Working the woods

We follow the tractor and its fishtailing trailer along the track, making our way slowly towards where the woodsmen have been working for the last two months. The sun rose red over Bradfield Woods a few hours ago, but in amongst the coppices the night’s cold still lingers. Puddles splinter and crack underfoot and the piles of felled timber are sugared with frost. Freshly cut ash glows cream against boot-churned mud.

For now, the chainsaws are silent. The group works in hard, quick bursts to sort and stack wood that has already been cut. The guys make it look easy, flicking three metre logs over their shoulders or using timber tongs to drag the wood to the right pile. Best ash goes here; there best hazel; that one to firewood. Stacked knee-deep and several metres wide, efficiency is a watchword.

Giles smiles at me huffing and puffing as I try to re-position a piece of ash, attempting to keep the pile neat for the crane that will later collect it.
“The secret is not to touch anything twice, you’ll knacker yourself out,” he says.  Pete, who has worked in this wood for 36 years, before it was even a Suffolk Wildlife Trust reserve, shouts out his mantra from another wood stack a few metres away.
“Take your time and hurry up.”

The team chant it back at him, grinning. There is a lot of laughter here. Shared anecdotes, jokes, gentle ribbing and even impressions; Neil sending a passable tawny owl call wobbling into the coppices. But there’s always an ear to the wood, a sensitivity for its song. At one point Pete breaks off mid sentence and holds up his hand. We listen. It’s the ascending treep, treep, treep of a nuthatch.

We stack hazel tops into brush hedges, driving the ends into the mud: creating budded pikes to stop deer leaping into this clearing – the “coop” or “cant” – and browsing on the freshly coppiced stools. It would, Pete explains, be a nibble to the death.

During a tea break we talk about the history of Bradfield. There has been wood here since the Ice Age and the mix of species includes small-leaved lime and crab apple, reflecting the trees and shrubs in the wildwood from which it evolved. But this is a cultural space too. According to the records from Bury St Edmunds Abbey, coppicing was taking place in Bradfield from 1252. The late, great Oliver Rackham, who helped save this wood from being grubbed up during the 1970s and studied it in depth, was certain some of the ash stools were even older, possibly dating back 1,000 years; their footprint sprawling for metres in the understorey, furred in moss and memory. They are the oldest living things in Suffolk, deeply rooted in human history.  A cathedral of trees, in whose cloistered rides it is possible to feel a connection with all those who worked here centuries before, using the same techniques and similar tools. Probably telling the same jokes.

Giles lies with his back to an alder, his eyes half closed against the winter sun, his tea steaming by his side. I ask him if it is being part of this story – feeling this unbroken tradition of at least 800 years – that makes working in Bradfield Woods so special.
“Absolutely. It’s an honour. I think you need to feel that passion, to have that connection to work here. To feel it in your blood.”

The nuthatch calls again, signalling the end of our break. We pull ourselves up and head back out to the coop. I watch Pete, Giles and Neil pick up their saws, ready to take their place in history.

This was a wildlife diary written for the Suffolk Magazine.

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