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A Woodland Walk with Eric Winterflood

On a pleasant spring evening, a welcome break from some cold blustery days, a small group met in the car park of Magog Down by the information caravan, to take part in a Woodland Walk, led by Eric Winterflood, the Governor of the Magog Trust responsible for Land Management.

Such walks have become an established part of the annual Downland calendar, and have tracked the changes on the land since it first came onto the market in spring 1989 and its purchase at Michelmas that year. On reaching the high point of the land, known as Little Trees Hill, with viewpoints over Cambridge to the North and Babraham, Linton and beyond to the south and west, Eric introduced his talk with some of its background.

The site covers 163.5 acres and though many visiting it are under the impression it stops at the skyline seen from the car park, it does in fact stretch down to the belt of trees after the crop of wheat. At the time of purchase, barley was the standing crop and the only trees were the ones to be seen on the skyline.

For the first year after the land was purchased, the Trust farmed the land with no fertiliser in order to reduce the fertility of the soil, remove some of its nitrogen content and so encourage wild flowers. In the spring of 1991, a mixture of meadowland grasses, downland grasses and wild flowers was sown on the advice of the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology which had previously done studies on the South Downs. At that time, Magog Wood a rather unoriginal name, the wood expanding the existing belt of trees, was planted in a period of drought. The following spring, that of 1992, was also very dry giving a bad start to the young trees, but with a loss of less than 5% in an area of 25,000 trees planted over the whole site, the success of the planting was really remarkable. In general a 20% loss is standard.
All the trees planted on site are native British trees.

One of the many questions Eric has been asked over the years is how are the trees watered - to which the standard reply is that any water they have received is what falls from the sky!

Another enquiry is why the grass is cut in spring when the skylarks are nesting? The grass in the north meadow is kept fairly short, one of the conditions of the grants under which it was planted through the Countryside Access scheme whereby it has to be cut on three to four separate occasions between May and August. As the sound of skylarks accompanied the group on its walk, it is obvious that they are present in number and that they appear unaffected by it. In fact of the whole 163 acre site, only about 20 acres are cut, with wide swaths left around the edges.

From the high point of the hill, the easy access walk could be seen winding up from the hard standing of the car park marked out for disabled users, to the divide in the trees, allowing wheelchair users to share the wide open space and panoramas. Prof. Stephen Hawking led the way in his electric chair, on the official opening of the access in 1998, though other chairs being pushed did not access the top of the hill quite so speedily.

The downland grasses were sown on the shallow-soiled south side of the hill near the top. For the first two years, the grass was kept cut to about 6 inches, and all the cuttings had to be disposed of, but could not be sold under the conditions of set aside. They couldn't even be offered to Linton Zoo for the elephants! Sheep are now grazed on the site, the right sort of treatment for downland, and those walking the downland are particularly pleased to see the lambs from spring till around the end of May when the sheep are taken off to allow the flowers to seed properly.

The wood on the boundary of the neighbouring farmland was named after Stapleford's twinned village in the Loire, Villedomer where an active conservation group thrives to maintain the status of a local river, the Brenne. The trees in Magog Wood are sponsored as gifts, and it was to this wood that the party turned to look at an ash tree, which is suitable for growing in chalky country and is good for timber. It bears shock well and used to be used for lorry beds and is still in use for sports equipment. The next tree, most in the wood already around five feet high, was beech, very much associated with Downland and a very shallow rooting tree. In the early days of planting, the ground around the trees does have to be controlled for weeds and a spray gun was used. This wood was the only one to be planted in straight lines. Another of the native trees in Magog Wood is the small leafed lime, a pretty tree with soft timber. Eric explained that the whole site was fenced from rabbits before the start of planting, though the standing belt of trees had not been isolated. This area proved to be a rich source of rabbits, so some of the trees nearest it did not fare well before this belt of sycamores was fenced off.

This stand of sycamores in the established belt was planted at the turn of the century, probably as cover to get game birds to rise; in fact a feeding bin is still to be found in the wood.. The sycamore, which seeds freely, is not regarded as a native species by the purists. If however, they were removed now, any other species in the wood would be left exposed and they would fall. In years to come, as Magog Wood grows, Eric hopes that his successors will remove the sycamores.

Walking on we see a little group of yews which were planted for winter cover for birds. Clumps of holly are also planted for this reason. A label on a tree identifies it for anyone, though only every ten trees are treated in this way. In around twenty years time, thinning will to take place, either naturally or by felling, which may provide a problem for those who have given trees as gifts. At no time though is there a lifetime guarantee on a gift of a tree! It will be the responsibility of future Governors, to see that the woods are replanted as it becomes necessary.

The trees in Magog Wood, now eight years old, were all planted by volunteers. The planting that we see is widely spaced compared with traditional forestry planting. In Vestey Wood, the wood at the far boundary of the site, where oak and ash are planted, this gives some problems for the oak as it spreads out rather than growing upwards, given the chance. The oak has suffered from the recent dry summers, and are dying back.
This appears to be a national problem, and as yet the cause for it has not really been established. In the summer of 1998, Eric used an old method for rejuvenating the trees, that of cutting the saplings right back to allow them to coppice, then choosing one stem to be kept to grow up again.

A hornbeam, planted next to a beech, highlights the differences between the two leaves, though seen in isolation, the two are often confused. The hornbeam leaf appears similar the elm. A nearby ash is frosted back, when the leader is lost, and so loses its shape as a "good" tree which will only be expected about every 20 meters in Magog Wood in the years to come. At the edge of the wood, near the footpath, a field maple is pointed out, though not very good timber, a pretty tree and well worth planting in a mixed wood. A nearby spindle is in leave which has attractive fruit in late summer and early autumn; as its name suggests it was used for making spindles and skewers.

Along the edge of the wood here are a variety of shrubs; sloe, purging buckthorn - a purgative with the sharp thorn said to resemble a roebuck's horn; dogwood again giving autumn colour. The shrub belt next to the dual carriageway was all planted by pupils from Greenhedges School for children with learning difficulties. The children use the site on a regular basis, for nature walks to orienteering, following some of the route mapped out by Linton Village College.
Further towards the Haverhill Road boundary, Youth Wood was planted by youth organisations; brownies, scouts, schools and over the whole site the Hills Road Sixth Form College Conservation Group helped with scrub clearance.

This involvement of local organisations and individual volunteers was one of the important concepts in the establishment of the site and it is hoped that links, particularly with the young, will continue and develop - the walk on this occasion was being filmed by students from HRSFC Media Studies course. Eric explained that not all the work however, was carried out by volunteers and from the first days many of the tasks had been done under contract to Les King, who was tragically killed in December 1998. His close contact with Eric since the start of the project had been a very valuable asset to the Magog Trust and he will be sadly missed. As fortune has it though a local contractor has enthusiastically started work with grass cutting.

As we passed through the gates which allow access to the dog walk which exists round the two and a half mile boundary and along the middle tree belt, one diligent dog walker deposited his "offering" in the bins provided. Although dog-walkers are one of the main users of the Downland, the less responsible ones are the cause of much work for the Trust. Not only do they not clear up after their animals, but many do not restrict free access of dogs to the dog walk, allowing them to run free on the meadowland. While the dogs obviously relish in this freedom, other users do not. This is the area where unrestricted access can cause conflict between conservation and recreation, as nesting birds can be disturbed in the longer grass, where people tend not to walk. Our indebtedness to those volunteers who empty the dog bins is great; the charge for removing the bin bags by the council, was a cost not initially expected by the Trust which amounts to an annual three figure sum!

Going over the hill, the views to the south and west suddenly open up, even though on this occasion the light was beginning to fade, with the sun going down slowly over Cambridge, the towers of the Addenbrooke's boiler softening in the evening light. The stunning colour of a copper beech at the edge of memorial wood still stood out strongly. All the trees in this wood can be sponsored in memory of someone, and again so that an individual tree can be identified, every tenth tree carries a numbered label. On one of his very regular visits to the site, Eric met a volunteer who turned out to have been trained as a forester by one of his colleagues; he now comes to clear the lower branches of the growing trees and is prepared to do so on an annual basis. The hazel trees in this wood bore fruit in 1998 as did the wild cherry. Unfortunately these can suffer from exuding a gum which eventually kills the tree, and some are doing just that. The wild cherry produces good timber.

As we looked back to the top of little trees hill, Eric explained that after the first year of planting the downland grasses, this area was red and white from a mass of poppies and ox eye daisies. No poppies had been sown, it was the disturbance of the soil which has stirred up the dormant seeds. After that year, the ox eye daisies seemed to die back but this spring they can be seen all over the site. Cowslips were sown in 1995 and are now well established giving a wonderful spring display. Bluebells have appeared, but the one flower we know historically was on the site in years gone by, the pasque flower, has not yet re-established. The one plant which was planted, never survived after one of the hundreds of moles which appear to inhabit the site, came up right at the very spot it was planted. The many mole hills can appear to be a flock of sheep from Vestey Wood.

Looking down towards that wood, Eric described how it was planted on Boxing Day 1991. A newspaper notice invited people to come and work off their Christmas indulgences. Les King, our contractor, prepared the site with post hole bored holes, the way all the trees have been planted, and a stock of 4,000 trees laid in. On that beautiful morning, people poured over the hill in their hundreds and by lunch-time all the trees had been planted.

This gave another example as to the extent the public have been involved in the creation of Magog Downland which really has been a community event. The County Council did give all the trees, and set aside grants and government schemes have been used to the full. Memorial Wood and Colin's Wood were entered in 1998 for a woodland competition and both were highly commended. The theoretical costing and purchase, planting and maintenance showed that by year five, the woods would give a return for the money invested ie there is a good grant scheme to support afforestation Memorial wood receives an annual maintenance grant for a period of thirty years.

Of the 24 hectares, fifty acres are still farmed on a commercial basis in order to qualify for grants. It is farmed by a contractor on a five year crop rotation, 1999 is winter wheat, 2000 barley, 2001 a break crop probably rape though one year it supported mustard for Colman's. The crops are sprayed and fertilised though this does not impact on the rest of the site.

A new hedge planted under the County Council scheme with hedging materials and plastic sheeting supplied by them at very reasonable costs, has allowed more of the boundary to be delineated with the Hedge Sponsorship Scheme giving enough revenue to maintain it.

With the evening now fast drawing in and the light fading, Eric was thanked for his informative walk and it was pointed out that, while initially coopted onto the working group which set up the Trust, as an accountant, his profession as a forester soon came to light and his knowledge, experience, enthusiasm and humour has brought about what can be seen all around. Not a bad achievement in retirement!

September 1999

Old Newsletters

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