March Madness… and April Flowers

Well, as can usually be expected, a hectic March got the better of me and this is therefore my first update in a couple of months! A lot has happened since there was snow on the ground in February so this will be a particularly long post…

Snowdrops in Great Howe wood

The snow we had in February melted away to reveal the first of the years flowers poking their heads out of the woodland floor. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are always a welcome sight for those who long for spring as, even though they emerge early in the year, they are the forerunners of a whole host of flowers, which will fill the woods when the sun finally begins to shine. Despite this, they have long had negative associations in folklore. Superstition warned against bringing snowdrops into the house as they were seen as bringers of bad fortune which some claimed would even turn eggs bad in their shells. Now, picking wild snowdrops is forbidden by law and they are protected along with all other wild flowers. However, they are a relatively recent visitor to our shores, possibly brought to Britain as a garden flower by green-fingered travelling monks in the 16th Century. In modern times, Snowdrops are still cultivated for garden flowers but also for the harvesting of galantamine, a substance used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.


The snowdrops above were photographed in Great Howe wood, a woodland near Finchingfield, North Essex where I began work this winter. Great Howe is a mixed woodland which has been out of rotation (not cut or managed) for many years. Therefore unlike Hales Wood, the coups do not demonstrate a clear structure of coppiced underwood with large standard trees above. Instead the wood is a mixture of species with oversized standards shading out overgrown coppice stools. The hazel has not been cut for many decades and as such, stools that were once a mass of straight slim rods have mostly died back leaving a few large stems which have grown thicker and thicker and begun to pull themselves apart in their search for light.

Overgrown hazel at Great Howe wood

Obviously, these stems, sometimes 6 or 8 inches in diameter are no longer suitable for most traditional craft work. Instead the thickest material will be used as firewood or charcoal wood and the tops; mostly erratic and windy due to a lack of light will be used for making more faggots. The only other product gleaned from overgrown hazel like this are the sunshoots; long, thin and often very straight stems that old and stressed hazel sends shooting up for the sunlight. These are an emergency measure by the plant, quickly abandoned if they do not succeed. Therefore many of them are dead and useless. The ones that aren’t are quick-grown, often near-perfect rods, ideal for many craft uses such as weaving and binding hedges.

I was helped in the felling at Great Howe wood by my friends Huw and Graham who I am extremely grateful to. Hopefully they enjoyed the time we spent in the woods and were glad to play a part in restoring an unmanaged woodland to it’s former glory.

Huw and Graham casting their expert eyes over Graham's rather cantankerous old chainsaw


I had further company in March in the form of Pete, an old friend who has recently started his own blog which displays his rather excellent woodcarving skills:

Pete and I continued with the processing of the hazel in Hales Wood, making up faggots and putting aside other products as the first warm weather of the year began to stir the woods. We also spent some time in Great Howe, working through some of the thicker hazel and sawing it into firewood lengths with a chainsaw bench.

Small-scale equipment for processing small-diameter logs


In early March, Natural England supplied Hales wood with a wildlife camera which takes pictures using a sensor. Paul set it up in a variety of places in the wood using different settings; it managed to capture several pictures of deer, foxes and mice and, when placed on a well used badger path, managed to snap this delightful shot:

A Badger on a nocturnal perambulation through hazel coppice***

The warm, dry weather continued throughout March and I spent the final week at a Sustainable Woodland Management course as part of my apprenticeship. It was held  at the Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) in Wales and led by Grace Crabb and Bob Shaw. The course was really great, covering a huge variety of management techniques and ideas as well as introducing a number of crafts and products. To top it off the weather was again unseasonably warm, leading to a hosepipe ban in Essex but giving the Welsh countryside a welcome break from rain.

Bob Shaw beside a large Douglas Fir, felled decades ago


My return to Essex coincided with the return of the rain, and in the past fortnight the woods have responded to this moisture with verdant growth. The whole woodland is starting to leaf up and a whole host of ground flora is now making an appearance in the recently cut areas of coppice.

Wood Anemone, Dog Violet

The picture above shows two of the flowers currently on display in Hales Wood. On the left is the wood anemone (Anemone nemorosa) . This is an early spring flower which can spread to cover large areas of woodland, although in Hales, the presence of so many other flowers seems to keep it confined to smaller patches. It has a rather attractive trait of opening up in the daylight and closing up in the evening or when rain threatens (as seen above). The other flower is a Common Dog-violet (Viola riviniana) so called to differentiate it from the more aromatic “sweet” violet. This flower is of real value to butterflies being both an early source of nectar and providing food for caterpillars once the flowers have faded.

OxlipApril has also seen the arrival of the oxlips (Primula elatior) in Hales wood. Oxlips are a species of flower common in parts of Europe and Scandinavia but in Britain they are confined almost entirely to ancient woodlands in East Anglia. They are rather abundant in Hales wood, especially within the nature reserve fence where they can escape the mouths of deer who are particularly partial to the flowers.

Finally I thought I would include a picture of an early purple orchid, the same species I showed in my last post as a scraggly collection of leaves poking out of the soil. Now the most advanced specimen is a towering plant, six inches high with an exquisite flower at its top. Evidence of the changes that have occurred over the last two months and proof that spring has well and truly arrived in the woods.

Early Purple Orchid


One-year old Hazel Coppice in Spring***