The work to transform the ‘ten for nature’ from an overgrazed, wildlife desert steadily dawned. At the time, the effort was like an everlasting morning sun rise, with the never ending need to know and do more!
We thought we knew quite a lot from experience of running two acres of land with streams, woodland and hedges as a series of complex microhabitats, but this was different. The effort required for five fields of one to two acres each was much bigger. The paddock was flat, easy and accessible but the other fields each had an incline sufficient to make one breathless in a walk to the top. In terms of planning, equipment and labour, dealing with the land shape and size, and its state from having been grazed by sheep and cattle for 200 years or more, was to prove quite challenging at all stages of its management.
Nature’s benefit was to be the sole focus of our planning, which led to a seemingly endless series of quandaries. Which native or European trees would be best for the birds and insects and where and why? Which shrubs should we choose and how tall and fast would they grow on these inclines on land covered with endless abhorred prickly hawthorn and holly? Would alders work in the patches of land that were wet from the constant yet ever varying underground waterflow courses? What about real fruit trees just for the birds and insects, like crab apples or damsons? Maybe just stick to apple and plum trees, as tried and tested!
Stressful climate issues
Then there was the recurring need for protection of tree stems and developing bark, and repeated climate issues. In the first year of several years of plantings, the weather not only stressed us but also the newly planted trees and the hedge plants. It was totally dry – rainless for 12 weeks starting six weeks after planting in March. There was just never enough rain, and because it was so dry, the ground opened deep six-inch cracks as the desiccated earth split and split.
This led to the further dilemma of whether to water or mulch with grass or chippings, or both, or leave alone. After so much effort in the first year in cold, wet March, we opted to mulch the most vulnerable trees. We watered some trees and shrubs with a hose from the newly replaced field tap to enable their survival that first year. Luckily, the land had underground aquifers and they acted as the crucial natural version of rainwater harvesting tanks, despite the lack of rain. Phew! The ground was rock hard and like dust in places. The dryness of the vegetation even raised concerns of fire risk! This was hard stuff…
Rain at last
We became expert mulchers from all sorts of organic materials, plant shreddings, wood chippings and grass cuttings in a variety of guises. It was only 150 trees and hedge plants at this point and so just feasible. We watched for rain, yet rain clouds seemed to divert their attention to any direction except our patch. Finally, when visitors came in that late July to help cut the paddock grass, they brought the rain with them, even if it was just three hours of it. But enough rain fell in the following weeks of intermittent short drenches to enable these trees to survive..
There were just a few losses where the root system and the cobbles within the earth were not a fair match for a young sapling, though even the surviving trees and shrubs looked pretty lifeless in that period. Thin and spindly, they just sat it out, waiting patiently until the regular rain arrived.
Then they leapt into action and above ground we saw leaves emerge, yellow-green in colour, signalling an Olympic sprint towards life. Deep down inside the earth, they had sourced the wetness and nutrients they needed. Huge relief as several 4 metre oaks and silver birches planted to create a varied age in the woodland made it through the drought. They quickly sprouted another 30 centimetres of height within a month of the rain and amazing us with their resilience and tenacity.
Hebridean sheep: not so conservation-conscious after all
A further unforeseen challenge then presented itself as a result of the planned arrival of black Hebridean sheep. Wisdom has it that Hebridean sheep are useful ‘conservation grazing animals’, effectively controlling scrub through their habit of ‘browsing’ but at the same time kind to ‘delicate ecosystems’. This had sounded ideal. So much for that!
We discovered they loved to prop their front legs up on the tree stakes, which raised their height enough to be able to eat the lower branches and nibble the tree bark. Even though the hedge saplings, hazel especially, were all carefully tied behind 1.25m of tall green mesh closed with three cable ties, these sheep trashed them almost overnight. There was almost no height limit to what the sheep would tackle, given some tree whips’ size was up to 1.5 metres. Mesh guards were guaranteed to address deer and normal sheep but obviously not these black ‘goats’.
Emergency mesh reinforcement still failed to deter the sheep from seeking out their preferred regular ‘tapas nibbles’ of hazel or rowan twiglets. So, one late Saturday afternoon found us in an agricultural services business buying electric netting – 300 metres of it, with poles and necessary connections. That Sunday proved a rapid learning experience in how to use electric fencing, as we set about protecting the trees and hedgerow shrubs. After several shocked fingers, repeated episodes of untangling knotted wire and rapidly fraying tempers, we stood back with the ultimate protection in place. And the ‘goats’ turned their backs on us and their attention to trimming all the old prickly hawthorn and holly hedging, accepting their destiny of duller main course foods.
Step one achieved – what next?
We now had our first planting: mixed native shrubs of hazel, field maple and guelder rose in the hedge gaps, and a range of native trees – alders, aspen, oak (sessile and English), rowan and white beam – in two small copse areas. Step one had been achieved and we felt a positive sense of progress, leading to an ever-growing list of possible next steps and loads of maintenance to address.
Well, the next big decision was to let the grass stay ungrazed and long across all the fields with occasional short-term grazing with the Hebridean sheep. This was all contrary to everyone’s thinking and persuasion after two centuries or more of sheep grazing. But the rationale for this step was to allow for more woodland planting and areas for raptors and owls to hunt, as field voles, field mice and shrews could live there in abundance, along with their bigger ‘mates’, the hares. Previously, buzzards and jackdaws occupied the area, as copious supplies of pheasant and partridge carrion offered them regular gourmet meals of game. But why settle for such a limited range of species? What about barn owls, kestrels, sparrowhawks, even merlin maybe? All could be attracted and safely accommodated.
How did nature respond?
Within the first year of the planting, this owl flew in one morning at dawn and stayed:
It has been intermittently around the fields now for the past five years, sometimes with a partner owl or its young. Every time you see the owl you are amazed – its breath-taking flight, its quartering behaviour covering the ground, and its diving down to capture food sources, even rats.
What a difference letting the grass grow made for the owl: a massive immigration and proliferation of voles, shrews and field mice. Multiple burrow-holes began to populate the fields, like a ‘Glastonbury festival’ of tents, providing safety and a place to be and yet also a possible supper for an owl! The interconnectedness of nature in action.
Amazed? We were – and also spurred on and enthused. Despite the many challenges overcome so far in creating ten for nature, there was no resting on laurels. Thoughts now ran as follows: if you changed the land and the barn owl arrived of its own volition, then what if you planted alder buckthorn. Would the brimstone butterfly do the same …?
Secret to be revealed next time as we make a bid to plant 5,000 trees and shrubs.