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Three cheers for the Commission

Today, a humid mid-summer’s day, I stood on a ride in the middle of Westhay Wood and all I could hear was the hum of insects and, the desultory late song of a Chiffchaff. And, if it hadn’t broken the perfect peace of the afternoon, I really think I might have give three rousing cheers for the Forestry Commission. For here all around me was the evidence of enlightened woodland management.

The Commission have a 500-year lease on Westhay Wood, the southern part of Fineshade. The Ancient Woodland Index shows this as “Ancient Replanted Woodland” meaning that it has been forested for over 400 years but, when it was first taken over by FC, it was replanted with conifers. When we moved to Fineshade over 25 years ago, Westhay was tall, uniform and impenetrable pine forest with virtually nothing growing underneath the threatening mass of dark green trees.

Then came the FC’s Ancient Woodland Project in the Northants region – most of the conifer was felled and natural regeneration was allowed. And nature jumped at the chance to regenerate.

One big cheer for the Forestry Commission.

The ride where I stood today was in the part of the wood named Great and Little Watkinson and runs north-south for about a kilometre. Two years ago it was narrow, dark and damp and probably looked like this.

A brave decision was taken by the local FC forester, to widen the ride considerably. The hazel would be coppiced along the ride itself and the woodland cleared several meters on either side. The felled timber was extracted carefully: the harvesting vehicles avoided the old ride with its hazel on either side and instead ran over the brash just inside the wood. It looked awful as it was being done – but now it looks brilliant!

Already vegetation is growing back. The feathery grass is wonderful, there’s birch and hazel already sprouting from the stumps and flowers such as Hedge Bedstraw responding to the increased light. There were butterflies – Ringlets, Speckled Woods and Meadow Browns. There were day-flying moths and damselflies. There were bees, hoverflies, mosquitoes and a huge hornet.

Some large trees have been left and a young Buzzard was taking advantage of a convenient branch of a mature oak. The ride is perfect for owls hunting for mice and voles in the long grass. They are no doubt joined by bats catching moths and, who knows, perhaps the elusive Nightjars. This is forest management at its very best – benefitting wildlife and creating a superb landscape for people to enjoy too.

So, a second big cheer for the Forestry Commission.

Most of the Westhay rides are now marked for treatment like this – you can see pink marks showing the extent to which the rides will be widened. But I think it will be done a little at a time over the next few years – what would the dormice do if all the hazel were coppiced at the same time?

Early this year clearance began on a parallel ride and also to an area alongside one of the vehicle tracks. However, work came to an abrupt halt at the beginning of the bird-nesting season and will not start again until later this summer – the Commission taking seriously its responsibilities to protect the environment.

A third big cheer for the Forestry Commission.

Over 25 years I’ve seen big changes in the way this wood has been managed with amazing improvements in landscape and wildlife habitats. Future generations will have cause to thank the enlightened foresters who’ve been looking after this wood at the beginning of the 21st century.

So, please join me in giving them a cheer. Hip-hip….!

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