Willow Pollarding by Vince Lea

willow pollards sml VLThe Environment Agency have a difficult job estimating their budget requirements from one year to the next – sometimes they spend a lot of money pumping groundwater to cope with droughts, and other years they spend a lot on flood prevention or chemical spill clean up. Somehow, there was a bit left in the 2012-13 budget which we were offered to bid for, and were lucky enough to get a proposal to restore willow pollarding to the Bourn Brook in Barton, round Lark Rise Farm.

In total, the funds paid for seven days work by teams of arborists, guys who think nothing of roping themselves up to the top of old trees, carrying their chainsaws with them, to gradually bring the crown of neglected willows back down to the main bole of the trunk. These old pollards would once have been cut regularly to provide a supply of firewood and possibly willow leaves – much enjoyed by cattle at the end of the summer if they can get them. But decades of neglect means that they are now quite fragile trees, liable to crack up and rot if not sensitively managed. Maintaining the trees by restorative pollarding means that the trunks can continue to grow and get more and more interesting for wildlife – big hollow trunks support roosting bats, barn owls, and otters during the day, as well as offering a rich variety of food and habitat for smaller but equally important wildlife, like fungi, beetles, bees and flies. Maintaining a network of such trees across the landscape is vital for wildlife to flourish.

The amount of work we could do with the funds available meant that we could restore such trees along a mile stretch of the Bourn Brook. In all, 10 veteran trees were pollarded, two of which had been done about ten years ago but the others hadn’t been touched for decades. We also had the chance to work on another 17 trees which were large but had grown up over the more recent past, and had never before been pollarded. These will, in time, become the veteran trees of the future, and maintain continuity of the habitat when, eventually, the current veteran trees finally go the way of all things. Restoring veteran pollards always has an inherent risk that the shock of the treatment will be too much for the tree to cope with – and it is impossible to predict which trees will or won’t survive the operation. But the experts who did the work gave them the best possible treatment, and by spreading them out over a large area, while leaving plenty of other veteran trees untouched, we should minimise these risks. Last year, a trial pollarding effort was conducted on one veteran tree with no problems, so we have high hopes for success. The photo shows the tree pollarded last year (with an Owl box on it, and a nice crop of new growth on top), with one of this year’s new pollards in the background.

Vince Lea is the CRT’s Monitoring Officer.

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