Horses and hurdles in Potters Bar

Suffolk punch Roy hauling timber from the wood - avoiding damage by mechanised machinery

Suffolk punch Roy hauling timber from the wood - avoiding damage by mechanised machinery - Credit: Archant

Ancient methods are being used to restore Furzefield Wood in Potters Bar for its wildlife and visitors. Countryside Management Service projects officer Paul Evans gives a guide

Faggot bundles gathered in the wood

Faggot bundles gathered in the wood - Credit: Archant

Furzefield Wood local nature reserve is a small remnant of ancient woodland on the outskirts of Potters Bar, termed ancient as it is known to have been wooded since at least the early 1600s. The ancient woodland flora and fauna that has developed over this long period makes Furzefield Wood of county importance for its wildlife. The Countryside Management Service, in partnership with the owner of the woodland, Hertsmere borough council, manages the reserve for both wildlife and people.

Patches of white wood anenomes appear in spring

Patches of white wood anenomes appear in spring - Credit: Archant

The woodland is at its best in spring, when it is carpeted with bluebells which are interspersed with other wild flowers such as the delicate white wood anemone and the yellows of lesser celedine and primroses. In early spring, the interesting small flowers of moschatel appear, also known as town hall clock because of its symmetrical, almost cube-like, flower head with four flowers facing outwards.

Speckled wood butterfly

Speckled wood butterfly - Credit: Archant

This range of wild flowers thrives under a woodland canopy dominated by coppiced hazel bushes and large oak trees with occasional ash, hawthorn, crab apple, hornbeam, holly and field maple.

The wood supports many different birds, mammals and insects. Speckled wood and the striking yellow brimstone butterflies can be seen frequently in the dappled shade of the woodland paths and edges in the spring. Great spotted woodpeckers can be heard drumming throughout the day in search of tree-dwelling insects.

Before 1935, when the area was purchased by Potters Bar urban district council, the woodland was managed in the traditional way of coppicing, with records of hazel coppicing going back to the 16th century when Robert Earl of Salisbury bought the land from Lord Windsor. This ancient practice cuts trees regularly on a cycle, for example every seven years. The re-growth is then used to produce various products from thatching spars and sheep hurdles to bean poles and pea sticks. Nothing was wasted – larger timber was made into charcoal, and twigs were bound into faggot bundles for the fire.

Coppicing restarted in the wood in 1979, but much of the cut wood was wasted, being either burnt or chipped due to a lack of markets for the timber. The Countryside Management Service has been working with Hertsmere borough council over the past few years to make use of the timber, while continuing the vital coppice management under which the woodland wildlife thrives. Iain Loasby of north London-based Rivenwood Coppice has been employed to coppice an area of the wood each year, bringing it back into a regular cycle. Iain turns the cut trees into useful products, which he markets and sells, offsetting some of the cost to the council of the work.

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Iain’s task has also been to plant more hazel trees and erect temporary fencing round the coppice areas to limit the impact of muntjac deer, which find the new shoots of hazel particularly tasty. This work is aimed at improving the quality and productivity of the coppice, so in time the woodland management work will pay for itself or may even provide the council with a small income.

Over winter, there has been a new addition to the workforce in the form of Roy, a Suffolk punch horse. Roy and his handler, Matt Waller, from Essex equine service Hawthorn Heavy Horses, have been brought in to help Iain extract timber and coppice products out of the wood to the roadside. This traditional approach allows the work to be done in an ecologically-sensitive manner, with minimal ground disturbance compared to modern mechanised forestry equipment.