Home & Shop Companion #0024
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
About fifteen years ago we planted some trees along the northern edge of our field, about ¾ of an acre of mostly native species. As I write, many of them are now twenty feet tall, with the birches, Scots pines and willows well above that. Before the trees grew, the field was very exposed to the north and north westly winds, but now it is much more sheltered, and our little wood has started to produce some firewood, though the fruit trees planted later along the southern edge have not yet fruited. But regardless of any practical advantage, I love the fact that it is there. Planting the wood is, without doubt, one of the best things I have done.
We made the most of its shelter when turning hay last month, as we got to the edge of the field on a couple of occasions I stopped the horses out of the sun with their heads just in the trees, and listened to the birds singing out of sight and the gentle movement of the soft branches in the breeze, as the horses pulled off leaves and munched away as their breathing slowed. I’ve been in the wood a couple of times since, I always like the freshness of the air in there, the shade of the leaves keeping the sun from drying all the moisture in the soil, even on a hot summer’s day; it’s a place of peace and relaxation.
But walking through last week, there was one sight that told a different story. Some of you may be able to figure out some of what happened from the second picture, and have an inkling of why, but let me tell you about it anyway. The picture is of an oak tree a few inches thick, with plenty of space to grow as the surrounding trees have been thinned, but the bark above three feet is gone. It must have gone in the last couple of months, because I wouldn’t have left the tree in that state when I did the thinning in February. The culprit is a grey squirrel.
In Britain we have two squirrels, the smaller native red squirrel, and the North American grey squirrel which was imported in late Victorian times to add a touch of the exotic to the country estate of a wealthy landowner. But, surprise surprise, the squirrels didn’t stay where they were put, and they now are found in most parts of the country, eating acorns before they are ripe enough for the reds to eat them, and transmitting a virus which the greys can cope with, but which kill the reds. The grey squirrel has become a major pest, devouring nut plantations and, as my picture shows, ring barking the leading shoots of trees once they get to fifteen or twenty years old. The trees will probably survive, but as multi stem bushes or trees, just as beneficial for wildlife perhaps, but they will never make a tree for timber, nor will they soar above our heads in future years making us wonder at their presence. There were already a few other trees which had received this treatment, so rather than letting my work and patience go to waste, I bought a trap last month, made in New Zealand, which uses CO2 gas to fire a bolt when a squirrel tries to reach the bait, but I wish I had done it a few months ago, as a closer inspection shows they had been busy elsewhere, too.
However, in some parts of the country, grey squirrels are on the retreat. These areas coincide with places where pine martens are expanding their range. Pine martens are native carnivores, in the same family as stoats and weasels, but a hundred years ago they were nearly driven to extinction by deforestation and being killed by gamekeepers. With an increase in tree cover and a change of attitudes, the pine martens are now making a comeback. The grey squirrels, however, don’t recognise them as a danger, so they get eaten, but the reds know their smell and get out of the way. So the reds are recolonising areas behind the marten’s territory, just one example of how nature can rectify an imbalance if allowed to do so. However, around here there aren’t enough trees to support pine martens, so the traps will have to do.
In front of the oak tree is another story, the vigorous shoots of ash, growing from the stump of an ash I cut down in the winter to give the oak some space. When we planted the trees, I specifically planted ash as a coppice crop, for firewood mostly, as it regrows very easily from the stump, or stool, using its big root system to push up new growth, so you can harvest it every ten or twelve years. But there is a problem with the ash, ash dieback disease, which causes leaves to wither and turn black, shoots to die back, lesions on the trunk and eventually death. The disease is caused by a fungus originating in Asia, but it doesn’t cause much damage on its native hosts. But since its introduction to Europe about 30 years ago, it has devastated the European ash because this species did not evolve with the fungus. The disease may have crossed the English Channel from continental Europe by spores on the wind, but it was definitely imported in ash saplings. Whether some ash trees will develop immunity, we don’t know, we can only hope.
In Britain we don’t have as many trees species as North America, because as the ice sheets melted at the end of the last age, the species which followed the retreating ice northwards had mountains going east to west blocking their path, unlike the Rockies, Appalachians, etc, which run north to south. We have beech, mostly on chalky soils, sycamores and maples, and in the south some chestnuts and walnut, and other mostly smaller species too, but the three main trees of hedgerows, farmland and for timber were oak, ash and elm. Then in the 1960s another fungal disease nearly wiped out the elms and changed the landscape forever. And now the ash is severely threatened, the timber we use for tool handles, for furniture, for turning and burning, and it has the right combination of springiness and strength to make horse drawn vehicles. But the loss of the ash would also be personal loss; we had one growing in the hedge at the bottom of the garden when we came here which we have allowed to grow tall, and as a child, the track to our house had a row of ash trees alongside it. When the top blew off one of them when I was fourteen, my father allowed me to use the wood, learning to split it with wedges and an axe, which I made into a spinning wheel at school, and a skein winder as a wedding gift for a friend. The replacement shafts I made for my tip cart are also made of ash, as is our bed I made twenty-five years ago.
On a more positive note, now that we are allowed to stay away from home, my daughter has come to visit. We haven’t seen her since Christmas and a lot has happened since then. She and her partner bought a house just before lockdown, and even before they moved in, they dug up a good part of the garden and planted vegetables. Her partner mentioned to me last night that one thing he has learnt is not to plant too many seeds at once, and to sow some more later. ‘Yep, that’s right,’ I thought, ‘- the wisdom born of having too many lettuces!’ There’s nothing like experience to make something stick in your mind.
Which reminds me, I need to sow some more in our garden, and radishes too, and the leeks are about ready to transplant. Perhaps I’ll tell you about it next week.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.