We are sitting on a track in the sun in a part of Fingle Woods I have never explored before. All morning we have been working in the shade of the trees and my ankles (bad choice of clothing yet again) are scratched from pushing through bracken and brambles. Our task, one that we and other teams have been doing regularly since July, is to survey the ancient boundaries masked still by the conifers at Fingle.
There are, our maps suggest, some 28 kilometres of such boundary on these hillsides, representing the edges of old fields, tracks or patterns of ownership. Some are marked by huge stone walls, boulders the size of grazing animals piled one on top of another. Others are earth banks, slumped now into the soil. Often they are topped by hazel and holly coppice but we also encounter massive old trees, frequently ancient, multi-stemmed oaks. In other sections we struggle to find the way amidst waist high bracken, the occasional stump under foot or buried gatepost keeping us on track.
On each boundary we plot our position using GPS, take regular measurements of canopy density and note the presence and frequency of ancient woodland species; flowers such as wood sorrel, cow wheat and bluebells, particular types of fern and grasses (well OK we are not too good at the last two yet). We record the condition of the boundary and whether bracken and brambles are encroaching and perhaps most excitingly, we fix the position of particular points of interest. These can just be where access tracks cross the boundary but more frequently they are ancient trees who speak eloquently of a history we cannot yet decipher fully.
Some of the oaks measure more than 3 metres in circumference, there are beautiful ash trees. We encounter a holly grown so tall in its long search for light that it looks like a tropical palm; leaves held high above us in the canopy. Sometimes we stand with field guides for ages. Is this a wych elm or a hornbeam? Is that a lime? We measure a rowan with a girth that could make it a special tree nationally. Size and bark are not necessarily good guides amongst these ancients but we make notes and fix the position so others can check and we stand in awe at this hidden woodland treasure.
Back home the day’s measurements and photos are uploaded from the tablet and sent to Alex Hamer, Fingle’s ancient boundary intern. Alex, who has trained us, will digitise them to make an interactive map, enabling the local management team to decide where to focus activity. That might mean clearing bracken and letting more light in, directing a bat expert or moss and lichen expert to boundaries where detailed surveys are required, or plotting new access tracks.
For this year the end must be approaching. There are few flowers left to help with species identification and the canopy will soon be bereft of leaves. But we will certainly be back next year. We will also be in need of more volunteers to help with the survey so do let Alex or Eleanor know if you are interested – FingleWoods@woodlandtrust.org.uk.
In the meantime if you want to learn more about the changes at Fingle why not put the exhibition at Green Hill Arts Gallery in Moretonhampstead in your diary: Forestry Ventures – A century of change in Fingle Woods (September 16th-October 28th) www.greenhillarts.co.uk.
by Joyce Halliday