Merton Wood - West Wind Hardwood
merton wood

Our longtime friend lives in Merton – the village with NO PUB 😉 – he volunteers round and about; often spending his time scything public and trust lands.  In fact, just the other day here’s what he said “spent the morning scything…….well, until the blade buried itself in a very solid anthill, and broke ……….aaaaaaaaaarrrrrgghhh!! Fortunately, the trust is about to order a whole lot, so an extra couple is no big deal!”

Some time ago, he brought this small – relatively new wood in UK history (planted 2002) – green space to our attention.  Merton Wood is comprised of native broadleaf woodland and grassland and has become home to deer and Merton Wood, barn and tawny owls.  It offers a short walking route through the woods with a broader track circular around the perimeter (through woodland and meadow) for horses.

I like the fact that this community decided that there was a better use of public land, and actually repurposed it with what was probably similar to the original landscape long before humans and animals tamed it.  But in hindsight to my comment, and if you’ve read The Forest by Edward Rutherfurd, perhaps it really was repurposed to the original look after first being tamed by early humankind.

Merton Wood was officially opened on the 27th September 2003 at 3 pm by the Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire and was designated an Oxfordshire Jubilee Wildlife Space.

But before this event could go ahead a lot of work was done to make the site of the former sewage treatment works into one appreciated by the people of Merton. Many villagers, under the guidance of the Parish Council, gave an extraordinary amount of their time to plan the woodland. This process started in 2000 with the decision to create a millennium wood. Villagers were asked to come up with a name and ‘Merton Wood’ was chosen. The owners of the site of the sewage plant which had been decommissioned some years before paid for the ground works and planting and this was carried out during the period from October 2001 to February 2002. Villagers took part in the planting process. In 2007, when the trees had become established, the wood was sold to the Parish of Merton for £1.

So, instead of several unsightly concrete constructions, there are now lovely paths, benches, to contemplate the surroundings from a pond that sits in the landscape and, most importantly, TREES!  Some 14,000 trees, mainly native species, now populate the wood. There are ash, oak, field maple, wild cherry, small-leaved lime, beech, hornbeam, birch, hazel, crab apple, as well as hawthorn, holly, blackthorn and Guelder rose.

Real treasures are located also on the perimeter of the wood. There is a group of very old apple trees that, together with the poplars, date back to the time when the land was compulsory purchased by the Ministry of Defence from a local farmer, and a sewage plant built to cope with the massive influx of soldiers to the garrison at Ambrosden during the Second World War. These trees had been planted by the caretaker of the original treatment plant and lived on site in a bungalow.

In the autumn there are blackberries to go with the apples (mainly cookers) and on the side facing towards Ambrosden, several damson trees bear delicious fruit.  Every season is a special time; the wood looks good in all of them, although the presence of annually increasing numbers of cowslips in spring is an added joy. The woodland is ever changing and ever fascinating.

The appeal of Merton Wood is hardly surprising, especially now that the trees are well established and the wood has become the home of an abundance of wildlife, as had been intended. In summer the area around the pond is a haven for several species of dragonfly. The occasional deer has been spotted, and this was before the removal of the inner perimeter fence! On a summer’s evening, it is not unusual to see the pale, gliding shape of a hunting barn owl in the twilight.

What a delight?  Could you envision something similar in your neighbourhood?  Trees and forests don’t have to be all about business and commerce, national parks or old-growth, ancient groves.

Beyond the ever necessary scything, our friend has become familiar with the art of hedgelaying.  Hedgelaying is the process of bending and partially cutting through the stems of a line of shrubs or small trees near ground level; arching the stems without breaking them so they can grow horizontally and be intertwined.

Hedgerows have been a part of the landscape for hundreds of years.  Traditionally used in agricultural areas as a way of containing livestock in fields, today hedgerows offer many advantages for smaller, more urban properties as well.  Hedgerows also provide invaluable natural service, offering food and shelter to precious wildlife.  Hedgelaying today promotes traditional skills and offers a pleasing visual effect.

Direct from our friend:  “During the winter months, we do a lot of hedging – mainly rejuvenation and occasionally renewing.

  1. Dead Hedging. When we are cutting back the over-growth of the hedges (usually blackthorn and hawthorn), we make a rectangular dead-hedge with the offcuts. As you can see from the photos, we sharpen stakes, drive them into the ground in pairs, and then fill the void with branches to create an impenetrable hedge, to keep the deer and other animals out. We then cover the interior with small brash (smaller branches and twigs) to give butterflies somewhere to lay their eggs (especially the Brown Hairstreak) and also to provide cover for small animals and birds to protect them from predators, as well as the wind and the rain; it’s good for insects too as a dead hedge creates a linear eco-pile. Since the hedge is constructed from thorn trees, it also dissuades the public from venturing into sensitive areas.

 

  1. Hedge-laying. This is using a traditional method of encouraging new growth from an established hedge by thinning it out and then cutting two-thirds of the way through the base of each bush and then laying it at an angle on top of the previous bush. Whilst the trunk is cut, a third still remains so the tree can continue to grow, and the branches will now grow upwards. Ideally, vertical stakes should be driven into the hedge every metre or so and hazel wound along the top of the hedge from stake to stake, which will not only hold it all together but makes it all look incredibly neat. The beauty of this system is that, whilst it takes time and skill to do, the result is a purely natural stock fence that has no need of wire or barbed-wire in it at all………….blackthorn takes no prisoners………and over time will get thicker and thicker!

 

  1. This is continual throughout the winter! Cutting back and copsing creates new light to the ground and so new growth.

 

  1. Results. These make all the hard work worthwhile! From rare orchids to rare butterflies that have a chance to live because we can keep the deer out – and stunning carpets of bluebells, orchids and meadow flowers are a joy to behold.

 

 

Last winter we copsed a huge coup of blackthorn, hawthorn, hazel, ash and a bit of oak (last week we removed about 4 tonnes of logs) to promote orchids, bluebells etc, so hopefully next spring the whole area will be carpeted with exquisite colours.

Again, we’re not talking big trees or commercial woodlots but a simple appreciation and tribute to a softer, gentler approach to man’s adaption of nature.  Thank you, David, for sharing your knowledge and photographs!


© David Richardson, all photos used here are with his exclusive permission.

1 Comment

  1. Further remarks from David himself:

    Hi Shelley,

    I am most impressed with your article about Merton Wood – excellent photos too!

    Just in case you get any queries, the second batch of photos – wide open spaces, bonfires, bluebells etc – are those I took while volunteering for BBOWT at Finemere Wood, http://www.bbowt.org.uk/reserves/Finemere-Wood which is a remnant of the ancient Royal Forest of Bernwood……..for hunting wild boar etc! I volunteer at Rushbeds Wood as well, which is also a remnant of the same Royal Forest.

    With regard to the hedging, we do that everywhere – Merton Wood, Finemere Wood, Rushbeds Wood, Calvert Jubilee and Upper Ray Meadows – so the photos are generic. We also have to put in wire stock-fencing in some places whilst the laid hedges have a chance to grow, or where we have to plant new whips (young trees.) So it’s all go throughout the winter………coppicing, dead-hedging and hedge-laying…….and trying to remove blackthorns from our anatomy afterwards!

    Keep up the good work,
    David

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