Sunday, 2 March 2014


To quote the Fab Four, "When I was younger, so much younger than today," trees used to fall down and we called it "nature".  If they fell on people or property it was "an accident". Now it always has to be someone's fault. I have sympathy for anyone who is a victim of an accident but there are negative consequences to this approach. While conservationists are talking about "re-wilding" on one hand, on the other, because we are so risk-averse, we are turning the countryside into one big sub-urban park where little or nothing is left to chance.

Part One

Tree removed for safety reasons.
On Friday, almost all of our rangers were on a course that taught them to assess dangerous trees. It's a very important aspect of our work, but how do you know exactly when a willow will explode? You don't. How do you predict lightning-strikes, droughts and heavy ice-storms? It is all too easy to cut everything down, just in case. The consequences of this are bad for wildlife and aesthetically bad too.

All the same, we have lost quite a few trees this winter, one way or another, and it's time for a bit of a clean up before the spring growth really gets under way.

We are not generally a woodland site, but I have entered Rory's Wood and the adjoining boundary wood into the Forestry Commission's register. Our long term objective there is to have a good stock of native trees, but with a proper understory. Away from that area we have trees growing along paths, tracks and roads, and around lakes.

If a tree falls in a lake, it is a good thing as it provides shelter for fish and nesting sites for coots and moorhens. In fact we are being paid by Natural England to remove a lot of our waterside trees to improve the habitat for aquatic invertebrates. This is the case on Cloudy Pit, Washout Pit and Dodder Fen.

Oxford University is our landlord on a lot of the site and they sent a contractor to take care of dangerous trees along the roads and paths that they are responsible for. We took out some trees ourselves for the same reason. They mostly became unstable after several years of drought and then had their roots loosened by the heavy rainfall this year. Some had rot from top to bottom.

Hornet clearwing moth.
Poplars are interesting in that many of them have rotted from the bottom up. If you look around the base, you will almost always find a few holes, about the diameter of a pencil. These are caused by the larvae of spectacular moth that looks just like a hornet. It is called a "hornet clearwing moth" (see my photo). Generally, the trees survive just fine,  but in some cases the supply of sap to a branch or two is cut off, so we have to pollard them. In a really bad case, where damp and rot have entered the trunk from the base, the whole tree dies. You can see quite a few examples at Paxton.

I'm always sad to see trees dying, but often it is just nature's cycle. I like to keep them standing as long as I can, because they look interesting and play host to a variety of insects and birds, as well as bats.

Part two

Highland cow thinking of taking the Great North Road home.
While the rest of the staff were being trained in "diseases of treeses", I was supposed to be the ranger on duty. Unfortunately my day went wrong from the start when a ranger called in sick and I had to rescue my son from total meltdown in Peterborough where I found two carers freezing in the cold while missiles flew around inside and outside the car. iPods, books, shoes and CDs were getting flying lessons. He plainly did not want to go to his clown-school that day! So then I was stuck at home with a fretful teenager and shaken carers and there was no-one on duty at Paxton to clean the loos, do patrols or deal with emergencies. Inevitably, it all went bottom-up.

I had a series of calls at home regarding our highland cattle which had escaped and were in danger of getting onto the A1. I could not go and look, even for ten minutes, and the rangers on the tree course were reluctant to go as the lunch-break was too short to achieve anything and the course was a significant investment for us. Ranger Rob Martyr offered to go as soon as the course ended, but there was concern about the consequences that might occur if the cattle got onto the road. In the end Ray Matthews (Chairman of the Friends) managed to get a volunteer (Mike Thomas) and farmer, Alf Peacock, up to Diddington to assess the situation. They were quite surprised to find that the escaped cattle were indeed in danger of getting onto the A1 but that they were not our highlands at all, but longhorns belonging to the Boughton Lodge estate. There was a suggestion that a few of our cattle had gone over to join them for a while but, finding no bulls (I hope), got bored and turned back to the herd.
Cheer up, spring is coming.

While all this was happening. Rob went up and moved our 14 cattle some distance to another field, so that the potential for interaction between our cattle and those of our neighbour was reduced.

A number of lessons were learned, I can tell you! Not least among which is that, in an emergency, you need to go and look before you act, just to assess the situation.

It was a vert stressful day four several of us, but, looking back, you have too see the funny side, don't you?