I feel a bit like I am about to sit an exam. There are two diggers and a dumper truck in the field beneath the wood, and two chainsaw wielding characters have parked up just inside our boundary; they drove in through a gaping wall-gap that has been there for nearly a year now, patched with sheep fencing. The cause of my agitation is not that these people are trespassing – it was us who asked them here; my nerves are because of what is about to happen.
When we first bought the wood, the land came with a right of access and the permission to build a track from the pubic road, across the agricultural land that is not ours, then on up to and through the wood. From the start, there had always been the idea that a track would be a helpful thing to have; anyone who had walked to the wood wearing a compost bin like a dalek, or carrying three breeze-blocks in a back pack to lift a shed off the ground, or carrying the actual shed for that matter, would acknowledge the sense in a track. In terms of managing the wood itself, a track is definitely desirable. But I did have reservations – quite strong ones. I was worried a track would spoil the wood, irrevocably change its character, ruin my sanctuary, upset the wildlife. And there were the trees themselves. Chopping down a single one felt like sacrilege.
We held the idea on the back burner for a couple of years, then very early last year, with the prospect of woodland management grant support, we decided to put in the track. Because the wood is an SSSI*, the track needed to be to a particular specification, and we had to go through planning, but I wasn’t really anxious about that as I was still ambivalent to the idea. Nevertheless, the grant and planning went surprisingly smoothly, and we contracted the person recommended by the agricultural landowner (one of his relatives) to do the work; it seemed the right thing to do. What a mistake.
A year into the job, we had a hole in our boundary wall, missing gates from the agriculture field entrance, a half built track to our boundary, and the field was full of spoil heaps, mostly grassed over they had been there so long. We’d had more broken promises than I could remember from the contractor, a long list of excuses, some of which we could prove weren’t true, and worse, we had an understandably annoyed neighbour and a bad reputation with locals as the word had got about that the lack of progress was due to our inability to pay the bills. It was a hideous mess both on the ground and in our relationships with the people involved. Just to add to the pressure, we were running out of time on claiming the grant. It looked like we would have to abandon everything and find the funds to cover sorting out the damage already done. We couldn’t even find another local contractor to take over the job as they were unwilling to step on our contractors toes (despite his toes being nowhere near the job in the last six months). Suddenly, I didn’t feel as happy as I had coming to the wood. I felt a burden rather than pleasure each time I arrived. Looking at the scars in the ground left by the digger made me feel uneasy. It seemed as though half formed possibilities and sketchy dreams would have to remain just that.
Then at the beginning of 2020, the last deadline our contractor had promised to adhere to passed. We decided to have one last go at finding someone from out-of-area to do the job and it transpired that during this time, it was becoming common knowledge that we were not the only people who had been left in difficult positions by our contractor. There was a definite shift in people’s perception of us, so much so, we had people who were unwilling before now offering to complete the work.
So here I am, after dragging everyone out of bed before 7AM, standing with Mark and our four children, at the top of the banking, yelling from way more than the necessary social distance, about digger keys. I am truly nervous. Having felt glad about finding contractors who have a good reputation regarding SSSI* work, all the old worries are now crowding back. Should we be doing this? Are we about to destroy our haven?
I take Amos, Peta and Melody out of the way of the diggers and we go to camp to get breakfast. We begin to hear chainsaws, but somehow, it doesn’t bother me. I feel decadent as I sit in the soft morning sun, drinking coffee and eating croissants. I try to savour the moment, but I am so hungry that I wolf down the buttery crisp pastry oozing with apricot jam. I hold my coffee cup close. The little ones have already finished eating and are bouncing on the trampoline; Peta has gone to take supplies to Mark and Joe (Joe will never leave a digger if he can help it). The early light makes rays in the smoke drifting lazily from the fire. The wood still smells of dawn, wonderfully fresh. I watch the birds at the feeder; blue tits, great tits, coal tits and marsh tits, all queuing for a slot. It looks like the blue tits maybe trying for a second brood. And as I watch, so I am being watched; there is a greater spotted woodpecker high above, resplendent in his black, white and red.
Around 10AM the chainsaws are temporarily silent. I go to see what is happening and am so excited by the progress. I walk the cleared route of the track. Instead of devastation, I find a woodland ride already being used by butterflies. Sun is reaching the floor, revealing a place of beauty, of new discovery. I find it hard to place this new habitat within the old; it is transformed. I really was not expecting to feel like this, but suddenly the wood is open to new views, whole new possibilities. The anxiety of months begins to ebb away. The wood is beginning on a new chapter; maybe we can too.
* Site of Special Scientific Interest
Note: Before starting work the route was checked (rechecked and re-rechecked!) to make sure we were minimally impacting on the site and its wildlife).