Trees and Woodland at Foxearth Meadows: Colonisation & Coppicing

16 March 2022
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16 March 2022, Comments Comments Off on Trees and Woodland at Foxearth Meadows: Colonisation & Coppicing

Reserve Manager, Mark Prina comments on the trees and woodland on and around the reserve and on current efforts at management. This is a version of an article first published in ‘Parish News’ (the community magazine for the local civil parish).

At least there is hope for a tree: If it is cut down, it will sprout again, and its new shoots will not fail. Its roots may grow old in the ground and its stump die in the soil, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth shoots like a plant. Job 14:7-9
The Bible passage above recognises the property of trees to regrow perpetually, multi-stemmed, from a stump. From the earliest times this has been used to supply wood of different dimensions for countless uses. The method is known as coppicing and in Britain the distant past would have seen trees cut in the same fashion as described in the ancient Hebrew poetry of the book of Job. This article will be the first in a series looking at trees and woodland of Foxearth Meadows. 

Coppiced willow that will sprout again

Trees have always been crucial for man’s existence. Notwithstanding the production of oxygen, their wood has limitless uses as tools, utensils, shelter, enclosures, fuel, and much more besides. Woodlands are groups of trees growing close enough for their canopies to meet1 and where the soil is too poor for growing food or grazing animals, woodlands have been permitted to exist in the landscape. Consequently, I doubt whether woodlands would have featured along the floodplain of the River Stour. The land was surely more valuable as grazing or hay meadows and a glance at the Ordnance Survey map of 1886 shows a landscape of small, hedged fields on both sides of the river.

A very different scene is now with us following the sand & gravel extraction of the 20th century. On ceasing to be managed, this land opposite the reserve has ‘tumbled down’ to wet woodland of willow, alder and poplar with a notable (grey squirrel sown?) walnut on the piece of Suffolk land on the other side of the railway, south of the new but north of the old river course. It is a case study in rewilding before the term was even invented. 

On Foxearth Meadows itself grey willow Salix cinerea has quietly taken advantage of our western ditch being ignored since its last ‘re-instatement’ and is a riot of tangled, falling and re-sprouting trunks and stems. And the colonisation has not stopped there. The willow has spread steadily eastwards onto the meadow to form a block of woodland responding to somewhat more than the “scent of water.” Beyond this, individual pioneers are staking claim to more meadow territory in a process of succession which would ultimately mirror the extensive woodland seen on Glemsford Pits. That it has not done so is probably due to the recent gravel diggings and attempts at farming since the 1980s.

The meadow is therefore witness to man’s interventions and whilst this has not been of universal benefit to the flora of the site it is still largely open and we are able to restore its grassland and fen qualities. On walking the western path now the visitor will note the areas of felling in the largest willow block. This has not removed the “hope for a tree” and they “will sprout again and …. new shoots will not fail.”

Cut Willow at Foxearth Meadows

We have repeated our coppicing efforts with the isolated trees further into the meadow to remove shade from around them and create more structural diversity low to the ground, which will benefit the wildlife. Of course, coppicing in times past was not done for nature conservation purposes and so it is now that we make use of the underwood produced in a coppice cycle. This and the wonderful hazels on the south-eastern boundary supply poles and branches for multiple uses on the reserve. An obvious one can be seen along the riverbank where we are stopping bank collapse by driving willow posts into the bank toe and weaving new growth willow wands to reinforce against the scouring effects of the river. This ‘soft engineering’ is known as spiling. Another use of coppice wood is for ‘dead hedging’, a revived method of fencing all but forgotten after the invention of barbed wire.
There is something satisfying about using sustainable materials from the reserve and reinvigorating trees at the same time. If one coppices a tree one bestows immortality on it for at least as long as the 5-7 year cycles continue.
Rackham, Oliver (2015) Woodlands. London: William Collins.

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