When is tree thinning good?


One of the few open spaces left on the commons

One of the few open spaces left on the commons. Photo by Meadow Project

As an ardent tree lover I’m the last person that likes to see a tree come down. Trees are such extraordinary ecosystems providing habitat, food and oxygen and absorbing CO2 vital for the fine balance of our climate. Yet this year, more than most, I’ve noticed a considerable number of areas locally where trees have been removed or severely cut back. What can be the reason for this? Whilst I still don’t have the answers for the whole picture I do have an insight into some local common land that is undergoing extensive tree pruning and removing which started a month ago.

Back in March I met with the current owner of 100 acres of common land in the Chiltern Hills. Christine carries the grand title of Lord of the Manors, an impressive title with an equally impressive history.

Fallen tree amidst scrub

Fallen tree amidst scrub. Photo by Meadow Project

“In 1364, King Edward III granted this manor, which had been held for life by John de Cobham, to Thomas Cheyne, his shield-bearer, whose descendants in the reign of Henry VIII sold it to Lord Chief Justice Baldwin” (Source: 1806 Magna Britannia)

Historically the land has been used for a variety of purposes, cleared of most of its ancient woodland in the 18th Century it was used for a Beech plantation and harvested for the furniture industry in High Wycombe. Previous owners have also used it to extract chalk and clay and in recent history extraction of flint was undertaken for road making. At times when the commons was used for grazing it would have resembled open grassy plains but after many years of non grazing,  it has become a fairly dense woodland.  In the last 25 years there has been little or no maintenance of the trees and with the criss crossing of public paths and bridleways this can present some serious problems if trees become diseased, overcrowded and weakened.

Flowering Gorse

Flowering Gorse

In 1967 the Commons Preservation Society was set up to assist in the maintenance of the common land on behalf of the Lord of the Manors. The society has been primarily concerned with the endless battle of controlling invasive vegetation. This has included a sympathetic cutting and collecting regime and knocking back bracken with an ancient tractor to promote a greater diversity of plants.

Pockets of gorse can be found in parts of the common and is frequented by Partridges, one of the many birds using the area for habitat, nesting and breeding. On a recent visit  I  noticed vast swathes of bluebells shooting up between the trampled bracken, proving that the Commons Preservation Society’s hard work is having the right effect. In fact in recent years conservation work has taken greater prominence with the introduction of heather regeneration schemes and measures to promote the acid grassland which is rare in Buckinghamshire.

After seeing an aerial photo of the commons I was surprised to see just how much of the land had been colonised by woodland in a relatively short time. Lovely as it is, woodland needs to be managed to maintain tree health and prevent disease. In fact thinning out areas of woodland can benefit flora and fauna biodiversity; increased light and air allows smaller plants to flourish and can trigger dormant seed germination in cleared areas. 

Bluebells are an indicator species of ancient woodland

Although Christine could manage the land more cost effectively, she has chosen to maintain the land with conservation as the focus.  The commons are designated as a County Wildlife Site and locals report seeing Pheasants and Red-legged Partridges and last year I was lucky enough to witness the gorgeous vision of an Owl ‘drift’ through a valley of trees.

Cuckoos are seasonal visitors alongside the standard fare of a variety of songbirds, Rooks, Jackdaws and Magpies. The area is also home to Red Kite, Roe Deer, Muntjac, Badgers and the occasional Pole Cat. The woodland glades and edges of the more open grassland areas provide feeding grounds and reproduction sites for many butterflies, including CommasGatekeepersMarbled WhitesSkippersPurple and White-letter Hairstreaks and the occasional Silver-washed Fritillary and White Admiral.

A management plan for the woodland was produced with the help of the Forestry Commission. After three years of consultation Christine decided to go ahead with the plan whilst the Forestry Commission were willing to help with some of the costs. It is a huge project of tree thinning and coppicing aimed at producing sustainable managed woodland for the future. At a later date there is the possibility that the coppiced wood may be sold to a local brick company who use wood charcoal to fire their premium range bricks, thus creating a sustainable local relationship which would also help towards the cost of the coppicing.

Newly revealed Veteran Tree

Newly revealed Veteran Tree

As part of the project Christine has located 40 Veteran trees of special interest which will be revealed in all their glory by thinning out woodland, where necessary, around them. This will also ensure that they are not damaged in winter storms by surrounding trees and branches. The second stage of the tree management will include the coppicing and reduction of trees along the public roads  that run along the side of the commons, with a final stage of thinning out of trees across the common planned for 2015.

On this occasion the planned and considered coppicing and removal of certain trees is the right action plan for the future of these gorgeous commons, and I for one am truly grateful that the present owner is a true conservationist.

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