A Near Miss

I went over to the woods on Friday 20th December and spent a few hours burning the brash and stumps left from when we created our vehicle entrance. I didn’t stay for the Winter Solstice sunrise in the end because heavy rain was forecast. I haven’t been back much since, in part due to the exceptionally wet weather, but on Wednesday I was in Hertford for a First Aid course and went to take a look before heading home.

Whenever I approach the picnic table it is with slight trepidation, ever since the time it had vanished (I found it eventually, carried it back and nailed it down). This time it had managed to avoid by mere inches being smashed into the ground by a falling oak branch.

Near Miss

Near Miss

I returned today in the van with a chainsaw and trolley to remove the branch, some of which had been split apart by the force of the impact.

Pre-split Firewood

Pre-split Firewood

I cut it into manageable pieces and carted them off to the van with my very useful Stein Arbor-trolley. Here are the last three bits loaded and ready to go.

Last Load of Logs

Last Load of Logs

The bluebell bulbs we planted in October are starting to send up shoots and there are plenty of snowdrops again this year.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops

Autumn Update

It is getting on for a year since posting my last blog entry. The long silence does not mean that I haven’t made progress, though certainly I wish I had found the time to do more. When I did do stuff I never seemed to have time to blog about it, partly because I was prioritising my personal blog (where I have now published 95 posts). I hope I can organise my life in such a way as to be able to spend more time in the woods next year but for now I will just summarise what has happened since my previous post.

New Vehicle Entrance

New Vehicle Entrance

At the end of January I took a trip to Much Hadham where I bought a twelve foot metal field gate from McVeigh Parker. I installed the gate in early February but it wasn’t until March that a local guy called David came with a machine to do a bit of landscaping. He scraped down to solid ground and used the topsoil to form a small bund, then spread twenty tons of crushed concrete to form a nice firm track, just long enough to drive a truck in and close the gate behind.

Meanwhile I bought a load of bare root hedging plants from Rochfords to create a hedge along the roadside, either side of the new gate. I chose hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna), spindle (Euonymus europeus) and field maple (Acer campestra) and then added a few more small trees that I had rescued as seedlings and grown on in pots. On either side of the gate I planted some yew (Taxus baccata). I set the hedge far enough back from the road to leave a verge so that I won’t have to trim it too often and eventually I will lay it.

In April I got my friend Dean to come back and finish taking down the hollow lime tree that he had made safe in March 2012. We left about five metres standing and most of the rest went for firewood (it is not considered to be a desirable firewood but it seems to burn OK in my stove). Later in April I was saddened to discover a mature oak near the picnic table with an area of charred bark – why would you light a fire against a tree? Hopefully the damage is not too severe but I will have to wait until spring to see how it responds.

Fire Damage

Fire Damage

In early May it was dry enough that I thought I should water the hedge but I don’t have a source of water in the woods. I have taken the odd bucket of water from the river and carried it up but it would have been a lot of work to water the whole thing like that. Fortunately I had got to know Brian up at Herts Tree Care and he said I could fill a tank at his yard. So I put one of those metre cube tanks on the back of van and attached a large bore flexible pipe to discharge through (it is surprising how little flow you get through a hose pipe when you don’t have mains pressure behind it). I watered the hedge a few more times after that, particularly during the July heatwave, when I also mulched it with some partially rotted wood chip.

In June Brian said he wanted to train two of his lads for their felling assessment, and asked if he could use our woods. I had already marked up a load of trees to take out so this seemed like a good opportunity. I agreed on condition that he trained me too. I also said he could take the timber we felled for his firewood business and we fixed on the first week of July. It was hot every day and it felt even hotter wearing gloves, boots, helmet and chainsaw trousers. Brian taught us basic chainsaw maintenance in his workshop and then we went out to learn and practice the various felling techniques. We put all the saws, fuel, breaker bars, wedges, water, packed lunches etc in a trailer and drove it down to the wood with a little Kubota tractor. Felling was hard work but I got the hang of it and we managed to thin out about a quarter of a hectare. I was using a Husqvarna 141 with a 15″ bar and on the last day when I was about to put it back on the shelf Brian said I could keep it. I have used the saw a fair bit since then, both in the woods and working with Dean. We stacked the brash in neat piles and one of my jobs for the winter is to burn a lot of it. During the heatwave a fire was deliberately started next to the right of way and it was lucky someone spotted it and put it out – so leaving big piles of dry brash around is probably not a good idea.

Taking a Break

Taking a Break

At the beginning of October we went to the woods with a load of English bluebell bulbs to plant. My mother chose a slight hollow near the picnic table and I cleared away the young sycamores to allow more light in. Once the bulbs were planted I surrounded the patch with old chicken wire to avoid disturbance (I read somewhere that badgers eat bluebell bulbs but it may be a myth). By then the light was starting to fade and I realised that the chicken wire was almost invisible, so I surrounded that with some brash to stop people or animals running into it. When I went back a few days later I was surprised to see a small camouflage tent set up near the picnic table. There was nobody there and I left the tent alone but picked up the beer bottles that were scattered around. The tent was still there last time I visited but I couldn’t see any signs that anyone had been back. I haven’t decided what to do about it yet.

Mystery Tent

Mystery Tent

Meanwhile, in Hatfield there has been an attempt to breathe new life into a Friends of Hatfield Woods volunteer group. The Countryside Management Service (CMS) are involved now, and I joined a group of volunteers in Oxleys Wood on Tuesday October 29th, the day after a storm which brought down a lot of trees in the area. We built a fire in a clearing and burned a load of brash that had previously been left by council contractors. I also went and fetched my winch to pull down a big ash limb which had snapped in the storm and ended up balanced precariously against the trunk. Through the CMS I learned of a free woodland management training workshop which is being delivered by Good Woods at Marston Vale Forest Centre in Bedfordshire on November 23rd. When I signed up I mentioned that I have my own piece of woodland and was informed that Good Woods is also providing free woodland management support to 200 woodlands across the South East and East of England. It turns out I am eligible and will in fact be looking round the wood with an advisor in the morning.

Ware Park Wood seemed to weather the storm OK. There were quite a few broken branches but the only tree that came down was a large sycamore which snapped off about five metres from the ground. The crown came down mainly in the neighbouring wood and I could see that the trunk was quite hollow and rotten where it snapped. Luckily nothing came down on the road or right of way.

Snapped Sycamore

Snapped Sycamore

I still haven’t spent a night at the woods but have been thinking I might invite a few friends to camp out for the Winter Solstice. The exact moment will be 17:11 GMT on Saturday December 21st but the celebration at Stonehenge will take place at sunrise on December 21st so we would camp on Friday night and be up for sunrise. OK, that is about as much detail as I have time for and I think I have covered most of the significant stuff – I will try to post more regularly in future.

Progress at Last

It is exactly six months since my last blog entry and for most of that time not much has been happening. I described how my application to the Council for approval to go ahead with creating a vehicle access track was refused on the grounds that “Insufficient information has been submitted to show that the proposed access would be used with ongoing forestry works at the site”. I knew I would have to deal with the issue at some point but I felt defeated and couldn’t summon the necessary enthusiasm, so I busied myself with other things and neglected the wood for most of the summer (though I did go over with a brush cutter a couple of times to cut back the verge). At the beginning of July I went for a walk and spotted the missing picnic table, which had been moved about fifty metres to the corner of the wood and thrown down a steep bank. Fortunately it was undamaged so I retrieved it and put it back in its proper place. To stop it going missing again I nailed the legs to four posts driven into the ground, which clearly worked because it was still there as of last week.

Back to the planning issue. I didn’t want to pay to apply again – as a matter of principle more than anything. The only other option seemed to be to appeal to the Secretary of State which I would have to do within six months of the refusal, in other words by December 8th. In either case it seemed I would need to be prepared to demonstrate that I really intended to do forestry work on the site and that would mean producing some sort of management plan. It was not until late September that I phoned the Forestry Commission and got in touch with the local Woodland Officer Emma Brearley who arranged to meet me at the wood in early October to discuss management options. Her main recommendation was to do some long overdue thinning and she suggested I remove about a third of the trees, including all of the sycamore. When she got back to her office she sent me an application for the necessary felling license. During the second week of November I selected and marked trees to be felled, keeping a tally broken down by species and trunk diameter from which I was able to estimate timber volume.

Trees to be Felled

I  wrote a basic management plan and on November 15th delivered it with a letter to East Herts Council asking them to reconsider my application. I told them I wasn’t happy with the pre-application advice I had received and that if the issue wasn’t resolved to my satisfaction I had been advised to appeal to the Secretary of State. On the same day I posted my felling license application.

On November 29th I got a letter from Michael Chalk in which he said that he was not able to reopen the application as it had already been determined but that I could resubmit it within twelve months of the date of the decision, that no fee would be charged, and that the management plan provided sufficient information to show that forestry is intended at the site, though he also said that my application would be helped if I could provide correspondence from the other bodies referred to in the management plan (RPA, Forestry Commission etc). So it was back to the Planning Portal where I discovered I could just go to “My Applications” and copy the application, which retains all the details and supporting documents but allows it to be resubmitted under a new reference number. I made a few changes on the form and added four additional supporting documents – my management plan, the felling licence (which I had just received), my Rural Land Register Map (which I had received way back in May), and an email from the Woodland Officer saying that I would need an access track for extracting timber cut under the felling license. I submitted the new application on December 6th and the following day I got an email saying it had been transferred to East Herts Council. On December 10th I got a phone call from the fees department at East Herts to tell me that the application could not proceed until I had paid the fee! Well of course I told the woman that I had it in writing from the planning officer that no fee would be charged and she agreed to talk to him and get back to me. The following day I got a call from someone higher up saying that they had made a mistake in telling me that there would be no fee but I dug my heels in and he agreed to process the application without me having to pay. On December 15th I got an official letter saying that if the application had not been decided by January 3rd I could go ahead but I hoped I wouldn’t be kept in suspense over Christmas and on December 21st I received a decision – “PRIOR APPROVAL IS NOT REQUIRED”. I believe that means I can go ahead! It has been an edifying if frustrating experience and of course I would do things differently in future, but I still think the pre-planning advice I got was poor value for money.

Planning Woes

I mentioned in a previous entry that I was planning to create a vehicle entrance into the wood to facilitate management operations. I read Forest Research Information Note ODW 7.03 “Access Track Construction in Small Woodlands” where it explained that forest roads and tracks are governed under “Permitted Developments” (PD) in the Town and Country Planning Act 1995, but I was advised by East Herts Council to seek pre-application advice. I obtained a copy of the application form and read the guidance notes. A request for confirmation that proposed works comprise PD was subject to a charge of £50 including VAT, so I wrote a check and sent it off on April 17th with the application form and plans. On May 4th I got a reply from Michael Chalk (planning officer, west team, development control). He confirmed that no application for planning permission would be required but that in accordance with paragraph A.2(1) of the act I would need to submit a formal application to the Council to allow them to determine whether prior approval would be required. He enclosed an application form and guidance on submitting the application, for which there would be a fee of £70.

Rather than fill in the paper form I decided to submit my application using the Planning Portal, which is “the UK Government’s online planning and building regulations resource for England and Wales”. My arborist friend told me that he uses the Planning Portal for all his applications for consent to carry out tree work, with the advantage that they are all then available online in one place. So first I had to create an account on the Planning Portal which was straightforward. Then I clicked on “Start an Application” and followed the instructions. The application itself was simple but I had to submit supporting documentation consisting of at least a “location plan” and a “block plan”. At this point I started to get the feeling I was falling down a rabbit hole!

In the United States the USGS does what the Ordnance Survey does here in the UK. The difference is that USGS mapping data is made available to the public free of charge whereas OS data is guarded like the Crown Jewels and licensed commercially, which means that anything in the UK involving mapping is an expensive minefield. The Planning Portal has strict requirements for any maps or plans submitted, effectively forcing people to buy from one of the Planning Portal’s accredited suppliers. I chose Streetwise Maps, created and account, and then clicked on “Planning Maps”. The good thing about the Streetwise website is that you can mark up maps with required features like the site boundary, and since it is an accredited supplier the maps will have necessary features like a scale and an arrow pointing north. So at a cost of another £42 I created and downloaded the two required maps.

Now with the required supporting documents I was able to submit my application on the Planning Portal. I did so on May 17th and it was transferred to East Herts Council, to whom I paid the £70 fee online by giving the Planning Portal reference number as the payment reference. An email from the Planning Portal said that if East Herts Council needed any more information they would contact me directly. On May 23rd East Herts Council sent me a letter acknowledging receipt of my application and saying that if it had not been decided by June 13th I would be permitted to proceed.

On June 8th Michael Chalk made a decision that prior approval was required and that it was refused on the grounds that “Insufficient information has been submitted to show that the proposed access would be used with ongoing forestry works at the site”. This was an unexpected blow – what sort of information did he want, and why had he not contacted me earlier to ask for it before making his decision? I was starting to understand why so many people are driven to despair by the experience of dealing with the planning system and felt I had been taken for a sucker, parted with £162 and left with nothing to show for it.

I phoned Michael Chalk and asked what sort of information he was expecting. Apparently I should have submitted a detailed management plan which included timescales, volume of timber to be extracted etc. I intended to develop a five year management plan anyway but it probably won’t be ready till next year and although I won’t be doing any major thinning before then there is stuff I want to be getting on with (including maintenance of the restricted byway) for which I need to take tools into the wood. At the moment I have to park down by the river and walk up the road which is why I wanted to get a vehicle entrance sorted out sooner rather than later but now it seems I will have to apply again next year and pay another fee. In the meantime, since the fence is about six feet from the road there is room to pull a car off if I clear a bit of the verge, and there is nothing to stop me cutting the fence and putting in a pedestrian gate. If I had known what I know now then I would have already done that and not bothered contacting the Council at all. At least I have learned something!

The Disappearing Picnic Table

On March 19th I took a picnic table to the woods and carried it in to a location we had previously decided upon, out of sight of the road and the right of way. We used it a few times and it was still there on April 27th. On May 12th we went to do some work and the table was gone. My mother couldn’t believe that someone would have gone to the trouble of stealing it but unless the badgers have carried it off to their underground banqueting hall that is what must have happened. When I originally got the table a couple of years ago its legs had been sawn off, so it is fairly distinctive in that it has new legs which are a lighter colour than the rest of the table. When I installed it I did think about chaining it to something or bolting it down but it seemed like a lot of effort and it wouldn’t have stopped a determined thief so I didn’t bother. Here is a photo of the table taken when I first installed it.

Picnic Table

Spring Update

I was hoping to write more frequently so this post is really just a summary of the main things I have been doing since we took ownership of the wood in December. One of my first priorities was to make sure there were no public safety issues so I contacted UPM Tilhill and asked them to do a tree safety survey. On January 4th Stephen Taylor made a site visit where he inspected the trees adjacent to the road, the disused mill stream which defines the southwest boundary and Restricted Byway 98 where it passes through the wood. The inspection cost £500 plus VAT and I received a comprehensive report. The only significant problem was with a mature lime tree next to the road with serious basal decay for which Stephen recommended felling within three months to prevent collapse onto the road. It was actually three months before I received an invoice for the survey – apparently the delay was due to having to wait for head office in Finland to set up my customer account. Once my account was set up Tilhill were also able to provide me with Growing Timber Insurance including public liability insurance for only $100 plus Insurance Premium Tax (I thought that was for a year but for some reason the period of insurance is only seven months).

So I had to get a large lime tree felled and since it was covered by the 1981 area TPO I had to apply to East Herts District Council for consent, which was granted within a week. I had done some work fitting out a van for an arborist friend and he agreed to fell the tree for me in exchange, which we scheduled for March 3rd. Apparently the lime is our tallest native tree and this was a fairly large example. We decided not to take it down to ground level but to leave it as a sort of “monolith”. Even so, with Dean up the tree and three people on the ground we didn’t have time to finish the job. Enough weight has come off to make it safe for now but we will go back to take it down to somewhere a bit below the main fork.

I mentioned Restricted Byway 98 which enters the wood off the road at the north end of the bridge across the mill stream. It then runs in a fairly straight line up the hill for about 140 m before crossing our boundary into another plot of woodland. This byway divides the wood into two separate areas, each of which was surrounded by a chicken wire fence that was presumably erected in the early eighties to try to keep rabbits off the newly planted trees. The area north of the byway (the north lot) forms a triangle adjacent to the road and is about 1 ha, while the south lot is more rectangular and about double the area. Much of the fencing had fallen into disrepair and was clearly not keeping rabbits out so I decided to remove the lengths on either side of the byway. I also put in a couple of new 6 inch square oak posts at the top end, so for people walking through it is starting to look better already. The byway is used a lot by walkers and fairly regularly by cyclists. I have seen hoof prints a couple of times but although horse drawn carriages are permitted on restricted byways the entrance off the road is only about 120 cm wide. So why is it a restricted byway? Well before that it was apparently classified as a Road Used as a Public Path and as I understand it RUPPs were automatically converted to restricted byways relatively recently. So why was it a RUPP? On the 1923 Ordnance Survey map it is shown as a footpath and someone did apparently query the status back in 1999. I think it should probably be re-classified as a bridleway so it could still be used by walkers, cyclists and horse riders, but not by horse drawn carriages which can’t use it anyway due to the narrow entrance. I may peruse this with Rights of Way but realistically that could take years.

I expect the Forestry Commission will advise me to carry out fairly extensive thinning and for that I will really need to be able to get a vehicle into the wood. We own up to the edge of the road and have the right to use it for access so we just need to make a gap in the fence leading to an area of hardstanding and erect a gate. Since it is not a public road this should not pose a problem – hopefully! I believe it will come under “permitted development” but I have been advised to inform the council of my plans.

The other thing I am looking at is getting the land registered on the Rural Land Register which is run by the Rural Payments Agency. This is a prerequisite for making grant applications under the English Woodland Grant Scheme (a useful one at the moment would be the Woodland Planning Grant but it is only available for woodlands over 3 ha and ours is just on the limit). I have started the process by registering myself with the RPA to get a Single Business Identifier (SBI) and have got as far as getting a County Parish Holding number (CPH). I now have to fill in form RLE 1 and send it back with a map showing the boundaries to get the land mapped on their database.

We have been taking various friends and relatives to look round and it is great seeing everything come to life. There were a few clumps of snowdrops and daffodils mainly near the road, but surprisingly few brambles for an unmanaged wood. On the other hand there are some fairly large areas of bracken, which is just starting to come up. There are also a lot of nettles in some areas – not nice for walking through but good for wildlife (and soup apparently). I first saw the wood in July so I haven’t seen it at this time of year before. Some of the large cherry trees are in blossom and I am looking to seeing how things change over the next few months.

Clinching the Deal

On August 5th I emailed John Clegg with an offer of £55k subject to contract for Ware Park Wood; 10% more than the guide price. I had already been in contact with Read Cooper Solicitors who specialise in forestry conveyancing and they had agreed to act for me. Over the next few weeks I contacted John Clegg several times. For a while mine was the only offer and a bit later it was referred to as the highest current offer but then someone apparently bid £57k and on August 25th I got an email from John Clegg saying they had received instructions from the vendor to invite all interested parties to submit their best offer by mid-day on Friday September 2nd. Obviously I didn’t want to pay more than neccessary but I had no idea how high the other interested parties were willing to go. On the other hand Ware Park Wood was the most suitable place I had found and I didn’t want to start looking again so I needed to be reasonably sure of getting it. After much deliberation I emailed John Clegg on the morning of September 2nd with an offer of £62,520 subject to contract and on September 5th I got an email back saying that my offer had been accepted!

On September 15th I travelled to Thame in Oxfordshire to visit the offices of Read Cooper. I took my passport and other ID for the required identity check and had a good discussion with Peter Read. I told him that I wanted to buy the property jointly with my mother and he said that would not be a problem but we would have to decide whether we wanted to be joint tennants or tennants in common (we chose the former). Peter explained the costs involved and as well as the local search he recommended getting a chancel search and a desktop environmental search. Before leaving I wrote him a check for £600 as payment on account.

The first search to come back was the chancel search, which cost £21.22 + VAT. This revealed only that the property is located in a parish which could charge for repairs to the chancel and I was given three options; do nothing, take out indemnity insurance or carry out further investigation. If you are interested you should take a look at www.chancel.org.uk but to cut a long story short I decided to take out indemnity insurance that Peter said he could arrange for a one off payment of £245 (which would also cover any future owners if we decided to sell the property).

Next I received the results of the desktop environmental search, which cost £149 + VAT. This came in the form of a very comprehensive report by GroundSure that did not reveal any major issues, though it did give the size of the site as only 2.91 ha as opposed to the 3.03 ha claimed on John Clegg’s brochure.

On October 14th Peter Read sent me the results of the local search, which cost £203. This covered all sorts of stuff but there were no major surprises. It did reveal that the property was affected by a 1981 East Herts District Council Tree Preservation Order and he asked the sellers solicitors to provide a copy. For some reason this took a while but on November 4th Peter sent me a copy of the TPO. I was expecting it to list a few specific trees and was surprised to discover that it is actually a blanket order covering a large part of Ware Park, including the vast majority of the land I was buying. This seemed like it might be a serious problem but there appeared to be a get-out clause which stated that the order would not apply to work carried out in accordance with a plan of operations approved by the Forestry Comission. Still, I wanted to seek advice on the matter so I made some phone calls. First I spoke to Malcolm Amey, the East Herts District Council Arboricultural Officer, who said that blanket TPOs are not generally used now and that the existing one (which he referred to as TPO 216) was not intended to stand in the way of good woodland management practices. He also said that it only applies to trees that were growing at the time the order was made, which means trees less than 30 years old (such as the numerous young sycamores) are not covered. Next I spoke to Alastair Stirling, one of the woodland officers from the Forestry Commission East of England regional team. He had some helpful advice and again said that the TPO should not be used to prevent good management. Finally I spoke to Crispin Golding of UPM Tilhill who echoed Alastair’s advice and convinced me to proceed regardless of the order.

So finally everything seemed good to go. My mother and I signed the contract and the transfer deed and posted them off to Read Cooper. It took a few weeks for the vendor’s solicitor to gather signatures on the transfer deed because there were three registered owners on the title and they didn’t all live at the same address, but on November 29th I finally got an email from Read Cooper saying that we were ready to proceed. The following day I went to my bank to transfer the amount required for completion and on December 1st 2011, four and a half months after first going to view it, I got an email confirming that my mother and I were the new owners of Ware Park Wood!