Early risers and insomniacs may well tune in to Radio 4 just before 6 am and get a daily dose of Tweet of the Day – a peculiarly British version of radio culture. A few days ago it was a tweet from the Willow Tit, apparently very difficult to spot as they are rare and elusive and can only be positively identified through their song. So this got me thinking about our farm’s interaction with the local bird population and the general wildlife.
Eleven years ago we planted a small area of coppice willow, 110 trees on half an acre of boggy field corner at the interface of where the river Thames in flood meets our vegetable field. Having given up trying to produce any decent crops from the area as it was nearly always wet until halfway through the summer, something needed to be done with the land. I could have just left it to nature as it would eventually have become a piece of natural woodland; our fields are all too ready to take the opportunity to revert to the original as soon as you turn your back on them. But I am a bit impatient and getting no younger and wanted something in a bit of a rush, so decided that fast growing willow would be perfect for the job.
It grows profusely around the Thames Valley, is great for wildlife, looks good and could make a valuable contribution to the firewood pile so it ticked all the boxes. Cuttings were sought and pushed into the damp soil and apart from an occasional mowing and mulch around the base when they were small; there was not much to do apart from wait. By the fourth year most of the trees were 3m tall and ready to coppice, so a quick blast through with a chain saw reduced them to ground level in anticipation of re-growth on many stems the next spring. The yield of firewood was paltry enough to keep my wood-burner going for a couple of months at the best. Beginning to look like another wait was needed, nothing very instant when it comes to growing unless you specialise in radish that is.
So more time passed, a further 4 years during which time some trees died, still not managed to find out why, but the remaining 65% grew like there was no tomorrow. They were now towering over themselves in a fight to get to sunlight-over 10 metres tall with many perfectly straight stems, looking quite splendid with their silvery green bark and glossy leaves and a wonderful unique smell that is impossible to describe wafting across the field on warm days. The landscape beneath was transformed from a boggy grassy mess to one of leaf-mould, wild plants, insects and nature at it wildest and best. The insect activity has to be seen to be believed and this feeds an increasingly impressive list of birds throughout the year. We have Willow Warblers but no Willow Tits that I have seen. Perhaps they are there but too busy keeping secret about their daily chores. New trees have grown where some willow had died and there is an impressive stand of oak trees pushing their way up through the shade canopy, acorns from the nearby oak (about 400 years old) sown by Jays. Apparently they can remember where they have stashed around 95% of the acorns they bury, if only I had half that amount of memory…
Every winter I harvest one row of trees out of the five that are there, each year the yield increases and last winter I gained 8 cubic metres of quality firewood more than enough for a whole winter of heat and hot water. As well as the firewood, there are all the trimmings from the trees this goes into heaps on the ground to act as havens for insects, gradually rotting away to feed the soil and microbes. The trees also provide wind shelter to our crops in that part of the field and I have seen some real benefits from that. The whole site is throbbing with wildlife activity and productivity and is a haven to behold. The success of the project is down to nature but that nature needs a helping hand to do its best and the very act of coppicing the trees provides a multitude of opportunities for nature to exploit. Nature is smart, but it needs a chance. Time will tell as to how long the coppice will last, but there are plenty of examples around of more than 1000 years, so it should see me out ok.
The by-product of all this is our organic vegetables and organic firewood! This is carbon neutral and the carbon we gain with the non burnt portion of the woodland adds to our carbon capture within the whole farm. As time goes by, the firewood will become enough to supply heat and water to at least three of our dwellings here on the farm and the ash provides a rich potash fertiliser that goes back to the land through the woodchip compost heap.
So good for the land, good for the environment, great for you as our valued customers and supporters. Nature doing what it does so well with just a little helping hand from us. Tweet away.