We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
Winter is the quiet time for a mixed farm. Next years crops are either safely in the ground, or, like our spring barley, waiting until spring to be sown,? and the ewes and cows are still pregnant for another month or two. It’s the lull before the storm: of late nights, early mornings and constant supervision of calving and lambing.
So winter is a time to catch up on other jobs that have slipped by throughout the rest of the year: clearing gateways and footpaths, tidying the tools and workshops, repairing fences and stiles, cutting back hedges. Perhaps most excitingly, it’s the season to plant trees. This may seem confusing – why plant during the cold season? Surely it wants to be sunny and warm to help them grow? Trees go dormant during the cold months – the sap hasn’t yet “risen”, which makes this the time when working with trees is least stress to them.
Planting trees is definitely not one of the easy jobs. You are outside in the winter weather which may be bright clear sun but is often wind with sudden sea squalls that can come with no warning. Sometimes you are working in frozen ground, often in wet clay which sticks to your boots and your spade. Deer and rabbits like to eat the young trees and our own horses, sheep and cattle will also do so given the chance so trees we put in are therefore given tree guards and fenced away from livestock, all more work. But like so many aspects of farming, the ache of muscles and wind-swept hair is part of working outdoors that we relish, and the reward of sitting by the fire with a hot cup of tea, knowing that the fruits of our labours will stand for many years, makes it all worth it.
There is an old adage: “The best time to plant trees is twenty years ago, the second best time is now”. We have tried to work to that adage, and are now enjoying the benefit of those who did so before us.
We do this despite the fact that West Bexington is not tree growing country. We have salt winds from the sea. They nip off fresh growth when it comes in the spring, they tear off heavy, leafy branches when they come in the summer. In autumn and winter they blast all the seaward buds or simply blow the trees down. Woods planted just over the hill in the Bride Valley will mature in half the time that ours will. But the more we plant the more shelter there is and so the more we can plant and the better the new trees will grow. We think that’s a good thing, no matter how long it takes. Britain used to be more tree covered and we believe even here the scrub and low trees are the natural habitat. We also know that woody plants can be part of both working to counter climate change and mitigating it’s effects, so we are continuing the tree and hedge planting project started in the 1960s by Arthur and Josephine.
We started then by growing trees we knew could manage the sea winds and were quick-growing. In this phase we planted things like cypresses and poplars. Through this, the vegetable and fruit areas are now all protected by mature trees. . We moved on to enhancing the hedges that were here and planting new ones. We imitated the natural tree and shrub population, putting in species like wild thorn trees, wayfarer’s tree, crab apples and dog-rose, all offering berries for winter birds, a few hazels, ash and honeysuckle, not a tree but a glorious scented part of British hedges. Now most of our hedgerows are 4m-10m wide havens for wildlife and provide plenty of shelter for our sheep and cattle from the prevailing south-westerly wind. In 2000 the Dorset branch of the International Tree Federation joined us to plant some trees to acknowledge the Millennium. The small woodland planted then is beginning to feel like a real and wonderful space and we are starting to think about grazing it a little to reduce bramble growth and raise the canopy. We pruned the old orchard and increased its area with local and heritage varieties of apples and pears, with some damsons, quinces and cherries. We’d like to try more cherries but the birds eat more of them than we do. Next, we started to grow the trees we really wanted rather than the ones we needed. In this phase of our tree-planting project, we have planted chestnut, hazel, holly, rowan, a few larch, wild pear and bullaces but what we have taken most pleasure in is oak. We have young oaks putting their heads above the thorn trees with exquisite golden-brown leaves in the spring. We know they will never grow good timber here where the sea-winds will stunt them. But no-one plants oak to make money for themselves, though they may hope it may give some to their descendants. We did it for the oak’s contribution to the natural environment; they support the greatest range of invertebrates of all trees in Britain, and for their beauty. We are now, under fresh inspiration from the next generation, thinking about planting trees within the grassland as well as around it, hoping to offer more shelter for stock, protection for the grass sward and development of the soil. We are wondering about new species, like the black locust which has the added benefit of providing forage and fixing nitrogen in the soil. This year, though, our greatest pleasure will probably be in the new plum trees; these are well known varieties: Victoria, Marjories Seedling and Early Rivers. We anticipate future generations finding these in years to come and reaching up in delight for the luscious fruit.