrow I will be getting stuck into the next coppice 'coup' and will be felling mostly small elm trees, we are lucky here to have a healthy population of elm and hope that by keeping it in rotation as coppice we will be able to save it from Dutch elms disease. 

There was a large ash tree down in the woods when I arrived today, one that we were always going to have to fell anyway but it has saved us the job, if I have time while I'm here I will clear it up, but for now it can't fall any further so it will have to wait until the coppicing is done. There is a fairly brief window each year for coppicing, many say that you can only coppice in the months with and 'r' in, I would go a step further and suggest that September is too early and April is too late and the end of March could be pushing it too. The idea is to coppice trees while the sap is 'down' ie; over winter, this can only be done with hard wood trees and this promotes healthy growth, often characterised by strait multi stem growth the following year. These trees are then kept in rotation and cut every few years depending on the desired product, have a look at my article in The Bushcraft Magazine's Summer issue titled 'Interpreting Lowland Woodland' for more information about some traditional uses of coppiced wood.

Join me again tomorrow for another live blog from Riddy Wood.


Friday, 16 October 2015

A colourful Autumn walk... or two (Part 1)

I love getting out and about, but these days my excursions are rarely long or planned in advance. My little girl is a frequent companion which tends to mean when I want to stop she is 300 yards ahead chasing a squirrel, and when I want to make up some distance she is 50 yards behind dropping pebbles in puddles. Nothing wrong with either of these things, it just means my walks for the last year or two have generally had a different focus, i.e. not losing a daughter.

Recently though my little girl started school. Fortuitously, spitting distance north of her school is a country park with a stunning mixture of heathland, woodland, grassland and reclaimed quarry. Spitting distance south of her school is a few acres of ancient woodland sandwiched in between two residential streets. Finally, a further minor detour south, but still between school and home is a local nature reserve again with a mixture of woodland and grassland. 
Suffice it to say that detours have been frequent! 

In addition with her at school I have had an opportunity to get out and about a bit in between bits and pieces of work, or indeed to DO bits and pieces of work. Below are just a few of the photo's I have taken on these various, short trips out and about. Autumn really is such a beautiful season, the combination of colours, warm days, crisp mornings, fruits in the trees and animal activity is just fascinating! We really are lucky in the UK to have such well differentiated seasons: I spent two years in the tropics as a slightly younger man where the seasons are wet or dry, which just means it either rains every day, or it doesn't. I missed the seasonality of British weather, especially the smell of autumn mornings and the colours of Autumn. 

Hope you enjoy the pictures - there will be more to come - along with a mini commentary of what I have been getting up to out of doors so far this Autumn. 

I stole away to a relatively local nature reserve with no public access to give a friend of mine who works for the conservation charity which manage it a hand with some water level monitoring. When explained like that it doesn't sound too fun, but this reserve is a ancient and awesome area which is one of a few remaining examples of a very specific wetland landscape.

Among the rare species it supports are these sundews (not sure what species) which is a carnivorous plant, it gains sustenance from invertebrates which land on it and are held by the beads of sticky liquid exuded by the plant. The sundew then closes up on it and dissolves it down for energy. It is a tiny plant and yet, when visiting a different site with a similar flora I found the remains of a Black Darter Dragonfly (admittedly a small dragonfly species) on one of these! Another fun and rare plant we found was wild cranberry, which, being in season, I helped myself to and very tasty they were!

Aren't Fungi an interesting addition to Autumn? While mushroom foraging is very much Geoff's area of expertise and I tend not to trust myself collecting them ( I will learn one day, because I enjoy eating them!) they do add a certain visual distraction to autumn. I know certain examples can be seen all year round but the profusion at this time of year is great!

This is one from Riddy Wood. I didn't take many photo's on this particular trip - partly because it was pouring with rain for a large chunk of my visit and partly because I was very busy. But this injured hornet (dodgy wing) had taken residence in our outdoor classroom and as it couldn't fly, I was able to get pretty close. They really are beautiful creatures and its only really close up that you can appreciate just how complex they are, but that can perhaps wait for a separate blog article.

On a different note this one somehow managed to make its way INSIDE my chainsaw glove during a lunch break despite my best efforts to put them out of reach! This was a shock (understatement) and I'm afraid to say it didn't survive the encounter. 

You know those times when you just happen across a scene and wish you had a camera - well this time I had a camera. This was on one of my detours from the school run. These shafts of light were just poking through a still very dense early autumn canopy and lighting up the forest floor beautifully!

Ironically this also highlights (pun intended) an issue with unmanaged woodland. Although this is a local nature reserve there is nothing in the way of habitat management that takes place. This woodland used to be coppiced, its obvious from the profusion of multi-stemmed trees throughout the woodland as well as some of the local street names - Coppice Grove is a bit of a give away! But now the canopy is closed and very dense. In some parts of the wood there are still some really nice bluebells, but I bet once upon a time there would have been many more woodland flowers and in far higher quantities, but... until the council prioritise outdoor spaces above whatever it is they spend money on, this area and many others will decline and lose the diversity they offer to city dwellers.

Colours - Wow! Again a detour home, worth the extra 5 minutes walk... except on this occasion there was so much to distract me the detour was actually more like an additional 45 mins (it should only take 15!)

My most recent outing, an early morning trip down to Cannock Chase to catch some of the Fallow Deer rut - again the colours were stunning, the sunrise light setting it all off perfectly and while I didn't see any actual fighting from the bucks, I did see, and hear, several roaring. I am hoping to make another trip in the next week or two to take some more footage which will hopefully then make it onto this site as one of the vlogs we are hoping to have ready soon.

As a taste of what you might see I dropped in a picture of a spectacular melanistic Fallow buck I saw while I was there.
Get out there and enjoy Autumn whether it's a family wander in the woods or alongside a river, or an extended bushcraft camp out, make the most of it and share your pictures with us!


Tuesday, 13 October 2015

From the high seat

This week, it's more like to and from the high seat but what a journey it was.

It was worth getting up at 04-45 just to see the stars, the sky was inky black and the  stars were beautiful, Orion was just East of South and The Dipper was just East of North, the Moon and Mars, I think, were clearly visible as I set off.
As soon as I arrived at the farm I was out of the car in a jif to watch the stars and listen to the world waking up, a Chinese Water Deer (CWD) didn't waste any time in barking his objection to my presence, others joined in too but even with binoculars in the gathering light, it was impossible to see any detail at all, just a dark shape contrasted against a slightly lighter background.

As the light gathered, the stars were overpowered and soon only the moon and planets were visible and as deer became visible my attention was focused at ground level not in the sky. CWD are still out of season but every visit now is geared to preparation for that great day, checking how many and where we can encounter these fellows on the 7th of November, our first outing of the season.

A very brief excursion revealed only CWD, no Muntjac for the freezer today and besides, I had a primary objective which was to find my glasses which I think I lost while trimming trees around one of our high seats last Tuesday evening, the light that evening had really dropped below a level that made sense for this kind of task but when you have little spare time, you have to use it as best you can.

So off I went to retrace my steps of the journey where I think I lost my glasses but as the sun and temperature rose just a little bit, the frost turned to dew and the dew to mist which came and went like a giants breath over the fields. Every piece of vegetation seemed to have a cobweb on it and every cobweb loaded with dew to diffuse the low sun, it was a picture hard for any artist to capture or poet to describe, every droplet like a jewel, it was magnificent! And as for the glasses, they remain in a location unknown, who knows if they will ever show up but the morning outing was superb, the weather, the location and the constantly varying array of wildlife a joy to me. I saw in excess of 20 CWD , Reed Buntings, Buzzards, Kestrels, Long Tailed Tits and more ducks and swans than I could count, an ever present cloud of Pigeons and an increasingly large group of Lapwings which appear to be making a bit of a come back in recent years. Every one of these were welcome companions on my journey and each added to its variety and wonder, I never tire of seeing these things and hope I never will.

In just 4 weeks, we will be on high alert, watching every movement as the light gathers to reveal our options on our first outing of Chinese water deer season, today I have seen singles and groups of three in places I have not seen them before. These sightings and all out of season reconnaissance will dictate where we sit on that day, twigs trimmed, seats checked, everything in place but the most important thing will be to enjoy the day irrespective of success or failure, there is always something to see and there is always another day and another reason to get out in the fresh air, don't take my word for it, come and see for yourself!


Wednesday, 7 October 2015

From the High Seat, Good to Share!

My very first and fond memories of the outdoors, was as an ornithologist. Home had moved from the suburbs to a quite isolated farm house with a few acres around it, woodland around that and Romney Marsh not far away.

The Royal Military Canal, Romney Marsh, Kent - - 41644
A view of the Royal Military Canal running through the Romney Marsh
Ron Strutt [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Life felt safer then, we would ride for miles on our bikes, be gone for half a day or more, no high viz, no hard hat and no mobile phone. We would ride, stop and pick black berries, watch the birds along the Royal Military Canal and come home tired to watch the black and white TV and read a book. 

Home computers, internet and the like had not yet become the widespread distraction they are today, not for us the X-box and Game Boy, for us we had books to read and if we had more energy to burn, the woodshed and the splitting axe would provide an outlet for it, no gym, no jogging and no personal trainer. The woods, trees and garden were our training ground, hedges to be cut, vegetables to be carted, ditches to be dug, gates to be hung. Working around edged tools and being able to put in a fence post were all part of our extra curricula activities from which we benefited greatly. All of these activities and a score of others all contributed to my love of the outdoors, drove me to the high seat instead of the games console and had me reaching for the binoculars instead of the I-phone.

Maybe that has set the scene as to why I love to share the high seats and the trees they stand against.
Being able to sit still is a great skill to practice and if you need to move being able to do it slowly, smoothly and quietly, will provide you with viewing opportunities aplenty.

If you love the outdoors and wildlife generally, you won't mind what it is that comes to share your space, be it the tree itself or the ground beneath it. I have watched just about every British mammal from a high seat at one time or another, shrill Shrews, wiley Weasels and bumbling Badgers to name but a few. My real favourites though are the birds who share the branches and fill the air with tweets and song, Robins and Blackbirds, Wrens and Long Tailed Tits all give me a smile but my absolute favourites are the Wood Peckers and birds that use the trunk as their hunting ground. Unless you are incredibly lucky, your most likely sightings are the Green Woodpecker, the Great Spotted Woodpecker, the Tree Creeper and the Nuthatch in that order of likelihood.

The Green is the largest with a striking green plumage (surprise surprise) but also yellow parts and a red head in mature birds and a beautiful bird in every respect. Despite it's name, these are often seen on the ground as well, where they spend a lot of time hunting for ants but also in trees of course, often hanging on to impossibly thin branches.

Green Woodpecker
The Great Spotted is again a pretty bird which is predominantly  black and white but with striking red patches on rump and head. It was one of these which ascended the tree behind me one day as I sat in a high seat deep in a bluebell wood, lovely to see and hear though on this occasion I only heard it. You may not have to take to the woods to see this handsome fellow, if you have a bird table and feeder, he may come to you in a modest garden.

The magnificent Tree Creeper plays a wonderful game of hide and seek as it goes up, down and around the trunk of a tree with it's superbly camouflaged back in stark contrast to its Snow White belly transitioning from highly visible to "where'd he go?" A dainty down turned beak ideal for taking grubs, forcep like, from the bark.

Last but by no means least is the pretty Nuthatch, with it's slate grey back and orange belly with a stout beak, much more like a true woodpecker. Once again you might see it in a garden with a feeder but it's real party piece is that they go up a tree facing up and down facing down. I guess that you can do that if you don't have to worry about stuff falling out of your pockets! They are all a well dressed class act and I love to see them all, I'd share my tree with any of them very willingly. Good to share!

A nuthatch


Monday, 5 October 2015

From The High Seat - Not!

A high seat to a stalker is like a telephoto lens to a photographer, it's a great tool for some applications but you don't want it all the time. The following is an account of a stalk with an experienced deer stalker who had never seen Chinese Water Deer before, my job therefore was to get him close enough to see, identify and harvest one.

On arrival, we just trickle along the tracks in the dark, just on side lights, we don't want the headlights cutting through the dark to announce our presence. At our parking place the lights are off and every word is in hushed tones, the doors are opened and closed very gently, no slamming, no speaking unless absolutely necessary. As we set out from the car we flushed our first CWD, heard but never seen, then a minute later we saw a Muntjac and not yet 100 yards from the car, it could be a reasonable morning, the Muntjac was then flushed by our CWD and we headed off in the gathering light to see what else we could find.

We hadn't covered 400 yards before we had seen another half a dozen CWD and a distant Roe, so all three resident species spotted within the first 30 minutes of daylight, looking good!
We followed our planned route based on wind direction and about half a mile in to our route we rounded a corner to see a little yearling buck about 140 yards away and quite oblivious to our presence. I set up the shooting sticks for my companion to rest his rifle on and having verified safety, the shot was taken.

As we carried him out on a circuitous route back to the car, I spotted a CWD in a typical 'hide and seek' mode, where a head pops up out of the weeds, ears extended and makes a quick swivel before descending back in to the weeds. It took a few 'shows' to explain to my colleague where to look and exactly what he was looking for. It was a quite a difference to his previous experience and he was happy to take a seat in the sun while I made a stealthy and circuitous approach to an already wary animal.

CWD in hide and seek mode

My route took me back the way we'd come, under a hedge in to a wood, through the wood then out the other side in to a ditch. I crawled 'worm style' across some open ground and in to another ditch, whilst I was going through this assault course, my CWD had gained a 'lookout' a big buck laying in an open field a bit further away and just watched me, barking periodically to let me know he could see me!
After paddling down the ditch for a while, I was now obliged to get back out on the other side and do some more 'worm style' approach to a point where I thought I could not risk getting closer without flushing at least one of them. I could see both my original objective at 65 yards and the 'lookout' at about 120 yards distance. This is when it pays to know your quarry and their likely reactions on hearing a shot. I planned to take the lookout first then make ready in very short order, to take the original one as it stood up to see what the commotion was about. If I took them the other way around the lookout would take off in 'launch mode' and be out of sight before he stopped running.

I checked that I could swing from the first to the second target without moving my body at all and made a little adjustment. Safety checked and plan executed, the lookout rolled over dead where he lay and as the doe stood, she also laid back down again in exactly the spot she had laid in previously, all over in seconds.

One of those occasions when you get two deer in your sights at the same time. 
The jeans may not be the best camouflage but it's too late for these deer and now that they have stepped down into the ditch there is a perfect backstop.  

A busy and successful morning had arrived at  a different stage now and after preparations and ruck sack loading, we were headed for the car and home, where meat processing could begin. A lovely morning, great company and time well and productively spent. This is part sport, part harvest and part countryside management, I feel privileged to be a part of it, to share it and teach others about it. Come and join us one day and experience what we do at first hand.


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