After decades of living in towns and cities, with gardens the size of a pocket handkerchief, I found myself, in the early 1990s, deep in the Herefordshire countryside, the owner of several acres of woodland and meadows, an orchard and a large garden. This was both a huge responsibility and the beginning of a great adventure. In addition, I was living in a house built in the 1850s with a well for my water supply and a Victorian septic tank for drainage. I needed advice about every aspect of this new life and I set about getting it.
I learned that wet woodland must be managed and that I needed to apply for a grant to coppice the alder trees, which were growing ever taller and thinner, in their search for the light. I also needed to create clearances in the wood to let in light for the rare globe flowers that grew here, but nowhere else in the county. I found out that my romantic ideas about leaving fields alone does not, in fact, help the spread of charming wild flowers, but merely encourages brambles, nettles and thistles. I also discovered the amount of work involved in re-laying and regularly maintaining the hedges and keeping the ditches clear.
After asking many people for advice, I got to work: a five year programme of coppicing in the woodland was embarked upon to provide firewood and to save the globe flower, but extracting the cords of freshly cut wood, piled so neatly beside the path, was impossible due to the soft ground, so they were left to be colonised by the woodland creatures; the insects, mosses and brightly-coloured fungus.
From the earliest days, I was in contact with wildlife and conservation groups who pointed me towards useful sources of information and there was even a visit from English Nature (now Natural England) the day I moved in. I was up to my elbows unpacking tea chests while, at the same time, having to reassure my visitor that I would keep the wet woodland as a wildlife sanctuary. Not long afterwards I had another visit, from someone wanting my permission to shoot on this land. He represented the other side of country life and to his great disappointment, I told him “I’m sorry, but I don’t believe in any kind of blood sports”. A serious black mark against my name, no doubt!
From a starting point of total ignorance, I have learned little by little how to look after this beautiful place. I try to live my life in tune with the rhythms of the seasons and the woodland and fields have proved to be a wildlife sanctuary in reality. Small mammals such as mice, voles, rabbits, hares, hedgehogs, moles and foxes – though rarely seen – enjoy protected lives in the fields and hedgerows, while the woodland is rich in birdlife. My first Christmas Day was made especially memorable by seeing a kingfisher flitting the length of a shallow stream with a flash of colour that took away my breath. On another occasion, I was able to watch a family of barn owls who had made their home in a broken-down tree, where the fluffy heads of the baby owls were clearly visible inside the tree trunk. The woodland is also home to buzzards, woodpeckers, tree creepers, nut hatches, tawny owls and many woodland birds – the most thrilling for me – a glorious firecrest.
Many of the woodland birds visit the bird feeder in my garden and of course the garage is a swallow sanctuary during the summer months. The care of these acres of woodland and meadow no longer seems as onerous, thanks to help from family, friends and neighbours. My water supply now comes from Welsh Water and the old well has been capped for safety reasons. The solidly constructed brick-lined Victorian septic tank continues to serve its purpose – being emptied once a year into the most gigantic tanker lorry which blocks out the daylight from the downstairs windows! Looking back I can now recognise how much has happened and how much I’ve learned and experienced since the day when I sat in the kitchen unpacking mugs, to offer tea to the removal men, while chatting to the anxious man from English Nature.