Birchanger Wood consists of 69 acres of ancient coppiced woodland – hornbeam, hazel, ash, birch, oak, sweet chestnut, cherry, holly, and a wide range of flora including English bluebells, wood anemones and golden saxifrages. The wood is maintained entirely by volunteers in accordance with a management plan drawn up by professional ecologists and the Forestry Commission for the benefit of local community and visitors and supported by donations from a wide range of organisations, private, public and by individuals.
The Trust’s volunteers have been busy in recent months, building a new covered wood store in our compound off Heath Row to improve storage and seasoning of firewood for sale.
Cut wood from coppicing is stored in the new shelter, providing a better quality seasoned log that burns hotter and more efficiently with less smoke. Air can circulate around the logs, which are better protected from the elements. With a solid base for the logs to sit on, the store also reduces the possibility of a wood pile collapse and is therefore safer.
Wood sales contribute to funding the work in Birchanger Wood, helping to maintain this ancient woodlands for future generations. A second wood store is planned at our compound, subject to more fund-raising. More storage will mean increased income for the Trust, enabling it to meet its charitable aims and objectives.
Logs are sold to the public at our compound every Saturday all year round, between 9-10am and 2-3pm. Each barrow load costs £12.
Some visitors to Birchanger Wood have remarked on the massive number of tiny green caterpillars. Unfortunately, this Spring we are facing a massive invasion of winter moth caterpillars, which are chomping through young leaves on our trees. Hatching is timed to coincide with the budding of oak leaves, their favourite dish. They also feast on maple, birch, hornbeam, hazel and beech – all the tree species that can be found at Birchanger Wood. The large number of caterpillars is leading to the defoliation of many trees.
Hatching is determined by temperature. The moths are adjusting to climate change through selection with the larvae of the most adjusted eggs thriving. As the climate is changing in winter and spring, the winter moth is hatching earlier and earlier to synchronise with their main food sources. If the caterpillars hatch before the trees bud, then they will have no food source and will starve.
There is little we can do about the blight but hope that the birds will take advantage of this plentiful food source. Tits are known to predate the winter moth caterpillar and will feed them to their young. However, this will only work well if the peak wood moth caterpillar population coincides with the hatching of the tits’ eggs. Scientists have found that the birds are less able to adjust to the earlier peaking of caterpillar populations, which means they are often unable to take full advantage of the higher caterpillar population.
Research has found a mismatch emerging between caterpillar hatching and the hatching of woodland birds. Dr Karl Evans, from the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, told The Telegraph: “Our work suggests that as springs warm in the future less food is likely to be available for the chicks of insectivorous woodland birds unless evolution changes their timing of breeding.”
So, the problem isn’t going to go away easily. We can only hope that this is a bad year due to specific weather trends this Spring and that the trees will continue to bud new leaves after the caterpillars pupate.
The coppicing season has come to an end at Birchanger Wood. Volunteers have laboured hard over the winter to cut back trees to allow light onto the woodland floor, boosting the flora and helping to support biodiversity.
While it may seem counterintuitive to cut down trees for the sake of woodland conservation, coppicing is an age-old practice of harvesting trees for wood products – baskets, beanpoles, walking sticks, arbours, thatching, fences, charcoal and firewood. The practice of coppicing goes back to a time when society was heavily dependent on wood and woodlands were cared for due to their economic importance.
Many bird species rely on insects as a source of food and insects benefit from the flowers that flourish when the woodland floor gets more sunlight, unimpeded by the dense canopy of mature trees.
The trees themselves are not harmed and if they are protected from browsing animals such as rabbits and deer, they will grow back healthy – often with a longer lifespan than if they were left to grow as standards. However, the trees and flora can only thrive if walkers, cyclists and dogs keep to the paths.
In line with a management plan devised by conservation experts and overseen by our warden Pat Forrest, Birchanger Wood Trust is pursuing this time-honoured method of woodland management with sales of firewood from coppicing helping to sustain our work.
We are now boosting our capacity to coppice larger areas by training long-standing volunteers in safe chainsaw use and building a covered wood store in our secure compound. The store will improve the quality of firewood, which was being stored under canvass where it was more open to the elements.
We look forward to another summer watching our woodland benefit from continued management and developing a legacy for future generations.