Firstly, we hope you’re all still keeping well and avoiding the Covid virus. With the further easing of restrictions we are gradually increasing our operations while operating within current rules/guidelines and with some changed working practices. All activities at present are being undertaken by a limited number of volunteers who are now known as our “Covid Bubble”.
Charcoal production has been ramped up over the past few weeks as we play catchup. Three burns a week were undertaken during the course of a couple of weeks as we gradually advised our outlets we were back in business to keep the flow orders to manageable proportions. The end result is that charcoal sales in June totalled £1427 compared to £1145 in June last year, so hopefully we will continue to make inroads into the £1500 of lost sales as a result of lockdown when we were shut down for seven weeks. We will shortly complete our 200th burn with the kiln which is holding up well so far this season following the significant welding job it had during the winter. It’s come a long way since it was delivered on site on 5 December 2014 when we eagerly undertook a trial burn commencing at 11 am which we didn’t really think through as Dave and Derek were still waiting for it to finish in the pitch-darkness after 9 pm with only hooting owls to keep them company! Since that time we have produced over 25 tonnes of charcoal.The pic below shows it being commissioned by the manufacturers – it’s changed a bit since then but still continues to make the best charcoal money can buy.
In recent weeks we have also commenced some work on our circular walk in an area where there is no likelihood of disturbance to nesting birds. This work will improve underfoot conditions, especially in the area around the back of the pits where the surface is very heavy clay that gets extremely slippery when wet. We also aim to make it more accessible and mobility scooter friendly, even if only during the drier months. With this in mind, Dibden’s Bridge has been widened and the clay surface around it levelled (not an easy task!) and improved with the addition of fine charcoal that we seive out during bagging. Previous experience has shown it to be an excellent binding agent on clay and it also returns carbon to the soil. The damp conditions in this section of the walk are not helped by the trees that surround it, most of them being quite tall slender ash trees. Unfortunately, most of them are showing clear signs of ash die back disease (chalara fraxinea) and as a consequence are being felled by the chainsaw team. While it’s a great shame to lose these trees, it will reduce shade and help the area dry out. For all these tasks, we have been operating with a maximum of six volunteers in line with current regulations.
Chalara fraxinea is a serious disease which is estimated will kill 95% of our native European Ash trees and is spreading rapidly through the UK from the south east of England where it was first recorded in 2012, although it has been recognised in Europe for 30 years. It is caused by a fungus that originated in Asia and is thought to have arrived in the UK on imported ash plants from Europe, following which there has been an import ban in place since 2012. It usually becomes evident at the top of the tree first with dieback of the young branches and leaves visible in the summer. It is hoped that a small percentage of trees may be tolerant to ash dieback, which could help the population eventually recover over time (likely over 50 years). With the disease still in its early stages, more is being learned about it all the time – much like our own Covid infection. This makes our tree planting programme of other species in Pondhead all the more important.
As far as other tasks in Pondhead are concerned, we wish to make a start on the renovation of the ramson (wild garlic) area next to Limewood which was decimated by Forestry England operations in the winter but the random piles of timber and brash that clutter the area need to be cleared first. Despite repeated emails on this subject by ourselves, they have been completely ignored by FE! Interstingly, we held a Trustee Meeting in the woodland recently when I think it fair to say that all present were not impressed at the state the area has been left in. This is an issue that we won’t let go away – it’s not just us but many of our regular vistors are dismayed at the damage done with little regard for biodiversity. We’ll keep you updated.
With regard to Limewood, work has already commenced on their sewerage processing plant which will eventually be routed underneath the gravel ride leading from their rear pedestrian gate by the former ramsons area down towards our Beechen Lane entrance. The work is confined to inside their perimeter fence at present and it is a condition of their planning consent that there must be a meeting with other parties, including PCT and Natural England, before work commences inside the inclosure so that any disruption during the work can be kept to a minimum and suitable precautions are put in place to protect ride edges, etc.
Until the weather changed and we went from heatwave back to winter in the space of a week, we witnessed the welcome return of more species of butterfly, including White Admirals and Silver-washed Fritillaries. We have also heard nightjars churring during the daytime and roding Woodcocks have been spotted on evening walks around the inclosure. Both birds are rarely seen as they are crepuscular birds, meaning they are most active at dawn and dusk. While the nightjar flies here from Africa each summer to breed, much of the woodcock population is resident throughout the year. It is during the male woodcock’s breeding display flight, known as roding, that it’s most frequently seen. These roding flights usually take place between April and June when the males patrol large areas, flying over the tree line and along rides, as they compete to attract the attention of females. There have also been occasional badger sightings during daylight hours.
Unfortunately deer numbers also appear to be on the increase with much browsing of unprotected hazel stools in evidence, particularly on the ride edges alongside the coupe we cut last in Rosie Close/Smokey Hole. Fortunately the high standard of construction of these dead woven hedges by our volunteers has ensured that deer haven’t managed to get into the coupe to do any damage. It’s only in the past few years that we have been constructing these woven hedges but they have proved themselves in terms of deer protection and the older ones now have bramble, honeysuckle, etc. growing through which is gradually transforming them into natural hedge barriers around the coupes. In addition to the usual roe and muntjac population, a few fallow deer have been spotted recently and these are capable of doing more significant damage – hopefully they will return from whence they came.
For those of you active on social media, we continue to post on our Facebook and Instagram pages. Anyone who joins the Pondhead group on Facebook can make a post if you see something of interest, so why not join and feel free to post/comment on other posts. Interestingly, since lockdown we have had a significant increase in the number of new members joining, most of whom are from the general public interested in the work we are doing – members of our FB group now total 278 and are increasing as I type.
Finally, we do not know when things will get back to normal in Pondhead. While our “Covid Bubble” of volunteers is keeping things ticking over during the summer we hope to be able to start our conservation and cutting programme in early September. However, if current regulations remain in place, it is most likely that tasks will be limited to six volunteers although we may operate with more tasks per week to compensate. As with many things at present, it’s all up in the air and there is much that could change in the meantime. However, our prime concern will always be the health and wellbeing of our volunteers.
Stay safe everyone.