Yonder Oak Wood is already an impressive place, with stunning views towards the Exe estuary from a picturesque valley-side location. But it’s set to become even more extraordinary. I met the team back in March to discover the vision to transform this landscape for people and wildlife, and learn what designing a new wood involves.

We chat to engagement and communication officer, Rachel Harries, and site manager Paul Allen who has the thrilling - if somewhat daunting - task of managing the makeover. They hope to attract as much wildlife as possible with healthy habitat that offers refuge from weather extremes and fights climate change. Alongside centuries-old oaks already dotting the site, new woodland, glades, scrub and open spaces will essentially turn today’s green fields into an area teeming with life. It's a place full of potential and positivity - and incredibly will look like young woodland in just 10 years.

The local community loves the site already, giving it its name, turning out to plant over 2,000 trees in winter and signing up as volunteers. Sally Burton joins us to explain what she gets up to as a volunteer, how excited everyone is about the future and what volunteering means to her.

Also in this episode:

  • hear how a group of singers joined a planting day by performing sea shanties - and tree shanties.
  • learn about efforts to make the site more sustainable, from re-usable fences and avoiding chemicals to trialling tree guards, including some made of sugar beet.
  • I get my hands dirty planting a tree which then faces the nerve-wracking ‘tug test’!

Listen to the podcast now on iTunesLibsyn or Soundcloud.

You are listening to Woodland Walks, a podcast for the Woodland Trust presented by Adam Shaw. We protect and plant trees for people, for wildlife.

Adam: Well, today I'm off to, well, the wonderfully named Yonder Oak Wood. And although it's called a wood, it's not really a wood yet. This is a very exciting project, but it's in the very early stages of creation. It's near Exmouth in Devon. The Woodland Trust plans on planting, I think something like 13,000 trees there, creating a new environment for nature and wildlife to bounce back. Sounds a great place to go, I'm going to meet a few people there. First off, though, is my contact at the Woodland Trust today, Rachel Harries.

Rachel: So this site is Yonder Oak Wood, it's not quite a wood yet, as you can see, but the Woodland Trust bought it in March last year with the aim of creating, creating a new wooded landscape here. So it's 54 hectares, we think it is the biggest woodland creation site that the Trust has done in the South West in in 20 years, so 54 hectares, that's equivalent to about 100 football pitches, and it sits on the sort of two sides of a hidden valley, just a couple of miles inland from the South Coast of Devon. So where we're stood, we can actually see out to the mouth of the Exe estuary, to Dawlish and and possibly to Torquay there as well.

Adam: I I think you can just see the estuary over there can't you, just beyond that last bunch of trees is that right?

Rachel: You absolutely can, yeah, you absolutely can. And actually the other day when I was here, I saw a white bird fly over that was an egret that was obviously based in the estuary, so really exciting.

Adam: And why, now this site, I happen to know is, it it's quite important because of the anniversary and just explain to me, explain to me a little bit about that.

Rachel: That's right. Last year was the 50th anniversary of the Woodland Trust and the first site that our founder Ken Watkins ever bought was in Devon. So it's really emblematic that we are now creating a new woodland, probably I think it's about 30 miles away as the crow flies from the Avon Valley Woods where we were started. But we're now creating a new woodland in the county of our birthplace, which is incredibly exciting, and we wanted to create something that would have meaning for local people and it would like, it would be tied into the local environment, so we did things like we looked at the name of the stream, we looked at old field names and we came up with a shortlist of names that we could then offer out to the local community and ask them which one, which one they wanted and what they wanted to call this new site. And one of the field names was Yonder Oak Park. And that's really quite special because as you look across the site, you can see all these incredible old oak trees over yonder, off in the distance. So I have to admit that was my favourite but we let the community choose and they voted for Yonder Oak Wood.

Adam: Right well you're gonna take me on a little walk around here, so just explain to me a little bit about what we're gonna see.

Rachel: OK. Well, we're starting here on a sloping field that has old oak trees dotted about the landscape. Some of these are a couple of hundred years old and there's one in particular which we can see just off in the distance, which is one of my, one of my favourites that is standing almost on on stilts. And the stilts are actually its roots that would have once been embedded in a Devon bank, which is a sort of a solid hedgerow that we find in Devon that has trees planted on the top and the hedgerow and the bank has been taken away. So the tree now kind of stands about a metre above the height that it would have once been.

Adam: Which one, I can't tell which one that is?

Rachel: So can you see there’s two in that field over there, we'll walk past it so we can have another look at it.

Adam: Yes, I see that, I see that. OK, maybe my eyesight's not very good. So and this goes, these are currently separate fields and there's what a field and then a hedgerow, another field, then another hedgerow, then the tree supposedly on stilts and beyond that what looks like a solar panel farm. So is this the, what will be the new woodland all the way up to the solar panels?

Rachel: We've worked to design a mixture of of habitats here, so we have about 5 different fields where we're doing much more intensive planting and that's what people would kind of imagine that would grow into what people would imagine a woodland would look like, but then in some of these other fields, so the field that we're stood in and a couple of other fields that you can kind of see off in the distance there, we're going to do a mix of open space, glades and groves. We'll plant some more of these kind of trees that will be allowed to to thrive and to spread on their own, but we'll also plant a mixture of of scrub and shrubs, so that's more lower growing trees, things like blackthorn, hawthorn, dog rose, spindle, just to create a really good mix of habitats for all the birds and insects and bats that we, you know, we know are going to thrive here.

Adam: And you, you've arranged for us to meet a a couple of people, haven't you?

Rachel: Yeah. So we're going to be walking around with Paul Allen, he's our site manager and we're going to meet Sally Burton, who is one of our volunteers here.

Adam: The weather's been kind to us so far, but it is a little nippy so we shouldn't keep them waiting. So do you wanna lead on and we'll go meet them.

Rachel: Yes, let’s go.

Adam: And I'm told there there was some sea shantying going on here, which strikes me as odd because we're not, we're not in the middle of the sea or anything. So what's the story behind that?

Rachel: Well, we're not far from the sea. We can see, we can see the, we can see the sea here. But we were contacted by a a group of local acapella singers who were inspired by what we're doing here and had decided to take some modern folk songs and to rewrite them to to reference the wood. So they came out one weekend and they sang to our to all of our planters, but we also talked a little bit about sea shanties, which I like the idea of becoming tree shanties. So they took a traditional sea shanty and they changed the lyrics. So we now have a song all about Yonder Oak Wood that we could sing along to.

Adam: Great. And that we're going to hear that now from from you. So here's Rachel with her tree shanty. Is that right? No?

Rachel *laughs* I don't think so.

Adam: Do you have a recording of it?

Rachel: I we do have a recording of it actually, yes.

Adam: You never know. I don't know. Maybe a couple of teas or beers later, I might persuade you to sing. Alright. Brilliant, Rachel. Thank you very much.

Rachel: Thank you. That's great. So here's Paul. He's the site manager and he's going to take us on a little walk down through Yonder Oak Wood.

Adam: Paul, thank you very much. Nice to see you. So you are the site manager.

Paul: Hello there. I am. Yes, I'm responsible for turning these fields into a wild, wildlife rich area.

Adam: OK. Well, go on. Let's lead on. We can have a chat about that. Brilliant. So yeah. So these are early days, Paul. I understand you you are responsible for designing the woodland. What does that actually involve?

Paul: So really, I mean the the the first place you you start is is kind of kind of getting a sense of where the place is and what the place is and the the key bit here as we walk through it is you can see these big old oak trees and so we've based a lot of the design on that. So you can picture in the future lots more of these big old trees that will have lots of deadwood, lots of rot holes where birds can nest, and invertebrates burrow in. And the way we're kind of going to maintain it is we're we're going to put animals in and have low intensity grazing and then you kind of build in where the views are.

Adam: I mean it must be really exciting because it can't be that often that you you get actually a green field or literally a greenfield site. But it's more or less bare. It's a plain piece of paper for you to design. That's quite, I mean, it's exciting, quite an honour, perhaps a little daunting?

Paul: I've I've done probably 30 years of nature conservation and most of what you do is you take bits of habitat and you try and restore them, you try and protect them. You very rarely get a chance to actually create something brand spanking new. It is really phenomenally exciting for all of us, because if you think about it in the future, 100 years time, this place will be on maps. It will be on aerial photographs, you know so not only are we doing stuff that's great for wildlife and great for climate, we're effectively creating history as well, which is an awesome thing to be a part of.

Adam: Yeah, so on the map it should say Yonder Oak Wood, brackets Paul Allen. *both laugh* Rachel’s in the background going it's my wood, it's my wood. There might be a battle for the name.

Paul: I'm I'm doing the design that says it from the sky it’ll say Paul was here. *both laugh*

Adam: Yes, yes very good, on Google Maps you can, you know, in 100 years time they’ll go well how did those trees get planted in the shape of Paul? *laughs* So, OK, look, we're, we're, I've paused because we're at the we're at the top of the hill, almost. So what will happen around us? At the moment there are three or four trees in a line and not much else. So what will be here?

Paul: So if you if you picture it in the future, what we'll have is we'll have a a, a a scattering of big old oak trees like we can see across the site and if you look over to our left, you can see an area that actually was the former quarry on the site. But if you look at it, you can see gorse that’s currently in flower, even though we're in a freezing day at the beginning of March. And all of that is really good for wildlife. It's got lots of pollen and and nectar and lots of edge that birds and insects really like. And essentially what we're gonna get in the future is a combination of these big old oak trees and that lovely scrubby stuff that's great for wildlife.

Adam: So here not too dense?

Paul: Not too dense here no, not at all.

Adam: So you get the view, you get a nice view and it's a mixed habitat.

Paul: You, you, you, you get a view, it's it's very, we've we've constantly said we're creating a kind of a wooded landscape not a wood.

Adam: Right. Well, we should carry on walking out, I have a tendency, just not to walk. I can see right over there some white poles which look like tree guards. Which does raise this issue I mean of how you're going to protect the trees because plastic tree guards have become quite controversial. Do you have a plan around that?

Paul: Yeah, so we've got we've got, last year the the Woodland Trust decided that it would stop using the virgin plastic tree guards on its sites, which is actually a bit problematic because there aren't really any other types of tree guard that are commercially available at scale, so we're doing a combination of things here. The the main way is we're going to deer fence the site to stop the deer coming in and then we're also in some places we're trialling different types of tree tubes, so we're looking at one at the moment that bizarrely, has been made of sugar beet so it smells like golden syrup when you walk up to it, which is quite weird, and the ones you can see over there are actually recycled from another site. So we're, we're still, we're still using the tree guards that are effectively usable.

Adam: Right. You talk about trying to protect the trees from deer. Which does raise the issue of other wildlife. I mean, clearly, we're gonna be hoping that wildlife get attracted into the area once this starts growing. At the moment though, have you have you seen much evidence of sort of new wildlife or any wildlife?

Paul: It's still very early days yet. But we've seen lots of buzzards there's there's actually quite a lot of hornets nests in, in the existing oak trees.

Adam: Is that a good thing? That sounds terrifying.

Paul: *laughs* I I I personally I quite like it.

Adam: You're pleased about that, OK. I think a lot of people always feel it takes generations and generations to plant trees. I know I have been at planting events where some young people have planted and said, oh, I think my children and my grandchildren might come to see this tree and then are surprised, actually, they come back to see their own tree and it grows quicker than they might expect. How quickly is this going to develop into anything recognisable as woodland?

Paul: So I mean, with within 10 years, it will absolutely look like a woodland, although obviously still a young woodland and different tree species grow at different rates. So the silver birches and the rowans will actually be 6 foot high within two or three years potentially, whereas the the oak trees clearly will grow a lot slower.

Adam: Wow, silver birch and rowan, 6 foot high in how long?

Paul: Two or three years, if they if they take well. I mean it it it it varies depending on the soil type and all that sort of stuff, but they do grow very, very quickly.

Adam: Blimey. And tell me a bit about how you got into all of this. I mean, I know you say you've been doing this a while.

Paul: I started well I started off volunteering actually with the British Trust for Conservation Volunteers a long time ago, and I got known by the Norfolk Wildlife Trust and rather randomly, I was having a beer in a pub and they went, do you fancy a job, and I went, alright then.

Adam: Very good. So you've learnt on the job about trees?

Paul: I I reeducated a few, some time ago but yeah a lot of it was learned as I went along.

Adam: I’ve been very insulting, you've you've probably got a PhD in trees or something. But I do like the idea of, I got my job from a pub, I think I think that's always, I remember a story, so I don’t know if you remember a film critic called Barry Norman, he always used to say, I I remember him telling a story, there's a pub around the BBC called, I think it's the White, White Horse or something like that. And he went when he was unemployed, he used to sit there pretending he was writing scripts so that BBC producers would come in for a lunchtime beer, which they don't do anymore, but they used to and they would go, oh, Barry, yeah there's a job we have and he wasn't working at all, he was just trying to be in the pub around and that's how he got his work, so that's clearly not just media, it's it's the tree world as well.

Paul: It's it's it's very much very very clearly, a lot harder now than it was, because at that point in time, I guess nature conservation really wasn't a career.

Adam: Yeah. We've come across a locked fence, but Paul has a key, there we are. There we are. Into the next next field. Ah, right away. Here's a very different type of fence, and I presume this is to keep the deer out. So first of all, massive fence, is this to keep the deer out?

Paul: This is to keep the deer out. Yes, absolutely. And what will happen where we're standing, the hedgerow will creep out into the fence and obviously the wood that we're planting inside will also start to hide the fence. So the fence over time will disappear apart from the gateways.

Adam: So I mean, there's a good 7 odd foot here between the hedgerow and the fence. You're saying that that hedgerow will naturally grow another 7 foot?

Paul: Yep. So what what what we've got in this hedgerow, actually it's it's it's quite specific to this area is we've got a lot of a lot of small leaved elm and we've also got a lot of blackthorn in it and both of those sucker. So as as we've taken the the the intensive farming off the land the the shrubs will just sucker out and gradually spread into the field.

Adam: And look, and we're standing by the main gate and there's a huge tree trunk here, which is holding the post. And I can see the bark coming off. Now is that is that deer trying to get in there do you think?

Paul: No, that that's actually that's just part of the process of actually creating the post.

Adam: Ohh, that's just that's just me being an idiot. OK, I thought I was being a clever nature detective *laughs*

Paul: I mean what one of the one of the key bits about this fence though, is that that the Woodland Trust is now focusing very heavily on sustainability with everything it does. The, the, the reduction in use of plastic is one of those key bits. But these are sweet chestnut posts, so they there's no chemical preservatives in them or anything like that, and they're kind of the the the main posts at the corners, if you like, of the fence. And then we're using a metal fence with metal posts and and the idea is that when the trees have grown up after 20 years and they're no longer a threat from the deer, we can take this and reuse it elsewhere, so we're constantly thinking about that sustainability stuff all the time.

Adam: Right. So we're in this more protected field. Which I can see has been laid out actually. Is this for the planting scheme, little posts and sort of lines of rope?

Paul: Yeah. So one of the issues with going plastic free is it becomes very difficult to actually see what you've planted. Because if you look at here it just still looks like a field but actually there's somewhere in the region of well around 2 to 3000 trees already in there.

Adam: Oh gosh, I didn't realise that. So yes, with the plastic safe, plastic guards on a tree you see these white telescopes sticking up all over the field, so there's thousands of trees here, we just can't see them. Right and a a lot of that has been planted by volunteers?

Paul: We’ve had somewhere in the region of 400-500 members of the public come over four days, so we've got a a set of volunteers who have who've have have they’ve been brilliant actually, they've come and they've helped kind of manage all the public and they've helped work with the schools, they've helped us set out where the trees are going, we couldn’t have done it without them at all. And here is one of our volunteers now, here's Sally.

Adam: Brilliant. Alright, well, let's go over and chat to Sally. So Sally. Sally Burton. Hello. So I've heard lots of lovely things about you. So just tell me you're a volunteer, which in this context means what?

Sally: Hello. That’s nice. All sorts of things. I've helped this in during February with the public planting days and with the school planting days, helped children dig holes, some of the children are too small to get the spade in the ground very easily. I've planted quite a lot of trees myself.

Adam: And why why did you get involved?

Sally: I’d been looking for a while to volunteer for an organisation that does things outdoors and something a bit physical and so when the Woodland Trust appeared in the village hall I just went up and said do you need volunteers and they said yes please so I signed up straight away.

Adam: And I mean, what does it offer you? Why is it a fun thing to do?

Sally: I enjoy working with the other people. The staff are great and the other volunteers have been great fun. In fact, I've reconnected with someone I knew a few years ago and she's been helping up here as well, so that's been great. I like being outside, I love being outdoors. I don't mind about the weather. I like doing physical things and it's it's great to see, to make a difference.

Adam: So yeah, so what what sort of difference do you feel you're making then?

Sally: Well contributing to turning this basically what looks like an empty field into a forest. That's really amazing. People have been very excited about it. Lots of local people came up and planted on the public open days. Everyone’s looking forward to being able to come up here and experience it themselves and enjoy the trees and the views obviously the views across the estuary and out to sea are beautiful. And there are lots of birds already. It's a very beautiful place.

Adam: And so how much of your time does it actually take up?

Sally: Well, during February and the beginning of March, quite a lot, I've been coming up for days, getting here about 8:15 and going home about 4 o'clock.

Adam: Right. So why is that, why is that the the busy period?

Sally: Because that's when the tree planting has been going on.

Adam: First time you’ve ever planted a tree?

Sally: I've planted a couple on my allotment, but certainly the first time I've planted on such a scale.

Adam: Right. Have you kept count, how many trees are you in?

Sally: No. Well, on one of the public planting days, I'd finished registering people and I planted 25 I kept count of those and on Wednesday this week, a school was in and when they cleared off, I finished planting the trees in their little area. And I think there was about 30 there. I'm not sure I lost count after about 12.

Adam: There should be scouts or sort of brownie badges, shouldn't there, I'm I'm 100 tree-er, you know. Very good. Fantastic. Well, look, thank you very much. I can't believe this is the the the the field in which you've planted.

Sally: It is, you can't see many of the trees.

Adam: I I can't see any of the trees, what do you mean many of them. Ohh a couple yes.

Sally: Across there you can see some with leaves on those are sessile oaks which were planted a little while ago, and they show up.

Adam: Any of those yours?

Sally: Possibly *laughs* They show up because of the leaves. But over there, most of the area there is planted.

Adam: OK, brilliant. You're talking about planting, Rachel has appeared over the hill. She's brandishing a erm

Sally: A spade.

Adam: A spade *laughs* I forgot the name. You can see how ill equipped I am to do this. I forgot the name of what she's, so I think she's tempting us to go plant so let’s go off.

Adam: *coughs* Sorry, I’m already having a heart attack from the idea of physical exercise, I haven't done anything yet. OK, so we we have a spade and this is a virgin bit of land, no, no trees planted yet?

Sally: No trees in this section yet.

Adam: So I get the honour of planting the first tree.

Sally: The first one.

Adam: So you're gonna talk me through this and I'm gonna.

Sally: So the first job...

Adam: Oh yes alright, I'm already jumping ahead of myself.

Sally: The first job is to screef? To screef the area...

Adam: What what is what is screefing?

Sally: ...which is where you do this to kick away the grass with your shoe to make a square or an area to get rid of the grass, doesn't have to be too big, not much wider than the blade of the spade, put the spade in there, and then don't lift it yet come round that side and make a square on that side. Yeah, cut it down. Then on that side...

Adam: I feel I've hit the...

Sally: One of the pebbles. And then the final side and then you could probably lever out a lump of turf.

Adam: Then I can lift it out.

Sally: OK, here's a tree. And we need to make sure when it's in the hole, the soil covers up to just above the top of the the highest root. So if we test that, that's not deep enough, so need to go deeper.

Adam: It's not deep enough. Overall, I’m not doing particularly well I have to say.

Sally: Let's have a look. That's looking good there.

Adam: You think that's all right?

Sally: Yeah, that's OK. So the next job is to crumble the soil.

Adam: With our hands?

Sally: With our hands, back into the hole, loose bits first.

Adam: They didn't say I was actually gonna get my hands dirty.

Sally: *laughs* And then if you've got any clods that have got grass on them make sure they go in with the grass facing down.

Adam: Ok do you know why?

Sally: So that the grass will die and then it won't be in competition with the tree as the grass uses a lot of the water.

Adam: It's a bit leaning a bit, isn't it?

Sally: It is a bit, let’s push some more soil in.

Adam: You see, it's fine now, in 20 years time, someone will come and go, who the hell planted that tree, it’s at 45 degrees!

Sally: Then the last job is you stand up.

Adam: Yeah, stand up.

Sally: And use your heel to press the soil down to push out all the gaps so that it doesn't dry out if it's sunny.

Adam: And how compact, we don’t want to make it too compact.

Sally: Quite firm, quite firm.

Adam: Yeah? Do you know what I don't, I feel that's leaning, that's no good.

Sally: Don't worry, it'll straighten itself up. And the final thing is you do the tug test. Where you just get hold of it and just pull it gently. And if it stays where it is, then it's planted properly.

Adam: I name this tree, well and truly planted.

Sally: Congratulations.

Adam: Thank you very much. Very good. That's brilliant. Well, I have to say although me and Sally were planting, Rachel and Paul were looking were looking on. So Paul’s still here, how did I do?

Paul: Well, let me just check, shall I?

Adam: *laughs* You're doing the tug test.

Paul: It's it's been really fun actually with with, with the the the public when you come and kind of just check it, you can see them all hold their breath to make sure they're doing it right.

Adam: And it comes out *laughs* Is it alright?

Paul: No, it's grand. Absolutely brilliant. Dog rose it, it's a little bit crooked, but you know dog rose will naturally straighten itself up.

Adam: Will it correct itself?

Paul: Yeah and it's kind of you can already see it's a bit of a straggly thing and it'll do its thing and it’ll be fine.

Adam: Fantastic. What is your sense, really, of of what this might be in the future and how exciting is that for you?

Paul: I think in the future, you know, we're we're we're we've got something here that at the very beginning that is gonna be hopefully really important for wildlife and that most of the design is about trying to get as much wildlife here as possible because we're close to the pebblebed heaths it will it will act as a little bit of a refuge in the heat as potentially the climate heats up in the future and that's all really brilliant. And then the other exciting bit is the fact that we've started from the beginning with people involved. That, that, that scenario, but when you look in the future, the you know the the trees that we're planting today are going to be like these big old oak trees in 3-4 hundred years time that when you get your head around it is really quite amazing. And these trees and this wood will be on maps in in the future, and you know, we're creating history, we're changing landscapes and it's all such a a positive thing to be involved in.

Adam: That is amazing that in 3-4 hundred years there'll be a woodland here, the history of who planted it, the history of us being here today will be lost. They won't know who planted these trees perhaps, they won't know the story, but the trees will be here. They'll be there, they'll tell their own story in the future. It's an amazing thing to be part of isn’t it.

Paul: Yeah and you know if if you think about how many times do you get to do something that will still be here in three, four, 500 years time? That's just incredible.

Adam: Well, if you want to find a wood near you and don't have any idea of where to look, do go to the Woodland Trust website and its woodlandtrust.org.uk/findawood, so that's woodlandtrust.org.uk/findawood. Until next time, happy wandering.

Thank you for listening to the Woodland Trust Woodland Walks with Adam Shaw. Join us next month, when Adam will be taking another walk in the company of Woodland Trust staff, partners and volunteers. 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. And why not send us a recording of your favourite woodland walk to be included in a future podcast? Keep it to a maximum of five minutes and please tell us what makes your woodland walk special or send us an e-mail with details of your favourite walk and what makes it special to you. Send any audio files to podcast@woodlandtrust.org.uk. We look forward to hearing from you.

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