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  • The Rother Alliance

A guided walk of Dallington Forest

A first person account from Councillor Polly Gray

On 3rd July 2021 Councillor Sue Prochak and I (as well as Teddy the dog, pictured) joined a small number of people from Bexhill Environmental Group and Friends of Combe Valley Countryside Park, on a guided walk of Dallington Forest, led by Doug Edworthy, Tree Warden for the parishes of Brightling and Dallington. Doug is the founder of the Dallington Forest Project, their mission statement is:


“To be an exemplar study of Biodiversity and Landscape History, to recognise and highlight the significance of the trees, grasslands, heathlands and hedgerows both as individuals and as populations within these varied habitats, to establish and promote the ecological value of the project area and to demonstrate and inform others of best practice management for landscape and nature conservation.”


The walk lasted three hours and covered about five miles through the Forest, which is mixed woodland, with some broadleaf trees and some planted conifers. We saw a variety of animals and birds on our walk: horses, a goat, sheep, fallow deer, and chickens. We saw a number of buzzards overhead and heard lovely birdsong, including skylarks. We also saw a variety of plants, foxgloves, lush green ferns, dog mercury and cuckoo plant (both highly toxic) and several kinds of fungi.


Doug pointed out the importance of leaving dead trees where they have fallen as they are a valuable habitat, especially for mining bees, who can only nest in the uprooted soil of fallen trees. (Mining bees do not produce honey but are valuable for pollinating and like many bees, they are under serious threat due to lack of biodiversity and climate change). As Doug said: “Tidying is bad for biodiversity”.


A young tree that has been pollarded


Doug showed us some examples of coppicing, mainly on Hornbeam, which is a traditional method of woodland management and exploits the capacity of many species of trees to put out new shoots from their stump or roots if cut down. In a coppiced wood, known as a copse, young tree stems (usually from chestnut trees) are repeatedly cut down when they reach a certain height. The slim branches were used over the centuries for stakes, fences and fuel. Traditionally they were also used for use in furnaces to make charcoal for iron-making. Two hundred years ago these woodlands were big industrial areas for making iron. The woods would have been noisy, smoky places, not the peaceful havens we now enjoy. In recent years, as these industries have died out, farmers have discovered that if they are cut and bound tightly, like hay, they can be fed to horses and cattle over winter, in place of hay.


The disadvantage of coppicing is that animals, such as deer, like to nibble the young shoots. This has resulted in the practice of pollarding, which is the same as coppicing, but at a higher level on the tree, so that the tree is cut back to a stump every few years. The same practice has been used for the traditional custom of hedge laying, where a young tree’s branches are bent sideways and woven to make a hedge, cut back every few years and continually regrowing. Doug said that this method can make a tree immortal, it will simply keep regrowing over the centuries. He showed us an example of stumps from hedgelaying, on the edge of the woodland, which is where the ancient boundary of the wood is shown on medieval maps. Doug thinks the stumps are at least 600 years old, possibly older. He said that these trees are sometimes known as Phoenix trees, because they never die.

Hedgelayed stumps (possibly 600+ years old)


We saw some impressive ancient oak trees, the oldest was about 300 years old. Doug said that oaks are not really woodland trees, they prefer having room to spread, and are better growing in parks and large gardens. He explained the difference between an ancient tree and a veteran. An ancient tree is one that is old for the type of tree and the place it is found, whereas a veteran tree can be any age, but one that has suffered some kind of damage, such as lightening strike, but survived. He likened it to young men returning from a war zone and being referred to as veterans.


A lovely ancient Beech


Some of the Ash trees in the Forest are suffering from Ash Dieback, sadly like many of our lovely Ash trees. Interestingly, Doug said that the older trees are becoming more resistant, it is affecting the younger trees more, so there is hope that the trees will be able to build up resistance. Doug showed us some interesting and lurid fungi. He explained that research has shown that all trees have fungi within their branches, but it is only when the tree is weakened, perhaps by losing a branch, that the fungi can attack and ultimately kill the tree. We need to do our utmost to keep our trees healthy.


We saw an ancient Yew tree that was only half alive, it is surrounded by Western Hemlock, which are blocking out the light and making it difficult for the Yew to survive. Western Hemlock is a type of spruce, native to North America and is beginning to take over the Forest, to the extent that it may need to be removed as, in Doug’s words: “it grows like cress”. Western Hemlock has small, non-scaly soft green pine leaves, which when pinched between fingers, gives a faint smell of grapefruit - the only tree that has this citrus smell. It is unrelated to the poisonous herb, Hemlock.


The Yew was on the edge of a deep ancient track, and the roots on the edge of the track were all horizontal, following the track line. Doug said he was intrigued to find out which came first, the tree or the track. He sought professional advice, and to his surprise, the conclusion was that the track was the same width as the Canadian bulldozers used in woodland in WWII, when huge numbers of tree trunks were needed to be used at the Normandy landings, to help prevent the tanks from sinking into the sand on the French beaches.


Doug and the Yew


In the words of the poet, Robert Frost “The woods are lovely, dark and deep” and they are full of our history. We need to do all we can to preserve them for their beauty and their help in carbon storage to prevent climate change, for ourselves and for generations to come.

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