Can’t see the Trees for the Wood.

I’m struggling to see through the undergrowth of odd jobs awaiting attention (and hence phone ringing and e mails e’ing) and an increasing amount of ‘intellectual’ activity – which inevitably means writing !  As the ‘wood’ gets thicker and light fades, I find I am losing sight of the individual trees that make up my forest projects.

Of course, I am my own worst enemy, I just keep adding to my ‘in-box’.  Time management is something we should all become accomplished at, but it is only productive if some control on inputs can be orchestrated, for some reason I have forgotten that.  I have been greedy in grabbing all that has come my way recently in terms of opportunities to ‘up-skill’ or learn more about a particular field of interest.  In defence I am foregoing now (time that is) to accrue future benefit, at least that’s what I tell myself !

The first addition to the diary has been a chance to avail myself of accredited training in ‘Community Tourism – Ambassador’.  The theme of the training is to learn how to welcome visitors and ‘tell’ them about particular sites or events.  It is a new version of the old Wales Tourist Board’s ‘Welcome Host’ scheme which aimed to regularise the manner of greeting visitors to Wales.

Training course for Community Ambassadors

Not my favourite way to spend a day, but needs must when opportunity presents itself.

Whilst I’ve probably done more than my fair share of greeting and talking to visitors to Wales (and indeed talking about Wales to people abroad) I’ve not actually ever received any accredited training in the art.  I was offered the chance through my association with the Ancient Cwmbran & Cistercian project, to receive this training course, which leads to a BTEC certificate, for free – no discussion there then.

The course consisted of two days plus a small ‘at home’ project, and although it meant two days lost work (and hence there was an actual cost to me) and the cost of travelling to Cwmbran – and with fuel currently over £7 a gallon here in rural Wales – I judged it well worth the effort for the advantage it gives me in planned future projects.  It is a strange thing to be going back to an old farm, now a Community Farm, which had been in my family back in the pre-War years and is right next door to my paternal family farm of Great St. Dials.  Greenmeadow Community Farm, in the old part of Cwmbran Newtown, is a well attended attraction which utilises the restored medieval farmstead as a resource centre and houses various animals outside in modern pens.  It is a vibrant place and is well used by local families and visitors to the area.  All kinds of domestic animals and pets are kept and are readily accessible to visitors.  It was a great venue for a training course in ‘what makes a good day out’.

An excellent set of horns on this Highland Cattle / Steer

Although not a traditional 'Welsh' farm animal, no community farm would be complete without the Long Horn Highland. It is an animal that has become increasingly well utilised in conservation work as an excellent browsing control for delicate pastures.

I have to say the ‘course’ was pretty awful.  It was hosted by the Valleys Regional Partnership, a project established with European monies to create a Tourism product within the South Wales Valleys, the former Industrial heart of the nation.  The quality of the ‘trainers’ was not good and the content was ill conceived and badly designed.  I have some experience in training course delivery and this was below that which would pass muster in any field in which I work.  It was a shame, as the day went on more and more of those present, most of whom were ‘ordinary’ volunteers from the Cwmbran project, became increasingly disheartened and angry.  The result was a poor turnout for the second day which was actually much better and was a requirement in order to achieve the accreditation which was my main concern.  I have to say however that overall it was a poorly delivered and badly monitored course; I got my ‘certificate and badge’, but really  I learned nothing and the ‘assessment’ was an absolute joke, turn up and become a qualified Community Ambassador and ‘World Host’ (the accredited BTEC element).

A Lama is another must for any community farm

We had a certain symbiotic attachment, he was equally unimpressed, but a Llama (the Welsh version) is another 'must' for any community farm.

A cute pair of pygmy goatlings

These two little cuties are a favourite with all the visitors, I remember having a goat...... so my view was slightly awry.

Two little piggies

These two little piggies are not going to market, they are happily consuming heat and enjoying being admired by all visitors.

So, how do I feel about that ‘investment’ of my time ?  I achieved what I wanted, I got my accreditation as a Community Ambassador (and will continue through other events hoping to become a ‘Super Ambassador’), but it hardly feels like I earned it, and it worries me that the quality of both the training, and therefore those that qualified, is not really going to contribute to making Wales a better experience for visitors.

The Cwmbran project has become an important part of my life, strange as it is to be going back to where I grew up and yet not feel any particular pull to the place,  but at the same time I feel a responsibility to be involved and offer what I can.  I am about to begin a ten day course teaching volunteers how to repair the dry stone walls in the uplands of the Blaenbran area.  That however is not for free, I am being well remunerated !

One of my life-long interests and obsessions has been woodlands and trees – tree planting in particular has been an important activity of mine since I was a young man, long before ‘conservation’ became a ‘buzz’ word – and I have planted many thousands of trees and restored and conserved many woodlands.  My more recent interest in Historic Landscape analysis has introduced me to the importance of a type of woodland called ‘Wood Pasture’.  Thus an opportunity to receive some training in the surveying and recording of Ancient Trees in a wood pasture setting was another chance not to be spurned. AND it too was a freebee, how can I refuse such an offer ?

Old Trees, Old wood, Old .....

The Ancient Tree survey course was held in an area of old wood pasture in the Cwm Coed yr Esgob area of the Elan Valley.

The National survey of Ancient trees – The Ancient Tree Hunt- is a 5 year project to find and map all the “fat old trees” across the United Kingdom.  It is co-ordinated by the Woodland Trust ( with the partnership of  the Ancient Tree Forum and the Tree Register of the British Isles, and the funding derives from the Heritage Lottery.

It has its very own web site which is well worth a visit if you are interested in old trees and/or would like to be involved in recording old trees.


It is amazing just how old some of our trees are – though actual dating can only be achieved by killing it, cutting it down and counting the growth rings, not to be encouraged – and whilst Yews and Oaks predominate the current data there are other species which are equally as old, especially if you take the average life expectancy of, say the hawthorn, and use percentage age to compare it with the greater species.  I must admit I’m not altogether clear of the main purpose of gathering the survey details, presumably it relates to assessing the age of particular sites in which the trees sit, maybe to protect them, definitely to gather seed.  My interest is mainstream their location, what does the age of a particular tree tell us about land-use over the time span of its life.

An excellent programme around the time of the millenium, indeed called The Millenium Oak, dramatised the life of an ancient oak tree supposedly germinated in the year 1000AD.  Of course it blended history and land-use, from the growth in population and concomitant enclosure (in which the young sapling is protected in a new hedgerow on the edge of a partially cleared wood- a wood pasture) the Black Death and the subsequent abandonment of the pasture saw the woodland return until once again, in the early Tudor period, farming increased and enclosure again ran amok such that the oak, by then going on 500 years old, was a huge and valuable resource, its timber, its herbage and the pannage which its annual ‘hail storm’ of acorns provided to fatten the essential pig without which the ‘family’ would not survive the winter.

Storm and tempest, not least lightening which rips the heart wood and tears off limbs, shapes the old tree and under the continuous battering it retracts and ‘self harms’ to the extent of changing its outline and reducing the need to send nutrients to quite SO many branches and a few thousand less leaves each summer.  Attacks by fungus, by browsing animals, by insects and by man gradually deform the old tree from that classic outline found in the ‘Guide to the Trees of Great Britain’ book.  Thus the ancient trees which are extant in our ancient landscape hold many secrets to the history which passed it by, local history and events connected with national happenings, goodness, didn’t a King hide in one !

An old oak trunk, rotting away but still important.

'Death becomes Her'. This old tree, maybe 600 years, has finally succumbed and breathes no more, nevertheless it is still an important, vital even, part of woodland ecology providing food and shelter for myriads of creatures and other plants and lichens.

The ‘training day’ was based in the Elan Valley, that most stunning of Welsh landscapes, partially for the man-made Victorian edifices of the dams that hold to ransom the waters of the Elan and transports it, unaided ‘sept for gravity, the hundred miles or so to Birmingham but, for me at least, more importantly, the ‘hanging’ Sessile oak woods of the steep sided valleys.

The nearby Cistercian house of Abbey Cwmhir (you may be forgiven for thinking that, just like the Romans, the ‘White Monks’ got everywhere in Wales too !) has given rise to the assumption that the name of the wood pasture in which we found ourselves, Coed yr Esgob, refers to the wood of the Bishop (Esgob meaning Bishop) but there is no sense to that, a Bish in the mud and rain of this part of Wales ?! methinks not…. No, it is more likely to have been Coed yr Ysgob or even Isgob (‘below’ the wood) which often indicates a relict wood pasture.

Trees and Wood Pasture

The dispersed remnants of what must, in ages past, have been a full on woodland, shows the typical pasture and old trees which are to be found in many extant landscapes in upland Wales.

The particular wood pasture we studied had clearly not had cattle in it for a long long time.  Cattle were the domestic stock that would have originally inhabited the dispersed woodland pasture.  Sheep are far too destructive, as are goats, whereas cattle browse selectively and young trees, even seedlings, can survive in areas browsed by cattle.  The ‘lawn mower’ mouth of the sheep eradicates anything that dares to emerge from the soil.  A tell-tale ‘browse line’, a ‘fringe-cut’ of the lower branches which gives a straight line defining the height cattle could reach (normally around 5ft/1.50m) was absent here, indeed branches had grown down to the ground in places and even the short amongst us had to bend to walk under the canopy branches.

The pasture was a mixed sward of herbs and grasses and there was a plentiful supply of termite tumps which are also indicative of old unimproved pasture.  Diversity is the hallmark of wood pasture, birds in particular – and therefore insects and invertebrates as a food source – flora, including rare species such as orchid, and often deer and badger.  All were evident in the Esgob wood.

The Coed yr Esgob tree survey.

The diversity of the area is clear in this shot. The 'practical' side of the training day saw us measuring the veterans in the ancient landscape.

The surveying entails measuring and observing the tree; how wide is it’s girth at a metre from the ground, how many dead branches in the canopy, any lichens or ferns, insects or nests and a number of other pieces of information that allows the Woodland Trust verifiers to decide whether the tree is worthy of a detailed study and ultimate inclusion in the national record.

An ancient oak showing signs of decay.

Some of the trees where quite stunning, this strange shape is caused by decay of part of the trunk and natural healing of the scar by the tree. It almost looks like two trees but is in fact a very old Oak indeed.

Some of the trees had some amazing ‘deformities’ which made them appear like extra terrestials.  Decay, damage and age combine to change the shape of the trees and often the main trunk develops the appearance of being two or  more trees growing together.  Of course woodland management has been an important influence on individual trees and the overall make-up of the wood.  Coppicing and pollarding were traditonal methods for maintaining a good stock of mature trees whilst using the smaller growth .  Pollarding in particular is common in wood pasture whereby the tree is cut off above the height which cattle can browse.  The result is a many-branched growth from a maiden (single trunk) stem.  This process can be repeated on a cycle of about 10 years for Oaks but sooner for other species.  Most commonly seen are the pollarded willows along the banks of rivers in the lowland areas.

Unlike my experience ‘learning’ to be a good guide, this course taught me a great deal and enthused me to get involved in the national survey and recording.  I am thinking I might undertake the survey of the (very) many veteran trees that are dotted around the demesne and tenanted farms of the estate on which I live.  Some of them will undoubtedly relate to parkland plantings of the C17th and C18th but many more will be much older and natural relics of long managed coppices and wood pastures.  Watch this space !

Nature calls:

As the whole of this week’s post includes something to do with nature in one way or another, I thought I would indulge my alter-environmental-ego by revealing that I am not always over-enamoured with some modern approaches to wooing the conservation lobby. I could indulge my deepening concern, nay – annoyance, with the stupidity of the current policy on the ‘TB in cattle’ issue.  I’m not going to get into the ‘Kill the Badgers’ debate; in truth I think we are going to have to carry out extermination in an area just to prove the utterly idiotic premiss on which such an act is founded.  I tried to explain the problem to a ‘foreign’ friend of mine a while ago, as I explained the process of injecting the disease into the animal and then seeing if there was a ‘reaction’, and if there was killing it (oh yes, meanwhile preventing any movement of animals off the farm) and cutting it open – that being the only way to be certain – and in most cases finding that in fact the animal wasn’t infected; explaining that the thinking is that badgers, with their night-time travels and obsession with ‘cow-pats, must be the source of infection….. I realised that, actually the lunatics DO run the Assylum ! So, no I won’t get into that issue, neither will I dip my toe into the continuing joke that is the Hunting Act – the abolishment thereof, that is altogether too embarrassing.  No, instead I have been shaking my head in astonishment for the last few weeks at an act of total and utter lunacy but this time it is my colleagues in the Conservation world who have brought some mirth into my ‘level’ life.

A Dormouse bridge - yes it's true.

What do you think this is ? It is situated on a fairly busy main road so, yes, there is a case for it, but has anyone told the Dormice ?

I’ve often smiled when I see elaborate, and expensive, amendments to road construction to allow badgers to pass under – yet dead badgers continue to litter that particular piece of road, high extended roadside fences to prevent deer getting onto motorways, yet they do; costly ‘rabbit-proof’ fencing to stop – yes, you guessed it – rabbits getting into a new tree plantation, but…..

The picture above is of a £36k bridge.  When the road – which is a by-pass newly constructed some few years ago – was proposed there was an outcry, as it meant the destruction of hazel woodlands in which it was suspected that there may dormice.  Cute little things are dormice.  They are smaller than baby hamsters and have long bushy tails, they live on hazel nuts and make little nests. Lots of things like to eat them, especially raptors, squirrels, rats and so on.  The road was going to divide the woodland so, in order to appease the conservation lobby (and supposedly save the dormice from being run over) a bridge was built, resembling a rope bridge strung across some jungle gorge, so that, should they want to go visit relatives and not get squashed on the fast road, the little dormice could safely trot across the little thirty thousand pound plus footbridge built especially for them (notwithstanding they might get eaten by a passing bird or fast squirrel….).  In order to prove the idea works a little electronic counter was installed which clicks each time a cute little furry dormouse scuttles through.  Guess how many clicks so far………..

Spring is around the corner, warm days and lighter nights – of course yours truly forgot again to put his clocks forward, but this time I discovered the error on Tuesday not Wednesday !  April is here, will it bring the showers ?  I’ve not had a waterproof jacket on for the whole month of March, I may even have the beginnings of a tan !!  Get soaked or get skin cancer……. oh the choices a Welshwaller has to make ! Now I can’t see the Wood for the Trees……

The flowering willow in March

This is early ! Pussy willow are normally not out until a few weeks later up here, it gladdens the heart, it is the end of winter !


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