To prevent the resident deer herd from taking advantage of the recently planted hornbeams on Aldbury common, the trees have been given twenty four hour protection – a six foot high wire mesh fence with a padlocked gate! The Trust have to go to extraordinary lengths to secure their work. Two hundred years ago when Rail Copse was probably enclosed by the 7th Earl Bridgewater as the family set out to become landed aristocrats, deer damage was not a problem. The fallow and red deer were imparked around the Mansion and the muntjac deer had yet to arrive – today they run wild! A benefit of such an enclosure avoids the necessity of using the dreaded plastic tree guards which shatter after a few years. The fence will need to remain for a number of years until the leaders on the saplings grow above the reach of the deer and the trees are established, when they may well be pollarded.
The volunteers helped prepare an experimental site just south of Rail Copse and plant up some two hundred and thirty hornbeam saplings of UK origin, as the first part of the twenty year restoration plan. Supplied as bare rooted “whips” which are cheap and easy to establish they were set in a morning using the notch method of planting. The trees have been planted to a high density to encourage competition and growth with the expectation that some saplings will fail.
Watch this space.
Deciduous trees like hornbeam should be planted any time from leaf fall in the Autumn until late Winter according to the R H S. They need to be well watered in and watered regularly for the first two years during dry periods – the Trust have two large water butts on site.
Hornbeam used to be the best source of very hard wood in Britain, available in larger sizes than the equally prized boxwood. It is a native of south east England, but not normally native north of Hertfordshire. The common English name of hornbeam derives from the hardness of the wood – likened to horn – and the Old English beam. The full Latin name is Caprinus betulus.
Hornbeams are relatively small hardwood trees. They produce catkins in spring followed by a winged seed which spins in the wind as it falls to earth to create the next generation. The hornbeam prefers a well drained sandy or gravel soil, and rarely grows to a height of more than forty feet after sixty years of growth,
Hornbeam can be easily coppiced or pollarded. In the past, hornbeam was used in the production of charcoal as well as being a source of excellent firewood. This is evident from the number of pollarded hornbeams in Epping Forest, relics of the times when common fuel-wood rights existed there as they did and still do at Aldbury – in the 19th century the trees at Ashridge would have been coppiced and the poles used for charcoal for the local blacksmiths. The nearby brick making at the Outwood Kiln appears to have been fired by coal, certainly after 1810 when the canal was in operation.
Hornbeam is almost white, patterned with lovely flecks and swirls in its grain. When well finished, it is very smooth and often compared to ivory. These days it is mainly sold for furniture or turnery. Hornbeam is a very hard timber, so it is rarely used for general carpentry because of the difficulty of working it. Its hardness means it has been used for carving boards, tool handles, coach wheels – places where a very tough wood is required. In fact the timber is so hard it’s been used as gear pegs in simple machines, including traditional windmills. It is sometimes coppiced to provide hardwood poles, and also used in parquet flooring. It has even been used to produce wooden screws.
The hornbeams will now be left to do their own thing – happy hornbeams!