If you go down to the woods today….

It has been rather lively around St George’s Farm of late.  As well as the fantastic volunteers who come to help with various woodyard, orchard or farm work, a forestry contractor has arrived to carry out much needed thinning of woodland known as Shelf Held Coppice which borders on Ruskin Land.

Regular visitors to this part of the Wyre Forest may be surprised at the size of the machinery being used to carry out this work.  A gigantic forest tractor and ‘forwarder’ – for loading large trunks onto a trailer – are being used to move the timber to stacks ready for collection by fire-wood merchants or timber contractors.  When these big beasts are first encountered, particularly at dusk when their headlights project an eerie light into the woods, they can seem a little out of place.   But the work being carried out here, with great skill by Nathan of Home Forestry in line with a management plan agreed with the Forestry Commission, is essential to improve the health and biodiversity of the woodland.

Shelf Held Coppice is an important part of the Wyre Forest National Nature Reserve, one of our most important wildlife sites.  Yet, lack of management coupled with pressure from deer and squirrels has contributed to a general decline in biodiversity in recent years, primarily of woodland birds and butterflies and the flora they depend on such as violets. The decline of coppicing here – where trees are cut at ground level every 15 years or so to encourage new growth – since the 1930s has played a part in this.  The result is trees all of roughly the same age with a closed canopy which prevents light from reaching the forest floor so that only bracken and bramble can survive as ground cover.  Added to this is concern about the spread of tree diseases such as acute oak decline and oak processionary moth, although the latter is not thought to be present here.  To address these challenges, the aim of the management plan is ‘to increase diversity in both the age structure and species mix to create a woodland that is resilient to disease and the potential effects of climate change.’

woodland-structureThere is also an important economic aspect to this activity.  Through generating income and raw material from this kind of sensitive woodland management, the Wyre Community Land Trust intends to help rebuild the local woodland economy which has been lost in so many parts of the country.  Such efforts are being helped by a new Making Local Woods Work programme being run by the Plunkett Foundation which aims to support social enterprises, such as the Wyre CLT, to develop sustainable woodland businesses.

Some may think it unnecessary to manage woodlands in this way, and might oppose the felling of any tree, preferring woodland to be left to look after itself. This was the view taken by many associated with the romantic movement in the nineteenth century.  I am not sure John Ruskin would have taken this position.  His writing reveals a belief in the possibility of a harmonious working relationship between people and the natural world  (even if he felt this was not much in evidence).    In recent years, woodland ecologists like George Peterken have done much to demonstrate the value of intelligent intervention to sustain and enhance the value, and indeed beauty, of our native woodland.

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We have a great responsibility to look after beautiful places like this with great care.   I believe the woodland work being carried out here, while it may be a surprise for some, shows how it is possible to pursue economic aims alongside longer term environmental objectives.  I can’t wait until next Spring to see how the woodland flora responds.

 

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Apples a plenty

The apple harvest has just ended here in the Wyre Forest.  Last week we gathered as many as we could of the remaining fruits still clinging to the leafless branches of trees in local orchards.    We were playing our small part in the practice of gleaning which is growing in popularity in these parts and across the UK.

Almost all of the apples we collected recently, including a fair quantity of undamaged windfalls, we have turned into juice.  We didn’t bother trying to combine the different varieties with great precision but even so the result was impressive, a subtle bittersweet combination helped no doubt by a quantity of cider apples.  There is nothing quite like the taste of fresh apple juice drunk straight from the press.   Although it has an affect on taste, for practical purposes we pasteurised most of the juice  To do this we poured it into sterilised bottles and immersed them in a water bath kept at around 75 degrees centigrade for 30 minutes.  This should ensure it keeps well for at least 12 months. Unpasteurised juice can be stored for a few weeks in the freezer but should be consumed within a couple of days of being opened.

With the help of a heavy duty press and ‘scratter’ – which chops and pulverises the apples into small bite size lumps – we managed to turn two large ‘builders’ bucketfuls into about 20 litres of juice.  Some, I must confess, was siphoned off into demijohns with the intention of making cider.   Along with an air lock, we are relying on the natural, wild yeasts from the apples to create the right fermentation.  This is not a practice recommended by most cider makers, who tend to add champagne yeast, so we eagerly await the results.  In any case, I’m told that apple vinegar is increasingly valued for its health giving properties which is good to know as we may have a lot of that to dispose of in the coming months!

It was interesting to discover that John Ruskin has been described as a ‘leading maker of apple juice’ in his time.  So far I haven’t managed to find much information about how this came to be, either in his writing or that of his many followers.  It is tempting to imagine this juice might have been sold in the tea shop he established in Paddington Street in London in the 1870s.  The shop was conceived to provide honest, high quality tea to the local community at a reasonable cost.  (Coincidentally Ruskin’s shop was located just a short distance along the same street as the apple boutique set up by the Beatles almost a century later.  At the official opening of the boutique, it is reported, apple juice was consumed due to the lack of an alcohol licence!)

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Site of Ruskin’s tea shop

The apples we juiced recently were not harvested at Ruskin Land.  The orchard here at St George’s Farm has only just been planted so we will have to wait a few years before we can begin to harvest its fruit.  We look forward to its future bounty. To help encourage a good crop in coming years we are planning another wassail celebration in mid-January. Mulled cider and apple juice from the recent harvest will no doubt be on the drinks list.  We hope the event is as successful as the first such occasion organised earlier this year. Details of the wassail will shortly be on the Wyre CLT website if you fancy coming along.