Thistle wood, County Durham
by Max Adams
Thistle wood was planted in 2103, as part of a Woodland Creation Grant scheme, on former sheep and cattle pasture. The plot is about 8 acres (3.2ha), consisting of a 400m long rectangular strip that flanks the Derwent walk former railway line on the east side of the Derwent valley, at about 550ft OD. A single vehicle access point exists at the north-west corner. The remnant maintenance payments – about £450 per year – of the woodland creation grant were transferred into my name when I bought it a year and a half after planting.
The plot was planted with native trees: predominantly pedunculate oak with, in descending order, wild cherry, alder (along two shallow denes drained by subsoil clay pipes), field maple, rowan and silver birch. The trees were apparently notch planted and protected by rabbit spirals supported by bamboo canes. The east edge of the plantation was defined by a partially grown-out hawthorn and mixed species hedge with substantial gaps. The south end was fenced by a neighbour grazing horses on the adjacent plantation (which, as of 2020, has few surviving trees). The north end, abutting Whinny lane (a very rough but public county road used for agricultural traffic and by walkers), was defined by a sandstone drystone wall of about 1.2m height, partially fallen. The west side was fenced by post and rail with a strand of barbed wire, also partially fallen.
When I purchased the plot in late summer 2014 about 80% of the trees had been heavily browsed by deer; perhaps 15% had died; many had been blown over. Partial rides or access tracks existed along the west edge, where a water main runs inside the fence; and along the N edge where a mains sewer runs.
I have kept a detailed diary of all works carried out on the plantation, together with observations on tree development, wildlife and ideas about future management. I have been able to track and record the first time that each species has produced flowers and seeds; their speed of growth; their experience during the drought of 2018 and their response to the hard winter of 2017-18. In the long term this will become a valuable archive of the development of a woodland after its conversion from pasture.
Current inhabitants of, or visitors to the wood, include a brown hare, a pair of foxes; a breeding pair of kestrels; a breeding pair of grouse. Red kites, curlews, tawny owls, short-eared owls, barn owls, swallows, skylarks, curlews, lapwings, pheasants and a range of hedgerow birds are frequent visitors. Hedgerow trees, the rowans and meadow flowers, and the creeping and spear thistles that give the plantation its name, provide pollen and good cover for rodents. No chemicals are used. A small pond was established against the east edge in 2018, where a natural field run off empties into a hollo about 4m across. A small number of native plants were introduced here, including loosestrife, water forget-me-not, watermint and water avens. The pond now has a thriving population of frogs, snails, insects and many bird and mammal visitors. A camera trap has recorded the visitors.
The Derwent valley, which runs northeast from the Pennine hills towards Newcastle, where it joins the River Tyne, is the most wooded area of a sparsely wooded Northeast landscape. The productivity of the Thistle Wood site is constrained by a northwest facing aspect, exposure to wind and by altitude; but it also sits in the context of a woodland corridor provided by the Derwent walk and a neighbouring plantation to the east (much neglected but recently, as of Spring 2019, under new, sympathetic management).
Three short (80-100m) lengths of south-facing rides provide opportunities for edge management. Two veteran ash trees (one within the plot at the north edge; one at the centre of the west edge) provide adventitious seedlings. The east to west slope is, for the most part, gentle. Two shallow denes remain relatively damper than the rest of the plot, which shows evident signs of having been horse-ploughed, probably in the 19th century, and systematically drained. The mix of native trees as established at planting has some advantages, especially the SW compartment that contains field maple and rowan; but the predominant species is oak and while this is a useful timber and canopy tree, it grows slowly to begin with and will eventually shade out ground flora and competition. The addition of a number of Scots pines, hazel and silver birch by the present owner gives a more balanced mix of colonisers and climax trees, adds ecological variety and offers more short rotation coppicing opportunities. With hindsight it is clear that a shelter belt of fast growing, dense-foliage trees should have been established on the windward edges of the plot: wind exposure is the single biggest inhibitor of growth on the young trees.
The underlying principle of the Thistle wood vision is that it should be productive (of firewood, fruit, nuts, fencing materials, honey and coppice products), manageable and highly biodiverse; and it should provide a magical space, with a mixed age structure. It should be maintained as both an ecological and educational resource. Its location and visibility give it a landscape value above and beyond its modest size. Multiple winding rides will offer both easy extraction and management access and a strong sense of enlarged internal space, with varying views and high impact trees (Scots pines; holly; rowans) where rides meet. South facing rides will be edge-managed and expanded, with an added mix of fruit, nut, berry and herbaceous species. A large pond will be excavated at the west edge of the ‘alder dene’, where a natural hollow about 10m in diameter already fills with water after winter rain. The current network of rides, on a plot no more than 400m by 100m, allows a walk of more than 1.5km without repeating the same route.
Transition of the subsoil biome into a true woodland soil will take generations; but it is felt that the application of artificial herbicides to control weeds is biologically unproductive, so weeds are controlled by the use of recycled cardboard mats or by trampling – slow and healthy is the watchword. The variety of grasses, thistles and wildflowers present will slowly be suppressed and modified by the trees in a natural process with little intervention. Signs of ecological change will be monitored informally – but it is hoped that relationships can be developed with trained ecologists to formally monitor the transition. Dead stems and prunings of trees are left on the ground to help attract wood-feeding invertebrates.
Work conducted since purchase
The first priority was to mend the stone wall and east side hedge (with available patching materials). Deer penetration has continued on a smaller scale since then, despite the addition of some deer mesh and the dead hedging of much of the east side. Currently one stag (male roe) visits the wood regularly; his mother was a very frequent visitor until the winter of 2018; she used to nurse her young in the plantation.
The next priority, after fencing, was to create a system of rides (an extended figure of 8) that would allow vehicle access and extraction within about 30m of all parts of the plot, without having to reverse vehicles at any point. Some firming up of the rides, especially at the entrance and where drainage is poor, has been undertaken piecemeal since then with available hard-core and rubble. The rides have been mown regularly using a wheeled strimmer, manually operated: about three times before June in each year, then every 3-4 weeks thereafter until late September. The rides are currently about 3-5m wide (for their layout, see satellite image from 2016 above and plan overleaf. From Bing images). A detailed Total Station Theodolite survey of the plot was carried out by the owner in 2017 and forms the basis of current and future management plans.
New planting (green capitals in plan) was undertaken over the next four autumns to add to the native mix; to increase wind protection and shelter; to replace dead trees; to enrich the south-facing rides and to fill in gaps in the east hedge and partly hedge the south end. In 2015 I planted 100 Scots pines, all unprotected, and all of which were killed by rabbits and deer the following spring. I have planted, since 2014, about a hundred each of hazel, silver birch and (another 100) Scots pine; 30 holly and 50 rowan are dispersed or clumped to provide visual interest and structure. A number of self-seeded ash, from a veteran tree in the centre of the west edge, have been protected. New hedging plants include: field maple, blackthorn, guelder rose, hawthorn and hazel.
Along south facing rides I have planted cheap supermarket fruit trees; garden-cutting gooseberries, redcurrants and raspberries. I have planted one small clump of ramsons (locally sourced) and two of bluebells (ditto).
As money has been available, tubex shelters have been put up on trees that have suffered the worst effects of browsing. In these cases (about 2,000 so far), browsed trees have been cut to ground level – that is, coppiced – to foster straight regrowth. Oaks and hazel reliably regrow (about 3ft per year to begin with); alder and birch slightly less reliably. By 2021 all browsed trees will have been revived one way or the other, or will have grown out by themselves. Ring barking is a serious problem , especially with Scots pines – the deer are able to remove some tree shelters; the tree does not survive. I have experimented with the creation of individual tree fences cut from lengths of 1.2m X 1m plastic coated wire fencing, made into tubes and staked; for about £3 each but reusable for many years. I use these for hazels whose regrowing stumps would be overly restricted by tubex tubes. I have also used plastic mesh stem protectors – they are cheap and work well for single stem straight trees; but they must be attached with cable ties – otherwise deer can remove them.
A small glade laid out towards the NE corner (green circle), which offers a good bonfire site, fine views and (eventually) shelter from westerly weather, has been hedged with blackthorn, dog rose, hazel and holly. A small three –sided shelter was erected in 2016 along the east side to enjoy views and provide temporary weather-respite during work. A wooden cabin has now been erected at the southwest corner as a brew hut, occasional overnight accommodation and shelter for educational visits. It is protected by a newly planted blackthorn and hawthorn hedge.
South and west compartments will be restocked – initially overstocked – to generate as much quick shelter and wind protection as possible, generally using self-seeded trees. The south-west compartment will retain its rich native mix. Where tree density is low some glade areas will be allowed to develop naturally; others will be filled with trees to form more dense stands for variety in both structure and ecology. A strong propensity towards bird and insect pollination will be encouraged by the use of fruiting and flowering trees and shrubs – rowan, apple, plum, cherry, redcurrant, blackthorn and hawthorn, with elder in the hedges.
Eventually, all trees that have been deer browsed will be coppiced and either singled or allowed to develop as coppiced multi-stemmed trees. A number of standards will be selected in tandem with good specimens of Scots pine to create an open canopy and help develop a mixed age structure. The natural topography of the site, with its slight denes, natural gentle slopes and small knolls, together with stunning views of the Derwent valley and Pennines beyond, will be managed to provide a rich and diverse structure whilst maintaining periodic vistas. Coppicing will generally be carried out on a small scale appropriate to the modest size of the wood – so, instead of coppicing an acre or more at a time, smaller units of 0.5 or 0.25 acres will be cut to minimise visual impact while maximising the benefits of light and shade variation typical in managed woodlands
Public access is, for the present, by request (my mobile number is on the gate). I hope in the future to be able to open the wood up for several public access days every year. Its extended fronting onto the Derwent walk offers a high level of public interest and, potentially, engagement in woodland management and ecology – an opportunity not to be wasted. I hope to get some display boards put up in due course.