11 January 2012

A laid-back approach

The way we manage the hedges on the meadows depends on the type of hedge, the wildlife that it supports, its purpose and possible constraints like whether there is machinery access or regrowth is likely to be damaged by rabbits or deer. Sometimes, a hedge can be kept in good shape by occasional mechanical trimming, whilst other hedges such as those with a lot of elm are best rejuvenated by coppicing.
At Martin's Meadows, a number of the hedges are maintained in rotation by hedge-laying or plashing. This technique is historically associated with the Midlands rather than Suffolk, but it has some advantages that we have found particularly valuable :
  • Once laid the hedge makes a stock proof barrier which is useful for the internal hedges that are not sheep fenced
  • It is a good way of thickening up the base of young planted hedges or gapped up hedges, encouraging shooting from low down
  • As much of the material remains 'laid' within the hedge, it retains a structure suitable for nesting birds (in contrast it may be 2-3 years before coppice regrowth makes suitable nesting again)
  • The regrowth seems to be less vulnerable to rabbit damage than coppice stools as the laid 'tops' (especially when spiny like blackthorn or hawthorn) give some protection against rabbit nibbling

As can be seen from the pictures, suitable hedge plants are cut near the base, but not right through, allowing the stem to be'laid' sideways at an angle and the tops are 'hedged' in using stakes.

In the spring, the new shoots vigorously sprout along the length of the 'laid' stem, rapidly creating a dense network of twigs and branches.

Much of the hedge-laying at Martin's Meadows is done either by the volunteer warden team or the Suffolk Wildlife Trust mid-week volunteer team. Between them, they have done some great work and it is good to see this traditional technique being used to such good effect. I'm particularly grateful to Glyn who volunteers with the wardens. He has considerable hedge-laying expertise and has generously given of both his time and knowledge to achieve really good results.

Picture of Glyn contemplating the next hedge-laying move (picture by Paul Chapman, volunteer warden)

10 January 2012

Going underground

During the winter months, mole activity seems to become very obvious on the meadows. This is partly because mole hills are very visible when the grass is short, but also because in colder weather the insects, larvae and earthworms that moles feed on, retreat deeper into the ground, so forcing the moles to excavate to greater depths in pursuit of a meal. What goes down in excavation, must come up as molehills!
The life of the mole in the meadows is largely hidden from view. A busy underground network of tunnels means that moles rarely surface, so we seldom catch a glimpse of the animals themselves. However, the 'trademark' molehills and subtle ridges, depressions and hollows created by shallow excavations and tunnel collapse make moles' presence evident. Their workings also affect the way that water permeates into the soil, causing local variation in natural drainage. The bare ground of molehills often creates a valuable seedbed for fallen or buried seed , sometimes producing a tell-tale cluster of wildflower seedlings in spring.
Another and perhaps more unusual clue to the presence of moles is a heron standing watching the ground in a meadow some distance from any pond or watercourse where they might find a source of fish. When ground conditions are wet, moles have to work closer to the surface and the 'beady-eyed' heron can see their movement in shallow tunnels and is not adverse to the occasional mole snack!

8 January 2012

A cut above the rest

The winter months are an ideal time for carrying out work on the boundaries of the meadows. At all five meadows we aim to manage the hedges and 'woody' features rotationally, using traditional woodland/hedgerow management such as coppicing, hedge-laying and pollarding. All these techniques help keep the trees and hedges vigorous and 'cash- in' on the ability of our native broadleaves to 'self re-new' by re-shooting when cut back.
In the case of pollarding, trees are cut back at about 5-12 feet above ground, leaving a trunk or 'bolling' from which new shoots arise. The reason for cutting pollards at this height was originally to protect new shoots from livestock as the growth is above the browse line.
However, at Martin's Meadows we have adopted pollarding of three boundary ashes in the roadside orchard, to keep the trees at a manageable size and prevent too much shading of the fruit trees. The trees are pollarded on a relatively short rotation (every 5-7 years) and have just been ably re-worked by the volunteer wardens. The poles generated are being used as stakes for hedge-laying elsewhere in the meadows.
The three ash pollards have already become quite a feature of the orchard and I'm sure will become ever more so as the years pass.
Pictures by Paul Chapman, Voluntary Warden at Martin's Meadows.