I arrived in London at 7am Thursday the 10th. The strong jet stream tail wind ushered us in a full hour early. It was a cool, grey, rainy day but it seemed like spring compared to the winter weather I'd just left behind in Vermont. After collecting my bag, passing through customs and immigration and orienting myself to my new surroundings, I climbed aboard a bus and headed towards the nearby London borough called Slough where I'd arranged to meet with entomologist Helen Read.
I learned about Helen's work through my friend Michael Blazewicz, a 2009 graduate of the Yale School of Forestry Master's Program. Actually, Michael connected me with a fellow student, Ashley DuVal who researched the ancient pollards in Spain's Basque country and had been in touch with Helen to assist in her project. Helen actually works for the City of London, managing the magnificent ancient pollards at Burnham Beeches.
Though her specialty is in invertebrates, Helen and others recognize the vital role that ancient trees play in providing habitat for diverse insect life and how critical it is to maintain the health and longevity of these all-too-often rare trees. As such, Helen earned a Churchill Fellowship several years ago to travel throughout Europe and research the management and maintenance of ancient pollards so they could better tend to the 500 year old plus beech pollards residing at Burnham Beeches.
The land comprising Burnham Beeches (220 hectares in size - 572 acres) was once the town common, owned by the Lord of the Manor, but accessible to villagers for grazing, crops, and woodland uses. Sounds like a pretty cool land use model, huh - even if it was embroiled within the feudal system. Access to the commons conveyed with residency in the community until residents were required to reassert their rights in the 1950s. Because few people were making real use of working landscapes at this time, this marked the end of many's claim to common lands - in the case of Burnham Beeches, no one registered their common rights, so in time, it was bought by the City of London and preserved as conservation green space that the public could access for recreation and education.
Recognizing the value of the ancient beech trees on the property, the staff soon learned that no one had the knowledge enabling them to restore their health and preserve them for future generations. With working trees (both coppice and pollards), their life span and overall health actually persists when they are actively managed. In the case of pollards, as the shoots grow in size, they can reach a point where their weight and balance are too much for the bolling (trunk) of the tree, eventually causing the tree severe damage as part of it collapses. When cut regularly (varies depending on the culture, species, etc but between 1-15 years typically - often 10-15 years in the UK for polewood) the crown puts on healthy, vigorous growth that the bolling can support. In the case of the beeches at Burnham Beeches, the trees had last been cut over 200!!! years ago. That's right - they'd stopped managing them 200 years ago. Thus, one can begin to imagine how top-heavy these giants eventually became and how difficult it might be to find someone with the expertise to help restore them to health.
Taking a step back - pollarding is a process analogous to coppicing except that it is done up off the ground, typically at a height (4-8') beyond the reach of grazing livestock. This practice confers numerous benefits as it enables for both pasture access and polewood or fodder production. In Europe they call this type of landscape wood pasture and it was often reserved for the most challenging landscapes where rocky, uneven soils made mowing and cultivation difficult if not impossible. In this case, trees would be spaced anywhere from 8-25 meters (25-80') from one another.
In many parts of the world, pollards were maintained to provide supplemental woody browse to livestock during the winter months and the one or two year old shoots were cut in late summer before leaf fall. After drying the leaf-bearing branches, they store them until they are fed to the livestock. This is actually still done in parts of Norway and Eastern Europe. In other cases, shoots are cut on much longer rotations and harvested for a range of polewood uses including fuel, crafts, construction, etc. These would be cut in the winter when the trees are dormant.
During Helen's research tour through Europe she found the Basque region in Spain, Norway and Romania to be the areas where pollarding continued to remain at least relatively intact. She has since gone on to develop a relationship with foresters in the Basque country where the British and Basques share their management traditions with each other and conduct experiments on ancient tree restoration, figuring out what strategies are most effective. Interestingly, they are literally 'inventing' a new craft - the restoration of ancient, out-of-rotation, working trees. This was never needed in the past as the trees remained in regular use. Thus, there's no textbook on the practice and ideological cross-pollination and collective research proves to be a powerful means of experimentation.
Though there is much to this restoration, generally speaking, it's best to restore these trees incrementally, cutting back a small section of the canopy each year as opposed to removing all of the aerial branches down to the original bolling. In some cases, they're cutting back the side shoots and tops of the main pollard stems with the intention of gradually reducing their length. In others, they leave a single primary branch or two to continue to work to draw up the sap from the roots and photosynthesize for the organism. At the same time, they're reducing the competition from shade tolerant woody and herbaceous plants that have begun battling for space and light during the interim since the trees were last managed. Holly and rhododendron prove to be some of the most persistent woody competitors.
And going beyond restoring ancient trees, they've also been working to establish new pollards within the woodlands at Burnham Beeches to ensure that there are replacement trees established to maintain continuity as the ancients inevitably 'senesce' and lose vigor. Younger trees are far more responsive to pollarding, down to as little as 2 years of age. They typically cut trees just above the first fork in the stem so there are branches from which the regrowth can emerge. To encourage vigorous regrowth, they've found that cutting again 2-3 years years after the preliminary cut, stimulates the trees and causes them to produce more at the time of first harvest.
I felt deeply enlightened and enriched by the time I spent with Helen. We shared lunch under the cover of an open-air cafe within the park and discussed visions for the application of these systems in the future. She firmly believes that people in Europe and beyond will come to readopt these practices as fossil energy sources dwindle and the need to intensify land use grows. They've been integrating a grazing herd into their operation at Burnham Beeches in recent years to cycle nutrients and make more effective use of the total resource available. We discussed this future economy and the current state in our respective countries and made some interesting connections between the recent collapse and the senescence of these unmanaged, ancient trees that have become so top heavy and overgrown that they can no longer support their own weight. Disturbance can be a good thing when it's well timed and consciously applied.
As we finished up our meal, Helen's friend and colleague Bill Cathcart, the land steward at Windsor Forest (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Windsor_Great_Park), came to pick me up and show me the property he helps manage. Little did I know that I was about to visit 'the Great Park' - a 5000 acre property that for over 700 years served as the private hunting grounds for Windsor Castle. Bill is a brilliant, unassuming, generous man with a love for his work and an eager willingness to share it. As we arrived at the property, I was reminded of the fact that the word 'forest' itself historically referred to a hunting ground, not a place of trees - that would be a woodland. Today a portion of Windsor Forest is home to a managed herd of over 700 'wild' deer. It also houses an immense managerial staff, some of whom live on the property.
As we traversed the grounds, I was astonished at the number of massive oak trees, many of them several hundred years old. These oaks were planted (some of them at the order of Queen Elizabeth I as early as 1580) for several purposes but often to supply the military with building material and fuel in times of war. The foresters managing the Crown Estate report that, 'Veteran oak and beech trees number more than 3,000. Their ages range from 300 to 1,000 years and include many pollards, remnants of former grazing regimes. An extensive deadwood habitat has evolved from these mature and over mature trees, resulting in a unique and internationally recognised ecosystem. There are more than 2,000 species of invertebrates and 1,000 species of fungi, many of which are rare or confined to Windsor.' (http://www.thecrownestate.co.uk/61_windsor_estate_forestry)
After exploring a portion of the property by car and stopping to look at some of the most magnificent trees imaginable including a 1300 year old oak, we retreated to Bill's office for tea and conversation. He shared some excellent resources on veteran tree management and there we were able to look at a large swath of the property via the aerial maps covering at least 40 square feet of wall space. Overseeing the management of 5000 acres of land? What a humbling role to take on!Warm and dry, we headed back out to explore a magical piece of wood pasture with the remaining hour or so of light. Peppered with ancient trees, some of them pollards that appeared to have been cut at a height of 12-15' feet (perhaps to provide a tree-stand like perch from which to hunt deer), as well as middle aged and young ones, I was reminded of the insight I'd recently gained from reading Oliver Rackham's Trees and Woodland in the British Landscape. Rackham points out that the human life span is far too short to truly comprehend the life of a tree. In forestry, we're typically only concerned with the first phase of a tree's life, when it is most productive and useful as a wood 'factory'. But as the anonymous quote I later found in one of the informational pamphlets Bill gave me reminds us, 'An oak tree grows for 300 years, rests for 300 years and spends the next 300 years gracefully declining.'This reminder absolutely helps to place our work in real time today. As we embark on a journey to develop coppice systems in a culture where they're unknown, we take part in a longstanding continuum that will continue to grow long beyond our own lives. In places where they've inherited this legacy of working trees, it's essential that they continue to raise the next generation to take the place of their ancient inheritance. In places where our inheritance was cashed in long ago, the return on our investment may stretch beyond the scope of our lives, but the journey will undeniably pay for itself. (And we'll definitely 'obtain a yield' in the meantime - just probably not what our children and grandchildren will if their continue the legacy.)Bill drove me back to the Slough train station where I caught the next service to Taunton, Somerset. I arrived at 9pm and traversed the town in search of a hotel. My first four tries unbelievably turned up nothing (three were full, then $125 a night) but finally I found a place that was reasonable enough. I checked in, caught up on communications and got a night's rest, preparing for my visit to the Coates willow coppice enterprise in Stoke St. Gregory. Day one complete.
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