Archive for January, 2009

I spent a day recently clearing up a felling site. It’s a heathland site so chipping isn’t really an option. Vehicle access at this time of year is difficult, manual clearing and burning is the only option.

It’s been very wet and windy and a good fire helps the work along no end. I made the last fire of the day a good one and we worked into the dusk.

As the dark drew in the glow from the fire spread and started to light up the straight stems of the surrounding pine trees. With the last of the sky still visible above it created a warmth that had been missing all day, a kind of temple of light within the wood. Suddenly it seemed almost timeless, primeval even.

John and I spent a few minutes soaking up the atmosphere that the fire brought us

It was hard to leave the fire and I began to understand just what a good fire must have meant to our ancestors

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Clearing scrub encroaching upon heathland is a continuous job. Heathland only stays as heathland if you keep removing invading plants and prevent nutrient levels growing in the soil so that the heathland plants are out-competed.

On a recent volunteer party we were clearing on Marley common, the northernmost piece of the Lynchmere commons owned by the society. Alongside the birch and pine saplings was quite a lot of gorse. It’s an important habitat in its own right but when it grows too thick and high it can dominate and needs to be managed.

Clearing the scrub soon restored the open heath and will allow the heathland plants to flourish providing an habitat for a wide variety of wildlife.

Gorse, orginally known as Furze, or Whin was to be managed for its uses. Gorse is highly flammable and was much prized as a fuel, particularly before coal became widely available. The tops for bakers ovens and the stems for firing brick and tile kilns.

It’s not hard to recognise Gorse, you can do it by feel alone, and it needs a thick pair of gloves to harvest it without feeling the spines.

Hard to believe it used to be used as the base layer of bedding! The amazing yellow flowers here were photographed in the Gower in April, they smell strongly of coconut and apparently make a good wine. Though I’ve not tried yet.

But there are actually 3 species of Gorse in the UK. Common Gorse is the one we normally see, but Western Gorse grows on heaths and coastal areas to the west and lastly there is Dwarf Gorse. As its name implies it grows to only about 3 feet and is less robust than its common relative. It favours the acid soils of heaths in the SE

Recognising Dwarf Gorse is not too hard and it comes with practice. The spines are shorter, about 1/2 inch (1cm) and its colour is a softer green than the Common Gorse.

The photograph shows dwarf and common gorse on Marley common. The dwarf gorse flowers are a deeper yellow and appear from July to September whereas Common Gorse flowers from February to May. The commonly held belief that Gorse flowers throughout the year is not true and may stem from seeing mixtures of Common, Western and Dwarf Gorse in some locations.

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Today I had planned to get some pole lathe turning done and a host of other jobs that have been waiting.

But Tomorrow I am helping to tidy up a felling site and with a bad weather forecast I thought I would use a more suitable landrover than the rag top I have been using for most of the winter.

I should have known better than to try and repair a 49year old Landrover in a hurry. What started as a simple fix of a leaking exhaust joint has led to the discovery of a blown manifold gasket.

No woodturning today, but I got to lie on my back and get covered in grease, oil and flakes of old rust. Landrover Heaven! There are those who think it’s how I get a quick nap on a Sunday afternoon, by sneaking under a Landrover. Back in one piece but the manifold gasket will have to wait for another day to be replaced.

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Apparently Druids held (or hold) the belief that people descended from trees. I think that’s supposed to mean spiritually rather than climbed down in a Dawkins sense :-). With each lunar month being represented by a tree.

24th December to 20th January is represented by the Birch. Which may explain my fascination with the Birch tree, as it was my birchday in the last few days. The Birch is a lovely tree, sometimes called the ‘Queen of the Woods’ and this is, in part an excuse for me to post some photos and extol the Virtues of the Birch.

Today we are more likely to find Birch in a garden centre than a managed woodland. This is a shame since few people planting it in a garden apparently realise that once mature a full size tree can reach over 80 feet and a diameter of more than 2 feet and it commonly ends up in very inappropriate places. Wheras in the woods Birch is rarely if ever intentionally planted and managed, normally being cut or sprayed to get rid of it.

To add insult to injury many gardens and parks are planted with Himalayan or Japanese white Birch rather than the native Silver (Betula Pendula) or Downy (Betula Pubescens). Birch. This is presumably to accentuate the smoothness of the bark – but its not native Silver Birch – as many people may think.

To a large extent this is the result of a poor press over the centuries. In his book ‘Sylva or discourse on Forest Trees’ in 1664, John Evelyn wrote ‘Birch be of all other the worst of timber’.

There is little evidence for this aversion, other than birch rotting when in contact with the ground. But many woods do this and it can be easily treated as is the imported softwood we use for the same purpose.

The poor press seems to have caught on and generations of foresters have overlooked the birch in favour of other trees. It seems to be a particularly British viewpoint, in Scandinavia and North America where birch is prolific its beauty, hardiness and versatilitye gain it much respect.

Another theory is that in Scandinavia it grows more slowly and as a result the timber is better quality. I don’t subscribe to this and I think it more likely that in the UK it is at best ignored and at worst sprayed as a weed. It is rarely planted or managed as a woodland tree, and being a pioneer it grows through neglect or on waste ground, poor positions or poor soils, the resulting woodland being of poor quality. Despite this reputation many thousands of tons of birch wood are harvested and sold in the UK each year. Primarily for plywood veneers, furniture and fuel. Not bad for a weed.

But some simple research reveals that Birch wood has a surprisingly long list of traditional uses and many of the major ones are still alive and kicking (even if only just).

Birch is used for;

Luckily for you I’ve only listed under half the uses of Birch. The list in Chris Howkins’ excellent book ‘Heathland Harvest’ extends down a full A4 page. It would be great to see all of these uses more widely available before the skills are lost. I will be doing my bit,. At the moment I turn a range of items, make, spoons, coat hooks, table-mats, charcoal, brooms, birch sap wine, door mats, bean poles and pea-sticks . By my next Birchday it will be interesting to see how many more Birch skills I have started to acquire.

Well done if you have managed to read this far. There is much more that I’d like to write on the merits and uses of Birch, but it’s time to stop the rant for now and leave more for the future.
Happy Birchday!

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The temperature was about -8 degress Centigrade on Friday night and its been that way for some days. Unusually the weather is calm with no wind. Despite frozen fingers and toes I took my camera on the commons as the ground has frozen hard and the frost built up on the trees.

This beautiful multi-stemmed birch becomes more prominent in this weather

The visibility was poor, but the faint mist added an ethereal atmosphere to the walk.

Trees that wouldn’t normally have caught my attention stand out strikingly

and the shape of the canopy is accentuated.

By the time I finished taking photos I could barely feel my fingers and had taken a lot more photos than I can fit in here.

Very delicate and characteristic icicle formations on the twigs. I don’t remember seeing frost do this before.

As I am writing this and uploading the photos, the wind and rain has arrived at Gale force from the atlantic, the frost has gone and the temperature has risen to +9 degrees Centigrade.

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This week we have had the local firm Gill & Punter cutting birch scrub on the commons and bundling it up to be used in the construction of steeple chase jumps at racecourses around the country, particularly race courses in the south of England.

This is a very traditional use of young birch and an example of the wide range of uses for this oft maligned and beautiful tree (you will hear more of this before long).

The young stems are cut by hand with bill hooks and bundled using birch wands as ties.

It’s good to be able to re-introduce as many traditional management methods where we can on the commons. I think it ‘s the most obvious way of conserving the landscape and it helps people to understand how the unique lowland heath landscape was created by being used over many centuries.

It’s very easy to assume that these traditional uses are no longer effective or even worse – economic. I am sure that its quite the reverse – in the future we will need to look more to these sustainable approaches.

The commons are managed without chemicals and the regrowth of the scrub here will provide diverse habitats for wildlife before we cut it again in a few years time.
You never know, our birch might be on a racecourse near you, or even on the telly!

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Happy New Year

Happy New Year and Welcome to 2009.

I spotted this once grand beech tree on a recent walk in the New Forest around Burley. Now a shadow of its former self it’s still impressive in its own way as it is recycled naturally.

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Omubazi Mike

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