Weekly Witter: Restoring our Woodland

Croft Castle – Wood Pasture Restoration

Wood pasture is a medieval form of agricultural/horticultural land management, a very early form of permaculture, where two or more crops can be raised on the same piece of land. Traditionally, widely spaced trees were grown in meadows grazed by cattle and/or deer. This provided meat for the table and a wide variety of materials from the trees, depending on species and location. The trees were protected from the grazing animals until they were big enough and their branches were well above animal browsing height. These trees were then typically cut at a height of approximately eight feet every 3 to 25 years depending on the desired material. The trees provided a great variety of materials: firewood, tool handles, leaf fodder, small diameter timber, fencing material and bends for the ribs of ships.

Longhorn cattle grazing wood pasture. Muelaner

Longhorn cattle grazing wood pasture. Muelaner

The practice of pollarding was enshrined in law dating as far back as the Magna Carta. Common people were granted the right of Estover, which allowed them to take material from trees on common land, often in Royal Hunting Forests, but expressly forbade them from cutting down trees. This gave pollard trees great significance for commoners.

New pollard. Muelaner

New pollard. Muelaner

The practice of pollarding considerably extends the natural life of many tree species. For instance a beech tree would normally live about 300 years by which time it would have blown over in a gale or from root decay, collapsed due to fungal trunk decay or succumbed to one of several pathogens. A beech tree which has been pollarded for the majority of its life however, can live for more than 600 years, oaks for more than a thousand years. The old pollards develop very fat squat trunks with small crowns.

These trees with their small crowns have a reduced risk of blowing over or getting torn apart in severe winds, they are also less susceptible to drought with their reduced volume of canopy to support.

Ancient oak pollard. Muelaner

Ancient oak pollard. Muelaner

These ancient trees are extremely important culturally, for their great natural beauty and for the exceptionally abundant wildlife living on and within them. They support very rare lichens living on their craggy bark, rare fungi decaying the heart wood and very specialised dead wood invertebrates digesting this decaying wood.

Pollarding died out in Britain in the 19th century and many of the old wood pastures succumbed to secondary woodland. One such site is a lapsed wood pasture at Croft Castle, 47.0 hectares of which was let on a very long lease to the Forestry Commission prior to the Trust acquiring the property. The Trust and the FC are now in consultation regarding the restoration of this nationally important site. The Trust’s 5.0 hectare in-hand portion of this wood pasture has already undergone restoration with lots of the naturally seeded trees having been removed and grazing being re-introduced later this year. Without this kind of intervention the ancient old trees would be killed by the more vigorous young conifers growing above them and casting them into perpetual shade.

Wood Pasture restoration. Muelaner

Wood Pasture restoration. Muelaner

Sadly, when the Forestry Commission first took over the lease of the land in the 1950s, the significance of ancient trees was not fully understood or appreciated. This meant that many of these wonderful old trees were purposefully killed by ring barking around their trunks with an axe, luckily some of these trees miraculously survived this destructive treatment. The site is littered with dead hulks with axe marks demonstrating how they died. I would like to think that we live in a more enlightened time and that the remaining pollards and their future offspring will be safe at Croft and other Trust properties.

  • Brian Muelaner – Ancient Tree Adviser for the National Trust. I advise on how best to manage these special trees to preserve their natural lives. I am often among trees many hundreds of years old, some are a thousand years or more and still quite healthy. I am coordinating a national survey of all ancient and notable trees on Trust land. To date we have recorded a remarkable 25,000 trees and still have many more properties to survey. I am also compiling an inventory of the hundreds of Trust avenues.

  • The Weekly Witter is a regular Monday mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.

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