Home & Shop Companion #0054
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
Trees have been the focus of my activities this week. I finished pruning the three apple trees in the garden a few days ago. One of the older ones is easy as it is only seven feet tall and puts so much effort into fruiting that there is scarcely any new growth, but the other is taller and has a vigorous upright growth habit so it needs severe shaping to keep it into the open goblet shape which allows air and light to the centre. Last year I summer-pruned it for the first time which should promote its fruiting, but the other one has been producing excessively for years, at least half the immature apples needing to be pulled off to prevent the branches from breaking under the weight of the crop.
We also have some fruit trees, four apples and two pears, along the south side of the wood. These fruit trees were planted about ten years ago, a few years after the main planting but none have fruited yet, perhaps because I am still pruning for shape rather than for fruiting. I hope they might change their mind this year, and I will probably prune them again in the summer to encourage them in the right direction. The plum trees, which you are not supposed to prune at all, do well nearly every year. Though we didn’t have a single Victoria plum last year, but there were plenty of damsons in the hedge, from old trees which predate our arrival. Although it doesn’t sound like it from what I have just written, I always think growing fruit for home consumption is really good value, because after the trees are planted there is very little to do except pruning at this time of year and picking the fruit, much less work than growing vegetables.
The other tree activity this week has been cutting down some trees in the wood. These were mostly the young and small trees which the blasted squirrels ring-barked in the spring, and which I hope will regrow from the ground. Some of the birches, however, are already quite tall, planted as a nurse crop for the slower growing ashes and oaks, so I don’t mind if they don’t regrow. The oaks should bounce back but I don’t hold out much hope for the ash trees because the ones I have cut down have all been affected by ash dieback disease, which usually proves fatal. Still, in hope rather than expectation, I am leaving the ones that are still healthy in the hope that they might be resistant.
Cutting down trees is a contentious activity. I actually quite like it, the fleeting excitement of the tree crashing to the ground and the challenge of getting it to fall just where you want it, but I am wary of that feeling of excitement and transitory power; felling a tree is definitely a decision to think about twice, because once done, you can’t stick it back again. Even if a tree is in the wrong place, there is still a sadness at cutting it down, especially if it a big one that started out way before we were born.
There is an ongoing debate around here about trees. This is a very treeless area, at least on the dry ground, because as an area dotted with small farms and smallholdings where every acre was important, there were few areas spared for woodland. In the wet land to the west, however, there are a lot of trees growing in the peat bog, and they are the point of contention. The debate is usually framed as being between the organisation English Nature who now own and manage the bog, and residents and others who like the trees, but the reality is more complicated.
The bog is one of the few Lowland Raised Peat Bogs in Britain that remains largely intact, and as such, it is home to many rare species, mostly creepy crawlies that few of us get excited about. To keep the bog habitat, English Nature are removing trees which encroached as the bog was partially drained, because the trees use up the water and the nutrients trapped in the peat, gradually changing the environment. But for tree lovers, it seems wrong to be cutting down trees; because aren’t trees supposed to be good for us, good for the environment, good for limiting climate change? The battle lines are messy, the ecologists want to see species diversity, the walkers want trees, and the locals want things to be as they remember them. Meanwhile the farmers whose land adjoins the bog want their fields to be dry. And in recent years, their fields are getting wetter, partly because of more rain, but, also, so they say, because English Nature is raising the water level. However, there is something else happening; the land is actually sinking. It is not the subsoil that is moving, the clay basin in which the water collected, and where the sphagnum moss grew to form the beds of peat, but the peat itself which is getting thinner. It is just what happens when peat is dried out for grazing, growing arable crops or when trees grow, as the carbon is lost into the air as carbon dioxide.
In the past, peat bogs were problem areas, dangerous to cross, difficult to farm, unhealthy wild places often known as moors or wastes, inhospitable and other-worldly. Now we realise their value as sponges to soak up excess rainfall, letting it out slowly during dry seasons, as rare habitats, and as a sink for absorbing atmospheric carbon. But once they are drained, the carbon is released into the atmosphere again as the peat gradually disappears, about ½ to ¾ inch per year. In the centre of the bog, English Nature are trying to keep the water level high in specific areas by engineering works, using rectilinear trenches and plastic pipes to gain two inches here and two inches there, not a very natural look for a wildlife sanctuary, and expensive and time consuming too. Meanwhile the fields around the edges are becoming less productive because they sit under water for a greater part of the year. Despite my farming roots, it seems to me that the best solution would be to completely rewet the whole basin, because the small benefit from the farmed areas, which probably amount to less than 10% of the whole, is hugely outweighed by the climate enhancing properties of a fully functioning peat bog. But for anyone who has walked their dogs in the shade of the pine trees along the edge of the bog for the last twenty years, or whose parents worked in the commercial peat cutting of the 1960s, or whose great grandparents carved their farms out of the peat over a hundred years ago, their investment in the place, sometimes economically but certainly emotionally, is quite different.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.