On a cloudy, breezy June morning a group of Woodland Heritage members met up at the grand Yorkshire estate of Farnley Hall with its splendid views across the lush Yorkshire countryside, writes Tamsin Abbott.
We were welcomed to the estate by Michael Blackwell, agent for the Horton-Fawkes family. Michael told us a little of the estate’s fascinating history; the first mention of the Fawkes family being in the thirteenth century when they were suing a local priest for cutting down trees on their land ! It would appear that the family were originally foresters and timber merchants of the Forest of Knaresborough, so Woodland Heritage’s visit to look at trees on the estate seemed very appropriate.
Having heard about this and the family’s patronage of the artist J. M. W. Turner we were then introduced to Keith Rawling, the estate’s consultant forester, whose first words to us were "Welcome to the centre of the World"! There was to be no hanging about with Keith who marched us off immediately to get on with what we were really here for - to look at the woodlands.
Wilderness Plantation was the first plantation to be visited. This mixed species wood had formerly been an army camp during World War Two, and it was sobering to think how this tranquil piece of woodland had once been a windswept, treeless platform occupied by men training to go to war. Keith had known these trees ever since they had been planted in 1953 and had followed their progress up until today. He told us of its success and its failures, and it became apparent to all of us how much we can learn from one man’s day-in-day-out experience. It was not only Keith’s knowledge of his subject and his fastidiousness to detail but also the fact that he has been working in the same woodlands for all his life. His pearls of wisdom were eagerly snapped up by his audience.
As we walked on to the next plantation we stopped to look at some horrendous squirrel damage inflicted on some young beech trees. Peter Goodwin treated us to an amusing demonstration of a revolutionary new American squirrel caller, which mimics the cry of a distressed juvenile squirrel in order to attract adults to the sound. Although it was an entertaining demonstration (particularly Peter’s hill-billy American accent!) everyone present had their own tale of squirrel damage to tell and no one was in any doubt as to the destructiveness of these creatures and the huge impact which they were having on British forestry.
Keith then showed us a stand of sycamore planted in 1923 which he felt had been thinned too late in order to try and draw them upwards for greater length. Although one might think this to be the obvious thing to do, Keith pointed out that as a result of this late thinning the trees had never managed to produce a decent crown. Time and time again he stressed how important crown size is for the tree to successfully assimilate energy from the sun in order to grow quickly and well to produce good quality, large diameter timber. Keith also pointed out that far from being the terrible "non-native" evasive species maligned by conservationists, sycamore is a fine timber tree and is highly regarded by furniture and musical instrument makers and popular with interior designers. The high value of rippled or ‘fiddle-back’ sycamore was also discussed with handy tips about felling and selling such rare wood. Peter produced examples of sycamore veneer brightly dyed for parquetry, a marquetry panel and a couple of actual fiddle-backs. It was interesting to view these end products in the woodland environment.
We then admired a beautiful sycamore stand planted in 1936. ,Here Keith was happy with their growth and stressed that this was the difference that good thinning could make. He also pointed out the understorey of young ash, which were not intended as a crop themselves but which were used to reduce windspeed in the plantation. Many times during the visit Keith had drawn our attention to this as a factor which could seriously improve the quality of the lower part of a tree. Strong windspeeds in the crown have some beneficial effect of encouraging the tree to grow somewhat more quickly, but they would also lead to flared buttresses at the base of the tree, rather than the ideal cylindrical trunk most desired by timber merchants. Keith cannily advised felling at the time markets are most favourable for each type of timber, rather than sticking to specific age or girth size and hoping for the best.
Further on we were given a demonstration of high pruning a sessile oak and again got into discussion on high pruning and the value of doing it correctly and keeping records of when you do it. We also heard about the advantages of mixed planting and Keith’s thoughts on ash, which he termed a ‘greedy tree’. His main reasons being that ash demands a lot of crown space, seeds freely, taking up large amounts of nutrients from other trees. Keith also felt that after all this he still wasn’t able to produce top quality ash on the Farnley soils and quoted an old forester’s saying ‘If you can’t grow good ash, don’t grow it at all’.
As my brain began to overflow with information we came in sight of the house once more and our final arboreal treat. The Farnley estate is home to the widest tree in England (not the highest), this being an enormous weeping beech, which covers over one third of an acre!
The said tree is reputed to be only 160 years old and has spread itself by its branches snaking along the ground, rooting and then shooting up again and so on. We wandered around under this amazing canopy for some time until Peter called us out for a group photo. By this time the weather was beautifully sunny so we sat out on the lawn in front of the house and admired the stunning views.
As I sat and ate my picnic lunch I thought that I had never learnt as much about growing high quality marketable hardwoods in so short a time as I had that morning. Keith’s no-nonsense pragmatic approach was both clear and refreshing and had been interspersed by useful and interesting comments and questions from the group throughout. All in all, it had been incredibly educational as well as highly enjoyable.
Keith Rawling’s afternoon finale was to assemble us on the massive front door steps whilst he gave a fascinating history of the beautiful landscape, from Roman roads, to ancient quarries, early settlements and Cromwell’s camp before the Battle of Marston Moor. The story almost came full circle when he reminded us that Thomas Chippendale, designer of much sycamore "harewood" marquetry furniture, had been born in Keith’s own town of Otley, which nestled across the sunny valley. Yes, it really could have been the centre of the earth!