Sarah and Stephen transform Alvecote Wood and bring inspiration to us all
Alvecote Wood is now officially the best small woodland in England in the Royal Forestry Society Best of England awards 2014. But back in 2007 Alvecote was neglected and overgrown. Today it is 11 acres of thriving ancient semi-natural woodland.
Sarah Walters and her partner Stephen had been interested in buying some woodland for years, and in 2007 the dream came true when they purchased Alvecote. Their story is truly inspirational and pays testament to the benefits of becoming a woodland owner and in getting unmanaged woodland back into management. Little did they know how much it would change their lives or those of the community who regularly visit or for the wildlife that Alvecote provides a safe haven for.
In the beginning
In July 2007 – Stephen was riding past a neglected piece of woodland near Tamworth in Staffordshire, a piece of woodland that had intrigued them both for a number of years and which Stephen had been interested in buying some years ago, but missed the opportunity.
Then he spotted a “For Sale” sign in the ditch and thought he’d missed the opportunity again! …But he hadn’t. After checking with local conservation groups and dialogue with the owners that ended with a nervous wait for the sealed-bid auction results, they became the proud owners of 11 acres of ancient semi-natural woodland in the far North of Warwickshire, consisting of some 150 or more large oak trees and a variety of other tree species, in October 2007. Although Sarah and Stephen have a lifelong interest in conservation and wildlife, they were completely new to woodland ownership.
Understanding the landscape and seeking advice from the experts
The site dates back to 1650 and was owned by the Priory which was endowed in 1195, and was almost certainly wooded at that time as well, with areas cleared subsequently around the wood for grazing. The wood is on a Parish boundary, which accounts for its shape. The site was overgrown with brambles and the majority of trees aged between 100 and 200 years, with very little planted since and regeneration stifled because of bramble cover. Trees were dying as a result and action was needed.
Sarah and Stephen set about seeking advice from the experts such as the Forestry Commission and the Wildlife Trust and many others. With their help they developed a management plan and applied for various Forestry Commission grants to support woodland management.
A felling licence was obtained, boundaries replaced, drainage improved, new paths and rides created and new wildflower areas created. Saplings were cut free and in 2009 they began planting areas cleared of bramble with ash, hazel and maple. Work continues every year to clear the holly population and encourage regeneration in areas where the canopy is broken.
In October 2010 Sarah and Stephen purchased an additional 9 acres of adjacent arable field, and planted this with over 5500 native trees, another 500+ naturally-regenerating trees, new hedgerow, wildflower meadows and ponds to create Betty’s Wood, and to link Alvecote Wood with other wildlife sites in the area as part of a larger landscape-scale conservation project.
A new lease of life
Wildlife was the prime motivator for purchasing Alvecote and Sarah and Stephen have been richly rewarded. Through their hard work and determination the wood is adorned with red and amber listed birds such as cucko’s, willow tit, yellowhammer, linnet and lesser-spotted woodpecker. They have attracted two target species of butterfly as well as a whole host of mammals. Every year the range of wildlife increases and last year had the exciting sighting of a white admiral butterfly.
But Alvecote isn’t just for Sarah and Stephen to enjoy they’ve opened it up to the community and hold open days from March to November with guided tours and craft sessions. And there are more by-products from Managing Alvecote. The hay and wood arisings now provide seasoned firewood for local people. Better quality wood is kept and heads to the sawmill for table tops and benches. And the potential goes even further with Sarah keen to make rustic furniture and walking sticks and other coppice products.
Owning Alvecote has given Sarah and Stephen new skills in woodland management including everything from coppicing and wildlife surveying to green woodworking and understanding tree diseases. It’s enriched their lives in many ways. While it’s first and foremost a passion they take woodland ownership very seriously and adopt a professional approach: “It doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the woods – we do this a lot – but you will achieve a lot more, make a bigger difference and ultimately enjoy it more”, says Sarah. And above all her advice is to take advice from people who can help you. And with the help of Grown in Britain and other organisations, Sarah and Stephen hope to keep learning and improving and go on to achieve even greater results at Alvecote.
For more information on the project visit the Alvecote website here.