Hello from a surprisingly snowy Dorset.
The Government, Forestry Commission and Woodland Trust have just launched The Big Tree Plant – ok not the greatest name (yes trees are big plants aren’t they) with a “campaign” to plant a million extra trees over the next 4 years. I won’t go into what “extra” means in this context, the point is the public are being encouraged to plant trees by the Government for the first time since Plant a Tree in 73.
I like trees. My favourite trees are really old ones. The ones that are hundreds, even thousands of years old. The really interesting and valuable ones have usually been messed about with earlier in their lives, through coppicing or pollarding. These practices were all about making the trees work, providing a more or less free and everlasting supply of firewood, and wood for other purposes, like fences, managing hedges, thatching, basketmaking and so on – trees were even managed to provide crooked timbers for Barns.
There used to be many different ways trees were lopped and trimmed – names more or less consigned to history books now, like hollins, shreds and giraffe pollards. Pollard comes from the medieaval word Poll (as in election) to cut hair or cut off the top of a tree. Nowadays the only pollards we see are the knobbly street trees that still get an annual hair cut.
These days trees are planted, weeded, occasionally cleaned to provide straight stems for timber, but otherwise left to their own devices. I think this is a pity. Trees that are managed make much more interesting trees than ones that are left to grow. Huge old pollards, ancient giant coppice stools and venerable old orchard trees are much more valuable for wildlife, landscape and history, than maidens, as untouched trees are called. And most woodland wildlife had, over a few thousand years, got used to living in fairly intensively managed woodlands, such as coppices. Since coppicing has almost disappeared from the UK, much woodland wildlife has disappeared with it. And since pollarding had ceased in most parts of the UK by the late 18th century, the old pollards are slowly dying and there are none being created to replace them, to provide a continuity of veteran trees that can support the incredible variety of beetles, lichens and fungi that are now confined to such old trees.
What, you might ask, has this got to do with grasslands?
Firstly, it is inevitable that as part of this campaign someone will plant trees on a valuable grassland and destroy it. So if you’re planning to plant trees, please make sure you think about the site you’re going to plant and find out whether it already has wildlife, historical or other values. If it has, then go somewhere else!
Secondly, some of the richest areas for wildlife in the UK are those where veteran trees and wildlife-rich grassland occur together. And you can make your tree planting project much more valuable for wildlife if you
1. leave plenty of open grassland between groups of trees
2. introduce wildflowers if there are none there at the moment
3. manage the grassland between the trees by mowing and taking away the mowings.
4. do some woodland management – create new coppice stools and new pollards.