Taking Stock of Summer, Preparing for Winter Work

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Gypsy moth – the first record in Birchanger Wood of this new arrival in Herts and Essex. 

Autumn brings a new season of activity to Birchanger Wood with our group of volunteers beginning coppicing trees. Coppice rotation is a sustainable method of woodland management that opens the woodland floor to sunlight, provides products such as firewood and wood for craftsmen and extends the life of a tree.

Jono Forgham, a science educator and conservationist who writes a regular column in the Bishop’s Stortford Independent, staged several interesting, lively, hands-on activities in the wood over the summer months. Bug hunts and moth nights involving people of all ages, including some very enthusiastic children, have helped us assess what is living in the wood and the diversity of out insect life.

Insects are crucial to the food chain and maintaining the woodland ecosystem, but in high numbers they can represent a threat. The spring saw many of our trees blighted by the November moth caterpillar, which munched through the canopy. It’s probable that the caterpillar infestation was worsened by a warmer and earlier spring, which meant there were fewer hatchling birds to eat them. The trees appear to have dealt with the problem with some later leaf growth. We observed that in areas where trees had been coppiced, the level of bird predation of the caterpillar increased and there was less tree damage. This underlines the importance of our work in managing the balance of woodland flora and fauna.

Nature is always striving towards a balance and it’s likely that the November moth will not pose such a challenge next spring, with predators such as birds and wasps taking better advantage of increased caterpillar abundance. The long-term challenge in Birchanger Wood is dealing with climate change and disease. Last year’s drought put enormous stress on trees, leading to a significant losses across our countryside and encouraging disease. Ash trees are succumbing to chalara ash dieback across Europe, a fungal disease that researchers led by Oxford University will cost the UK a total of £15 billion – half of which will be over the next decade. Indeed, the Trust managing Birchanger Wood has had to set aside a considerable contingency to manage the disease, which means we are always looking for any funds to support woodland management.

Chalara is not the only disease. The oak processionary moth, whose caterpillars strip oaks of their leaves, is expanding its range and this summer it was identified just a few miles away; it seems inevitable it will reach us. Attacks by the oak processionary moth caterpillars and make them vulnerable to diseases, such as sudden oak death – a fungal disease that can affect many other trees and shrubs, from bay to sweet chestnut. All the more reason to keep up our programme of bug hunts and moth nights as well as our active conservation management.

Birchanger Wood Trust is always on the lookout for volunteers to join in the woodland management. We meet up every Saturday morning at the compound next to the water tower on Heath Row, Bishop’s Stortford. You can also support the trust by buying our firewood, which has been properly seasoned in our new wood stores.