Walter Start is at the top of the tree professionally and in December 2003, to mark 50 years managing the Froyle woodlands and 56 years in the forestry industry, a new wood was planted in his name.
Woodland Heritage has planted the two-and-a-quarter acres of oaks (Walter’s favourite tree) on land belonging to the Froyle Estate in honour of the 79-year old’s half century of woodland management.
Walter came to Froyle with his wife Mavis in 1953, when he was given the job of forester on the 3,000-acre estate, which was then owned by Lord Mayor Treloar College. With about 600 acres of unmanaged woodland, Walter had his work cut out.
"Nothing had been done on the estate except felling mature trees. There was no replanting or anything like that, so in conjunction with the Forestry Commission I drew up a management plan."
That plan included which trees to keep, which to fell and a replanting strategy based on the form of the tree, its age and size.
Since those early days, Walter has carved out a fine reputation in the world of forestry in North Hampshire and he’s served on numerous national and regional forestry committees, won a number of prestigious awards for his work, among them several for woodlands planted in Froyle and one for work at Noar Hill near Selbourne, and since 1971, he has been in demand as a forestry consultant. In 1983 he was awarded the MBE for his services to forestry and the recent tribute is a further indication of the great respect he enjoys. "I feel it is a great honour and I didn’t really expect it," he says.
The Froyle Estate, now owned by a private trust, is used regularly for shooting and Walter’s forestry plans always take into account the interests of the sport.
"I work closely with the keepers over the layout of young wood, woodlands rides and I co-operate with the head game-keeper on where release pens are to be. There’s no tension between us. It’s much easier to co-operate than to argue. I know what he requires and he knows what I want."
Although less hands-on these days, Walter is still very involved and recently worked with the Forestry Commission to draw up a 20-year plan for the Froyle Estate woodlands.
Offering the chance for more continuity, it was, he says 18 months of hard work but a very worthwhile exercise. "I’ve never got up in the morning dreading to go to work. It’s a vocation and I love and enjoy what I do." Walter will never retire - it goes against the grain.
Round Wood on the Froyle Estate near Alton (Hants) covers a mere five acres. With clay, flint and loam over chalk the 168m high site offers an attractive skyline feature easily visible above the busy A31.
Walter Start has managed Froyle’s total of 600 acres of woodlands since 1953. His management objective is simple: "to grow oak on a 70-75 year rotation to produce 3.4 metre veneer quality butts." With six competition wins under his belt in 15 years, plus a successful sales record, the wood shows how a small woodland, if managed, can produce a profitable timber crop, be visually attractive and environmentally friendly.
When he arrived on the estate Walter was confronted by a neglected former coppice-with-oak standards woodland.
Following hand-weeding during 1957-62 and cleaning five years later, Round Wood’s first thinning and high-pruning operation took place in 1970. Pruning in subsequent years (with final crop selection in 1983) led to the 8th and penultimate thinning operation in 1994. The final thinning was delayed until 2001, finally winning The Mallinson Trophy at the Royal Show in 2002.
The rest of the oak crop would now grow to maturity, leaving only 5% of the larch introduced as its nurse.
The violent storms of October 1987 and January 1990 disrupted thinning schedules and so Walter undertook only light thinning and wind-blow clearance for a time.
Today on entering the plantation the visitor is instantly impressed by the quality of the oak stretching straight, symmetrical and high pruned up into the sky, topped by well-formed crowns.
Round Wood, in size and position, is similar to thousands of small lowland woods. It has already made a good income from recent thinnings and the final crop should provide a major boost to estate finances.
It is a fine example of what can be achieved by farmers and landowners of small woodlands. "You do not have to have 100 acres: you can achieve a viable operation with five", says Walter. And he should know!