Sunday, 27 February 2011

A Stort Valley Sawfest – February 2011

The first week of February has seen a lot of activity along the River Stort with a range of tasks the length of the valley being completed by conservation volunteers.

The Uttlesford group of the Essex Wildlife Trust (EWT) was able to purchase a pole saw last year for use around the area. The pole saw looks like a cross between a brushcutter and a chainsaw, which is effectively what it is. The cutter bar, about a foot in length is mounted at the end of a long pole, which is able to extend in order to reach branches as much as 12 feet off the ground. We were fortunately given the loan of the saw for a period and made good use of the technology.

On Thursday 3rd February, we pollarded a number of Crack Willows on Sawbridgeworth Marsh, an EWT reserve and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). Although sunny and mild, there was a persistent strong southwesterly wind blowing, which threatened to make the job difficult, but in the event, the saw worked very well and we did not encounter many problems, apart from getting it jammed in a cut a couple of times and having to free it with an extendable handsaw – a tool we were advised to bring along for just such a purpose!

Although these pollards have been cut every five or so years since 1990, they have grown steadily taller and are now out of reach of a standard chainsaw. In recent years, we have therefore had to rely increasingly on the extendable handsaw, which although very effective, is also very hard work. Not that using the pole saw is easy. The pole itself is quite heavy and using it for long periods proved impossible as well as increasing the likelihood of getting it stuck, as cuts tend not to be as accurate as the arms tire. By only using the saw for short periods at a time and then resting and clearing up the loppings, we found the saw more effective and, all in all, the best way of cutting pollards that we have so far come across.

Friday 4th February dawned overcast with spits and spots of rain in the wind, which had strengthened to near gale force. Three of us, later joined by a fourth volunteer, met at Chris Camp’s farm at Roydon Lea. This is a very interesting farm, run on traditional lines with herds of Galloway and Belted Galloway cattle and Texel Cross sheep grazing the pastures during the summertime and flocks of wild duck, such as Wigeon, on the lower, wetter fields during the Winter. The farm was in Countryside Stewardship and is currently applying for the Higher Level Stewardship (HLS).

The job today was to clear overhanging scrub and tree branches from along a stretch of the Cannon’s Brook, which flows through the farm before joining the Stort near to Roydon. We previewed this job last Summer with John Bryden from the Environment Agency and we were all impressed with the gravely runs along the brook, although less so with the amount of rubbish that also gets brought along it out of Harlow.


With the standard chainsaw, we removed a stretch of hawthorn and blackthorn scrub from along the banks first. The job then entailed accessing the brook with the pole saw and, whilst wading in the water, lopping off as many overhanging tree branches as the saw could reach. These included some rather hefty lumps of oak, which then had to be further reduced with the saw after having fallen into the brook and then the bits manhandled up the steep bank to be stacked in a number of dead wood piles – all in all quite a filthy, wet task for a while! The end result was very impressive though, with a good 100 yard stretch of brook now cleared to allow light to penetrate next Summer.

Sunday, 6th February at the Gibberd Garden. From here, we walked to the Hermitage, a large meadow of neutral grassland bordering the River Stort, which boasts a range of wild flowers, including Cowslip, Hardhead and Bee Orchid, but which had become heavily infested with blackthorn and hawthorn scrub in recent years. This is the fourth year we have visited this site and the improving extent and appearance of the meadow is self-evident. Another large chunk of thick hawthorn scrub, plus a few of the more accessible blackthorns were cut down and piled on the lower boundary in what is becoming a very dense dead hedge.

Whilst the area of scrub on this site has now been much reduced, there still remains one more area of accessible hawthorn and dead elm, which we could remove. This would result in a sizeable area of rich grassland, rather than the interconnected series of “glades” which is the current appearance of the site. We therefore plan to return for one more year to finish the work at the Hermitage.