Despite the recent appalling weather conditions the Trust has managed to start on the restoration of Rail Copse – with visitor cooperation. The public have been entrusted for the first time to help with planting trees on the Estate! This taps into the public urge to plant more trees to combat climate change – and visitors have turned out to meet the challenge.
The western half of Rail Copse, some thirteen acres, was planted up in 1966 with Scots pines after the area was clear-felled – but has been neglected over the years as a plantation – a commercial enterprise which did not materialise.
The overall twenty six acres of Rail Copse was enclosed woodland originally part of Aldbury common, planted up with hornbeam coppice in the early part of the 19th century by the Bridgewaters. Trees were traditionally cultivated as coppice and historically harvested for the hard, dense wood with a calorific value approaching anthracite. However, it appears the commoners were not allowed into the woodland to cut and coppice hornbeam for firewood or to allow their livestock to forage on hornbeam’s succulent spring foliage.
As part of the 20 year Ashridge Woodland Management Plan, Norfolk contractors moved in to clear-fell the Scots pine, with the larger logs harvested for agricultural use and the remainder chipped for livestock bedding – important that the wood is not used for biomass burning when it would release its stored carbon into the atmosphere. The wet conditions required the access track to be beefed up with a layer of chalk clunch.
The new wood is to be planted up with hundreds of Carpinus betulus which are only native in England as far north as Hertfordshire. Hertfordshire is hornbeam country.
Hertfordshire is hornbeam country
Time has been of the essence with Spring fast approaching putting a stop to tree planting. The forest floor has been prepared for the new “whips” – the small bare-rooted saplings – but any disturbance to the topsoil will inevitably lead to carbon leakage into the atmosphere, which has been absorbed by the soil over the last sixty years.
Despite its long-standing reputation as an under storey tree, hornbeam should be seriously considered for planting and culture as a standard high-forest tree, rather than coppicing. There are no identifiable potential disasters from insect pests and pathogens waiting in the wings for the hornbeam, apart from the deer.
Its credentials for combating climate change, including warmer and drier growing conditions, appear encouraging. Together with beech, hornbeam was one of the last tree species to cross the land bridge which once connected the British Isles with the rest of Europe. As such, it should be in a better position than most to withstand any future climate warming in the UK. This calculation is supported by the natural distribution of Carpinus betulus, which extends right across Europe, through the Balkans and well into western Asia.
At least our offspring can look forward to a fecund forest!
Next stop Frithsden Copse.