Not only beautiful, but willows are also immensely useful both to wildlife and people. Conservation Officer Vince Lea tells how the trees benefit Lark Rise Farm and the landscape and community around it.

During the winter months, when the breeding season for wildlife has passed and trees lie dormant, volunteers help us to coppice Lark Rise Farm’s willows. This involves cutting the newly grown stems back to the trunk just above ground level. As we work, we spot signs of the wildlife that has enjoyed the trees while they have grown vigorously, encouraged by the last cut a couple of years before.

Some stumps have been hacked open by woodpeckers while they dug out beetle larvae to feed on. We find empty nests of song thrushes, chaffinches and harvest mice, who enjoyed the cover provided by the willows’ dense new growth during the breeding season.

Productive use for floodplains

The CRT planted two beds of osier willows on Lark Rise Farm in Cambridgeshire in 1998, shortly after the charity bought the land. These are in meadows close to the Bourn Brook – a good use of fields that often flood, particularly because the trees absorb nutrients from flood waters helping to protect local waterways.

In days gone by, before plastic was invented, willow was commonly grown on floodplains and cut regularly to provide a cheap, renewable material. It was used to make baskets to carry and transport things in, for hedge laying, thatching and many other purposes.

By growing and coppicing willow, the CRT keeps this traditional farming technique alive and provides a small income for the charity. It is one of many ways the CRT is proving that wildlife-friendly farming is not only possible but is also financially viable.

Osiers are particularly useful as their young branches are straight and flexible – perfect for basket making.

The willow rods from Lark Rise Farm are sold to people in the local community, usually with very few road miles covered to get to their end destination.

Fellow conservation organisations including the RSPB and The Wildlife Trusts buy Lark Rise Farm’s willow to use in hedge laying on their nearby nature reserves. Some hedge laying techniques involve weaving willow ‘binders’ between stakes to provide a stable, attractive barrier, which can help keep livestock contained while the hedge re-grows. 

A local willow weaving expert orders a batch each year and creates all kinds of structures, from obelisks to planters. People also buy willow branches to build fencing around their gardens.

A complex ecosystem

Coppicing may look destructive but it is in fact beneficial to the willow and to the wildlife it supports.

The tree grows more rapidly and vigorously after it has been cut and the new growth has more sap inside, which is enjoyed by many species of insects including the large willow bark aphid. One of the UK’s largest aphids at five millimetres in length, this species sucks sap from the bark and excretes a sugary liquid called honeydew, which is often fed on by wasps and flies.

Beetles also benefit from coppicing as the little wounds made in the tree give them the chance to lay eggs inside. The shiny, copper-coloured musk beetle, which has a musky smell, lays its eggs inside the bark of the willow and the larvae develop by feeding on the wood. It is one of our largest longhorn beetles at 30-40mm in length.

The beetle larvae, aphids and other insects that live on or in the willow provide food for wildlife further along the food chain, including birds such as woodpeckers and long-tailed tits. And because we coppice rotationally on Lark Rise Farm – cutting each willow approximately every two years – the trees are given the chance to flower in springtime, providing a valuable source of nectar for bees and other pollinators in early spring.

So, like all native trees, the willows are at the centre of a fascinating ecosystem and help to increase the biodiversity on our farms. 

 

How you can help

We are currently running twelve appeals to support the countryside in our Twelve Gifts of Christmas campaign. This includes raising money to plant more willows in our new ‘withy’ bed on Bere Marsh Farm in Dorset. You can make a donation from yourself or as a Christmas gift for friends and family at Wonderful willows for traditional crafts.

Wonderful willows                Twelve Gifts of Christmas

PUBLISHED: 24th November 2023