he volunteers have been visiting Frithsden Beeches helping to restore the old plantation by creating new beech pollards to succeed the ancient ones, like the late lamented Harry Potter tree. Frithsden Beeches has seen better days – before the grey squirrels arrived in force. Today it is hard to find a sapling which has not had the bark removed by this alien – the stripping of young bark is widespread in the springtime when food is scarce.
Pollarding is a pruning practice which removes the upper part of a tree promoting a dense head of foliage and branches. It has been common since medieval times and maintains trees at a predetermined height, above the reach of browsing cattle and deer. Wood pollarding tends to produce upright poles, ideal for fences, and posts, with some of the new growth used as fodder for livestock.
This management practice helps to maintain habitat that occurred in the original wildwood. Old woodland pasture plays host to ancient trees whose lives have been extended for many years by pollarding, supporting an extraordinary array of fungi, insects, mosses and lichens. The wood plantation would have been foraged by the commoners’ pigs in the autumn period – a custom known as “pannage”. – because it was part of the extensive Berkhamstead common.
The original beeches, planted in the mid 1700’s are not shown on the Ashridge Estate map of 1762 when it was still an open common. They would have been pollarded after some twenty years by having the crown removed which encouraged the side growths. Peter Kalm the Swedish botanist when visiting in 1748, met a farm labourer with a special kind of iron crampon for climbing, for the trees in the hedgerows and on the commons were all pollarded and had no branches to climb up, and ladders were too expensive and awkward to carry about. Today the old trees in the wood are passed their prime and are subject to decay, and have not been pollarded for over one hundred years following the demise of the commoners.
While many beeches in Frithsden survived the great storm of 1987 they suffered heavily from the spring blow in 1990, when plenty were felled. The old pollards were top heavy having not been cut for over a century whereas regularly cut trees would withstand a storm because of their low centre of gravity. Within a few years most of the fallen trunks had been cleared up, in line with the then current thinking in an ongoing debate over whether man should interfere in such matters. In post-storm 1987, the National Trust did not believe that fallen trees met with the public’s perception of what “a wood should look like”, and so they removed them. Over the ensuing years it transpired that much of the Trust’s man-made regeneration and planting was not successful. In areas where no one intervened the wood begun to flourish, and it has since become National Trust policy to intervene much less, except where public safety is at risk. The current thinking is that an untidy wood is a healthy wood.
Richard Mabey the celebrated author and naturalist based his book “Beechcomings” on the trees in Frithsden Beeches over twenty years ago – it would be interesting to know what he thinks of the wood today!