“I made gardens and parks and planted all kinds of fruit trees in them”. Ecclesiastes 2:5
In the first article of this series I described how, in the absence of management floodplain meadows quickly ‘tumble down’ to woodland. The towering willows and alders on the adjacent Glemsford Pits site demonstrate this succession. However, man likes projects and the bible verse above includes tree planting in a comprehensive list of works with which to embellish our lives and bestow meaning to them. I have to remind myself that it is not the works that count in running a nature reserve but how effective those works are in helping wildlife.
Foxearth Meadows is a testimony to Keith Morris’ passion for wildlife – he owned and tended the reserve from 1997 until his untimely death in 2009. Along with digging ponds, using livestock for grazing, and controlling water levels, Keith planted trees and the works attracted DEFRA grants under the Suffolk River Valleys Environmentally Sensitive Area scheme. The plantation dates from 2001-2004 and forms a narrow strip that follows the ancient southern boundary and other areas in the meadow’s south-west corner.
The original boundary hedgerow sits on a steep bank and comprises abundant hazel with frequent hawthorn, field maple and blackthorn, and occasional ash and spindle. Keith’s planting was between this and the floodplain creating a narrow band of woodland from a nursery-sourced mix of willow, oak, hawthorn, birch, hazel, holly, hornbeam, ash, field maple, guelder rose, dog rose, alder buckthorn and crab apple. Not all these species have fared well – holly and hornbeam have failed. Ash is being removed steadily by the national tragedy that is Chalara dieback disease.
The surviving ‘crab’ apple is an indeterminate domestic variety. The planted hazel has larger leaves than those of the old hedgerow and the willow is a cultivar with characteristics intermediate between white and crack willows. I will continue with comparisons between planted stock and those that are found here naturally. I have Keith’s tree purchase invoices and note that some species are listed as having EEC plant passports so are definitely not of native provenance. Does this matter? People may disagree but I believe we are in danger of homogenising our treed landscapes, compromising their ecology and stripping them of meaning. Oaks in Hungary, Holland and here may all be Quercus robur but there are clear differences in growth form and habit and these have a genetic basis. Many plant and animal species display these variations or clines across their range enhancing the wonder of nature. Obtaining stock of local provenance may be more expensive but those plants should grow better than plants from 1,200 miles away.
Then there is the question of plant health. The litany of introduced and invasive pest insects and pathogens is ever lengthening and belated attempts to shut stable doors after these become established has become a familiar pattern. Our continued transporting of plants around the globe with vast amounts of soil guarantees that this will continue. Ash dieback is but the latest panic to beset us and the costs will fall on society as a whole – and not just financially. England without ash trees is unthinkable.
This is not a polemic against planting trees and I am certain that Keith’s plantation has yielded benefits to wildlife. Certainly our beloved common birds of woodland edge habitats do well and bring visual and audible joy. To gauge beyond that will require long-term study of other groups. My job now is twofold. First, to bring the woodland experience to our visitors we have recently diverted the south-eastern path through a section of plantation and old hedgerow, which also protects the delicate wet meadow soils from damage. Secondly, we will be selectively coppicing, pollarding and laying young trees, and leaving deadwood to create more complex structure whilst allowing light in to encourage low-growing herbs. At present the ground flora is mostly dog’s-mercury, lords-and-ladies, nettles and ground-ivy, indicating high nutrient levels, but that is a discussion for another day.