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Of bluebell and bramble

Posted: Monday 26th February 2018 by LowerAireValley

Bramble raking

Change has begun weaving its way through our reserves, stirred along by the trusty cosmic clock that is daylight, and it’s increasingly unreliable companion, temperature.

What I am of course getting at is that the first signs of spring are emerging. Spiky green fingers of bluebell peeking through the soil, the unfurling of the rolled leaves of wild arum and garlic, the odd bumblebee wafting over my mahonia flowers and the seemingly sudden burst of song from the birds!

This song was a pleasant backdrop to our battle with (another) rather prickly botanical character, bramble. In the midst of our mad dash to clear scrub and thin trees before nesting season is nigh, we treated our group of lovely volunteers to a session of bramble removal at Hollinhurst Wood. Hollinhurst is well appreciated among locals for the frothy sea of bluebells which arise under the canopy, but the wood is equally festooned with brambles, as woods tend to be.

Now we know that bramble is not a fiend to be eradicated, were it not for that copious crop of berries we could be sorely missing our blackberry jams, and the illustrations of Brambly Hedge would look starkly different. Quite a few birds and bees would be having sharp words with us too, with the stars of Brambly Hedge joining the queue. In fact it is this favouritism by wildlife that helps bramble species (oh yes, we’ve more than one…) colonise so well, plus that branches can reroot and that are, of course, thorny, makes them rather tricky to remove. Our aim was simply to remove a fair section to allow the resident bluebell population to breathe a little, and, given enough time, spread into this patch.

So in we went armed with slashers (a very very blunt sword) and loppers, or whichever weapon of fancy, and took to beating back the bramble (while I took the noisier option of a brushcutter). Next up came the rakes, with which the severed limbs were cast aside so that we could all really get stuck in and start work on the roots.












At this point the ground was a sea of bramble stumps amongst the leaf litter, where uprooting one merges into another, and we started to see how bramble thickets can reach such dense proportions. No wonder the birdies and other little critters like to set up camp within them, I wouldn’t fancy myself as a crow or a fox trying to worm my way in, best just stick to scavenging.












For me I always end up putting my ecology hat on and wondering how woodlands used to look without humans intervening, such as what ferocious beast or disease might’ve feasted upon bramble to hamper its spread before we emerged after the last ice age? I’ve heard deer like to eat the leaves, a bit like how giraffes use their enormous tongues to rip leaves from acacia trees, and perhaps wild boar will uproot brambles when they’re feeling partial to them. Then there’s the bramble leaf miner moth, the culprit of those weird squiggly lines encountered on the leaves. This little moth larvae emerges from an egg lain within and slowly snakes its way through, feasting upon the leaf, enlarging the tunnel as it grows until it pupates into a full size moth, it even leaves a little visible trail of waste behind (called ‘frasse’ by entomologists)! Were these present in large enough numbers to knock back the bramble? One can only wonder…

Anyway, back to the present day where this job is largely handled by us nutters with spades and progressively bad backs. Compared to us, wild boar and deer are well equipped in this respect, what with having four legs, but a kneeling pad or two can go a long way, plus we much prefer our homemade cake compared to bramble leaves.

Perhaps this is all madness and we should’ve just brought in a plough, which maybe wouldn’t be all that historically insensitive, as in winter you can see the ridge and furrow extending from the old meadow into the woods at this side. But it’ll be great to see how this area develops, and with some luck we’ll be seeing a steady skewing of the bramble to bluebell ratio, and it’ll be looking a bit more like it does below.

Roll on spring!


















Peter Gurney

Lower Aire Valley Trainee

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