Conservation volunteers tend to willow trees while creating another habitat in which nature can thrive

At Turnastone Court Farm in the golden valley of Herefordshire, volunteers have been busy over the winter months pollarding a row of willow trees (Salix sp.) which grow along the ‘Trench Royal’. This trench was created as the main water channel for the farm’s historic irrigation system ‘floating meadows’ implemented by Rowland Vaughn in the 1600’s. Today, veteran willows stand in the centre of the Trench Royal and are managed periodically by CRT volunteers.

Pollarding is an ancient pruning technique, historically used across Europe to produce a quick yield of wood for kindling and rural crafts as well as to provide a nutritious supplement for grazing animals. Aside from providing eco-cultural resources, pollarding has numerous benefits for wildlife too. By trimming the branches back to a single point on the tree, a rapid, dense regrowth of new branches is encouraged which produces a greater food yield for birds and insects in particular. Pollarding is thought to slow the growth rate in trees managed this way and thus increases longevity and the probability of the tree reaching veteran or ancient age.

The willow trees considered here have wide trunks with fissured bark, swollen boles and deep rot holes beginning to form. As time goes on, these centre rot holes will develop into large hollows in which wildlife can nest and shelter inside. For instance, reptiles, small mammals, birds, invertebrates, and fungi will all make use of these veteran tree features.

This work took place in late winter to minimise the risk of fungal infection to the trees and also to avoid disturbing any nesting birds. We added some wood to existing deadwood piles which had rotted down since the last time the trees were pollarded and created a dead-hedge using the thinner branches and brash along one side of the Trench Royal. This habitat creation helps to mitigate against the temporary loss of canopy cover and connectivity for wildlife by providing a linear habitat feature where invertebrates, fungi, birds, small mammals and amphibians can all seek refuge and move inconspicuously through the landscape. Moreover, it is a great way to use the remaining brash and a more resourceful alternative to burning timber. The opening up of the canopy allows more sunlight to reach the ground flora giving wildflowers their turn in the sun and we have already seen a carpet of ground ivy, greater stitchwort, lesser celandine, and various umbellifer species taking advantage of the light.

The larger branches, as a renewable source of fuel growing back periodically, were donated to a local pub to be used in a pizza oven and benefit the wider community. Some of the smaller diameter branches went to a local woodcarver who uses the wood to make musical whistles. A big thank you to our volunteers who worked on this project and made it happen.  

By Ruth Moss, CRT Wildlife Monitor