I came to Thurlow as Head Forester in February 1980, succeeding Mr Archer who had been in the post for 25 years and still lives in Great Thurlow. Work is carried out by a team of five full-time employees who deal with timber extraction, hedge cutting, planting, general maintenance and sawmilling. We also employ subcontractors who do most of the felling and thinning, who cut and deliver firewood, and do other specialist jobs such as tree surgery.
The estate itself is a large one of some 16,000 acres, which includes within it about 1500 acres of woodland. The main woods around the Thurlows are shown in the map and the largest single block of woodland is Trundley, comprising about 136 acres. Our objectives are to grow good quality native hardwoods and to improve the woodland as a traditional sporting estate. By definition this has immense benefits for conservation, and in fact no less than 600 acres are designated SSSIs (Sites of Special Scientific Interest), being ancient woodland. That includes Trundley, Wadgell’s and Sparrows’ Grove. Some of the pollard oaks in these may be 400 to 500 years old.
Woodland by the Stour
We have a heavy clay soil here and the native trees which do best are oak, ash, field maple and hazel. In the past elm was also a common tree, but the last onslaught of Dutch Elm disease which arrived in Britain in 1969 from Canada was a more aggressive strain than the previous invasions which had been in the country since the 1920s and a lot of the elms have had to be felled. There are still a few left, mostly wych elms that seem to be more resistant, such as the two fine ones along the back drive to Little Thurlow Hall. Limes and beech are less common on this soil and sycamore, although growing well, is actively discouraged in favour of native species. Since these are such fertile sites there is also a wide variety of shrubs, including hawthorn, blackthorn, crab apple, spindle and guelder rose. Ground flora is equally rich, with species such as dogs’ mercury, oxlips, early purple orchid and bramble.
When felling takes place the best of the oak is sold to a Suffolk furniture maker based in Ipswich who produces reproduction oak furniture. Here the wood is made into period pieces which are then ‘distressed’ and ‘antiqued’. The rest of the oak goes to the sawmill at Ashdon where it is cut into fencing and construction materials, such as beams for barn restorations. In fact all the timber for the restoration of Great Thurlow Barn came from Trundley and Wadgell’s woods. The ash is also used for furniture-making, with the second grade timber being used for ‘carcassing’, which is the construction of frames of, for example, 3-piece suites.
What is left the branchwood or ‘cordwood’ is used for the firewood operation. This has increased dramatically in the last few years, fortunately just as the demand for timber in the mining industry has more-or-less disappeared. The contractors do the felling for this and they are paid by the cord, which is a cubic measurement of 8´ by 4´ by 4´, with a trailer load being 2 cords once extracted. We use all the hardwood thinnings and small timber for this, except for poplar, willow and horse chestnut which tend to spit and spark and are poor burners.
The good timber is sold by the Hoppus cubic foot, which is a rather archaic measurement (like rods, poles and perches) derived from a booklet called a Decimal Hoppus Table which was invented by an Edward Hoppus in the 18th century. You get used to this and I can judge a Hoppus cubic foot pretty accurately by eye, though metric measurements are another matter!
We also have conifers on the Estate which were planted mostly in the 50s and 60s as a nurse to the hardwoods, to shelter them and help them grow straight. They are being thinned out to favour the broad-leaves. We tend now to use an understorey of hazel and elm to nurse the oaks up and then cut this back every 6 or 7 years. We use no chemicals for control and this policy has immense conservation benefits. The technique was only made possible by the invention in the early 80s of ‘tree shelters’ the plastic tubes which were originally named ‘Tulley Tubes’ after their inventor.
Our whole approach is very much that of conservation. In the last 10 years we have planted 111 new acres of hardwoods, put in 12 miles of new hedges to act as cover and to provide wildlife corridors linking blocks of woodland, and created 15 miles of grass headlands at the edge of fields. We have also done a lot to maintain the rides in woods, harrowing and rolling them and mole-draining them. Thinning and felling goes on throughout the year, working to a cycle to create the maximum diversity. By avoiding clear-felling in favour of selective removal we create a multi-storied stand of uneven age and so retain a continuous forest cover.
We also try to preserve special trees, like the famous old black poplar along the Temple End Road. Cuttings have been taken from this and if they strike we hope to replant them along the brookside there to perpetuate the line.
The great hurricane of 1987 was a disaster for many hedgerow and parkland trees, of course. Its eVects were so dramatic because the soil was water-logged and it struck when the hardwoods were still in leaf . But it was the most remarkable wind. After the worst of the gales had passed I remember seeing a huge old lime in Little Thurlow Hall slowly keeling over at 4pm in the afternoon of that memorable day.
Deer are a more regular problem, attacking the bark of lime and cherry in particular. In addition, grey squirrels can strip the bark of beech and sycamore and kill them off completely. Most wildlife is helped by our conservation policies, however, and the villages are particularly well-off for woodpeckers, nuthatches and tits. We were pleased to have our efforts acknowledged by a special Conservation Award made by Countryside Illustrated for the work we did on the airfield. Here the land has been transformed from a treeless bomber base into an area rich with shelter belts and wildlife corridors.
We are indeed fortunate that the Estate has been prepared to invest in its woodlands, a policy which has greatly enhanced this corner of Suffolk.
Woodland view from the Drift