Category Archives: Woodlands

How to select trees for new native woodland

This article contains some useful but hard-to-find information – although a lot of it is only relevant to Northern Ireland.


I had a lot of help from The Woodland Trust on choosing the overall selection and quantity of trees to plant but this kind of information would have helped me figure out how to arrange them. Some species work well alongside other species (and you often find them together ina natural environment). Others don’t, often because one grows faster than the other so would soon out-compete it or because they prefer different kinds of location to each other. The bit in the article about “planting in clumps” is useful knowledge.

By the way, TCV has an excellent series of handbooks, I own copies of several.

Update March 2019

Everything has grown, again. The trees planted last year seem to have done fine. I’ve added a few this year, mostly hedging. Some of the faster growing 2015 trees, such as alder and silver birch, now need to have their tree shelters removed as they’re getting tight around the trunks.

I’ve spent a lot of time sorting out the hedges that surround Upton Bottom Woods, removing a few dead trees and a lot of brambles and planting suitable species of shrubs and trees to fill the gap.

At Upton Bottom there are about two acres of trees which were planted around 20 years ago. They’re quite close together and there’s some fast-growing species there (especially bird cherry and ash). They’ve grown quite tall and spindly as they compete for the light, consequently they have narrow canopies and narrow root systems, making them vulnerable to wind-throw. They are also out-competing some of the slower growing species such as oak. The solution to this is to thinh trees out gradually over the years, allowing their neighbours to expand and thrive. To this end I’ve learnt to use a chainsaw, I recently completed a weekend course at The Woodland Skills Centre. I’m currently using a battery chainsaw which is quite adequate and is quieter, cleaner, less smelly then a petrol equivalent (as well as easier to maintain with less to go wrong).

Some of my apple trees are old enough to be a little bit productive now, I harvested about 150 apples in the autumn from about 15 trees. There are many more trees but most of them aren’t old enough or big enough yet. I’m experimenting to find out which varieties of apple store well, some of them have lasted into March in reasonable condition. Pears, cherries, plums and various “exotics” have been very limited so far.

Nature continues around the man-made woodland. I see deer most times that I’m there, grey squirrels continue to strip bark from trees. Voles nest in tree shelters and occasionally gnaw through the base of young trees, killing them or at best coppicing them. No signs of bats using my bat boxes yet. It’s hard to tell whether the bird boxes are in use other than by squirrels which have been gnawing them. An owl regularly swoops low over the field at dusk. Fungi flourishes at this time of year – decay amongst the mature trees is welcome as a part of the natural cycle. Ants build hills and regularly build vertical nests in spiral guards which occasionally buries and kills small trees.

Update Spring 2018

Upton Bottom Woods, March 2018

Everything grew well in 2017 but it still feels more like a field of plastic tubes than a woodland!

Sadly a few more trees adjacent to the footpath at Butcombe have been vandalised, but they are a tiny minority of the total.

We planted another 1800 trees and shrubs over the winter: replacements for a very few failures, improving hedges, filling a few gaps. There’s no space left.

I have a couple of acres of woodland which was planted densely about 18 years ago. Now it’s over-crowded and I need to think about some thinning so as to let the strongest trees grow and put down strong roots.

My biggest problem is grey squirrels which strip bark and are causing substantially damage to the 18 year old trees. Deer are damaging these trees and the recent plantings. Ants also continue to kill newly planted trees by building their ant nests in tree shelters, swamping the trees.

I’m gradually getting brambles under control and I’m adding bit-by-bit to the forest garden. Lots to do.

I’ve recently joined Small Woods, they seem to be a good source of advice and knowledge.

Meanwhile I’m working with a few others on plans for a collective land purchase and tree planting project somewhere near Bristol.

Tree planting 2017 is finished!

Last Sunday afternoon we planted the final tree at Upton Cheyney. This is the end of large scale tree planting, both fields are now full. Over three winters we’ve planted just under 11000 native trees and shrubs in two fields totalling 16 acres, about 140 individuals joined in (many of you on more than one occasion). Thank you all!

I recently spent a day planting trees with a new friend who is just starting on a similar endeavour, he has a 19 acre woodland to plant (over several winters) near to Chew Stoke. It’s nice to know I’m not the only one! If you have similar aspirations, either by yourself or as a part of a group, do let me know: I can offer help and advice and quite possibly connect you with like-minded other people.
Love and trees, Gavin

Tree planting 2017

** Updated 13/3 ** – Butcombe is now fully planted, Upton Cheyney is well on the way. After this year both fields are more-or-less fully planted so no further mass planting sessions likely.

I have 1200 trees to plant in March 2017, filling gaps in the woodlands that we planted in 2015 (Upton Cheyney) and 2016 (Butcombe).  That’s a lot less than we planted in previous years, and these will all be planted with canes and spiral guards (much faster than hammering in stakes) – but tree planting season is coming to an end so they need to be in the ground soon.

There are four weekends in March, I’m aiming to plant trees on each of those eight days. Most of the planting will be at Upton Cheyney but enough for one or two days planting at Butcombe. March is the end of the planting season but it’s a great time for planting – warmer and sunnier.
My plan (subject to change and in case of bad weather cancellation):
  • Saturday 4th March – Upton Cheyney – completed
  • Sunday 5th March – Upton Cheyney – cancelled – too rainy
  • Saturday 11th March – Butcombe – done!
  • Sunday 12th March – Upton Cheyney – done!
  • Tues 14th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Thurs 16th March – Upton Cheyney (early finish)
  • Saturday 18th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Sunday 19th March – Upton Cheyney
  • Sat 25th March – contingency if not finished – Upton Cheyney
  • Sunday 26th March – contingency if not finished – Upton Cheyney (Mothers Day, you’re welcome to bring her with you!)
  • Weekdays – I’ll be planting trees at least one more day each week – if you want to join me please get in touch, dates are flexible
Here’s the trees for this 2017, they’re currently in neat temporarily heeled-in bundles in my vegetable patch:
Alder 20
Beech 50
Bird Cherry 50
Blackthorn 110
Crab Apple 40
Dogwood 110
Downy Birch 50
English Oak 50
Field Maple 40
Goat Willow 110
Green Willow 30
Grey Willow 10
Guelder Rose 110
Hawthorn 110
Hornbeam 50
Norway Maple 50
Rowan 90
Silver Birch 75
Small Leaf Lime 25
Wild Cherry 50

* plus a few extra which I’ve grown myself or bought from elsewhere

It will be much the same as previous years, but even better (two years’ experience of this I now, so what I’m doing now). Turn up, plant some trees, coffee break, plant some trees, lunch break, plant some trees, head home whenever you’re ready. Hot drinks and hot lunch provided, tent for shelter, all the usual facilities (and more parking space). No stakes and tree guards this year, only canes and spiral guards, this makes things faster and easier. The tree planting is optional, you’re welcome to come and just enjoy being there. As always the weather will be good on planting days, because in case of bad weather I’ll cancel/postpone.

You’re most welcome to bring friends, family, dogs, etc. It’s family-friendly and it’s a great day out but you’re responsible for looking after your own kids and dogs, I’ll be mostly focussed on looking after  adults and trees. Planting trees is 100% optional, if you have a great day out and don’t quite get round to any planting that’s fine!
I’ll have all the usual comforts – hot drinks and hot lunch on the rocket stove, an even bigger box tent if we need shelter, the compost loo, etc. I did a bit of earth moving last year so there’s more space for cars at Upton Cheyney this time.
If I’m not already emailing you about this please contact me if you want to come or for further info.

Planting a woodland – bullet points

This is for anybody who has some land and is planning to plants a woodland. If you’re still at the stage of finding  the land then my suggestions are here.

These are some of the things I wished I’d known before I started, readers are welcome to contact me if anything need explanation.

  • Tools we under-achieved for our first couple of planting days because we didn’t have the right quantity / quality / type of tools. Most spades will break easily if you abuse them by levering back and forth to open a planting notch. Long and narrow blade works well for notch planting, my personal favourite in the end was an all-steel Newcastle Drainer (I got them from Toolstation, see also cheaper B&Q  equivalent). Tools especially mallets are easily lost in a large field, especially if the grass is long.
  • Rootgrow your only chance to boost mycorrhizal fungi is when you’re planting the trees – it’s hard to retrofit afterwards. I used Rootgrow  (5Kg tubs from ebay) throughout. It’s hard to know how effective it has been but I’m very happy with the survival rates of my trees.
  • Layout figure out in advance what trees are going where. I laid out paths, clearings, etc first. We then planted in stands around 20m x  20m, with several species in each stand. Pick species which are compatible (eg. they grow at similar rates to similar sizes) and will grow well in the location (moisture, light, exposure, etc).
  • Positioning don’t rely on your planting team to put the right trees in the right places (or even to space the trees out as you want them). I scavenged loads of pots of paint and then painted the tops of stakes different colours for different species (need dry stakes, paint doesn’t stick to wet wood). Then I set the stakes out before each planting day.
  • Health and safety: have a first aid kit with you and don’t assume that everybody will know intuitively how to knock in a stake with a mallet safely.
  • Whips Have plenty of plastic sacks so you can distribute the whips (small trees) to your planting teams in bags – roots will dry out very quickly on a cold breezy winter day. If you give a large team of people one bag of trees, they take a few each and they can easily dry out or get lost in the grass.
  • Volunteers I persuaded over 100 people to get involved in planting in the first year, many of them came back several times and in subsequent years. Between us we planted many thousands of trees:
    • I started by emailing everybody I knew.
    • I wrote a blog and sent them all the link, so they could see what it was all about and what to expect (a few of them actually read it!)
    • I took photos of happy people planting trees on sunny days and then tagged them on my Facebook page (I used my personal page rather than setting up a group or page for the project, it depends how public you want to make it). Friends and friends-of-friends found out and joined in.
    • It was a lot of fun and I made some great new friends.
    • If you’re planting a wood near Bristol then let me know, I’ll volunteer to plant trees for you.
  • Catering Good to provide hot drinks, biscuits and ideally a hot lunch for tree-planting volunteers. If you’re using a camp-fire or a small camping stove then tea breaks and lunchtime will take up half your day. I built a rocket stove and had one person solely responsible all day for feeding and general welfare. Sausage and egg butties went down well but for feeding a large group my friend Bec showed me how to produce huge vegetable/bean stews with dumplings.
  • Shelter Don’t forget shelter for your volunteers (in my case a huge frame tent that somebody had abandoned after Glastonbury – the frame stayed there permanently, it only took a minute to throw the canvas over it and the first sign of rain). Also seating, thanks again Glastonbury for lots of abandoned camp chairs. Spare woolly hats went down well too. Toilet is essential. Volunteer parking was a bit of a nightmare, people want to arrive and leave when it suits them (fair enough) and don’t want to park somewhere if they might get blocked in.
  • Grass long matted grass is makes planting slower, ideally I’d get it mown in late summer prior to winter planting. Local farmers will pay you for this (they need to make silage).
  • Time It all takes a lot longer than you think. The BTCV Woodlands Handbook says (I think) that a volunteer can plant 100 trees in a day. That probably assumes the volunteer knows what they’re doing, has all the materials and tools to hand and works hard for a full 8 hour day. I my experience most of these things aren’t true most of the time. I can (now) plant 100+ trees with stakes and tree shelters in a day, or 150+ if I’m using spiral guards and canes, but it’s a long hard full-on day. A bit more than that if the materials are ready and in place in advance. If you push volunteers too hard it then becomes a race and quality of planting suffers. Better to plant well than plant many, if the trees aren’t planted to the right depth and well heeled in you will have far more losses.
  • Trees that we planted  came from:
    • The Woodland Trust‘s MoreTrees scheme (subsidised, with tree guards and stakes)
    • OVO Energy‘s idigtrees scheme (free, with spiral guards and stakes)
    •  home-grown: I set up a tree nursery in the corner of the field, protected from deer and rabbits using heras fencing and chicken wire. I planted seeds, some stuff grew well but it was a lot of effort to grow and transplant them; certain trees and shrubs can be reproduced from cuttings: willow, poplar, elder, holly, juniper, yew, dog rose, most fruit bushes; I also grafted a lot of fruit and nut trees with a reasonably good rate of success.
  • [to be continued? ask me a question]

Thoughts on acquiring land to plant trees

[this article is work in progress, needs some refinement to aid readability]

Finding some land anywhere near Bristol (or other urban centres) to plant a woodland is possibly the hardest and certainly the most expensive part of the journey. Here are some things to consider, based on my experience and learnings from doing it twice:

  • Consider whether you need to own the land or would you be satisfied with planting trees on land owned by someone else? Maybe if you have ongoing access to it? And if there’s some assurance that the trees will be there long-term? It could be privately owned land or owned by a local council, railways, water authority, a charity (eg. National Trust), a school, a company, etc.
  • Land might be an appropriate place to invest your long-term savings, it should be a fairly safe investment. It might even be possibly to invest your pension fund (by transferring it into a self-managed SIPP – see here and here and here – but get advice before you mess with your pension). Planting trees on it might reduce the agricultural value of the land but might also increase the recreational value (and when it’s time to thin the trees there should be value in the logs).
  • Land can be bought through estate agents (like David James) or at auction. I understand that most farmland is sold privately between farmers without being advertised on the open market.
  • Land that looks great on paper is often not be a pleasant place to be – maybe it’s under a flight path, next to a motorway or a pig farm.
  • Gradient and aspect matter.  Flat land may be poorly drained or liable to flooding. Too steep is difficult to work on (although if you’re planting trees one and not spending time there after that you may be prepared to put up with it). South facing gets more sun so can be drier but can mean faster growth.
  • Farm land is priced (around Bristol, at the time of writing) at around £8000 per acre, depending on:
    • the size of the plot (smaller plots tend to be more expensive per acre than large ones)
    • development potential (land with potential to get planning permission sells for far higher prices); any existing building will be seen as development/conversion/rebuilding potential.
    • quality of land (agricultural grade 1 land is more expensive then grade 3 – but grade 3 should be quite adequate for growing trees)
    • road accessibility – direct road access (rather than right of way over someone else’s farm) adds value; plots with no clear legal right of access by vehicle can be significantly less expensive, but this may not be a problem for planting trees
    • factors like “a nice view” or a footpath along the edge of the field aren’t relevant to agriculture and so tend not to influence the price, but they may be important if you want to create a woodland paradise
  • You may want to consider whether it’s land that could be used for something more important. For example it might feel uncomfortable to plant woodlands on top grade agricultural land which could be used for food production (maybe you should plant a forest garden there instead?)
  • Read up about how to assess the quality of the soil – you might want to take a spade and dig down a bit or collect a few soil samples to test in an analysis kit. Take a good look around first, if trees and hedges on or around the plot are growing well then that’s a good indicator. Consider how then land has been used in recent years, cattle and horses can compact the land and make it less easy to grow trees.
  • If you’re looking to buy a small plot of land (eg. less then 10 acres) your choice will be more limited, consider forming a consortium with like-minded friends to buy and sub-divide a larger plot. It could be easier and more fun to have others to share the endeavour.
  • Consider forming a larger consortium to buy a larger plot, which could be co-owned by consortium members. Some people might want to be actively involved, others might be philanthropists or investors who don’t want to get their hands dirty. You might need to form a company to own the land, the consortium members then own the company. If you’re doing this let me know, I might be interested. People can be very enthusiastic about planting trees – you might even be able to raise [some of the] funds through crowdfunding. I spotted an ideal bit of land for this in an auction a few months ago, but I only had 3 weeks until the auction day and it would have taken far to long to get a consortium together – consider forming the consortium and working out how you’ll proceed before you find the land to buy.
  • Agricultural land sometimes comes with an “uplift clause” – for example “in the event of the granting of planning permission for any change of use, excluding equestrian, the purchaser or their successors in title are liable to pay 35% of the uplift in value on the grant of planning permission for a period of 20 years from the date of completion”
  • To proceed with the purchase you’ll need a solicitor or conveyancer who deals with agricultural land. The big firms of solicitors in Bristol can do this (might be expensive?), I found a solicitor outside Bristol who did it all by phone/email/post (I never met him but we communicated a lot).
  • The purchase process is much like buying a house: your solicitor will obtain and check the title deeds, do searches (agricultural searched are different from residential), obtain details from the seller’s solicitor and eventually exchange contracts with an agreed completion date.
  • Think about whether you need any public liability insurance (or employers insurance), especially if you’re planning to have lots of volunteers to help plant the trees.
  • Planting trees costs money of course (trees, materials, tools, etc) but this cost is tiny in comparison to the cost of buying land and their may be grants or other support available to help.
  • If the land might turn into a business, you might consider forming a limited company (owned by yourself) and buying the land as a company instead. This might not be viable if you need to borrow money. There may be tax advantages (eg. the company could be VAT registered).

Tree planting at Butcombe – what to expect

There’s one main task for December to March – we have 2000 trees to plant. They’re native broadleaves: oak, field maple, small leaved lime, birch, aspen, alder, wild cherry, crab apple,
rowan, sweet chestnut, beech, hazel, hawthorn, goat willow, dogwood, spindle, dog rose, holly and blackthorn.


The trees are ‘whips’, two years old and about 60cm high with good roots. They’re bare-rooted and they’re planted in a notch – no need to dig holes, just make a slit in the ground with a spade. Each tree will have a tree shelter and stake or a spiral-guard and cane to protect them from deer, rabbits an other wildlife.

The trees need to be planted by mid-March whilst they are still dormant, after that the roots will be growing and will be easily damaged by planting. I can’t do it all myself so I’ve invited lots of friends to help. If you’re reading this and I haven’t invited you yet then please get in touch!

I’m writing this blog post on a rainy December Sunday.  The trees were delivered a couple of days ago and I’d hoped to start planting this weekend but it’s been too wet – I don’t plant trees in the rain! With last year’s experience at Upton Cheyney, I think this winter’s planting should go smoothly. I know what to do, I’ve got all the tools we need and I know how to organise, feed and look after the people who I hope will offer to come along and help plant. We’ll have plenty of time for exploring, eating, playing and socialising. When we’re planting we’ll be working in teams of 2 to 4 (plus kids and dogs – optional!). Compared to last year we have more time and fewer trees so it should be easy! Between planting, there’s a footpath which leads to Blagdon Lake (only about 100m away) so there’s plenty of exploring to do.

Some care is needed to get the trees in the right combinations and places – trees that will grow well together and will thrive in that location. We’ll be planting them 2 or 3 metres apart and leaving many paths and tracks and clearings. I’ve already colour-coded the stakes to mark planting positions. This year everything (trees, stakes, etc) is stored at home so I’ll be taking a trailer full each planting day.

Planting needs reasonable weather – on a good day the field is a beautiful sunny place (with great views) but if it’s raining then  wet planting days will be cancelled the evening before in consultation with the weather forecast. We also can’t plant if the round is frozen hard or covered with snow (but we can still go out there and play if you like).

tree planted with tree guard
tree planted with tree guard

Planting will involve collecting a bundle of trees, finding where they need to go, making a notch for each with a spade and inserting the roots sand the stake (or cane). Close the notch up (spade or heel). Add the tree-guard (or spiral). It’s easy, I can demonstrate.

There’s other jobs to do besides planting – tree guards to move around the field, fires to light, hot food and drinks to make, photos to take and lot more. And of course you’re welcome to stop and play.

Comforts provided! There’s a lovely compost loo (or you’re welcome to just pee in the woods, the trees will love it). We’ve got a fantastic home-made rocket stove for boiling kettles and cooking, with conventional camping stove for backup and very probably a camp-fire too. Plenty of camp chairs and an endless supply of hot drinks and snacks. I’m hoping to sort out some shelter – but expect a large tent or gazebo rather than a cosy sitting-room.

Parking space is reasonable, there’s hard-standing for about five cars at the field entrance. Ask me for detailed directions including public transport and cycling options. Let me know when you’re thinking of coming (short notice is fine, even text me on the day) so I can send detailed directions and also I can let you know the evening before if plans change due to weather forecasts.

Roe deer: cute but not invited to eat the trees
Roe deer: cute but not invited to eat the trees

Have fun! You can bring friends, kids and dogs, they’re very welcome. The field has plenty of open space and some woods and wildlife to explore. It isn’t particularly hazardous. Ball games and other toys are fine (away from the newly planted trees please). If you’re still around at dusk we could try badger spotting before we go home, I haven’t seen one yet but there’s plenty of evidence of them. You don’t have to plant trees, it will be nice to see you anyway!

If you’re coming you could bring:

  • Lots of warm clothes, including hats, gloves and waterproofs.
  • Boots or wellies. The field is grassy with not very much mud but if you’re planting trees you’re sure to find at least a little bit.
  • Camera, binoculars (for wildlife), kite and other toys (sledge if it’s snowy). Torch  if you want to stay after dusk.
  • I have a collection of tools for planting but if there’s a lot of people around we could make good use of one or two more spades (ideally narrow ones like border spades or planting spades but anything will do). Also mallets (to bang 3cm square wooden stakes into soft ground).
  • There will be hot drinks and snacks, hot food at lunchtime and more but this may vary depending on who’s coming – I’ll email to confirm so you can decide whether to bring anything more. There is no drinking water supply but I’ll take a water container for drinking and hand-washing.

Tree planting – Butcombe 2016

A new project for early 2016 – planting trees in a five acre field near Butcombe (12 miles to the South of central Bristol).
Over 4 months we’ll be planting about 3500 native broadleaved trees (including about 200m of hedgerow) to transform a grassy farmers field into a new 5-acre woodland. We’ll be there one or two days almost every weekend this winter.
This project will rely on volunteers to help with the planting . We’ll try to make it an enjoyable sociable experience (and we’ll postpone if the weather’s too wet – nobody wants to plant trees in the pouring rain!)

Last year’s tree planting success was so much fun that I want to do it again this year (on a smaller scale). I’m hoping to be joined again by lots of keen volunteers and together we’ll create another new woodland. Get in touch if you want to join in. I’ll be there at least one day most weekends (unless it’s raining).

This is the second and final woodland that I’m planning – I hope you’ll join me to plant it up to Easter.

This is how the field looked a few years ago, it's grassy now.
This is how the field looked a few years ago, it’s grassy now.

A few differences compared to last year’s tree planting at Upton Cheyney:

  • Fewer trees to plant (2075 compared to almost 4000 at Upton Cheyney)
  • The Butcombe field has it’s own road entrance – it’s not advisable to park in the field but the road entrance has a lay-by with space for about 5 cars
  • It feels more rural, the field is bordered by agricultural land
  • The grass was mown in September 2015 so we’ll be planting into short grass
  • A footpath from the bottom of the field leads directly to Blagdon Lake (200m)
  • Trees, materials and equipment will be stored off-site so I’ll be bringing them with me each day
  • I should have the trees in time to start planting in late November this year, and this year we know what we’re doing (last time we made a slow start in mid January and had to figure out what to do and what tools were needed over the first few weeks)

And a few similarities:

  • A beautiful sunny south-facing grassy field with a gentle slope down to a stream and a bordering woodland (but no existing woodland in the field this time)
  • Mature hedges all around, abundant wildlife including badgers and deer
  • We’ll be planting “whips” (young trees about 50 cm high) using the same notch planting technique as last year – so no digging required
  • The trees are all native broadleaves
  • We’ll use a combination of tree guards and spiral guards to protect the trees from damage
  • The whole thing will happen – I hope – with the help of lots of willing volunteers
  • Tree planting must be finished by the end of March at the latest (trees are coming out of dormancy by then) – I’ll come up with a list of dates but always subject to cancellation if the weather’s bad

The trees and shrubs to be planted (subject to final confirmation):

Alder 250
Aspen 125
Beech 50
Blackthorn 75
Crab Apple 75
Dog Rose 50
Dogwood 50
Field Maple 150
Hawthorn 125
Hazel 200
Holly 50
Hornbeam 125
Pedunculate Oak 350
Rowan 50
Silver Birch 100
Small Leaved Lime 125
Spindle 25
Sweet Chestnut 50
Wild Cherry 50
TOTAL 2075

[UPDATE: the above are from the Woodland Trust, I also have a lot of trees from OVO Energy’s I Dig Trees scheme, bringing the total to around 3500. The OVO trees are mostly more of the same varieties, and a couple of extra varieties including Wayfaring Tree and Guelder Rose]

These native trees have been selected to provide maximum support for wildlife. Thanks to The Woodland Trust who have again been immensely helpful in planning and stocking the woods.