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Guest spot: Back to the woods! By Huw Woodman from The Bushcraft Magazine

Huw's woodHere’s our February contribution from The Bushcraft Magazine. This great magazine is a brilliant publication, packed with interesting and inspirational articles. We reviewed it here. Each month an article from the magazine will appear on the Cottage Smallholder site.

Huw Woodman’s been walking around our woodlands in the early spring.

The southeast has some of Britain’s most beautiful woodlands. They may not be the most spectacular, but they have a quiet charm that is unbeatable, especially as the year begins to unfold; there’s simply no place like an English wood in spring

Woodland is broadly of two types: broadleaved and evergreen and I’m going to concentrate on broadleaved woods here. These are the classic English woods that curiously have some of the most diverse arrays of plants and animals outside the tropics.

In a perfect world, an English wood is rather like a four-storey block of flats, with each layer different from the others.

The lowest layer is the ground layer which typically has mosses. The next layer is the field or herb layer and this consists mainly of wild flowers and ferns.

The third layer is the shrub layer or understorey (with hazel as a typical tree) and finally the canopy makes up the fourth layer. This is made of the top boughs of the great deciduous trees, such as oak, ask and beech.

Not all woods have all four layers. Sometimes one layer will predominate and sometimes a wood will have a couple. Ecologists will tell you that there is no single reason why this happens. It may, for example, be that a thick canopy, such as a beech wood will not allow much light to filter down to the lower layers. In contrast, an ash wood is likely to have well developed lower layers, because ash leaves let more light through.

So why do trees lose their leaves in winter? This is not a straightforward issue, but it is mainly to do with food and water supply. It is generally reckoned that as the winter approaches, a tree will find it harder to pull nutrients from the ground, especially when it is frozen. So a deciduous tree will shed its leaves to avoid dehydration.

So which plants are visible at the moment?

The first of the woodland plants are beginning to show. In my wood in Kent, I can already see Wild Arum (aka cuckoo pint), Primulas and Dog’s Mercury and it won’t be long before the wild garlic shows – this is an absolute must for the hunter-gatherer and is quite widespread.

What animals will I see?

Broadleaved woods support a wide range of animals from squirrels and badgers to deer. The red deer is not native in the southeast of the country, but you may well see Roe, Fallow and some of the introduced species such as Muntjac (about the size of a large dog). One animal that has colonised the south in some places is the wild boar and some of the woods in Kent and Sussex do support small populations. The damage caused to woodland by wild boar is quite distinctive, with the ground being heavily rutted in places, where they snout for food. They can sometimes be seen from trains – try the Kent and East Sussex Railway!

What’s in a name?

Many landscape clues can be gleaned from a place name. Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), is a rich source of clues. For example, a “den” is a clearing in the old Wealden forest, where tenants had a right of “pannage” – that is the right to take acorns in the autumn – an economically hugely important right. There are many “den” endings in village names in Kent and Sussex – try Tenterden and Smarden.

A “hurst” is an outlying wood, apart from the main wood, so Penshurst would probably be the outlying wood with an animal enclosure (a pen or fold) and Brockenhurst (in Hampshire) would be the outlying wood of the badgers .

Woods also give us some fine sayings; “by hook or by crook” is taken by some to derive from the old feudal practice of allowing tenants into a Lord’s woods to have as much fallen wood that could be taken “by hook (ie a billhook) or by “crook” (a sheep crook ), for his winter firing.

Do woods need to be managed?

There will always be those who say that woods should not be touched and that nature should be allowed to take its course. I cannot agree. I think a wood is like any other crop. It should be gently managed and harvested. A wood essentially yields two economic products: timber (large planks and beams) and wood (round wood mostly for green woodwork and firewood).

Coppicing is a traditional management technique which plants a new wood, allows it to grow for around eight years and then the trees are cut down to just above ground level. Instead of the trees dying, they re-grow and not as a single stem. A number of buds develop around the cut stem and these develop into shoots, then into wands and then poles. They are cut when they reach the right size for the job, say around seven years for rake and broom handles and the process begins all over again.

There is another version of coppicing which is called “pollarding”. This is where the cut is made about three metres up from the ground. The reason for this is that it allows cattle into the wood and for the poles to be grown and re-grown above animal grazing height. Pollard trees are often boundary markers for woodland ownership.

Next time l’ll be looking at the wild plants that can be foraged in the spring countryside.

Cheers all!

Huw Woodman is the consultant editor of the Bushcraft Magazine. This spring the magazine is organising some foraging and woodland bushcraft courses in Kent. These are suitable for families and singles (

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  1. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Sharron J

    Thanks for dropping by.

    You can buy wild garlic seeds here

  2. What an interesting, informative post. I was riveted.

    My significant other was born and raised in Kent – his parents have a small holding near Ashford – and right opposite their properly there’s a small wood with a small population of Roe. I’ve never seen them myself but maybe one day.

    I’d really love some wild garlic for my garden. I’ll have to look and see if I can get hold of some somewhere. I’m sure there must be an online nursery that specialises in wild flowers. Maybe you know of one?

  3. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Sara

    Danny loves the magazine too!

  4. farmingfriends

    My husband will really enjoy reading this article. i have reserved a copy of the magazine as a surprise for my husband.
    Sara from farmingfriends

  5. Fiona Nevile

    Hi Mildred

    Huw’s articles are a great contribution to the site. Long may they continue!

  6. Another really interesting article Huw, thanks! And thank you too for your magazine, we have read every word in the first issue we received last month!

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