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Thousands of new trees planted by Wildlife Trust as it explores best planting strategies

In the collection of ancient woodlands known as the West Cambridgeshire Hundreds, the Wildlife Trust has planted thousands of trees during the last year. The trust’s Caroline Fitton explores why - and the latest research on how best to plant new trees.

Tree planting in December 2022 at Hayley Wood. Picture: Michael Barnes
Tree planting in December 2022 at Hayley Wood. Picture: Michael Barnes

In a mathematical equation of complex long division, thousands have gone into hundreds – but what exactly is a Hundred?

From the 11th to the 19th centuries a hundred was a unit of English local government and taxation, the subdivision of a shire.

The origins are thought to reference a group of 100 hides (unit of land) required to support one family, traditionally understood to be 120 acres.

During autumn 2022 into winter of this year, the Wildlife Trust in Cambridgeshire's reserves teams have planted upward of 3,000 trees at Waresley, Gamlingay and Hayley Woods, more than triple the number than in previous years.

This has happened for a variety of reasons - in the bigger picture, the effects of climate change are undoubtedly having marked impacts on woodlands across the country: significantly wetter autumns and winters coupled with much drier springs and summers have caused some loss of tree density.

The effects of ash dieback is gradually changing the look and profile of many woods, with the removal of diseased trees being unavoidable.

Signs of ash dieback in Waresley Wood. Picture: Noa Leach
Signs of ash dieback in Waresley Wood. Picture: Noa Leach

This has been the case especially at Waresley Wood, where regenerative felling needed to take place to remove affected ash trees; the new planting here has been primarily in mitigation for ash dieback losses, with species such as hornbeam, wild service and small-leaved lime.

Sourcing the right tree stocks for replacement planting presented an interesting conundrum - preparation and obtaining the right stock is key.

Reserves officer David Price explains: “There has been increasing difficulty in obtaining UK grown trees from UK seed – the stock at tree nurseries in the UK has run down to a great extent. Planning needs to be done some years in advance, so nurseries have been unable to cope with the extra demand for stock – this meant that we had to scout around and place orders very early where possible.”

The range of 1,400 species planted at Waresley Wood includes more than 200 oak trees, 150 field maple, silver birch, downy birch, alder, grey willow, hawthorn, hazel and dogwood, with similar numbers of species at both Gamlingay and Hayley, although with rather more hazel at these woods to facilitate the traditional woodland management procedure of rotational coppicing.

Tree guards, from left, cardboard; UK wool and cashew resin, cotton and pine rosin, plastic. Picture: Michael Barnes
Tree guards, from left, cardboard; UK wool and cashew resin, cotton and pine rosin, plastic. Picture: Michael Barnes

Planting also became an experimental process for trialling the use of different plastic free, biodegradable tree guards – while using up existing plastic stock (always removed as and when the trees no longer need protection), the team also used cardboard, cotton and pine rosin - the choice option of wool mix guards not yet being available in suitable volume.

Some were planted without guards to help establish survival rates when left bare, with double density planting in these areas on the basis that should half be eaten by deer, enough trees will still thrive. Definitive results will take a few years to determine, but already the cardboard variety has proved least popular; coated in a biodegradable wax some even fell apart on installation.

The cotton and pine rosin type proved more robust and have been more rigorously tested at production stage, made by people who have put thought into the process.

Ultimately, each option will be assessed in terms of success rate, cost and labour intensity, but long term will see a reduction in plastic pollution and less labour removing old tree guards as the new generation will biodegrade.

David adds: “We had to be wary in researching our sources for the various guards as there are some misleading products out there which aren't completely biodegradable.

Winter planting at Hayley Wood. Picture: Michael Barnes
Winter planting at Hayley Wood. Picture: Michael Barnes

“With the old green plastic guards there can be a weird unearthly glow at times when light shines through forests of green tree guards – the beige cotton ones will blend in much better.”

The hope is that, in years to come, people will still be able to visit and enjoy these climate-proofed wildlife-rich ancient woodlands – soon to be alive with swathes of bluebells in the next few months.

For more, visit wildlifebcn.org/westcambshundreds and wildlifebcn.org/about-us/we-manage-100-nature-reserves/woodland-management.

A Landmark moment

Back in autumn 2022, the trust launched a Landmark Appeal, part of the Great Fen's Peatland Progress project, looking to raise £400,000 to purchase Speechly's Farm, completing a jigsaw linking ancient fragments of existed fen habitat.

Thanks to many generous donations and contributions, the trust iscelebrating having reached that amount which, along with funding from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, has now enabled the land to be purchased.

Looking ahead this unlocks much ground-breaking work of land restoration, peatland protection and carbon capture – all vital for the planet.

The trust is very grateful to everyone who helped make this happen.

Visit greatfen.org.uk/peatland-progress and wildlifebcn.org/support-us.

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