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A training day with Esmond Harris - Ferry Farm, Calstock

Bill Durlacher from Essex admires the view of Morwelham Quay across the river from Ferry Farm

On Saturday 30th October 2004 I accompanied Peter Goodwin to a meeting of the Small Woods Association. This meeting as held at Ferry Farm Woods near Calstock in Cornwall. I usually need a fairly good reason to drive 700 miles in one day (Cornwall and back from Suffolk) but this meeting more than justified the effort. This turned out to be one of the finest autumn days of 2004.

We were the guests of Esmond Harris (erstwhile director of the Royal Forestry Society) and his wife, Jeanette. It was such a pleasure to be surrounded by such enthusiastic and knowledgeable foresters. Esmond told us how his farm was purchased as a retirement project in 1987 but at least 5 years elapsed before he commenced work on his woodland. We thus had the benefit of seeing a decade of work that he initiated and has carried out since then.

Ferry Farm is located on the west side of the Tamar Valley and the woodland is largely planted on the valley escarpment. The house and surrounding farmland are within an ‘S’ bend of the River Tamar, and on the other side one can see Morwelham Quay, which is a historic copper mining site.

Esmond first described his objectives in woodland management, which he set out in 1994 and has tried to adhere to ever since. His primary objective is to manage the woodlands for the combined aims of wood production and wildlife enhancement. Secondarily he has attempted to improve the appearance and landscape value of the woodlands, which is made even more important by the fact that large numbers of visitors to Morwelham Quay can see his landscape across the river. He has tried to increase the area of woodland by planting trees on what was old farmland, which has meant establishingnew areas of trees on previously cultivated land and/or pasture. His project has provided work for local people, both skilled and unskilled.

His wife is a very experienced biologist and zoologist, who has maintained records of all the wildlife species seen on the farm over the last decade, noting especially unusual species and new arrivals which they hope might have arrived because of his conservation practices. Lastly, he has taken great trouble to make his woodland available for educational purposes to demonstrate to all interested parties his principles of both woodland and wildlife conservation management.

Esmond is lucky in that the Tamar Valley is probably one of the most favourable places to grow trees in Britain. He emphasised its primary characteristics of shelter, moisture and warmth, which those of us living in East Anglia must envy!

Esmond Harris leads the discussion.

His main interest is with oak, although he has planted many other species on his land as well. Our walk to the first compartment, on the slopes overlooking the Tamar River, took us past a very special and extremely rare 150 year old Ulmus laevis, of which there are very few in the country. We were to see another magnificent specimen later on in the afternoon on the other side of the river. Both are showing strong resistance to Dutch elm disease. For me this tree was one of the highlights of the day.

Those of us who have had difficulty in distinguishing sessile from pedunculate oak have no difficulties any more. Esmond was able to demonstrate the very clear differences in the two varieties of these trees, as both are well established on his land, planted approximately 1920. He pointed out the wildlife value of these older trees as oaksharbour many insects, although he pointed out later in the day that willows come close in this respect, a fact which few of us knew. We moved on to an area where much more light was available and we immediately noticed the improved growth of young oak trees.

Higher up the hill we came to a most impressive stand of Nothofagus procera (nervosa) and Japanese larch. The conifer nurse trees had been largely removed after 8-9 years, allowing the Nothofagus to go on, hopefully up to 12 metres or so. This is a faster rate of growth than any other broad leaved tree, except poplar. Esmond pointed out the problems of tree extraction on difficult terrain and how this site had suffered compaction from heavy machinery which had led to a certain amount of losses. Other plots had been cleared by horsedrawn equipment, so avoiding this compaction, and were generally considered much more successful with fewer related losses.

Coast redwood suffering grey squirrel damage.

We had an interesting discussion about early pruning of walnutsto try and improve their growth characteristics. Further on down the valley we were able to compare the growth of both European and American black walnuts, and the absence of frost in the Tamar valley is certainly an important factor in the successful establishment of these species. We also discussed how walnuts seem to respond better in their early years if interplanted with nurse trees such as Western red cedar.

The next two plantations were both uplifting and upsetting. A superb mix of sessile oak, chestnut, cherry and Nothofagus obliqua looked magnificent until we noticed the severe grey squirrel amage that was already occurring on trees that are not more than a decade old. Nothofagus obliqua seems to be more vulnerable than its relative that we had seen before lunch. Higher up the same side of the valley we saw a compartment of American conifers, consisting of Douglas fir/Grand fir/Red cedar/Coast redwood/Western hemlock. These had all established extremely well and the redwoods are now most impressive. However, to see grey squirrel damage already on these trees is so upsetting and onewonders at the end of the day if it is really worth all the effort to establish these magnificent plantations in the United kingdom when, just as the trees are looking established after their first decade, they are to be destroyed by the relentless attack of the grey squirrel.If there was one single message which I came away with from the Tamar Valley on 30th October, it is that no effort should be spared to eliminate the grey squirrel from our country, if we wish to grow trees of any economic importance.

The last compartment that we looked at was an 11 year old plantation of European walnut and ash with some Norway spruce in between. The walnut had grown fantastically well with these nurse trees, and it was interesting to note the poor form of the ash which had been planted from very good provenance but Esmond pointed out that the ash is very promiscuous and one cannot guarantee its paternity !

Esmond Harris (centre) discusses his stand of Nothofagus procera (nervosa).

What a wonderful day it was! I cannot remember ever learning quite so much about forestry in such a short space of time. Esmond proved to be an amazing source of information on both forestry and wildlife. He has carried
out an enormous amount of work in 10 years on this small farm, and it was a privilege to visit it. I only pray that the European Squirrel Initiative can bring about the total removal of grey squirrels from this country in time to allow his planting efforts to be seen and enjoyed by future generations.

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