Things we probably got right.

#1. Variety of trees

We deliberately planted quite a wide variety of trees in the areas that are to be coppiced. These include birch (betula pendula and betula pubescens), Common alder (alnus glutinosa), hazel (corylus avellana), Ash (Fraxinus excelsior), Oak (quercus petraea and quercus robur) Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), Aspen (populus tremula), Sweet chestnut (Castanea sativa). We also interplanted with some conifers (larix decidua and Picea sitchensis) at closer spacing. There are also a small amount of more ‘interesting’ trees such as wild cherry, crab apple, cherry plum, as well as over flow trees from the wind break trees (see below), mostly along the ride edges, and some willow from self seeded willow near the pond. The reasoning for planting a wide range was partly not ‘putting all our eggs in one basket’ which we may well be very grateful for. The sweet chestnut, for example, we didn’t expect would set nuts for us, since we are too far north and cool and damp for it, but it just doesn’t seem to like Skye at all. It may be the salt wind, but I think the new wood is not ripening off, so we are getting a lot of die back each year, and that a miniature coppice stool is growing, rather than a tree. The ash may well succumb to Chalera die back in the future, although in the meantime (once protected from the voles which adore eating it) it is growing quite satisfactorally. We also don’t know what future weather changes hold for us, maybe the climate will get drier and hotter in which case the chestnut may do better again, who knows…

#2. Windbreak design

We used various books to create our windbreak design, mostly the late Patrick Whitefield’s Earth Care Manual, but also Ben Law’s The Woodland Way, Ken Broad’s Caring for Small Woods and Ken Fern’s Plants for a Future helping with species selection. The principle is simple – a triple row of trees planted in a staggered fashion perpendicularly to the prevailing wind direction with slow growing, fast growing, and shrubby trees planted alternately, so as to create succession in wind cover in the future. It’s a bit early to say how effective it will be. I think if I were to change the design at all it would be to include a lot more Spruce to give quicker short term protection, These could be removed in a few years once the other trees had filled out. The trouble is probably that most of the ‘fast’ growing trees aren’t that fast actually.

windbreak design schematic
Wind break design schematic

#3 Leaving unplanted areas for future planting or ponds

It seemed like a good idea at the time and we have thought of a few other ideas for these little spaces that we have left: possible shelters for temporary wood drying storage and turning areas for vehicles.

#4 Leaving rides for access

It has been lovely having these paths to walk around the woodland. Hopefully they will be wide enough for the Land Rovers to take a trailer round to pick up the wood (and other) harvests. In the meantime they give us an area where we can walk and throw fetch toys for the dogs and avoid trampling too much on the trees. We can more easily mow these areas to make the grass shorter and therefore less damp to walk on. As the trees grow up it means that we can look at the trees without being too close to them.

ride with mown path
Mown path down ride in midsummer

#5 Pruning to create unbranched stems

This has the two fold effect of creating less branched wood making the future harvest more useful, and also giving a quick harvest of kindling wood.

Pile of kindling next to freshly pruned alder

#6 Not doing too much at once

Making a virtue out of a necessity perhaps, but I think it is better for us not to have done the whole lot in one go. It means we learnt a little as we went – so we never planted sweet chestnut after the first year since it did so badly, improved on the vole guards in later years, increased the interplanting of conifers and the quantity of alder.

Tree Planting on Skye – Woodland Design

Most of our efforts to date have been focussed on creating a woodland area that will in the future generate most of our wood fuel requirements.  When we bought the house we put in a wood fired Esse range cooker which has a back boiler.  This we use for most of our cooking, hot water and house heating requirements.  It doesn’t really generate enough heat for the house in the winter, but the house is another story….To try and futureproof our lifestyle it seemed sensible to avoid the need for mains electric and bought in fuel as far as is practicable.  With limited time, we have planted the trees in phases, starting with shelterbelts around the house and garden area.  Then we gradually evicted the neighbour’s sheep that were keeping the grass short, about an acre at a time over 6 years.  Now I can back fill and play with more unusual plants and crops.  I’ll post about ‘lessons learnt’ or what we would have done differently as well as what went well later.

We didn’t really consider a conifer plantation, although it could be a productive way of planting – thousands of acres in Scotland have to have been planted for a reason!  I think that the uniformity of this type of planting put us off – lots of bad things to be said about monocultures…..  Also practically, we would have had to replant every 20 years or so since once cut down most evergreens are killed.  We did consider short rotation coppice, where a fast growing wood species such as willow is cut every 2 – 5 years.  This seems to suit more automated heating systems such as wood chip fed boilers, or rapid heating rocket stoves, or masonry stoves.  It didn’t really seen to suit an electric-free system that we could use for cooking with and heating a draughty old croft house.  So we have ended up with long rotation coppice, whereby mainly deciduous trees are cut down every 7 to 30 years depending on species, and allowed to regrow from the stumps.

To protect the regrowing coppice we have designed in shelterbelts every 20m or so.  These are planted roughly perpendicular to the main wind direction (I shut my eyes and faced the wind with my arms outstetched – no need for a compass), and comprise of a mixture of different species.  Using various reference books (notably The Earthcare Manual – Patrick Whitefield, The Woodland Way – Ben Law, and Caring for Small Woods – Ken Broad) I decided on a three row mix of trees, with a mix of slow growing (Scots pine (Pinus sylvestris), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Beech (Fagus sylvestris), added Holm oak (Q. ilex), fast growing (Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), lodgepole pine (P. contorta), added whitebeam (Sorbus aria) and western red cedar (Thuja plicata)) and shrubby (yew (Taxus baccata) (did not like it here), hazel (Corylus Avellana), holly (Ilex aquifolium), rowan (Sorbus aucuparia), cherry plum (Prunus ceracifera), hawthorne (Crataegus monogyna)) trees in an alternating fashion.  The idea is to slow the wind down, not to stop it, or make it go round.

The main tree coppice areas are planted with a mixture of trees, since we didn’t know what would do well.  They were selected to be mainly native broadleaved trees that should like our mild damp climate, not mind the salt wind, and grow fairly fast (again with reference to the books mentioned above).  The main species are Ash (Fraxinus Excelsior) (We had to stop planting this after a few years due to spread of ‘ash dieback’ in UK – just as well we have a mix of species), Hazel (Corylus Avellana), Wych Elm (Ulmus glabra), sessile and common oak (Quercus petraea, and Q. robur), Aspen (Popular tremula), Common alder (Alnus glutinosa), and Silver and downy Birch (Betula pendula, B. pubescens).  Groups of the same sort of tree are planted together, although we also experimented with interplanting the coppice trees with Spruce (Picea sitchensis) and Larch (Larix decidua).  A few xmas trees (Picea abies) did not like the salt wind and have barely struggled to survive.

In addition, we have included ‘rides’ or trackways within the planting.  These are (hopefully) wide enough to drive a vehicle round to aid in harvesting, and loop round so there should never be too far to carry the fuel to harvest it.   Along the edges of these tracks I have planted trees and shrubs that have additional or alternative uses as potential food crops – crab apple (Malus sylvestris) (some of which I have successfully (and unsuccessfully!) grafted eating and cooking apple varieties onto), Wild Cherry (Prunus avium) more holly and rowan.  I have now started backfilling with some more interesting fruiting or otherwise useful trees and shrubs: sloe or backthorn (Prunus spinosa), dogwood (Cornus sanguinea), monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucaria), chokecherry (Aronia melanocarpa), also some small leaved lime (Tillia cordata) and willow (some Salix pupurea, and some sort of native dog willow that has seeded itself in.  In a slightly sheltered spot below the barn I have planted some orchard trees – probably a bit prematurely, since they really do not have enough shelter, but hopefully by the time they are ready to fruit in a few years, the shelter (a thuja plicata hedge) will also have grown up.  I have also left a clear area just below the barn for a future pond.  There is a slight plateau area, so it shouldn’t look as odd as it sounds having a pond at the top of the hill.  I have a small fruit growing area/tea garden near the barn also (more about that later).

View towards river from viewpoint of tree planting 2012

Note:  I am using ‘I’ and ‘we’ rather at random here.  My husband and I own the land, but the tree planting is mainly my project at this time – the chainsaw is his.  I have had considerable help in the planning from my friend AC Baker, and in the execution by AC and her partner David.