Country diary: Combing the moor for saplings worth saving

·2 min read
<span>Photograph: Mikhail Dmitriev/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Mikhail Dmitriev/Alamy

For the first time in two years we’re out planting trees again, part of a volunteer crew working for the Eastern Moors Partnership, currently transforming the moors on the western fringes of Sheffield. When all is done, around 280 hectares of trees will have been planted. Our leader, John Mead, explains that today’s area has been planted once already, an experiment that has gone awry.

In an attempt to avoid more unsightly plastic tubes, this patch was fenced to keep off sheep and planted with unguarded whips. Unhappily, they haven’t prospered. The fence kept sheep out, but not the small herd of red deer that roams these moors. The whips have been munched and we must start again, this time with tubes.

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My partner and I look at each other. Weren’t we part of the crew that planted this patch last time? Yes we were. What has happened to our work? Moving through the bracken, it’s clear at least some of the young trees are still alive, bravely persevering. We ask John if we can go to their rescue. If they’ve made it this far, then surely with help they can make it through. He gives his blessing and we start combing the moor for saplings worth saving. Some have been chewed, others flattened by bracken going over in the autumn. Operating a system of arboreal triage, we tube some, mostly rowan, alder and birch, and leave those that seem beyond hope.

Then we find our first oak. Less than a foot high, it’s standing proud of some heather, still wearing all its leaves, now dried and coppery. Not shedding leaves in autumn – common practice among oaks and beeches, especially young ones – is called marcescence. Why they do this is still not properly understood. It may be to protect young buds from frost and wind. Or else deter browsers, since the dried leaves are bitter, although red deer will still browse oaks with their leaves on. Or the delay may mean the leaves mulch later, when the young tree really needs the nutrients.

Between us all we plant 500 trees; my partner and I rescue another 40. This little one seems humming with life, so we carefully protect it and move on.

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