9th August 2017
ATF Wessex: Managing visitors and veterans in Wiltshire
Jim Mullholland joined the ATF Wessex group for a field event in June to Southwick Country Park, a site much-visited by local people, to see how the veteran trees are managed.
Nestled on the outskirts of Trowbridge, Southwick Country Park is an impressive veteran tree site which can easily be overlooked. Along the former agricultural hedgerows the veteran oak pollards are becoming lost in forests of newly planted trees.
The country park was purchased by Wiltshire Council in 1989 with a view to developing a golf course. At that time strips of trees were planted to frame fairways and develop a number of holes within the loose agricultural field framework. When plans for a golf course didn’t continue, the land was instead used to create a country park for local residents.
This 100 hectare site is now managed by Wiltshire Council alongside the Friends of Southwick Park volunteer group. Given its close proximity to Trowbridge, the park receives heavy footfall throughout the year, with increased pressure being placed upon the site by a Parkrun being held every Saturday. Couple these pressures with slashed local authority budgets and money for tree management at Wiltshire Council being reserved for trees which pose an unacceptable level of risk to persons or property, and veteran tree management at the site poses a challenge for council officers.
The trees planted with a view of developing a golf course have now grown to such a size that they are beginning to shade a number of the veteran pollards. Shade is one of the most common threats posed to veteran trees, brought about by a change in land use such as the cessation of grazing (or in this case inappropriate planting), which allows new trees to germinate adjacent to veteran trees. These young trees are typically faster growing than the veterans, eventually starving them of light if left to grow unchecked.
Richard Murphy, Tree and Woodland Officer for Wiltshire Council, has been overseeing veteran tree management of the site. “By and large the greatest threat posed to the veterans at Southwick is shade. The veterans largely comprise oak pollards situated within the former agricultural hedgerows, and these are susceptible to shading by the young trees”.
Work is underway to address the threat posed by these trees by ‘halo releasing’ the veterans to give them the light they need (see the VETree video ‘Halo clearance for veteran trees’ on the video resources page. ‘As the work typically requires the removal of small diameter trees, we have been able to do most of the work in-house; the volunteers are very keen and get stuck in with hands tools to the remove the small trees, whilst members of the countryside team are qualified to fell those the volunteers can’t; this enable us to manage the site with very little money’.
Whilst removing the shade cast by these young trees is a vital part of the sites management, Richard went on to explain what they’ve done with the arisings. ‘We have also taken the opportunity to re-route the paths which run near to the veterans. The woody material produced by halo releasing the veterans is being used to block existing paths, whilst new paths are created elsewhere. This has two benefits; firstly it removes the source of soil compaction; it is all too easy to overlook the impacts that footfall can have on the rooting environment of these magnificent trees. Secondly it removes the ‘target’ for risk management purposes. We have been bold in moving a number of paths 20 or 30 metres from their original locations. On the whole, this has worked very effectively and we put this down to a number of reasons:
‘Advanced notice was given to local park users, making them aware of what, and more importantly, why the works were being undertaken
‘Consideration was given to how the new paths would function. Originally the paths had open sections as well as enclosed sections. When we moved them, we ensured that paths continued to offer this diversity by cutting new paths through wooded areas;
‘Respecting cut-through and desire lines. Every supermarket car park I visit has a path cut through the landscape planting which people use to get from A to B in the shortest distance. We acknowledged that there were a number of paths that allowed access from one field to another; where one had to be closed we opened up a new one further away from the veterans to allow, and control, this behaviour rather than causing annoyance or forcing users to make their own path;
‘The work being undertaken by the Friends of Southwick Country Park – I believe this makes a big difference. Instead of the work being undertaken by a faceless contractor (wearing a visor and ear defenders) with loud machinery making them unapproachable, the work instead is done by a group of loyal volunteers. Not only do a great deal of the park users know the friends, but they are able to approach them for a friendly chat about what’s going on.’
Richard took us to a tree he calls ‘Interview Oak’; you won’t find this tree on any historic map, however. This is in fact a tree Richard uses when interviewing potential candidates for tree officer positions. The tree has what many arboriculturists may view as ‘defects’, more accurately called habitat Richard explains. “A fire was lit at the base of the tree some time ago, this has lead to a seam of dysfunctional cambium extending into the crown. Despite these potential hazards, the tree’s location [being in the middle of a large field] means that it receives very little, if any, footfall beneath it” (save perhaps a few veteran tree enthusiasts). Richard uses this tree to illustrate the point that irrespective of the condition of the tree, if no one walks beneath the tree there cannot be any risk. Responses Richard has received from would-be employees have range from ‘do nothing’ to a 50% crown reduction; needless to say the latter did not get the job.
Finally, we were then taken to the latest area Richard and the Friends have been working on. The area contains a number of oak trees which appear to delineate an old field boundary. Whilst other veterans on the site have suffered from shading of young trees, these trees are swamped by newly planted trees on both sides. Richard explains how this needs to be taken into account when undertaking halo release operations: “One vital consideration during halo release operations is to ensure that the rate of change from shaded to light isn’t too quick. These veterans have been shaded by young trees for perhaps 30 years, we don’t want to change the conditions for these veterans from densely shaded to completely open overnight. Opening them up too quick can put stress on the root system to take up more water, as sunlight warms the soil, trunk and crown accelerating transpiration rates. In thin-barked trees, opening them up can also cause sun-scorch”.
During the clearance work the Friends have discovered what they believe to be a stoat’s larder. We often hear of the wildlife value veteran trees offer, but I must admit this was a new one for me! This small member of the mustelid family has been spotted elsewhere on the site, chasing rabbits and other prey items.
A big thank you to Richard for showing use around this fantastic site, and providing such an inspirational, and unique, approach to veteran tree management. Congratulations also go to the hard working Friends of Southwick Country Park who put in the leg work to ensure that this work continues, we hope they continue their great work long into the future.
This event was the second from the newly formed ATF Wessex group, please keep an eye out for future events or get in touch if you can offer a suitable venue for a visit.