Owning a wood: My rural idyll wasn’t exactly what I expected

Tree planting 225x300 Owning a wood: My rural idyll wasnt exactly what I expectedA growing number of people are helping preserve the Welsh countryside by becoming small woodland owners. Steve Watkins found a boyhood dream of owning a wood more challenging than expected along with some surprising discoveries about the Great Outdoors.

The problem with the Great Outdoors is that there isn’t much of it left. Wales has escaped the brunt of urbanisation that had blighted many other parts of the UK, so what better place to fulfil a boyhood dream of owning a wood? A number of websites sell woodland and two months after my initial enquiry I was the proud owner of a nine-acre plot in Ceredigion, mid Wales.

Prices range from around £10,000 for several acres up to £60,000 plus for areas many times that size. Cost is determined by the size, location and maturity of the woodland along with desirable features like streams and ponds.

You aren’t allowed to build any permanent structures on the land and do have an obligation to maintain it including coppicing and tree planting. Many of the plots are formerly owned by the Forestry Commission or hard-pressed landowners and often ‘reclaimed’, meaning former tree plantations that have been harvested and left to go fallow.

Prospective homeowners are advised to look at a property before they buy it however tempting the price. The same goes for woodland. I ignored this advice in a fever of back-to-my-roots self-righteousness and having been seduced by the website’s flowery description of ‘regenerating woodland, natural water habitats and wild flowers’.

In reality, I arrived to found a small jungle taking root in my rural idyll. Mr Jones, the local farmer and owner of the adjoining plot, was quick to point out its shortcomings as we stood in the driving rain. He was a man of few words but would appear from time-to-time to pass comment on the parlous state of my land.

“Aye, I wondered who was daft enough to buy this. Fills up like a bloody swimming pool, she does. Got you work cut out there, boy.”

He gave me a consolatory slap on the back before sploshing off down the track leaving me worrying about what I’d got myself into. He had a point. The bottom of the gently sloping plot was flooded by a small stream that had burst its banks leaving the ground a foot under water and rising.

It was certainly a challenge. A big wet swampy one peppered with tree stumps, waist-high brambles and water-filled ditches. What the weeds didn’t overrun and strangle, the local rabbits finished off. I quickly discovered two challenges. I was restricted to the type of trees I could plant and also had to find enough clear enough ground to plant them in.

All those fanciful thoughts of planting exotic figs, black walnuts, Gingko and Indian bean trees were dashed and I could picture Mr Jones guffawing into his flat cap at the thought of such madness. The majority drowned and rotted away within the space of a season leaving me reliant on a handful of hardy old swamp lovers like alder, birch and the indestructibly prolific Sitka.

The next problem was clearing pockets of ground to plant the trees in as much of the surface was covered in a thick mattress of rotting timber, marsh grass and brambles. The spongy carpet of debris, left when the original trees were harvested, was several feet deep in places and I had to lumber around with two self-styled ski poles to avoid falling through the false floor of branches.

However, there was no denying the attraction of the place when the sun came out. I spent whole days without seeing anyone and enjoying the manual work of clearing paths, planting and staking trees. The local bus that ferried me to and from Aberystwyth was infrequent but arrived with uncanny accuracy and, unlike London Transport, had a driver who actually smiled.

I’ve also got to know the local inhabitants. I have seen wild deer, red kites, foxes and badgers as well as crossing paths with a snake and a family of hedgehogs. You have to expect a few trials in the wild but I’ve grown very fond of my overgrown Eden, despite falling into a drainage ditch much to the delight of the local leeches, hitting myself on the knee with a machete and reducing several hundred square feet of land to ash with an ill-placed fire.

My wife remains bemused by the project, my mum and dad urge me to sell up and come to my senses while my brother has remained stoically silent. The only person to show any enthusiasm has been my sister who has mucked in on several visits, despite the rain, mud and doomy predictions of Mr Jones.

Some people own houses. Some people own cars. I own a wood and, despite all the bad weather and blisters and lost trees and tools, the rewards keep growing.

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  • Jack Richards

    It’s something I’d like to try too!

  • gram64

    An enjoyable and very heartening read. I hope your sylvan experience becomes ever more idyllic.

  • Grayman

    I’d love to know more about this – Steve says he chose to buy woodland in Wales, implying that he wasn’t already living there. He says you can’t put up a ‘permanent’ building on the land, but he’s also married, so it’s unlikely he moved his ‘bemused’ wife into a caravan or a shanty shack. Does he live close by? Did he have to relocate? He puts a lot of hours in on the land, but does he have a day job as well? Did he already know the skills, or was he a greenhorn? What are the practicalities? Where do you find out about it? Come on Steve, give us more info!

  • helloitsmefolks

    Look up a tool called an Azada, clearing land and brambles will be made easier with much joyful labour :-)

  • LeoSun75

    “Many of the plots are formerly owned by the Forestry Commission” and now they have been sold off to people who have no idea what they are doing. The Big Society in action.

    I hope you and the others ‘having a go’ can muddle through for the sake of future generations.

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