Forest Sangha Newsletter April 1989

Serenity, an Open Heart; Chithurst Anniversary
The Four Brahma Viharas; Venerable Munindo
Hammer Wood Progress; Aj, Sucitto & Mike Holmes
Question Time; Venerable Kittisaro
Thrift; Ajahn Sucitto
A Guided Tour of Lay Practice
Inside Freedom

Progress in Hammer Wood
A conversation between Ajahn Sucitto and Mike Holmes, the warden of Hammer Wood.

Ajahn Sucitto: Generally hows the work in the forest getting on?

Mike Holmes: Well, this is not a straightforward question at all because working on conservation takes a long time, and because growth in forests is very slow.
     We could start with the planting of areas and clearance of chestnut. That's coming along very well and our plan is developing. The young trees that we planted are growing well; the clearance of the areas that we have in mind to clear is going as planned, quite nicely, and so that's fine.
     Then the conifers: we got a good thinning this gear which should last for ten years. We haven't been able to finish that job, but the two main areas that have been done are fine now, and will last for another ten years before more work is needed.

AS: How many acres, say long-term, are you thinking of clearing?

MH: Well I can't give you an exact acreage yet. It looks like about 30 acres will remain as chestnut and the other 20 or 30 acres that are chestnut now, we will eventually clear and plant. I think we need to keep 30 acres of chestnut. The idea of this is that a certain amount of cutting is done each year. From the wildlife point of view, when you're working chestnut coppicing, you want to cut a little bit each year so you have a rotation of habitat and then your wildlife won't desert completely. Its always moving round from one place to another and you get a sequence.

Where we've cleared and planted, the life is starting. Insects have appeared and we are having success.

It's probable that a lot of our forest was heathland and that's showing up by the way that the vast amount of silver birch grow and by the heather appearing. However, there would have been oak forest before that. The heathland was caused by Bronze Age farmers who originally cleared the oak forest, so the oak forest that we plant will be the actual growth before the heathland appeared.
     Birches are very good nurse trees for our trees, in that any wildlife that comes along and eats the young growth is going to have lots of birches to go to first. So we can expect a lot of our trees to be saved from deer and rabbits by the birch. Also it produces a weather screen around young trees.

AS: Do they grow very quickly.?

MH: They grow quickly, and then as time goes along they become much too dense for a forest, so we'll thin them and thin them gradually, as we do the pines, and then we'll get a mixed forest with what we've planted. It will provide a source of firewood for us in the future so we don't consider them to be the main weed; the thing that is really going to cause problems is bracken, which just swamps an area. No light can get to the soil, its very acid. This is going to be a problem. Last year we did try pulling bracken, but it's a job that goes on and on. You pull bracken and you may have cleared a little bit, but you turn around a week later and there's a whole lot more growing. Also it's been discovered that bracken pulling, when the spores are alive, could cause illness with humans. So we just have to accept the bracken until someone comes up with a means of controlling it.
    Where bracken hasn't taken, we can see heather beginning to take. There are some good patches of heather on areas that were planted about four years ago. This is marvellous. Heather is a very good thing to have. We don't want the whole thing covered in heather like moorland or heathland, but patches of it are great. Also brambles. Brambles are an important food plant for wildlife and they're taking quite well. So this is quite pleasing. We're getting a lot of growth.

AS: You talked a bit about wildlife and animals. Do you see much wildlife coming back?

MH: Yes. In a commercial forest, wildlife is absolutely at a minimum. You've got a state where there are no old mature trees, so you've got no holes: no trees where hole-nesting birds can make their homes. You've got no old oak trees, which support a tremendous amount of insect life and thus food for birds. This just doesn't occur: and in the monoculture that we had of chestnut and pine there was no life. Chestnut especially has nothing. The only life you find in chestnuts are the rabbits which live on farmland to which they move out when they're feeding; or they eat the young chestnut growth round the stumps. But thats all.
     But where we've cleared and planted, the life is starting. Insects have appeared and we are having success. The first thing that i've seen hunting over our plantations are tawny owls. This year we've got nightjars, and not just one, but at least three I've counted chirring in the dusk - and probably more. This is terrific, because they're making their home in areas that we've planted. Young plantations are just what they like, where life is coming back, and there are insects. This is really good.
     Last year we had nightingales, so I'm sure they're there this year. In young chestnut growth, there are warblers' nests, but they only stay there temporarily. They don't feed because there's no insect life for them to feed on in the chestnut, but there are always a few about. Where we've got young plantations and where there are little bits of chestnut left growing off the stumps, we get garden warblers, willow warblars. chiffchaffs nesting - we're lucky in that way.
     There's still a shortage and there will be a shortage of the woodpeckers, which one expects to see in forest growth, but as the pines grow up there's food for them. Improvement came from the thinning of pine trees that was done over the last few months. There was also damage caused by the storm in October 1987. A number of stumps I've left in the snapped-off state. They'11 rot and thus produce insect colonies, which will be food - and so we can expect woodpeckers to find this and come back. This is all good planning.
     Because of the valley and the bottom lands which are wet, and the lake in the woods, we have bats. It will take a long time for any tree to become mature enough for the cracks and crannies and hollow places that bats like, but we've put up a few bat boxes. However, so far they've been used by blue tits which nested there.

We've got an invasion of mink, which is a bad thing to have. They come up from the River Rother, and of course they cause a lot of problems with water birds. They get through a family of moorhens or mallard in no time at all! The moorhens have been mostly eaten, attacked by the minks; few of them are left in a family. The one thing that has appeared this year for the first time are mandarin ducks. There's been one successful family of mandarin ducks, so we're very pleased about that. There's a little colony which formed in this country round Virginia Water, and they seem to be moving out and spreading now. This is a good thing because mandarin ducks are very nearly extinct in China. This country is now the mainstay in the world of mandarin ducks.
     We have quite a few deer, so that makes the wood attractive to poachers. We can say probably there are about 12 roe deer living in the Hammer Woods. Poaching goes on and there's not much we can really do about that. Gangs come streaming out of Southampton and they will hit a wood and shoot up everything they can find there and be gone. We always will suffer from poaching. The more people we can have, amongst ourselves, about in the woods at any time the better, because if you've got people about, poachers won't come so often.

AS: They're planting wildflowers at Chithurst. Is there any idea of actually planting anything on the forest floor-flowers, shrubs?

MH: Yes. Wild flowers have been tried in some places to see what comes along, and last summer and the previous summer, I collected masses of seeds.
     Foxgloves are the first thing appearing in the way of wildflowers, and some areas you can see are really beautiful now with a mass of purple foxgloves on the hillside. This is a start, but generally the wildflower schemes which are going on around the monastery aren't going to work in the forest because the soil in the wood is much too acid. So we've got to wait until the acidity left by the chestnut works out of the soil and then we can start trying to get wildflowers back. It is interesting to see, in the older parts of the forest -on the west bank of the Hammer Stream where there have not been chestnuts-that there's a tremendous world of wildflowers. All the woodland flowers that you would expect from old forest -like yellow archangel - are there. We are very pleased about this, but it will take years to get things like that working in the areas that we're trying to bring back to life.

AS: Is there any work that needs doing on the lake?

MH: Well, the lake is a difficult one. The lake is silted up and shallow. I've just bought a boat which I hope to go out in and dig around and see what the bottom is, how deep it is and that sort of thing. But to do a proper dredging job there would firstly mean building a road into the lake - and that's going to be difficult with the soft sandy soil, and because huge great working barges and dredgers have got to be brought in. When you think of the cost of that sort of machinery, it's way out of anything that we can come near being able to afford. Then what would we do with all the silt that we dredge out? There's nowhere really to put that except to make a mess somewhere, and that's not a good idea.

AS: So will the lake tend to change and become broader and swampier?

MH: Yes. The edges at the top will always begin to dry out a bit and we'll try and make reed beds. We haven't had sucess yet but this is one of the programmes - a reed bed round the edge, which is marvellous for wildlife. This is what we'll try and do in one or two of the corners.
     I think the lake is as it is. But when you think of it, that lake is hundreds of years old. It was built for the old iron industry in the Middle Ages, and it's taken hundreds of years to silt up to the state that it is in, so it will go on for a long time yet before it dries up. I'm not worried about it unduly. I've got an archeological report for some work that was done in the fifties and it then talks about the lake, the Hammer Pond, which is completely silted up with leaves - if it was silted up then, its still silted up. That was a long time ago, so I think it's an endemic problem that's with us and we just have to accept it.
     But it's a very interesting lake. It takes all the water that's drained off the Milland Valley and there is quite a bit of farmland in there, same of which is this modern agri-business. They use all sorts of chemicals. And of course all these chemicals are drained down. They all come out of the Milland Valley down through the Hammer Stream. So we get the lot, and there have been pollution cases lately. Up until the middle of summer 1987, the hammer Pond did give the appearance all the time of being polluted. There was a nasty-looking scum and the smell was wrong. It wasn't good water at all. However, suddenly that changed. Whether some farmer changed his pattern or not I don't know, but now its far less polluted. The water is much more natural, and cleaner than I've ever seen it before. We hope it stays that way. There are plenty of fish in there. With less pollution we should begin to see more life.

AS: What about the work, does it require a lot of people?

MH: Planting does. In December 1987 we were in competition with the work that was being done in the monastery. We had sufficient help because it was a small planting programme. We had a marvellous visit from 30 school children who came and helped, so we were all right that way. But obviously when we have a planting programme this needs a lot of people, it's really great when people come along. We have a lot of fun and plant a lot of trees, and the results can always be seen later. There we are-as the years go on, these trees grow up and people can come and say: "That's the tree we planted." That's always a nice thing.

AS: So who comes? Ecology groups, Buddhists?

MH: Well, yes. The local supporters of the monastery. There are a lot of interested people who support the monastery round about.
     We're having good success over planting, so obviously we must be doing it right. Whereas commercial forestry organisations talk about low success rates sometimes in their broadleaf planting, we seem to get a success rate of about 95% and so, well - touch wood - everything's going well.

AS: How are you doing? It's such a lot of work and you have a job as well. Are you enjoying it?

MH: I think it's wonderful. I look upon it as my main job. The other job that I do is just the one that pays the gas bills. This is what I'm interested in. There's so much work to do here. You're doing something for the future and it's something that I'm interested in. Here I've got the job that I want. Now when you think about it, there are bat workers, ornithologists, botanists, foresters and many such aspects of conservation. Here it's all one thing. We have a situation where we clear an area of chestnut. Now in that area of chestnut there is nothing - no life whatsoever. The ground is absolute sand, it's toxic. All the humus is washed out, leached out, and so we're starting right from the word go. It's not just insects or flowers or bats or birds - it's everything! We're producing life, we're starting something. We're producing a life system. And this is great. It's the most exciting thing that I think I've ever done and I really enjoy it.

AS: Sounds like it too!

*Since the interview, Mike has retired from his salaried job.