In parallel with our main objective for the wildwood of letting nature take its course, we have an objective to increase tree cover, in the context of historic deforestation of the site. The remoteness of most of the site from existing native trees and a ground cover of matted layers of purple moor grass (Molinia caerulea) which is inhospitable to tree regeneration, mean the site is not a good candidate for relying on natural regeneration. Even in the lower elevations, adjacent to native woodland, areas of bracken which were stock excluded for over 25 years had no natural regeneration developing, due to the density and height of the bracken.
Does tree planting have a place in our minimal intervention approach? On this site, a decision to not plant trees is a decision to maintain the site free from trees, and can equally be seen as an intervention. Humans deforested the area, and humans have the capacity to restore tree cover. Wildlife will benefit from a restored large area of upland wood pasture mixed with other habitats. These are the considerations which inform our ongoing programme of planting a few hundred trees each year across the site.
Large herbivores grazing the landscape provide many benefits, such as restoring heathland and grassland, exposing soil to create plant diversity and to benefit animal species, and providing wildlife interest in their own right. In order to continue with the benefits of grazing with horses and cattle, we are using ‘No Fence’ tree planting techniques, based on those pioneered by Steve Watson in North Wales. In brief, the methods are: using steep ground to plant the tree out of reach of browsing (sabre trees); and planting in the cover of protective vegetation such as gorse. Bwlch Corog is a difficult site for these methods, as there is not much steep ground, nor is there much protective cover. We have planted some trees above suitable steep drops but quickly ran out of these locations. In the absence of gorse, we have used brambles, hawthorn shrubs and fallen trees as cover, but again these are in limited supply.
Oak planted in hawthorn
So we are now improvising with other methods, using Steve’s philosophy of mimicking what happens in nature, combined with close observation of how the large herbivores behave. The horses have their favoured areas with the best grass, and leave many parts of the site ungrazed. The cattle graze across most of the site, but are only present during the summer months when there is plenty of grass. The trees are most vulnerable to being browsed during the winter when there is a shortage of other food. Additionally, the trees are more hidden from sight by the taller vegetation during summer. Observing the areas unfrequented by the horses, we planted an area in spring 2020 and two more areas in autumn 2020, and so far these have remained unbrowsed. This spring, we are planting in some remote parts of the site requiring a long walk across the moorland. These areas build on some small areas of existing native trees on the other side of our boundary fence.
Bracken, no trees present – 2018
Bracken, a few trees present – 2021
The other improvisation we are trying out is planting thorn trees to create cover for planting in future years. Once a thorn tree is big enough, it is possible to plant another tree species amongst its lower branches. We are also planting the thorns in groups to create a small thicket to plant into at an earlier stage.
This strategy mimics the process identified by Franz Vera in his seminal work Grazing Ecology and Forest History.
Knepp provides a short summary of Vera’s ideas and their inspiration for Knepp Wildland. And specifically on the role of thorns, see this short video with Franz Vera on Kneppflix.
Birch planted in hawthorn
We have been planting hawthorns (Crataegus monogyna) this spring, and in the autumn will plant blackthorns (Prunus spinosa) and more hawthorns. Apart from their valuable role as cover, these shrubs provide many benefits for a range of wildlife species, with their spring flowers and winter fruits. You can read about the importance of these shrubs for bird life in the fascinating book Rebirding by Benedict MacDonald. The book also picks up the observations of Franz Vera on the important and natural role of herbivores.
Tree planting in a grazed landscape has huge potential for the restoration of nature across the landscape. As Steve Watson’s work demonstrates, the tree cover reduces gorse and bracken, allowing grass to grow between the trees, and so increases the amount of pasture for livestock. The more sheltered environment provides better welfare conditions for the animals and increases their growth and resilience. The current debate about trees or sheep in the uplands is missing a crucial point: we can have the trees and the grazing animals together in the landscape with real benefits for farming and for wildlife.