The pungent scent of a woody bonfire drifts across a Chilterns valley and spirals of pale grey smoke curl up from the chimneys of a charcoal kiln. It’s autumn and the Berks, Bucks & Oxon Wildlife Trust is looking after woodland at Warburg Nature Reserve in a truly sustainable way. “I enjoy this time of year because it’s when we’re making a difference to the health of our woodlands,” says Giles Alder, the reserve warden at Warburg, where the charcoal kiln is burning. “Coppicing the trees, stacking the logs and preparing the thinner branches to be used as fencing is physically hard work, but there’s plenty of time to listen to the birds, and admire fungi bursting through the soil.”

Coppicing, or cutting back stems to the base of the tree trunk, is a traditional way of harvesting wood so that it can be used for fencing stakes and firewood. Hazel cut last year was stacked and seasoned ready for the charcoal kiln this autumn. The benefits of this work are outstanding. Sunlight on the woodland floor this summer encouraged a fantastically colourful display of purple-pink foxgloves, great mullein and garlic mustard.

The older beech trees in Maidensgrove Scrubs on the reserve haven’t been coppiced for at least 70 years. “The branches growing from the base of some of the trees have got very large and heavy,” says Giles. “There’s a real danger of them collapsing outwards, which could damage the trunk and put the whole tree at risk. We have selected a group of trees and started to reduce the weight on the coppiced limbs. They seem to be responding well to the treatment and we are confident we will be able to extend the lifespan of these trees. This valuable work was made possible by a grant from the Chilterns Commons Project.”

Conifer trees planted in the 1890s and 1950s are being felled to create a more open habitat in the middle of the reserve. “We’re removing most but not all the conifers which will allow scrub and grassland to develop,” explains Giles. “We’ve already seen more wildlife like common lizard, fly orchids and grassland butterflies like the grizzled and dingy skipper in the open areas we cleared last winter.”

The wildlife trust’s Iffley Meadows nature reserve has winding ditches edged with old willows that need to be looked after. The clue to their frailty is in their Latin name, salix fragilis, these are indeed fragile trees. Branches that outgrow the stubby tree trunks can crack, fall and, in some cases, break open the trunk causing disease and possibly kill the tree. Pollarding, or cutting back the branches to the top of the tree trunk, may look brutal, but this traditional way of looking after the willow trees prolongs their life and ensures they produce healthy new branches.

The Trust for Oxfordshire’s TOE2 fund is supporting the pollarding of willows at Iffley Meadows with funds provided by Grundon Waste Management. This project is a good fit for TOE2’s biodiversity criteria, because it is encouraging regrowth of the willows and the ditches will be better maintained to improve drainage. Iffley Meadows is renowned for the spectacular purple and white chequered snake’s head fritillaries that flower on these wet meadows, but they don’t want the ground to be waterlogged. Whether it’s pollarding or coppicing, the wildlife trust is looking after fragile trees and beautiful woods, so that we can all enjoy them.