Out in the woods: April 2014

It’s April, the birds are singing, the sun is shining, the trees have a fresh green haze, bluebells are putting in an appearance and, at last, the mud is drying out. All very delightful but I find myself still waiting for winter to arrive; we don’t seem to have had any prolonged cold spells, serious frosty mornings or snow. Good thing I included a pretty, snowy photograph last time but of course that doesn’t mean to say that there is still not a possibility of some April snow!

 On the 14th March we had our first Guided Walk with Keith Seaman looking at “Animal Tracks and Signs”. It was a beautiful day and a good number of people came along to join us, including several children who coped very well with the two hour plus walk, and it was delightful to see them taking such an interest. Of course, just when we needed some mud  for spotting good animal tracks the paths had dried out considerably; nevertheless Keith took us on a fascinating walk pointing out all sorts of interesting items, including bird song and information on badgers, their habitat and way of life.

Our next walk is “Before Sherrardspark Wood. The Rocks Beneath the Trees” at the beginning of April. I did a preliminary walk with Nikki Edwards which was most interesting and informative on a quite different historical angle of our woodland. I will certainly be reporting back to you in detail!  

Two other walks will soon take place, in April “Cowslips & Bluebells” with Neale Holmes-Smith and in May “Discovery Tour of the Wood” with wood wardens Gary and Peter.   Hopefully, many of you will have joined us on these two very popular walks.

On 11th May we have a second time round with botanist Dr. Agneta Burton looking at “Common Woodland and Heathland Mosses”. If you want to try something different do please come along to this one, I found it really fascinating last year and it was good to learn something on a subject about which I knew absolutely nothing. You will find a hand magnifying lens very useful.

Medicinal Herbalist and Health Coach, Mary Barton, will be joining us on 1st June “Foraging in the Wood for Food and Medicine”. You will need a notebook and pen on this one, there is so much interesting information to be gained from Mary’s considerable experience in this field; so much to learn and remember!

22nd June we will have the opportunity to find out about “Woodland Insect Life” with Raymond Uffen. Again it is recommended that you bring along a hand lens. This is a new addition to our guided walks, but I am sure we are going to find a lot of life out there in our woodland that we are unaware of.

You can expect more plugs about some of our remaining walks next time!!

Whilst on my fairly regular walks in Sherrardspark Wood many people have expressed to me their feelings of deep concern and disappointment at the work that is taking place in the wood. The felling of trees on quite a considerable scale is indeed giving the woodland a very different ‘new look’ and I must admit to my own dismay at the changes that are taking place, it is always sad to see such mature, much loved trees felled. So many of us older residents have happy childhood memories of the wood and it is difficult to accept such drastic changes.Maybe it would have been better if the work could have been spread out in smaller sections over a longer period of time, but this would probably not have been an economic option as far as overall costs are concerned.

With my wood warden hat on I am of course aware of the need to have a management plan for the wood, which has been in place since 2005, in order to encourage the growth of young trees by opening up some areas so as to increase the light into the woodland.  I am assured that since the commencement of the thinning procedure started some years ago, we now have hundreds more seedling oak trees, more woodland flowers appearing alongside the paths and rarer butterflies in the wood. On a further positive note I have to say that we have seen some of the benefits of past management, for example Sefton Plantation and the glorious heather in August as well as the bank below Rectory Road towards Templevale Field where we now have a splendid display of bluebells and other wild flowers since clearance took place. I know there is a programme of tree re-planting in place for several areas of the wood, but it is of course future generations who will really see the full benefit of what is taking place now.

Having said all that it is time to move on and with spring now with us and the trees bursting into their leafy finery I feel sure the wood will take on another different look against a fresh green background instead of the stark bareness of winter and we will all feel happier.

Most of the trees taken down in the Garrod Walk area are Sweet Chestnut, because of their dense leafy canopy which blocks the light, so I thought this an excellent opportunity for me to look a bit closer into the nature and origin of this very grand and majestic tree.  

Although Sweet Chestnut trees were introduced to the British Isles by the Romans, they are today regarded as an ‘honorary native’ and are common throughout Britain in woods and coppices, particularly in parts of southern England, where spectacular, centuries-old specimens of enormous size can be found. To quote one example, apparently the best known is a remarkable tree in Gloucestershire with written records going back to the 12th century, a period of time when they were valued for their nuts and timber. In fact, to quote The Royal Forestry Society, the Sweet Chestnut is a very long-lived species with a lifespan well in excess of 700 years.

Now, have you ever tried sweet chestnut porridge?   It is said that Roman soldiers were given this dish before going into battle! I wonder what this tasted like. It doesn’t sound very appetising, but chestnuts, roasted or ground into flour, were apparently an important part of the Roman diet.

There are many other good uses for sweet chestnuts; in Europe they were sometimes ground and used to make starch for laundry and to whiten linen.   On the medicinal side Chestnut leaves and bark are said to have astringent, anti-inflammatory, expectorant and tonic properties, with infusions of the leaves being used as a remedy for whooping cough and to treat other irritable conditions of the respiratory system. It gets even better, with the leaves being used in the treatment of diarrhoea, rheumatism, to ease lower back pains and relieve stiff muscles and joints.  Who needs doctors – well you might if you try any of these old remedies, but who knows. It might be safer to just try an infusion of leaves and fruit husks to make a shampoo.  

You may also be surprised to learn that sweet chestnuts contain 180 calories per 100 grams, which is lower than walnuts and almonds, contain no cholesterol, very little fat (mostly unsaturated), and no gluten. Something else I was not aware of is that Sweet Chestnut has been listed as one of the 38 substances used to prepare Bach flower remedies.

Value to wildlife? Bees and nectar-loving insects are attracted to Sweet Chestnut’s heavily scented flowers,and apparently the nuts are a favourite of red squirrels, although sadly we have not had this species in Sherrardspark Wood for many years. Also a large number of micro-moth species feed on the leaves and nuts. Birds that benefit from coppiced sweet chestnut include the nightjar, willow warbler, dunnock, lesser whitethroat and nightingale. What a pity we no longer seem to have nightingales in the wood.

Last, but by no means least, we come to the wood. Chestnut is of the same family as oak and likewise its wood contains many tannins, thus rendering the wood very durable and gives it excellent outdoor resistance, saving the need for other protection treatments. Although very similar to oak it is lighter in weight and more easily worked, and  apparently young chestnut wood has proved to be more durable than oak of the same dimension, particularly for woodwork that has to be partly in the ground such as stakes and fences.   It has many other uses in carpentry, joinery and furniture - not so good for log fires though as it ‘spits’ when burning.   I was also interested to know that chestnut wood, being a natural source of tannin, was used for tanning leather before the introduction of synthetic tannins. For interest, in 1945 David (the person I share my life with) worked in a Kent Forestry Camp helping to fell Sweet Chestnut for use as pit props in the coal mines.

Not surprisingly the Sweet Chestnut was a popular choice for landscaping in England, particularly in the 18th and 19th centuries, for what a magnificent statement it makes when it achieves maturity.  Another bonus come Autumn is when the pale yellow leaves deepen to rich gold and brown, covering the ground with a thick carpet of rustling leaves. Just for good measure, in long gone times these leaves were often gathered by poor people to make winter bedding which they called “talking beds” because they rustled and crackled when laid upon. 

Many of you will be very familiar with the area around the large swallow hole which has a distinct character of its own because of the large Sweet Chestnut and Oak trees; this was a very special place to my late husband, Alastair, who used to call it “The Cathedral of the Wood”. I feel sure you agree that it is a unique area and I also think that, having read all this, you probably now know more detail about the Sweet Chestnut than he did!

Although we have lost some trees in Sherrardspark Wood in order to encourage the growth of young oaks, which are very necessary for the long term future of the wood, and to help retain our important status as a Site of Special Scientific Interest, we still have many Sweet Chestnut trees in the wood to enjoy, not least the pleasure of gathering their nuts later in the year, but I don’t think I will be experimenting with any of the old time remedies suggested!

What a glorious time of year we are now entering, with the trees bursting into their fresh green foliage, an abundance of wild flowers, and the delight of taking a moment to rest and listen to sweet birdsong. I do hope the heather will have recovered this year from the plague of heather beetle we experienced last year.

It only remains for me to encourage you to come along and join one of our work parties, on a Thursday or Sunday morning, (or both!). You will be made most welcome by our
great team of volunteer wood wardens so please contact Gary on 01707 375216 for more information.

 

Marian Dawson, Wood Warden

April 2014

 

 

Garrod Walk: Sweet Chestnut removal, 2014

Guided Walk with Keith Seaman, March 2014

Sherrardspark Wood in April