PICTURES: Following the path less followed in the Peak District

While Sheffield’s trees continue to make local and national headlines, a quieter story of forest folk has been emerging on the edge of the city.

The tale of Lodge Woods involves a secret ice cave, a crown carved by chainsaws, boggarts, babies in pushchairs, and a gang of teenage ninja squirrels. And the felling of around 20 trees without, as yet, noticeable public alarm.

Path and tree work at Longshaw: Jonathan Simpson of Paul Johnson Tree Management working on the crown of an old beech tree

Path and tree work at Longshaw: Jonathan Simpson of Paul Johnson Tree Management working on the crown of an old beech tree

“It would deeply upset me if I saw trees I know and love being removed when they didn’t need to be,” said Rachel Bennett, lead ranger for the National Trust at Longshaw. “But when you’re in a landscape visited by people, sometimes there is a necessity to manage trees, and it’s then a question about how they’re managed. Trees don’t live according to our timescales, so it’s planning ahead and thinking long term over maybe 50-100 years.”

Lodge Woods at Longshaw is a mixture of semi-natural English woodland along with beech, sycamore and other trees not native to the area planted by estate staff since the days of the Duke of Rutland. Climate change has turned once-dry areas of woodland much wetter, leading to trees dying or struggling, and the upper branches have their own problems with loutish young Americans.

“Sometimes you can stand at the bottom of a big tree and it’s raining bits of bark,” said ranger Chris Milner. “Adolescent grey squirrels who have no territory seem to take their frustration out by gnawing bark, and sometimes ‘ring barking’ all the way round, which can kill off a tree or a branch.”

“We call them teenage ninja squirrels,” said fellow ranger Mark Attwood. “They’re from America, not from this environment and have very few predators now pine martens have gone. Some of them are like Jack Russells.”

Trees don’t live according to our timescales, so it’s planning ahead and thinking long term over maybe 50-100 years

“They can be a menace, but in a landscape bereft of mammals it can be nice for people to see any furry creature,” conceded Rachel.

Estate staff have a monitoring programme to check trees near buildings, car parks and major paths more regularly than those on quieter tracks or in deep woodland. Some trees have been removed or cut back this winter around a children’s play and den building area, and to prepare a new path suitable for wheelchairs and pushchairs through the previously hidden semi-natural Lodge Woods. The new trail, opening this spring, will pass the remains of a Victorian ice house and a set of tiny houses for boggarts (a kind of fairy, Rachel explained).

“It will be for young children and people with limited mobility who might not ordinarily have the chance to explore a woodland with a stream, and see all the wildlife associated with it,” said Rachel.

As part of the work, an old hedge of nine beech trees gnawed by that same wildlife will be replaced by hundreds of hazel, hawthorn and holly trees, all native upland Peak District species. Ten more beech trees were removed near paths and tracks, and species like willow and alder are being planted nearby, which should cope better with the wetter soil.

Path and tree work at Longshaw: Ranger Rachel Bennett (right) and colleague Helen Tuck on the new path under construction in Lodge Woods

Path and tree work at Longshaw: Ranger Rachel Bennett (right) and colleague Helen Tuck on the new path under construction in Lodge Woods

Beeches and horse chestnuts are prone to the alarmingly-named ‘summer branch drop’ where heavy branches can fall with little more warning than a sharp crack from above. Possibly caused by water stress in hot weather, this is one reason trees have to be monitored, said Rachel. A large beech near the new path had a ‘crown reduction’ to remove potentially dangerous branches, for example.

“The risk of a beech branch falling as you pass is very small, and far less than going out in a car every day,” Rachel said. “But we do have a duty of care to visitors. Trees do decline, and that’s an issue in places people visit.”

In a more natural English woodland ‘gap dynamics’ means fallen trees leave gaps of sunlight for flowers and insects to flourish along with seedlings from the fallen tree, the strongest of which eventually grow out of the gap. “We try to replicate that as much as possible. We’re looking for species and structural diversity,” said Rachel.

That is, big trees, small native trees, woodland flowers and, until pine martens return, teenage ninja squirrels.

Visit Longshaw, Burbage and the Eastern Moors for details.