Sunday 23rd September 2018 should be remembered as a significant date in this millenium for Sherrardspark Wood SSSI. This was the date on which the first oak sapling was planted to initiate the Prime Oaks Project, the inspiration of Wood Warden Gary Dobrin. A number of wood wardens are involved with the project which aims to plant 300 new oaks by 2030.
The first of 300 saplings was planted by Gary Dobrin, Chris Mason and Geoff Ralph in the Reddings area of the wood in pouring rain - ideal planting weather!
Native oaks (English and sessile) support more wildlife than any other trees. Our sessile oaks are the foundation of Sherrardspark Wood both aesthetically and ecologically, the essence of its SSSI status and the key to its future health. Continuous regeneration has long been widely recognised as being fundamental to the maintenance of healthy woodland, but the process is not well understood. Acorns sprout seedlings all over the wood (many helpfully planted by jays), but a vast number fail to survive into maturity. Some succumb to oak mildew attack. Others are eaten by muntjac deer, birds or small mammals. Grey squirrels are major culprits here, eating acorns, stripping bark and munching green shoots. Some seedlings will die for lack of water - witness this past summer. In its early years an oak sapling can fail for any number of reasons, but if it happens to have started life in the wrong location in the first place, it has little chance of survival in any case. It's all to do with light.
When brambles smother our planted 2-year-old oaks we clear a space around each sapling to give it a helping hand, but for an oak seedling sprouting from its acorn the brambles are an effective 'nursery' plant. They rarely inhibit its progress for long and in the meantime provide thorny protection against browsing mouths. An oak seedling can overcome a degree of competition from other plants for light because the acorn carries its own food store. Eventually the seedling - having graduated with flying colours to become a young sapling - will overtop the brambles, putting on a spurt of growth. But at this stage a continued lack of adequate light can be injurious or even lethal. Sunlight is vital for the photosynthesis of food for the plant; insufficient carbohydrate results in a very unhappy oak.
Stand beneath our trees and look up. You will see that much of the canopy of the wood is 'closed' - that is, the crowns of the mature oaks are touching each other, blocking out most of the sky. More than sixty years ago Sherrardspark Wood was managed in such a way that light reached all parts of the woodland; nowadays oak saplings twist and lean towards the meagre gaps that show above them, in an effort to maximise their intake of light. As a consequence it is difficult to find oak saplings that have developed with a straight, vertical habit. Yet the tall, upright stateliness of our sessile oaks is a quintessential element of the history and character of the wood that must not be lost.
The key to diversity in woodland wildlife is to have a patchwork of trees of varying ages. (In the old days this yielded a continuous supply of timber for the wood owner; the benefit to wildlife was incidental.) Mixed-age trees create layers of vegetation at different heights above the woodland floor, with sufficient light reaching all layers - a variety of niches from floor to ceiling, so to speak, in which many forms of wildlife can thrive. In short, it's a three-dimensional world we are after, and the Prime Oaks Project will hopefully produce our badly-needed saplings to achieve this.
In establishing our Prime Oaks we must ensure that they are planted in areas of maximum light. Opportunities in the mature areas of the wood are few, but fortunately our annual winter coppicing work will create some suitable clearings. The main elements of the project are as follows:
1. Grow from acorns or select existing straight, strong sessile oak saplings.
2. Plant in areas of good light with guards in place to protect from browsing.
3. Care for each tree for the first 25 -50 years (e.g. weeding, watering in drought, removing low side branches).
4. Maintain records of each tree including date planted, location and progress of the tree.
There is no shortage of acorns! Volunteers will collect them, pot them up and nurture the seedlings for about two years until ready for transplanting. Let's get potting!
Geoff Ralph Sept 2018