Pollarding the Wheatland Farm Withy

Pollarding the withy bed at Wheatland Farm’s Devon eco lodges is a late winter job that generates sustainable firewood for summer guests.

When we first came to Wheatland Farm back in 2006 this was an old manure heap / farm rubbish tip. You’d hardly credit it, but we actually found an old VW van in here at one point, and had to pull it out when we had heavy equipment in to do the floor at Balebarn Lodge. There was lots of waste plastic too, and all sorts of stuff, plus a zillion nettle seeds (they’re mostly still there).

That made it a real challenge for management. At first we thought we’d make a garden for the lodge – like a private house garden. But the area was too unstable (mostly a huge pile of soggy straw and horse poo) and the problems seemed insurmountable. We couldn’t imagine using the kind of chemical weed control those nettles would take, and nor did trucking in a layer of topsoil make much sense. Afterall, Wheatland Farm’s lodges are about doing more with what’s here already, not importing solutions.

But trees – they’re not fussy. We hoped they’d shade out the nettles and stabilise the soil, as well as providing more wildlife habitat. So when we finished Balebarn Lodge we planted willow whips on the site, and they’ve taken strongly.

One of our most regular guests – Evie – wanted to get involved. So together we planted a double line of willow. The Evie Avenue now forms a path from the back of Balebarn Eco Lodge to the treehouse.

This is the bit we pollard every year, to keep a bushy tunnel like effect in summer. The surrounding willows get a hair cut when they start becoming overbearing. And this year that was most of them. ‘Back in the day’ we probably would have had a huge bonfire to ‘tidy up’ the waste. But that has its drawbacks. It takes a whole day to manage the fire, concentrates the nutrients in the ash spot (feeding the nettles!), and releases most of the carbon straight back to the atmosphere. So were we can we’ve moved to making brash piles (and an armful of the colourful stuff might go to our lovely local florist, Catkin Blooms). We also retain any sizeable chunks of wood for guests to use. That means the invertebrates, microbes and fungi in the twiggy material don’t go up in smoke. Brush piles also provide more habitat for creatures like overwintering toads and lizards. And eventually at least some of the biomass gets locked up in new soil.

Sometimes it seems pretty labour intensive loppering through all the thin branches – even the chunky wood isn’t really worth much to our biomass boiler. But it’s great for the evening outdoor fires guests to our loges like to enjoy – in the brazier at the pizza oven shed, or in the designated campfire spots. So again, it comes back to doing more with less. And when you still enjoying a camp fire of an evening at Wheatland Farm, you’ll know the firewood was produced renewably, on site at the eco lodges, not transported around the Devon countryside in lorries and sold in plastic netting at petrol stations!