Archive for the ‘woodland’ Category


My favourite time of year. The light on the Lynchmere Commons is always special as the wall to wall green of summer turns to a riot of colour.


The bracken turns a glowing copper dappled with the autumn sunshine


All summer the leaves have been a monotonous shade of green and now they put on a show as they slowly reveal the silver structure of the Birch trees


And then there are the sunsets! (this one was taken at the Weald & Downland Museum)

Sometimes I wish I could grab it and hold it but it’s so fleeting as the leaves are falling all around me and the sun is lower every day. My enjoyment is tinged with a hint of apprehension as winter approaches.


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DSCF8452I had the pleasure of looking around a small woodland up on the South Downs today under the guise of giving some advice.  I haven’t got out much recently and it’s always nice to visit other woodlands. A bonus when it turned out to be a traditional Hazel coppice with Oak Standards and the most amazing Bluebell woods. So I can’t resist posting some photos.


An intense riot of colour and smell on the woodland floor, the flowers damp with last nights rain and warming in the dappled sunlight coming through the thin canopy with the oaks just starting to come into leaf.

DSCF8456The wood has been neglected for years so the new owner has plenty of work to be getting on with. Oak standards have fallen over during the wet winter and the coppice is overstood and neglected. But the display of  bluebells shows that gentle neglect is not always the worst of management techniques, all it needs now is a little TLC and some hard graft.



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DSCF7675I had been intending to write about something other than fallen trees in February. It seems that my life this winter has been dominated by the incessant storms and their consequences the fallen trees and the wet weather.  It’s still happening! We’re told that this has all been caused by a wrinkle in the North Atlantic jetstream. Some wrinkle.

A few of the resulting storms have even been given names like the St Jude Storm, the Christmas Eve storm and the one two weeks ago which caused a lot of damage across the south of England and I’m calling the Valentine storm. I know that commuting to work can be a big problem in the South of England and the wrong type of leaves on the line is an excuse for train delays that we are all used to, but this time it was the wrong type of tree on the track.


It all started back in October with the ‘St Judes’ storm – which now pales almost into insignificance in comparison with the later arrivals, but it did have some powerful gusts which caused a lot of tree damage in small swathes where it moved through. The gusts have been features of these storms reaching twice the speed of the winds. This makes the damage quite unpredictable. All the trees you expect to fall don’t whilst the next study tree is ripped in two by the gust. There have also been a lot of trees falling because of the saturated ground and either the whole root plate lifts or the roots just snap and the tree falls.


These trees are a lot harder to deal with than those we fell intentionally as this snapped Birch shows very well. The violence of the force that snapped the tree causes a lot of shattering and tension in the branch wood all of which needs to be carefully released – it’s dangerous – and it’s still suspended in the air caught between more Birch trees. Not a simple job and it needs to be left until it can be completed safely but just to complicate matters it’s right across a Right of Way and next to a stream so access for machinery is complicated.


With over 100 trees down across the commons we can’t get to them all immediately and we have to prioritise our work. Clearing the roads is the first priority – though it is the most unpleasant of tasks as the hazard of fallen trees is compounded by the hazard of bizarre behaviour by other drivers.

You put up signs, vehicles with flashing lights and work on the road with a chainsaw and as soon as one carriageway is clear – they drive by at 50mph and only slow down to swear at you for holding them up. On Christmas Eve I was stuck clearing a birch top that had only blocked one side of the road, still windy and raining and cars speeding past wondering why I was bothering  when I sensed a car stopping  and I heard a voice say – I do like a man with a chainsaw! No it wasn’t yet more strange behaviour by drivers but a Police Landrover who blocked the road and got out to help me clear the branches.  A rare treat indeed and thank you to those two West Sussex officers!

Unfortunately you don’t get to take photos in these circumstances – your mind is 100% engaged in dealing with the tree, the weather and the road conditions as safely as possible. I do wish that I had a photo of the situation that I found when I turned out at 7:45 on the morning after the Valentine Storm to clear the local main road. A two foot diameter oak tree had split at waist height and fallen totally blocking the road. But  it was crowned by a modified 4×4, you know the type with the air intake so high above the vehicle that driver will need scuba gear!  It was stuck on the trunk having tried to drive over it. It took three of us an hour to cut the 4×4 free and open one side of the road.


Luckily there are few trees that fall across the roads. The next priority is the network of Rights of Way that cross the commons and any trees that have not completely fallen and remain in a dangerous state – or both. This bridlepath leading onto the commons was completely blocked by several fallen trees some of which had fallen into other trees knocking them down like dominos and a couple more that were still suspended over the path. Another tricky job to clear – and one that needs to be completed safely both for us doing the job and for users of the path.


You might get the impression that all the trees on the commons have fallen over – but there are still tens of thousands more to go. The Birch in the picture look very pretty – but if you notice the spray (end of the branches) are all bending to the left you get a feel for the strength of the winds to which they are exposed.

All trees will fall over unless we cut them down first. It’s a natural process, the soil on the heathland is very poor and acidic, only a few inches in depth before you reach the natural bedrock sandstone so many trees are literally clinging on. As they reach old age they are stressed and succumb to disease and the next storm may bring them down. The fallen trees do represent an opportunity – we can use the wood as a zero carbon source of fuel and timber (for my polelathe), the trees will regenerate and before we know it there will another young crop of trees across the commons.

I’m off to work on a few more trees now – at least the firewood for next year is getting sorted early!

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Well it rained for what seemed just about forever. The wettest English year on record – not bad considering that is started with a dry spell which continued until the day that the government declared a drought. But the wind and rain eventually gave way to the cold and cue –  The winter wonderland – but with a few less trees than we started the week – aka the extreme chainsaw training course!

Just occasionally I teach basic chainsaw and tree felling for a local land management college. I did wonder why I was asked to run a chainsaw and tree felling course in January at relatively short notice. All became clear once I saw the weather forecast for the week. We started off with the basic quagmire, moved onwards to the big freeze and then finished off with extreme chainsaw training in heavy snowfall. (Thanks to Peter Underwood for the photo)


I started the week with a full complement of six students but by the heavy snow fall on Friday I’d managed to whittle it down to the hardcore of Ian, Peter and Jules who were game enough to come out with me for some final felling practice in the snow.


Working in the woods was fine – it can be quite surreal working during snowfall as you tend to be in your own little universe – the trees block the wind and everything looks and sounds quite peaceful. It’s something of a shock to emerge back into the world and to discover that as usual the traffic in Southern England can’t cope and has ground to a halt.  Luckily we’d prepared for that and with a couple of 4×4’a were soon back at the college – only to discover that whilst we’d been out in the woods felling trees those in the warm heated classrooms had been sent home! It’s a strange world out there isn’t it? Good luck with the assessments guys!

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It’s the time of year when I start making charcoal again on a small scale. As it’s only a sideline for me I use old 40gallon oil drums which means my investment is minimal and I don’t need a lot of wood to feed a kiln, instead I take advantage of the wood that comes my way. It’s an ideal way to make small amounts of charcoal or to start learning about charcoal making.

The big advantage for me of using oil drums (other than not costing me anything) is that it only takes a couple of hours from lighting the drum full of wood to being able to shut it down and let it cool so I can fit in a burn of 2 or 3 drums in the afternoon or evening and come back the next morning to collect the charcoal.

When the drum is first lit it produces a lot of white and brown smoke, mainly steam boiling off from the wood and mixed with the tars, resins and other volatile chemicals. The intent of the burn is to have enough air flowing through the bin to maintain a high temperature but not so much that too much of the wood is burnt too quickly which reduces the yield – though if you only want a bag of charcoal for your own bbq it doesn’t matter so much.

As the burn continues you will see the white smoke lessen and eventually cease as all of the water is driven off.  Be careful if you lift the lid and peer inside at this point – you can lose your eyebrows. The reduced level of oxygen in the bin means that volatile chemicals released will not mix with enough oxygen to burn until they leave the bin – though if you are used to it you can arrange quite an impressive display with a ring of fire around the rim of the bin.

Once the volatile chemicals have finished being released the bin is ready to be shut down and the remaining wood will finish cooking in the heat of the bin. Shutting down involves sealing the bin with soil so that no air can enter or exit the bin – otherwise you will return to find no more than a pile or wood ash when you open the bin. It takes a few hours for the charcoal to cool sufficiently so that when you open the bin you don’t start an instant barbecue.

I should now show the finished charcoal, but somehow I seem to have taken a gratuitous photo of a Landrover the next morning. Strange that!

Making charcoal in an oil drum is not really economically viable in comparison with the big kilns, it’s a lot of work for a bag or two of charcoal but if you are generating a small amount of waste wood from a small amount of woodland then it might be a way to  start making enough for your own needs and spend an enjoyable evening, whether it for the bbq or to use on your vegetable patch or to start making your own carbon sink.

Much of this wood would have been burned on site, chipped or left to rot away (not that leaving some wood to rot away is a bad thing and it is as always a balance) so making charcoal with it doesn’t affect the amount of carbon released into the atmosphere. If more trees are regrown in their place then it’s effectively zero carbon. As always with carbon issues it’s not quite that simple of course and the conversion of the wood does release other chemicals aside from carbon dioxide. The next stage is to convert my drums into ‘ovens’ or retorts as they are often known and burn the volatile chemicals to cook the wood, improving the yield and reducing the amount of woodfuel I have to prepare.

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During our recent cold snap the temperature reached -16C overnight, a very cold snap indeed for us in the south of England, and in the shed in the morning it was still -10C so a bit too cold for turning on the polelathe. Time to build up the fires inside and the quality of the firewood makes quite a difference to the ability to keep the house warm when its that cold.

I’ve found that the choice of  firewood for the coldest part of the year is well worth putting some thought into.  In recent years I’ve taken to putting aside some of my driest best firewood for the cold snaps when they come.

My mother was a talented caligrapher and some years ago she sent me a version of the old poem ‘Wood for Burning’  – and there is no smoke without a fire as they say – it’s as a good a guide to choosing your firewood as you can get, so here is her version again in case you missed it last time around.

(Caligraphy – Olive Allery 1928-2011)

All wood will burn and per Kg they all give about the same heat, but everyone has their favourite firewood.  Oak, Beech and Hawthorn are common favourites but why is Ash said to be the best?

I think the answer lies in the density and moisture content of the wood. The denser the wood the more heat it can release when it burns but in my experience the densest timbers can take years to season. When you try to burn them the high density of the wood slows the burning process down and if they still have too high a moisture content they burn even more slowly and don’t provide enough heat.

The obvious solution is to split and dry your firewood in the sun then store undercover for some years until you need it. That’s fine, but not everyone has enough Oak woodland or a barn for a log store to enable firewood to be stored for years in advance to season and dry. Knowing which woods will need less seasoning and can even be burnt green can be key to keeping warmer in the winter.

Winter felled Ash is relatively low in moisture content in comparison with other woods and it’s medium density open grain means it will dry faster than the denser woods – hence the references in the poem to burning ash wet or green.  Also it tends to grow straight grained, is easy to chop and split and it doesn’t smell bad on the fire so it comes out as a good all round compromise.

Mind you, I don’t get a lot of spare Ash – it’s too good for turning on the polelathe, so my favourite logs to burn are a combination of Birch with Oak or Beech. The Birch starts the fire and burns very hot and fast, when mixed with Oak or Beech the fire burns both long and hot. Oh and Birch does smell good on the fire as well!


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I am certainly not a fungi expert but I can’t resist taking a good look and at this time of year there are loads of fungi to choose from. So if anyone has any identifications to offer please feel free to comment.  But yes,  you are right this is just an excuse to post some colourful pictures of the Lynchmere Commons.

Here a Fly Agaric has just appeared from it’s bed of moss. At least I think it’s a Fly Agaric as they are common in the birch woods, but there is no sign of a veil on this one, so I may be leading you astray already. Just shows how difficult it is to follow the identification books.

Very few of the woodland fungi are edible and you really do need to know what you are doing to pick them as a mistake can be highly dangerous. The Fly Agaric is well known for it’s toxic and hallucinogenic properties. It’s one of the Amanita family which include our most toxic fungi so one to beware of.

With a heavy dew the cobwebs glisten in the low angle sun light which seems to give everything deeper colour at this time of year.

These fungi were nestled on the old stump of a birch tree. They look quite similar to Honey Fungus, but then again…maybe not quite.

This one is suspiciously white and clean. I have to say that I don’t know what it is, but as the most toxic fungi in the UK, the Destroying Angel, is also white and clean I tend to leave anything similar well alone even though it’s very likely an innocent pretender (it’s deadly cousin the Death Cap is also similar in appearance though with a greenish tinge to the cap).

The Birch trees are now in their winter plummage and it’s already time to be thinking about harvesting the next crop of bean poles, pea sticks and broom heads.

No idea what these are and even after a quick look through a book I am non the wiser.

Likewise these very small, almost blue ones were just by a beech tree. Even though I couldn’t identify them I did find a Bay Boletus which we took home for tea, but forgot to photograph! Very similar to the Cep or Penny Bun which are also in the Boletus family the Bay Boletus has yellow pores instead of gills which stain blue when touched

Must be about time for a gratuitous Landrover photograph. Surely that’s far too shiny to be one of my Landrovers? Yes we took Puff out for a leisurely Sunday afternoon run as a part of the running in the new engine. The aim is to treat the engine very gently until all of the moving parts have had time to wear in.

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