We’ve gone naked here in the secret valley. Not literally, it’s far too close to winter for that sort of jolly jape. While we are busy putting on additional clothes, our lovely old willows that line the little winding river have been stripped of their top growth.
Gone are their branches and along with them so have the other plants that find a home in their mossy nooks and crannies. It is pollarding time and the lovely view that I have been used to seeing every day since I moved here twelve years ago has changed dramatically. Fortunately, all will return in abundance in due course.
Change, of course can be a good thing and it is interesting how spacious and full of light the valley now seems. It is also a good thing for the trees for without this drastic treatment they sometimes topple in storms. Pollarding actually prolongs the life of those tree species that can cope with such treatment. As a child I played in a woodland known as Burnham Beeches and there, some of the pollards are over five hundred years old. These old pollards support a huge variety of wildlife that has adapted over the centuries to the practice.
Pollarding has been carried out since man’s earliest farming days and can really be considered as just another form of pruning. By cutting the branches above the reach of grazing animals, they can regrow without being damaged. In the past, cattle were allowed to roam in these ‘wood-pastures’ and in Burnham Beeches the practice has been reinstated after a gap of about two hundred years. The White Park cattle above are kept at Adam Henson’s, Cotswold Farm Park. Now endangered, this native breed is being used to graze freely in the Beeches which keeps the forest floor clear and improves diversity.
The timber from pollarding was used in a number of different ways. Most commonly, it provided firewood, with the trees cut every fifteen years, which is the case with our willows. Sometimes the pollards were cut more regularly to provide fodder for livestock.
It is surprising to see just how quickly new growth restarts. Without branches and leaves to support, the energy rising through the tree from its root system forces it to renew itself. The willows below are a little further up the valley and were pollarded in the early spring of this year. As can be seen they already have grown six feet or more.
Pollarding of trees isn’t just practised in the depths of the country. It is frequently carried out in our towns and cities as street trees are kept within bounds. In the garden it is a good way to create interest – even a smallish garden can create a lime walk to give all year round appeal. The coloured stem willows are especially good for this purpose too as they quickly become dull and too large when left unchecked.
It will take time to become used to seeing the ‘new look’ secret valley, now so very different from the image that has become the trademark of this blog. In the past, cutting the trees would have given a team of men work for the whole winter. Now one man with a machine achieves it in five days. It may not be such a romantic notion but watching the tractor driver manipulate the claws of the cutter at every conceivable angle demonstrated that the old techniques have been replaced with skills every bit as impressive.
If you fancy trying your hand at pollarding you have a few months left to build up your courage! In the UK and those places with a similar climate it should be completed by mid-February.
More reading: click on the links below
Conservation of ancient pollards
Chalara in ash trees
White Park cattle and other endangered farm breeds
Adam Henson’s Cotswold Farm Park