So you want to plant a woodland?

Here are some thoughts for anybody who wants to plant a small woodland, based on my experience of doing it twice (2015 and 2016). I considered buying an existing woodland but it’s more fun (and much less expensive) to grow your own.

Where?

You’ll need a bit of land. I wanted somewhere close enough to home that I could easily cycle there for a day.

If you own the land then you have certainty of a long-term relationship with your woodland. Land is bought and sold through agents (like houses), for example David James. Sometimes it’s sold at auction (don’t always believe the guide prices, bidding can go much higher especially if it is considered to have development potential). I’m told that a lot of land is bought and sold between neighbouring farmers without ever being advertised for sale – so maybe it’s worth knocking on doors and asking what’s available? And buildings on the land, whatever state they’re in, seem to inflate the price – presumably because of potential to rebuild or convert. I was finding prices of around £8000 per acre when I bought in 2013 (based on 5 – 10 acre fields; smaller plots tend to have slightly higher per-acre prices and larger ones slightly lower).

Look for some land that isn’t too boggy, too steep, too hard to get to. North-facing slopes will get less sun than south-facing, frosts will last longer and growing seasons will be shorter. Things which aren’t important for farming – like “nice views” – tend not to inflate the price of farm land. Consider access carefully, your own road access can be more practical then rights of access via farm tracks (especially if you want to get a car to the site, farm tracks may not be suitable for your car).

Having agreed a price you’ll need a solicitor to do searches and legal stuff – pick a solicitor who specialises in rural properties (I didn’t find one I liked in Bristol, I used Wollen Michelmore).

My understanding is that you don’t need planning permission to plant a woodland on a few acres of agricultural land (above a certain size it becomes classed as forestry and you’d need permission for change of use). You will need planning permission to build anything (eg. an agricultural building such as a shed or barn) unless you have a larger area of land which will give you limited permitted development rights.

Planning your woodland

So now you’ve got some land. The best way to plant trees is as “bare-root whips” – nursery-grown trees one or two years old, about 40cm high, supplied in bundles with no soil on the roots. They should be planted whilst dormant, typically December to March. I had whips delivered in December and “heeled them in” temporarily for planting in the new year. The Woodland Trust gave me lots of advice, sent an advisor to look at the field with me and supplied my trees, stakes, tree-shelters, etc (at a subsidised price through their MoreWoods scheme). I got some more trees free from OVO Energy’s i-dig-trees scheme and I bought some more online from specialist nursaries (ebay is a good place to start searching).  If there are deer in the area then each tree will need a wooden stake and a plastic tree shelter (1.2m plastic tubes which protect the tree); shrubs will need a cane and a spiral guard. At market rates you can expect to pay 25p to £1 for a tree, 60p for a stake and £1.50 for a tree shelter (much less for canes and spiral guards). I also used Rootgrow. Various grants are available from time-to-time to help with these costs. You’ll need to chose what to plant – The Woodland Trust offer great advice and recommends native broadleaved species (which are mostly deciduous; if you want some evergreens you might consider holly, yew, evergreen oaks).

You might allow 20% of the land for paths and clearings. The rest you can plant with trees and shrubs (shrubs might be 20% of the total planting, they are helpful for providing cover for small mammals and for planting along woodland edges). You might plant one tree/shrub per 4 to 15 square meters, I planted about 500 per acre. The denser you plant them, the more effort and cost. Planting denser allows the trees to “close canopy” sooner, after which they will shade out the grass and undergrowth which competes with them. It also means that you can chose to thin the trees (maybe in 10-15 years time) which should provide a lot of firewood. You might expect up to 10% of your planting to fail in the first year or two (depending on how good the land is, how well they’re planted and the weather).

My tree planting plan consisted of a map (based on Google satellite photos) divided into a grid which I marked on the ground using numbered posts in the centre of each map grid square. I built a spreadsheet to allocate trees to each square. My aim was to plant trees in stands of species which have similar growth rates and sizes, so avoiding mixing fast-growing birch with slow-growing oak which would soon be over-shadowed. I planned clearings, footpaths, vehicle tracks, meadows, hedges and ponds.

I bought books (and spent time in libraries) learning what to do and how to do it. Youtube is great for learning how to plant whips and the Woodland Trust also provided very comprehensive guidance.

I left a large area for an orchard and a forest garden, which I will plan and implement in future years. I’m also planning to grow mushrooms, tap birch sap, keep bees and find other ways to produce woodland food.

I created a nursery area (using second-hand heras-style “temporary” fencing to exclude deer and chicken wire to exclude rabbits). Here the whips were initially heeled-in, I subsequently use it to grow various tree seeds and cuttings and grafted fruit trees.

Planting

I didn’t tell many people what I was planning for a long while, I assumed they’d think I was mad. When I owned up to my plans I was greeted by nothing but enthusiasm, which translated into over 100 individuals spending a day or more helping me plant. I wanted to make it a positive experience for everybody so I made sure there was always hot drinks and a hot lunch (I built a rocket-stove and cooked using fallen wood from adjacent trees).  An old box tent provided shelter, although I always cancelled in advance of the weather forecast was poor. I had to get lots of spades and mallets, camping chairs and a first-aid kit (which fortunately was never needed). I took lots of photos and used Facebook to recruit more friends (and friends-of-friends) to join in, planting days were very sociable and kids and dogs were always welcome. About five people was easy, when there was more we got more done but it was harder work for me (and I needed somebody else to look after catering and welfare while I focussed on the planting).  If progress seems slow when you start in December, remember that days in March are significantly warmer and longer, and by then you’ll be well versed in organising things and word will have spread that planing trees is fun. I can comfortably plant 100+ trees per day (including fetching the trees, stakes and tree shelters).  At least 150 if I’m using spiral guards and canes. Expect far less from inexperienced volunteers, and make sure they’re focussed on quality and safety not on planting as many trees as possible.

I usually put stakes and canes out in advance to mark planting positions. Sometimes I painted their tops to indicate the species to be planted, other times we only planted one species at a time.

We did most of our planting at weekends to suit volunteers, but it also took me a lot of time at home and in the field during the week to plan, put out stakes and organise people, tools and materials.

Later

After the initial planting you’ll want to control grass around your newly planted trees, as it competed with them and reduced their chances of survival. Mulch-mats or bark chippings can be used but for a large area these are unlikely to be practical or affordable – the usual advice is to spray around each tree with glyphosate (tree shelters and spirals protect your trees from the spray). With a backpack sprayer it’s easy to cover several acres par day, the hard part is keeping track of where you’ve been, marking the tree shelters will help.

By the end of the first summer about a quarter of my trees were emerging from their tree shelters, which means they more than doubled in size. I’m not sure if this is normal, I had good weather and good soil in my favour.

You may have to deal with wildlife damage – deer will eat young trees and damage bark, grey squirrels can strip bark and kill trees.

I’m expecting to identify trees which have died at the end of each summer for at least a couple of years, then replace them in the winter.

I’m expecting to spend time keeping the brambles in the hedges in check so they don’t take over the field before the trees get big enough to shade them out.

Tree guards are removed after about 5 years, before the trees get too big for them.

Trees might need thinning after 10 – 15 years, you could log them for burning, leave them to decompose (great for fungi and insects), make mushroom logs or just ring-bark them and leave them to die and decompose in-situ (but beware of falling trees). Or you could leave then to compete, the fittest should  survive?

More questions?

If you’re thinking about doing this and you have more questions that I might be able to answer, please get in touch.