Planting woodland on Houndkirk Moor

This morning I joined a group of about twenty keen volunteers to plant up a few hundred tree whips on Houndkirk Moor, on Sheffield’s western outskirts.  This initiative is led by the Eastern Moors Partnership, which manages the extensive moorlands of northeast Derbyshire and South Yorkshire. They have teamed up with a semi-regular group of volunteers organised by local author and environmental campaigner Sally Goldsmith to create the woodlands of the future. 

alder and holly whips
common hair moss
oak and willow whips

All that is left of what was once a wooded landscape is a smattering of birch, some veteran rowans, oaks and pockets of willow on damper soil.  Bracken has taken hold of this land;  wherever there is bracken a woodland once stood – it is a woodland species.  Take the shading effects of trees out of the ecosystem and rhizomatous bracken runs amok. 

Managing bracken encroachment is a time consuming and sometimes controversial business, or at least it is when chemical controls are used.  In quantity bracken is toxic to sheep and cows, meaning that grazing methods used to control other vigorous plants cannot be applied.  It would be easy to give up the fight, however restoring woodland might go some way toward taming the bracken.

Sarah getting the tree roots covered
John with bracken rhizomes
Sally and veteran rowan

This may be the landscape we inherited but we can plant a better legacy.  Planting the right trees on the right patch of moorland – the areas already blighted by bracken rather than the blanket bogs already effectively storing carbon – is a smart and cost-effective move.

We need locations to plant the vast number of trees required to draw down carbon from the atmosphere to help meet CO2 reduction targets.  That is reason enough, however this is also an opportunity to plant native woodland to provide food and cover for birds and other wild animals.  Trees planted today will provide seed for the next generation of woodland, which will regenerate naturally to fit its environment more perfectly than even our best attempts at restoring nature. 

The tree planting volunteers

Unsurprisingly, the main challenge this site presents is rampant bracken. Having never planted into it before this was a new experience for me.  It involves bashing and trampling before digging can even begin.  My progress was slow but at least I was thorough.  The soil is good for planting in the sense that it is peat, only it is full of tough bracken rhizomes that take some teasing out.  Little soil is left afterwards.  We also had to be particularly careful to not damage surviving examples of Sphagnum peat moss; I saw only fragments of it.  Another Bryophyte highlight was a couple of common hair moss (Polytrichum commune) patches.

Species we planted: 

alder (Alnus glutinosa) – in wet soil

birches, both silver (Betula pendula) and downy (B. pubescens)

hawthorn (Crateagus monogyna)

holly (Ilex aquifolium)

rowan (Sorbus aucuparia)

sessile oak (Quercus petraea)

willow (Salix spp.) – in wet soil