Voiceover: You are listening to Woodland Walks, a podcast for the Woodland Trust presented by Adam Shaw. We protect and plant trees for people to enjoy, to fight climate change and to help wildlife thrive.
Adam: Well, I've changed trains at Bath Spa for what appears to be a very small train which is taking me to Avoncliffe. Now, in fact, the train conductor has told me the platform is so short when I get there only one door is going to open. He came through asking “Is anybody getting off?” and I'm the only one, the only one.
Well, I have to tell you, the station here is straight out of a 1930s style Agatha Christie film, that's what it screams to me. Beautiful signs, beautiful flowers, the River Avon just almost next door to the station, a great looking pub and down at the end of the platform one single man who I'm assuming is Joe Middleton with the Woodland Trust, site manager here and the guy who's going to show me around.
Joe: So, welcome to Avoncliffe Wood in the Avon Valley just in between Bath and Bradford-on-Avon. We just crossed over the famous Avoncliffe Aqueduct and just followed the River Avon until we hit even Avoncliffe Wood which carpets the side of the valley across this area of the Cotswolds AONB, Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, right at the southern end of the Cotswold AONB.
Adam: There's very little woodlands right here, so what's going on in this first field?
Joe: So, we’re just at the edge of our woodland creation. So we bought 20 hectares, about 40 football pitches, of ancient woodland – untouched for generations – and to buffer that, to try and expand carbon storage and fight climate change and the ecological decline we’re seeing we actually bought another 10 hectares, another 20 football pitches, worth of agricultural fields essentially and meadows which were very intensively grazed and we've planted that up with over 5,000 trees to try and get the next generation of trees in here.
Adam: Wow, okay so shall we go through, have a look? Thank you.
Joe: So just next to us as you can hear the birds singing away, there are blackbirds, robins and blackcaps in there. There’s one acre, here, just on the right-hand side, which was actually planted up 25 years ago by a neighbour. So, the very small one acre square now 25 years later is teeming with you know 30-40 foot birch trees, willows, hazels and hawthorns, full of cherry blossom and hawthorn blossom, and birds nesting, tweeting, and insects buzzing all around us! It's quite rare these days!
So hopefully we think everything we planted up here, all 5,000 trees would look like that in 25 years. A proper young woodland.
Adam: And you've clearly, I mean, they're not uniformly planted so there's a big patch in the middle which you’ve got nothing and they seem to be done in clumps, so why have you done it like that?
Joe: Do you want to know what that patch in the middle is? That’s a sledging lane. Right well so we carried out community consultation when we first bought the woodland. We asked all the locals, we said look there’s this really lovely kind of big expanse of fields all around the wood, we want to buy it, we want it to, you know, fight climate change, we want to try and do our bit for wildlife. And they said whatever you do leave us a sledging lane because when it snows here this hill is perfect for tobogganing down.
Adam: laughs you see I thought it was going to be for some really technical reason! You need to do that for a very specific reason, I didn’t realise it was gonna be sledges.
Joe: There are also wide rides, you know, big areas that people can walk through. We’ve created a really good path network in here as well in some areas and natural regeneration so there are areas unplanted and there are areas purely for tobogganing fun in the middle of snowy winters.
Adam: And why not? It’s very important. Now, the thing that we can see in this immediate field is a lot of tree guards and well I'm also standing by a little sign which says biodegradable tree shelter. I always call them tree guards, but this was called tree shelter. Now that is not by coincidence. The tree guards are a huge issue, aren’t they?
Joe: Yeah, I mean with governments pledging to plant millions if not globally billions of trees to fight climate, you know hold onto carbon, stop floods, we have to be able to do it without using oil-based plastics. For the last 35 years people have just, every tree that's gone in you know, not every one, but most trees that’ve gone in have been planted with a giant plastic tree guard which doesn't biodegrade, it litters, it causes microplastics, and people…
Adam: And are they reusable those plastic guards?
Joe: They are to a certain degree, they're not easy to recycle, there are some better recycling schemes now just starting. But actually, probably one in three are reusable. But a lot of places are too far to go and get them, people don't bother they get left and derelict and are expensive to go and collect every single one, especially when you’re planting hundreds of thousands. So the biodegradable alternative is the absolute key. Find something that naturally, you know, biodegrades away back into the soil, doesn't harm anything, it doesn't use oil.
Adam: Right, I'm just going to go up to… So, this is a biodegradable one?
Adam: It looks sort of yellowish and quite canvas-like but it's very it's very firm, it doesn't feel, I mean that feels a sturdy old thing this.
Joe: Yeah so, we've got 5,000 trees we put in. We are using some old recycled plastic ones, so we've been given a few, but actually we've got 16 different types of biodegradable alternatives to plastic here. So, they range from cardboard, you know, made from paper or mulch to biodegradable plastics, which the jury is out on at the moment, to actually resins and oils from things like cashew nut shells and pine resin.
We’ve got a train coming past us! Train noise
Two and a half years ago, when we planted the 5,000 trees in all these biodegradable guards, we launched something called Big Climate Fightback, a big Woodland Trust campaign to bring people out to help plant trees and do their bit. And actually, we ended up with over 250 people arriving one Saturday – spades in hand – on the trains in all the train stations. And the people in Bath, and Bristol and Bradford-on-Avon must have thought “what on earth is going on?”, with over 250 people arriving with spades on the platforms. And they came in here, they planted trees en masse – school kids, families, local groups.
Everyone came here to try and plant trees and with that we, you know, told people about the problem of plastics and we've basically now got one of the biggest sites in the UK for trialling an alternative to plastic – to try and protect these trees so they get to five, seven years to get to a good height where they’re no longer susceptible to browsing by deer, by rabbits, by voles, which is the main reason the shelters and guards are here to protect them.
Adam: And correct me if I'm wrong but there is a sort of school of thought saying well don't use any guards. I mean it's now sort of established practice that you’ve got to use a guard otherwise the tree won't survive, but there is this sort of vague thought we never used to use guards in the distant past, so why have we suddenly got obsessed with them?
Joe: I mean deer numbers are higher than they've ever been, it's a huge amount of browsing by deer with no natural predators, so it's complicated, that is the simplest answer, but putting up a giant 6-foot fence is probably you know the other solution which is in a lot of cases, depending on size, it can be much more economic, more practical. Very small areas – probably not massive areas, but medium sized – deer fencing is probably the answer, but then you’ve still got rabbits and voles you’ve got to fence out.
So, doing nothing, over-planting, natural regeneration – we've got an area if you look up to the edge of the woodland we've left the buffer zone of about 20-30 metres around lots of this woodland, all around it, with nothing, we’ve just fenced it off and we're just going to allow the woodland to expand – every one of those berries and those nuts and seeds that drops into the ground will hopefully just have a, you know, wild natural generation. Like Knepp with a huge rewilding – that hope of what happens there doesn't happen as easily here but can take a long time. Hopefully that will establish woodland itself, but it may take 50 years. At the moment we've got a climate emergency on us and amongst us, so we have to do something now so planting trees is a very good quick solution.
Adam: A huge issue because if we are planting for ecological reasons what we don't want to do is every tree comes with its own polluting plastic. I mean that’s not the future. So, the answer to that question may well lie in the thousands of experiments you're carrying out in this field we’re standing in.
Adam: Right, well I've stopped us walking. We better… I better get my steps in. So, let’s carry on. Where are we heading to now?
Joe: So, we're gonna go and find our two volunteer wardens in a minute.
Adam: So, we’ve got two volunteers hard at work. I can see just up the hill a bit.
Joe: So, this is James and Kay who are both our two volunteer wardens. They’ve been working now replacing broken, rotted, fallen biodegradable tree guards, replacing the trees as they die as well, and these two have been working hard to help keep an eye on them for the last few years for us.
Adam: It's got them hard at work!
Joe: They are incredibly hard at work. Hey guys how you doing?
Kay and James: Alright? Hi! Hello.
Adam: They do have you hard at work! So Kay and James, so first of all before we get to what you’re actually doing, why have you been doing it? What's your interest? Why did you volunteer to do all of this?
Kay: Well, you’ve been a volun… a member of the Woodland Trust for about 25 years.
James: Well, it’s about 35 years now.
Kay: Since this is really on our doorstep, this is a perfect opportunity to get really involved with the Woodland Trust.
Adam: James, I mean, you’ve been a Woodland Trust member for a very long time. And, ah the debate around trees has changed enormously. Hasn’t it?
James: It has, and I am glad that people have suddenly valued trees. I was in the military but, before that, I was out of Kent, out near Canterbury and my uncle was a farmer with orchards and basically from the earliest days I knew about the trees, the names of trees. The pollards at the end of the field as windbreaks, the various wetland trees down in the floodplains around the Romney Marsh area. But I already had a fascination for the massive oaks, the spectacular deciduous trees on the horizon I think made this this countryside look like it does, so British, and so English, with these gorgeous round shapes, compared to a lot of conifers you see in all the European places I’ve been to.
Adam: Okay, talk me through a bit about what you’re actually doing here – I mean, you know, hammer in hand I can see.
Kay: Hammer in hand, we're replacing some of the tubes that haven't stood up to the wind and the rain. We found that circular rather than rectangular and…
Adam: works, circular works…
Kay: circular works, because otherwise if it's square they act as a flag, especially cardboard ones. When they get wet, they just disintegrate – as you can see there's lots of bare sticks around here, so yeah, we're going through and replacing them with circular ones.
Adam: Fantastic, now I know that the local community were very involved with the Trust, sort of when the Trust took over and sort of designed this site. Tell me a bit about what the local community feel.
Kay: That was a great day. We had two schools frog marched in, and yeah, with their teachers and staff and they planted the whole area, which was lovely – they were naming the trees as they were planting them. I know the whole village got involved with planting 5,000 trees over a progressive few weekends and subsequently James and I have been replanting the failures.
Adam: And James I mean very clear how engaged you are with this sort of issue but to tell me about the feelings then of the local community and what they what they felt when Woodland Trust first came here and how involved others are apart from you two.
James: So, I'm very pleased that people are actually accepting, on the whole, that their backyard has been filled with trees and shrubs which are growing up for their children's lifetime.
Kay: We have had some objections to this, but they haven't given their reason why. I assume it's because it's used when we do get snow, which is very rare, it's the sledging field. The Woodland Trust have kindly left a gap for sledging but then they moan that the grass is too long so you can't please everyone all of the time.
Adam: But when it was first thought about, and I think it's really interesting isn’t it, that you say the community are largely behind this, but I think if others are listening to you now where they may be talking about a woodland on their doorstep created by the Woodland Trust or their own sort of organisation – I wonder what people's first reaction, what were their concerns and hesitancies that you heard about that may have been overcome?
Kay: People don't like change do they? And at the moment it's, yeah, it doesn't look picture perfect with the stakes and the guards on, but you've got to envisage what it will look like in 10-15 years’ time. You've only got to look at the hedgerow, which is behind us now, and at this time of year which is beginning of May, it’s absolutely gorgeous. The blossom’s out, the fresh burst of the leaf is so colourful and vibrant, what’s not to like about having a wood on your doorstep? And we were very lucky.
Adam: Okay, well brilliant, well thank you very much. Look I don't want to disturb you anymore but that's brilliant. Thank you very much.
Kay: Thank you!
Adam: So, we're gonna head up now to the ancient woodland. Now this is certainly unique in any of the Woodland Trust sites I’ve been to, because normally the Trust actively encourages people to come in, but this is the only site I've been to where the ancient woodland bit you stop people from coming. Oh, look this is…
Joe: This is our nifty little fenced area which…
Adam: We’re going through the barbed wire so just be careful going…
So, explain to me why you've unusually actually kept the public out of the ancient woodland.
Joe: Ash dieback really is becoming a huge problem across a lot of woodlands I manage. I manage about 30 woods across the West Country and every one of them has large amounts of ash that really grows really well on these sort of limestone soils and in these hills around the Mendips, the Cotswolds.
Gosh there’s a huge Buzzard just soaring over the edge of the woodland there.
So, ash dieback is killing off essentially all our ash trees. Estimates vary at the moment. You know recently it was about 95% and then people said it was around 60%. So, the latest estimate is that about 60% of our ash trees will die over the next 50 years. How fast they die is the worrying thing but when we bought the wood in 2019 ash dieback was blowing across the landscape. It is a fungal disease. It naturally spreads.
It came over from Asia originally in infected stock of nursery trees being planted out. So, no one's been able to plant any ash for the last three years. It's now being reported all the way from the east of Great Britain, all the way to the west, every year, until it’s spread and spread and spread now our mature ash trees – whether they're in a hedgerow, along roadsides and country lanes, whether they're in woodlands – ash trees are essentially dying en masse, and this is killing off everything that lives and breathes on those ash trees.
Adam: And the reason you're keeping the public out is because the trees are dangerous, are they? They might fall?
Joe: Yeah exactly, so where you have a path or road or property you have to maintain, you know, what's reasonably practical safety for people to be able to walk under it. We realise if we were to create a load of paths, allow a load of people into now what is a fantastic ancient woodland, but it has never really had any paths in, it's been undisturbed for generations – over 100 years now – we don't think anyone set foot in it. So, we didn't want to create any paths because we didn't want to fell any trees, so we've kept it shut and all the locals have seemed to have bought into that and are really pleased this is just a woodland for wildlife. They're happy enough to walk around the fields where we've created woodland.
Adam: And is it also something of a laboratory to see what happens to ash dieback? If you really don't step in and try and do anything?
Joe: Exactly yeah, so, in so many woodlands across Britain because of the large amount of public footpaths, people are having to fell for health and safety reasons, so there's not very many examples where if no one goes in and nothing happens, what happens to that wildlife? Does it also dramatic- dramatically decline, with the trees losing? Or are there some winners? So, are there some decay species? Some fungi species? Some insects, beetles that love decay rotting wood that increase? So we don't really know. So, this site we've turned into a living laboratory, this is a unique case of where we are monitoring the species within the wood, how they react to ash dieback over time.
Adam: We're now going into the bit of ancient woodland which the public are locked out of and so we have got this big “keep out, closed due to ash dieback” (sign).
Joe: You have exclusive access!
Adam: Brilliant, now I gotta say, I mean I've got to take a photo of this because this is a sea of amazing plants. I'm really, I want to be careful where I tread, I don’t want to disturb anything. Because I'm completely ignorant, what are these plants?
Joe: Can you smell it?
Adam: Yeah sure, it’s extraordinary!
Joe: This is wild garlic.
Adam: Is that what it is?
Joe: Ramsons are all in flower at the moment and now we can see for literally, well, hundreds of metres is the white snowy tops of these wild garlic flowers that are just coming up across the thick green leaves and when there's no path in sight you have to be careful where you tread. So, luckily wild garlic’s quite prolific, so we’ll tread carefully, but an undisturbed wood looks like this. It's like a sea, or a carpet of sort of snow.
Adam: That is extraordinary, isn't it? Yes it is a sea of snow and that's the advantage of actually having undisturbed places. Is that it, I mean, yeah sea is exactly what it looks like. These sort of white foaming tops to the rolling green waves of vegetation. Quite amazing.
Joe: All you can make out are the occasional tracks of foxes, badgers, stoats, weasels, that have gone through it, maybe the odd deer as well. But insects seem to be declining catastrophically. The ideal analogy is, you know, people used to drive around even in the 80s and you get windscreens splattered with bugs and insects. It just doesn't happen anymore and that massive decline of insects, it’s unknown the reason, it probably doesn't help with, you know, when people are using lots of pesticide sprays across the countryside, along with climate change, but as all those insects decline so do our birds that feed on them, so are our bat species – so they're not fat enough to basically get through the hibernation and then when they come out of hibernation and the young are born there are just not enough insects so they don't make it through the summer essentially, and they don't have another generation that makes it. So, yeah, bat species are declining at the moment, so that's one of the first things we've noticed, and well ash are declining en masse. There were a lot of these species of ash that we’re monitoring that are all dying en masse.
Adam: I mean so that, I mean, …you're telling me all these terrible things
Joe: Yes, I know.
Adam: But I mean that's important it's still amazing landscape still isn't it?
Adam: And that's always been true with woodlands. That decay brings its own new life and decaying trees are very important parts the of the ecosystem, but even given all of those challenges that you talk about are there any, are there any high points, any reasons for optimism?
Joe: Well, wild garlic’s obviously doing really well in this particular wood! But there will be some species that do, really, there will be some species of butterfly that you know do really successfully with the increased amount of light. But one of the best success stories, the best things you can do to feel positive about it is to go back out into those fields, plant the trees, the next generation, so that if some of these woodlands do suffer for whatever reason then we've got far more woodland habitat.
We need to increase our woodland cover from about 13% to 20% fast and then if we get 20% – we've got the shrubs, we've got the tree species, got the rewilding areas – to be able to provide those homes for the species that aren't doing so well. That's the key I think is to plant the next generation, get there quickly.
Our woodlands have a fantastic history and have been managed over time. This is just the next phase in the management to basically keep an eye and ensure our guardianship secures for that next generation in the next 50-100 years.
Adam: Well I'm going to leave Joe to smelling his wild garlic, because TV presenter and journalist Alice Beer, who I used to work with, I know lives not that far from this woodland. Now I know she's out and about today so I'm going to call her on her mobile to discuss what the countryside around here means to her and her family. Okay, so just Alice first of all we should explain a bit about our history, so everybody…
Alice: Oh must we tell everybody? Do you think we should?
Adam: I think we should share a little bit. I used to open letters on Watchdog which was a massive massive programme at the time and I can't, do you remember how many people watched it? I can't
Alice: Well I don't know I'd come to watchdog from That's Life and That's Life, which was before you were born Adam I’m sure, had 15 million viewers in its heyday and I think Watchdog was around 7 million viewers, which now is completely unheard of, but then you know it was just 7 million people watching it and more importantly 7 million people putting pen to paper. No emails, pen to paper, and thank God Adam Shaw was in the post room!
Adam: Yes I was opening the 7 million letters with one or two other people and Alice was much more senior, so we would come to pass those stories onto Alice and of course, you are now, what’s your official title?
Alice: I suppose I'm actually probably daytime television presenter but I'm far too much of a snob to say that! I kind of dip in and out of various things trying to still help the little guy or pass on information.
Adam: You have a regular spot on a very big programme, This Morning?
Alice: Well, This Morning, yes, it’s every day, it's now two and a half hours, they keep extending it! I am waiting for it to bump up against the Six O'Clock News soon! But This Morning it was, “can you do a piece on brisk walking and the health benefits”, as a result of some survey that came out, so here I am for the second time today brisk walking and broadcasting at the same time which is fantastic!
Adam: Very good! Don’t trip over! You’ve got a couple of dogs with you haven't you as well?
Alice: I have, I’ve got Stanley who's my five-year-old schnoodle and his girlfriend Tilly and there are times when they become quite amorous in the long grass but I'm going to try and keep it clean for your sake!
Adam: I knew you when we used to work in Shepherd’s Bush in London, but you are now a country girl aren't you?
Alice: Yeah, wellies welded to my feet! I grew up in suburbia and in North London suburbia and the countryside wasn't really important to me, but my parents took me out, took me and my sister out walking quite a lot. There was always “shall we do the walk through the woods”, “should we do the walk through the bluebell woods” which is slightly longer or “should we go up and round” which involved the hill. So, there was always a consciousness of walking in the countryside as a pleasant thing to do, but as we've got older, the countryside has become more important to me and we have been doing that thing, my partner and I have been doing that thing where we're trying to move out of London and we've settled on this beautiful village, beautiful functional village not far from Malmesbury in Wiltshire, which is where I am now, walking alongside the River Avon. So not too far from Avoncliff and the same body of water sort of flowing past me which is rather nice.
Adam: How lovely. I know, I've seen you on This Morning as you’re talking about wellbeing, and in terms of actually, with your consumer journalist hat on talking about the gadgets you could buy to help with wellbeing and having lights I think that show, sort of, natural light. I mean, how important do you feel it's been for you and your family during these rather difficult times to have access to nature and the outside?
Alice: It’s been everything to me. Everything. I've got teenage girls in fact it’s their birthday today, their 19th birthday today, so for them probably it spells isolation for them because they didn't grow up in the countryside, or this this particular part of the countryside, so you know this means being away from their friends, but for myself and my husband it's been, it's been really important. For me to leave the house and walk in space because in London everything has felt very close and very claustrophobic and I’m mentally not good at that at all! So, I'm incredibly lucky to be able to breathe and give myself sort of mental and physical space away from other people. I was able to work from here, so I did sixty live broadcasts from, in effect, my back garden during lockdown.
Adam: It’s really interesting that you talk about your girls sort of feeling a sense of isolation because they came from the city and now are in a very rural area. I often find that it's a curious thing to get one's head round because really the nature debate about sustainability and trying to be better for the world is often very strongly led by young people.
Alice: Oh it's theirs, it's completely their campaign! But I'm not sure that they associate it with, I mean, I feel like I'm treading on dangerous territory speaking, you know, putting words into their mouths because they're both very eloquent, quite passionate girls. I feel that I'm not sure that they would stand out in a field and say “we must protect this”. Probably coming from the city, they feel more that they see stuff, they see things going into bins, they see landfill, smoke, pollution. So, they see the big preservation of our world from a city perspective, probably more than standing in a field and thinking “oh this must never have, you know, thousands of houses built on it”, which is what probably makes me panic as much as anything.
Adam: Do you get a sense of a change in people's attitudes in the way they behave, I mean, I think people talk about the need for ecological sustainability. I see amongst my friends and family, I have to also be careful about what I’m saying, I see less actually willingness to change personal behaviour than a willingness to say it's important, but they don't do an awful lot. Do you see that real difference?
Alice: I'm a huge hypocrite, but I am now suddenly, it was probably about six months ago I was putting something in the bin, and it sounds like a strange Greta Thunberg epiphany, but it slightly was. I was putting some plastic in the bin, and I was trying to clear out a room and I was thinking this is going nowhere! This can't be recycled. This has to go underneath the ground, and this is not going to break down. I had a sort of panic about the fact that well if I was doing this and everyone was doing this and though I sort of have had that epiphany and I am changing my behaviour, and nothing particular triggered that, apart from me clearing out a bedroom and realising I had too much stuff. You know, which is odd, but you know, in terms of the big picture in the world I think it's very hard to make individuals feel responsible when we see big companies not taking responsibility. It’s that sort of, well what difference is little me gonna make? And I’ve sort of had that, well I'm going to make a difference, so I will. I've had that moment and I think we have to all have that moment and I'm just about to fall into the River Avon, which could be interesting! I'm trying to encourage the dogs to have a drink. There you go guys, come on, look Tilly have a drink! Yeah well they’re sort of having a drink, but I'm the one that's most likely to go in here.
Adam: Well look, Alice, I feel split because I quite like the sound effect of you going in to end this, it’d be a great end wouldn’t it! But on the other hand not a great way of re meeting after all these years. Look I will let you get on with your walk but thank you very much, thanks a lot.
Alice: Thank you, thank you.
Adam: Well, let's leave Alice Beer there and indeed all our friends at Avoncliff Woods. I do hope you enjoyed that and if you want to find a wood near you, you can go to the Woodland Trust website, woodlandtrust.org.uk/findawood and you can find a wood that's local to you. So that’s woodlandtrust.org.uk/findawood. I do recommend you do that. Until next time happy wandering!
Voiceover: Thank you for listening to the Woodland Trust Woodland Walks. Join us next month when Adam will be taking another walk in the company of Woodland Trust staff, partners and volunteers. And don’t forget to subscribe to the series on iTunes or wherever you’re listening to us and do give us a review and a rating. Why not send us a recording of your favourite woodland walk to be included in a future podcast. Keep it to a maximum of 5 minutes and please tell us what makes your woodland walk special, or send us an email with details of your favourite walk and what makes it special to you. Send any audio files to email@example.com and we look forward to hearing from you.