Putting a little bit back


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Posted on April 24, 2016


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We didn’t think it would actually feel good to fell a tree, to attack it vigorously to ensure all side shoots were gone and even to lacerate the bark. We needed to do everything possible to stop it from growing back. In the process, bent down with our backs in a surprisingly hot spring sun, we were being scratched in the face and arms by the sitka spruces' very irritating and sharp needles. It was hard work but it did actually feel good: further down the hill where lines of spruce have been effectively eradicated there has been natural regeneration of birch trees in their hundreds, as well as oaks, rowan and holly.

After the Second World War the Forestry Commission laid claim to areas of land in Cumbria and planted conifers in dense blocks, expecting, perhaps, that these trees would be a useful crop. The planting was done, so we have heard, without due consultation with the farmers who were using those parcels of land for grazing. Unsurprisingly, feelings ran deep, and have taken many, many years to settle – a long slow passing of time that saw the spruce grow thick and tall, blocking out light from the ground beneath and tainting the soil. The sitka spruce didn’t fit the environment they had been put into, but as the stronger trees, they continued to grow.

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Today, things are changing. The unsuitability of this species of tree has been recognised and many areas of non-native conifers are being felled to allow native trees to gain a toe hold. In turn, this is helping to establish a biodiverse habitat for native species of plants, invertebrates and birds.

It was in this context that we found ourselves high in the Lakeland fells in Harknott Forest which rises up from the river in the Duddon Valley. Armed with a variety of saws we were bringing down spruce as much as twelve feet tall, and hacking at stumps that had been left after a chainsaw clearance but were putting out new shoots.

It wasn’t all about destruction though. A little further down the hill where the spruce have previously been effectively cut back, we spent a few hours tenderly lifting and planting alders and oak, all under a warm sun with the sound of gently falling water and the yaffle of green woodpeckers to keep us company.

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The work is part of a Forestry Commission project that’s being done in conjunction with the University of Leeds and the John Muir Trust's local members group to gradually allow Hardknott Forest, which is one of the largest conifer plantations in the Lake District, to regenerate with native trees. Eventually, it’s hoped that the tree cover will connect with the other native woodlands in the Duddon Valley. The first clearances were made around fifteen years ago and the regeneration of birch that has occurred since is abundant. Give it another ten years and many more native trees will be making a gentle comeback. In fifty years, a hundred, two hundred, the woodland canopy will be thick and as alive with greenery and the birdsong: a much more lively space than a sitka spruce plantation would permit.

We got hot – very hot – on what turned out to be the first real scorcher in spring. I regretted putting my thermal leggings on under my trousers and we were all stripped down to T-shirts. Of course the bright sunshine never lasts and we know that when we do it again we might not be so lucky, but it was perfect for that weekend. What better way to begin nurturing a new woodland than on a clear day that ends with tea and cake in the sun?

If you want to volunteer for a day or a weekend of work on this project, there’s more information here.

You can also check out The John Muir Trust  and Woodland Trust for volunteering opportunities and, for one-day events in the Lake District, visit the Friends of the Lake District website: they have a programme that runs all year and incorporates tree planting, woodland management, wall building and other essential maintenance tasks. There is always tea and cake (of course not essential, but hey, good to know).

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