Spring is in the air and the door to the porta cabin now stays open from about lunchtime as we enjoy the dappled light and heady woody smells. Though jolly cold most days (indeed today it feels like my fingers might just break off like icicles at any moment!) it is heavenly to revel in the bright light of the sun as it shines through the trees and casts beautiful shadows everywhere. We are very busy as a lot of harvesting work is taking place across the beat on various different sites, and a great deal of organisation is required. I am spending my days visiting the different sites, meeting with our contractors, stomping around forests putting up signage (while work is taking place anywhere we need to have up relevant signs alerting the public, our contractors also put signs up), arranging tractor work on our tracks, acting as a banksman (when the machines are working on certain areas like along path edges banksmen are required to stand at either end of the path to redirect members of the public – it means long days in the freezing cold but alas is a very necessary job. I have found the trick is to wear as many layers as possible and make sure to take a thermos of hot chocolate and my kindle), completing complicated maps relating to future work and dashing about in my van between all of the above.
The poor old van really is seeing a lot of motorway these days for while it does of course spend its time squelching into forests and along country roads, the nature of the South Downs and our woodlands here means that to drive between most of our sites can easily take an hour each way. Sadly this really eats into the day as I often drive out first thing to a site, discuss the work taking place with contractors and walk around to see their work, then get to another site to meet with colleagues, and so the day can be almost over by the time I get back to the Forest of Bere and the porta cabin. However, I have stocked up on audio books and so Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are currently keeping me company on the long drives! I did actually attempt to locate forestry books on cd but that turned out not to be a popular genre, the closest I have got so far is Murder at the Vicarage which does at least feature the local wood as a key aspect of the plot…
The recent spate of site visits means that I have become much more comfortable with the whole process of harvesting work and all the features involved, but something new to learn always crops up. Part of the decision making process involves taking into consideration potential hazards such as electricity lines, archaeological features or the wildlife inhabiting the wood in question. The Commission has very detailed mapping software allowing us access to all of these layers of data, but naturally this is a more difficult thing where wildlife is concerned and so we rely on our wildlife rangers (or in the New Forest area the Keepers) for information relating to the animal or bird residents of each area of woodland. This is a crucial aspect of FC work as we take all precautions where the wildlife of a wood is concerned as I discovered first hand a couple of weeks ago on one of my active sites near the pretty village of Stoughton.
I joined a group made up of Forestry Commission staff and contractors to walk over the sites marked out for harvesting work. It was a beautiful day, full of the latent promise of Spring and as we went we discussed all the safety measures needed, the locations of all the signage, the potential difficulties posed by certain slopes or ride entrances, and of course the restrictions put upon the work by the presence of wildlife in the woods. In the case of this particular wood the problem for the machine operators was the badger population who had made their home there. Badgers are a protected species and so every effort is made to leave them undisturbed when any work is taking place in their vicinity. Rob, one of the wildlife rangers for the South Downs Beat, had previously marked down the location of all known badger setts and so after the team meeting the two of us went round the whole wood checking each and every sett. We needed to ascertain which setts remained active (e.g. in use) and which were now dormant.
Badgers are of course nocturnal so sadly were not around for me to take a picture of so I had to make do with the exterior of their setts. The dormant setts were very easy to miss if you didn’t know what you were looking for as although there remained a hole, and tunnels were there under the ground, the surface area had been allowed to fill in with leaves through lack of use and so they were only easy to spot when nearby currently active setts. The active setts were grouped together on slopes (sloping ground is preferred by badgers) as for each underground network of tunnels there were numerous entrance points.
The badger sett areas also had plenty of signs of badger activity ranging from claw scratch marks on trees and stones to badger paw prints in the mud, droppings and badger made paths. The easiest sign of badger activity to spot were the piles of spoil close to the setts, full of stone scraped out of their tunnels. I found the badger paths rather thrilling as the tiny little paths looked so cute and were covered in paw prints. They led from badger areas of residence to good feeding areas and were not too tricky to follow once you knew what you were looking for. Badgers are omnivorous and eat a varied diet but earthworms make up a staple part of it and it was to good worm feeding sites the little paths we found led to. They have also been known to eat small creatures like baby birds, rabbits and hedgehogs as well as roots and plants.
In order to protect the badgers from our harvesting work good practice calls for a distance of 20 meters to be maintained between machinery and the proud animals. To comply with that we went round marking a circle of 20 meters away from every active site with red and white striped warning tape on the trees. This makes it easy for the machine operators to spot the location of the setts and so avoid them.
It was great fun walking about discovering the setts and it was such a beautiful day weather wise, the perfect sort of day for forestry work. Rob brought along his dog Inca and it was splendid to walk about the woods with a dog again, my own beloved Marmaduke being alas rather too far away in Scotland to have made the trip. Being able to bring your dog to work on occasion (not only to the forest but many of our offices allow dogs as well) is a lovely perk of working for the FC, and depending on where I end up in the organisation in the future it would be something I would love to do.
The Spring like weather meant that the wood was really looking its best and I didn’t only spot badger setts in among the gorgeous Beech trees (interspersed with the odd Elm and the occasional Yew), but found delicious wild garlic and whole carpets of wild bluebells waiting patiently to bloom in April. Bluebells are one indicator of ancient historic woodland, as are certain mosses and a select variety of other plants.
Location truly is key, and it is amazing what a big impact the presence of an obstacle like badger setts can pose to forestry work. We marked off several very large areas (particularly where whole groups of sett entrances were) and this will have a very real impact on the work taking place, and make access to certain areas much harder and more time consuming. When I first look at maps of an area where work is going to take place it all looks so simple… most deceptive!