Sep 16 An Unknown Wood By Rich

Ray Perry gives us an insight into how he has changed the way he has come to view his woodland, then goes on to tell of his experience of hosting a SWOG meeting.

When I purchased Gaer View Wood some 7 years ago I was full of enthusiasm. I would spend every other weekend there demanding that it conformed to what I thought it should look like, and buying all sorts of equipment with little chance of knowing how these things could be used. I think the best example of this was a very expensive climbing rope, harness, and all the little metal bits that go with it . . . still in the box I’m afraid, although I did use it once when putting tiles on the roof.

The reality is very different. After the first few visits, I conceded that 7 acres needed a bit more than 3 months to sort out, and more importantly, I didn’t really know what I was doing. So I stopped cutting paths, trimming off branches, and clearing tracks. Instead I lit campfires, cooked sausages, and chilled out. I felt much better for it. And our Labrador quickly learnt to come back to camp as soon as the sausages went in the pan (much more effective than a whistle).

And so for several years, I let nature take its course, and also my stress. It takes about 2 hours to dissipate 2 months of work stresses, which is not a bad return on my investment. I don’t actually know where the stress goes, does it get absorbed by the trees? I did however get to know my wood a lot better, and we became good friends. I promised not to manically chop bits off it, and it accepted me as part of the wildlife. A partnership I think.

What is it about kids these days?. At the age of 12 or so, I was always searching out bits of woodland, streams and any forgotten piece of scrubland, where I would be setting up camp, and of course, lighting a campfire (sorry to the owner of that wasteland by the way, although the fire brigade did have it under control quite quickly). In fact I think it was in those days that I decided that people who own woods were very privileged, that they had a massive store of natural resources, and a place to play whenever they wanted. Pity some of them put up “Keep Out” signs, it made no difference to my trespassing, and added a sadness to the woodland. Anyway, what I was trying to say is that my kids don’t seem to get the same sense of excitement that I did when in the woods. Maybe it will grow on them, and maybe its my fault for waiting so long to give them the opportunity to do so, but really, I think it takes a lot to challenge the X Box for youngsters interests. Maybe they will grow into the fact that the wood is there, and it’s the best game in the world.

So, there I was, doing the minimum in the woods, but getting loads out of it. I felt a bit guilty actually, did nature not need any help at all? It probably didn’t in truth, it had managed for some time without my interventions. But the wood was my friend now, and I wanted to help it. Perhaps the path lay in increasing the biodiversity? I know that there are different areas to my wood, and the trees and shrubs are different in some areas, maybe I could help in this way?

It is amazing though, how tentative I have become, Ive changed from wanting to “beat it into submission” to being probably over concerned about my interventions, but I did come to a conclusion of sorts, that I “would do something”. Now that’s a pretty decisive moment, especially as I did that that whilst in the wood, where decisions are unwanted intruders (except maybe where to build the campfire today). And yet another decision was that “I don’t know what to do”.

So armed with these magnificently provocative decisions (!), I started to think about how to move forward.

Tracey Pepler had of course been there in the background, sending me the wonderful, and thought provoking Newsletters, which I did take time to read, and helped me to feel part of a family of fellow wood owners. I don’t know if that is the intention, but that’s the affect it was having on me. So where else to turn, but to her organisation. I volunteered to host a visit to my wood.

What have I done ?

I live my life to some very simple rules. One of them is that if you agree to do something, then you do it. I was committed to this visit, but had no idea what I was to do, or how I would facilitate it. And I suppose I wanted to have visitors (if there were any) enjoy themselves and feel it was worth the visit. I had given myself a project.
SWOG of course were amazingly helpful and arranged that there would be an “expert” attending as well……. Phew! That’s a relief. However, there was still a lot to sort out, basically I had nothing  except a wood.

Ebay! that’s the place. That’s where I go as a first port of call whenever I need something. Maybe its therapeutic to work your way through thousands of ads deciding how you will distribute your wealth, anyways, I was looking for an old caravan, an essential piece of equipment for the wood, a base from which to serve tea. I ended up buying an old Landrover Discovery, seemed like more fun. Then a winch for it. Then a long jack, then a CB radio, some new tyres, and a tow rope. It still did not look like a caravan though, so back to ebay.

Lesley, my wife, was now getting nervous, a bout of “ebaying” rarely helps solve any of her problems. Apparently the Disco smelled, was rusty, noisy and wallowed about a lot………….. and your point is my dear? Perfect I would say.

I did find an old caravan, and bought it without seeing it……. mistake. It was a bit rotten, in fact all the bits that could rot, had already done so. I did have a moment of insanity when I thought I would “do it up’, but that didn’t last long, stuff it. If it survived the journey to the wood, being towed by my smelly rusty Disco, then it would probably be ok. It did make it, just, with a few bits missing. If anyone found a rear window to a 40 yr old caravan on the A44 recently, could you keep it safe for me?

The caravan now sits sedately as befits her years in the middle of my wood, and I was able to have a practice run at making tea in her before the day of the visit. She behaved impeccably and I was very proud of her. Really must get the green paint out though.

The visit

GET OUT OF MY WAY !!……… yes, I was going to be late arriving for my own meeting, everyone seemed to be intent on delaying me, and the Disco was wallowing more than I think it should really have been doing, but never mind. What a great delight to see so many people there already (well everyone else was there actually), and with some embarrassment I set off down the track towards the caravan. Quick, get the kettle on, maybe nobody will notice you were late.

Well here they all were, making their way down the track (ok, yes, it was still a bit overgrown, but gave the short walk a greater sense of adventure!). The kettle soon boiled (good job I had a practice run) and teas and coffees all round. Great, first phase complete.

Our expert for the day was Shane Logan. Shane worked for the National Trust, and previously for the Forestry Commission in Ireland, what Shane didn’t know about woodland probably isn’t worth knowing. After explaining to Shane that I had marked Route 1 (yes, I had more than one see) with white paint blobs, he took control. I brought up the rear in the mistaken belief that that would be a useful thing to do.
Route 1 (sounds very organized doesn’t it) covered half of my wood and several different environs. Shane stopped at places to describe what he saw, and how the area could be managed better (cheek). He was brilliant. I could see what he was saying, but I had not seen it myself, I guess that’s why we have experts. So the first learning was that I could create some larger “standards” from what looked like thick limbed bushes. Leaving the largest, and clearing the area around would help the standard to develop, and create some open space for undergrowth to develop. My hand twitched towards the chainsaw, now I had a use for it.

We crossed a wet area, an area that I thought would be better if I drained it, and had already started thinking about how my Disco could be used as a bulldozer, WRONG. Shane pointed out that if I did the opposite, and blocked up the drainage gulley’s that existed, I could create a proper wetland environment, and increase biodiversity. Well what an excellent idea, and less work too! That’s a second project then.
Further on Shane pointed out that there was a ridge, and on the ridge you could see some hawthorn……. Worked it out yet? Yes, it was an old hedge line, is was obvious, but I had not seen it in 7 years. Once that was in focus you could see that the land below that “feature” was less steeply sloping, and the trees were different. It was thought by Shane that that area could have been a field in the past, and had been left to naturalise many years ago. I was seeing my wood with different eyes.

Next we came to a key feature, an ancient oak. Actually it was on the border with my neighbours wood. Actually it is in my neighbours wood, but only just. We spent a little time at the oak, and Shane confirmed that it was indeed very old, 300 years probably. Saved from being cut down during the last clearing 20 years ago because it was too big, and too old, and fat. See there are advantages in old age! The old oak had always been a frequent place for me to visit, and is very special.

Back along the bottom edge of my wood (a bit boggy here, and about to bet boggier) with views across the sheep fields and we headed back to the base camp for lunch.
During lunch (after making the tea) it was great to chat to the other wood owners, who were an incredible mixture of characters. There is something that they all had in common though, and that was a love of life in its basic form. We had photographers, retired people, young families, hippies (sorry Bob) and professional people. And we were all standing in the middle of a wood, drinking tea, and enjoying it.
After lunch we set off on Route 2. Problem is this is not marked, and after waving Shane off in a very vague direction left it to him to go and seek out something interesting.

This side of the wood has the largest trees and as such a very different nature to Route 1. And it contains, what Shane described as “a very large badger set”. Now this is a very interesting part of the wood, and the badgers have been there for a very long time, many generations. There is an area of about a quarter acre that has been remodeled by the badgers, and looks like a moonscape. There are signs that there is activity still going on, and we of course discussed the proposed cull of badgers ordered by the government. (Well, not in my wood matey).

Further on, the wood is pretty uniform and the pace picked up to get back to base camp (actually I think the increasing number of brambles on the track distracted people from gathering in groups, sorry about that). Once again some clearing of the smaller trees would encourage undergrowth, but not too much, or the brambles would take over. Yeah, I can do that, is that project 3?

Back to base and another cup of tea, Shane answering the final questions from the group, and some fond farewells.

However, my day was not over. In the group, were the owners of two of the neighboring woods! …….Yes, and it had taken me until that day to meet them, but what a bonus. I spent an hour in Bob, Ali and Willows wood having a look at what they had been up to…….. MY GOSH, I cant tell you, lets just hope they decide to host a visit themselves, I don’t want to spoil it. All I can say is that they had put considerably more effort into their wood than I have…….. I mean……. A hot tub, incredible ! What a lovely couple, and I would not have met them unless I had taken that decision weeks ago to do something about my lack of knowledge about my wood. You just never know what happens when you set something in motion!

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