Is it so hard to plant a tree? You just dig a hole, drop the tree in and back fill the hole with a little stomping to firm it in. Simple! If only it was. When that tree is planted within a historic site, the hole has to be archaeologically surveyed and has to be a certain aperture and depth (0.5m x 0.5m x 0.5m) to obtain the correct survey sample of the area. So to plant 160 trees the job begins to be a little more daunting. That was the task presented to the Forestry team in mid October. What could possibly go wrong?
To start with, Paul decided to sever the thumb tendon in his left hand (small pause for spinal shivering) whilst chopping kindling. This resulted in an eight week absence from work. Tendons are notoriously difficult to heal and so he was well advised to observe the recommended rest period. Nice scar though!
What else, well Simon was due to take his annual leave and other accumulated days off before year’s end, or lose it. To help Simon take some leave, the volunteers re-arranged their days, the Tuesday team joined the Monday gang and the Thursday team came in on Friday. Wednesday continued as normal. This allowed Simon to take some days leave each week. Not ideal, but at least the poor boy got some respite from the constant demands of an estate that needs daily care and volunteers who need direction and a steady material supply. As a further boost, we had CNTV (Cambridge National Trust Volunteers) come in on a couple of weekends. This fine group brings many hands and certainly make light work of tedious tasks.
Any other disasters possible, why yes, the great British weather decided to play its part and rain by the bucket load arrived as we prepared to dig. Plus, did I mention that our transport Landrover was decommissioned, mmmm. So that meant that the teams had to walk to and from the digging sites. That also meant a long hike for any comfort breaks that were needed. I know, tough hombres can pee behind, or even in front of, a hedge, but we do have ladies in the team and they so enjoy the privilege of a seat.
The first deadline was to complete the digging phase before the middle of November as the professional archaeological survey team had already been booked. No pressure then. Without transport, the long trek to each dig site meant that we grew mud soles to our shoes, 1” thick or more. As we dug, the muddy clay stuck to everything, the spades, our boots and, as we had to grovel down to clear the bottom of the holes, our clothing. Just standing upright was a challenge; it was like working on ice. Any fragment of pottery found during the dig had to placed on top of the spoil heap for investigation by the archaeological team later. The top layer of turf was removed from a measured 0.5 x 0.5 area and placed to one side. Then the subsoil removed and placed adjacent to the hole so that it could be returned with minimal effort. The first six inches or so was indeed soil but the sub soil was thick gault. To you and me it was clay, heavy cloying clay.
One hundred and sixty holes, each had to have square corners, parallel sides, and a flat bottom. As we dug, the rain began to fill the holes and the ground water seeped in. Wet and sticky is an understatement. The work was messy and every step added another layer of clay to the bottom of your boot. It was almost impossible to walk once the mud reached a certain thickness and just as you felt the need to remove the extra sole, its own weight meant that it fell off and the cycle began over again. However being in a bigger team meant the task seemed to progress quicker and also had the effect of inducing a competitive edge as each volunteer was keen to dig their hole quicker than the next.
Eventually the digging was completed in time for the archaeologists to move in. Their task was just as difficult as ours, in certain selected sites they had to dig one metre cube holes for a more specific analysis. We watched them sympathetically as they carried out their work. When they studied at university, did they have Howard Carter and the hot dry desert sands of Egypt in mind, who knows, but here they certainly couldn’t be further from that.
For us, the next phase was the deployment of the tree guards. Semi circular wrought iron units that, once assembled, protect the newly planted trees from both wildlife and farm stock. Along with the two halves of the guard, the anchor points, four 0.75m U posts, were placed at each hole. Heavy steel work that, in the December weather, felt icily cold when being carried over boggy fields. In the parkland, the visitors had to be protected from the open excavations during the work and so the guards were laid across each hole. We now awaited the archaeologists to finish their work and oh yes, the delivery of the bare root trees.
The arrival of the trees brought us to panic stations as their roots were vulnerable to frost and so it was all hands to the pumps, metaphorically and literally, as the holes were by now completely full of water.
Each hole was allotted a selected variety of tree according to the estate plan. The hole dug for archaeology was too deep for most of the trees as its stem had to sit in the ground at the same level it had originally been at. After baling out the water, the lower clays were replaced and tree offered in for minor height adjustment and occasionally additional side digging if its roots were long. Before back filling, the ‘sprinkles’ were added, a measured amount of spores to establish the natural growth symbiosis of the root. Then the hole was filled with the remaining spoil and the turf top replaced. When digging in the parkland, the debris must be returned with minimal visual impact. Filling a hole sounds easier than digging it, but of course the spoil heap was now a waterlogged sloppy mess and had to be clawed back in. We tried every combination of tool, spade, even hands, but all seemed to end up be-smirched in the cloying mixture. Some people pay to be covered in mud so we couldn’t complain.
Once planted, a plastic vole guard was placed around the lower trunk of the newly planted tree. Voles may be small but they wreak havoc with young tree trunks. If that wasn’t enough, the rabbits would nibble the trunk just above the vole guard and deer would also feel they too had to contribute to the feeding frenzy. If allowed, these animals would strip away any tender bark left exposed. The farm animals had been removed from the planting areas but pressure at this time of year was intense to finish the job and allow access for stock grazing at a time when grass was growing slowly. A large herbivore would find a young sapling just an “amuse bouche” before its main course of grass and would finish off using the destroyed sapling as a scratching post. Before allowing farm stock back in to graze, the guards had to be erected.
The four anchor U posts had to be driven in around the newly planted tree in precise locations to match up with the tangs on the steel guards. A jig had been constructed to locate the bars, so all we had to do was drive them into the ground, all 0.75 metres of them. You’d think with all the rain and soggy conditions this would be an easy task.
Oh Noooh, the gault clay level in particular proved stubborn (especially so when we found the stones gravel layer that sometimes turned up) and each post needed an average of thirty blows to drive it home fully. Thirty blows with a sledge-hammer, the handle of which got progressively slippier and muddier with each blow. The hammer also seemed to get heavier as the day wore on. As with the hole digging, we rotated the task and it became competitive with a ‘par’ of fifteen as the target. Anything less meant you had an easy hole and had to take a second before handing on the hammer. Anything more, hard luck, you should have hit it harder. Pounding like this meant that the top of the post became ‘burred over’ and consequently the jig was difficult to remove. Yep, more groping about on hands and knees in slimy mud with sodden-leather gloved hands. Of course the monotony was often broken with a coffee break, the joy of tramping half a mile back to the staff room in wet cold boots was only beaten by the necessity of donning the shed boots for the tramp back again. Did we complain, naaaah, well not much, considering the conditions? Little by little, the post driving was accomplished leaving the volunteer teams now adequately toned for hitting the bell at fairgrounds.
Finally the guards themselves were fitted to the posts. Four large bolts at the base and six at the seams of the guards to present a rigid construction that would withstand a half ton cow or even a ton of bull deciding to scratch its back.
Unfortunately gloved hands cannot engage small nuts onto bolts. So it was off with the gloves and with ever colder fingers to twiddle the nuts onto misaligned bolts. If dropped, you knew they would end up in the slimmest blob of clay and have the threaded hole bunged up. Best thing was to pop that one back into the box for Jim to find! Even with the greatest care, a small misalignment of a post two metres away from a six mm hole will cause alignment problems. Boots came in handy for those recalcitrant holes and with a variety of techniques we overcame and occasionally, very very occasionally (that bit for Simon), we omitted a bolt!
Did I say finally, oh no I forgot the sheep guards. The sheep seem to have been trained to get their head through the vertical bars of the main guards to nibble the grass that is infinitely greener on the inside of the guard. The rare breeds stocked on the farm mostly come with horns, so it’s easy to get their head in but more difficult to extract them once they’ve finished dining. To prevent this and Muntjac attacks, a mesh cage is dropped into the outer guard. Dropped with extreme care of course as if we damaged a tree, our guts would become garters. Simon is very protective of ‘his’ trees and keen on making garters. The mesh came on two metre high rolls and was cut with wire shears ‘in situ’. Forty vertical cuts and forty horizontal cuts were required as Simon didn’t want the mesh to stick above the tree guard. Once again CNTV contributed sterling work and ‘ate’ the majority of this task. Thanks guys, we who work on different days salute you.
A few tidy-ups to do; invert one post which some nameless Herbert put in the wrong way around, check that all nuts are in place and tight, that all guards are vertical, otherwise its more garter making, and check that the tree is in place and healthy. Now we were finished. There will of course be a proportion of the trees that don’t make it but due to the protection provided by the various guards, the vast majority will. These new saplings will develop into the huge specimens dotted around the estate. It comes as no surprise that individuals are keen to sponsor a tree. Where else can you have such a memorial and have it so lovingly maintained. The majesty of the larger established trees, some in excess of 300 years old, is a joy in the height of summer.
So, if you happen to see some smiling Hi-Viz clad, bespattered volunteers, they’ve not been mud wrestling, just tree planting, it’s such a joy and so easy. And so you see working outside is not so easy after all, it’s always nice to go and get a hot drink and some warmth after the arduous work. Anybody want to help?