Essex Waterways - Willow Trees

willows_headerMost of the willow trees along the Chelmer & Blackwater Navigation are of a specialist variety of ‘cricket bat willows’ and have been grown as a commercial crop along the banks of the Navigation dating back to the early years of the last century.  Trees are planted and felled along the Navigation each year, with trees being felled once they have reached about 20 years or more.  Felled trees are always replaced with further plantings, with the whole process in accordance with regulations laid down by the Forestry Commission and in line with the Navigation’s status as a conservation area. 

willows_mainIt is this process that has produced the landscape along the Navigation that we see today.  There is more information about the whole process of cricket bat willows on the web site of Wrights, the local firm who undertakes the harvesting of mature trees. 

At present, there is a problem with some of the willows on the Navigation with watermark disease (there is information about this on Wrights’ web site) and this the reason for some of the felling in recent months.  Once trees have the watermark disease we need to remove them straight away, though they can still usually be used for cricket bat manufacture.  A consequence of this disease is that some areas may need to be planted with different species, at least on a temporary basis, to try to eradicate the disease from the soil, etc. 

There are trees of all ages in the cycle of planting and harvesting along the Navigation – taking out a few trees and planting new ones each year maintains the variety of habitat along the waterway, which could otherwise be lost if all the trees were left to reach a uniform maturity together.  All the income from the proceeds of the sale of willows is reinvested in future planting and upkeep of the Navigation, and keeping all areas open to the public to visit.

It is the growing cycle – planting, harvesting, etc – of the cricket bat willows that gives the Navigation its current character.  Ceasing to grow the crop would lead to a substantial change in the landscape along the Navigation corridor.  Older willow trees are liable to fracture with age, and unless the planting is renewed, trees would eventually have to be taken out for Health & Safety reasons, and without the crop income the cost of replacing willow setts and their care could not be afforded.  In just the same way as farmers need to grow crops and raise livestock to provide an income, the same applies with the willow tree crop.  Essex Waterways relies upon income from boat moorings and the sale of willows to finance and keep the Navigation open for public enjoyment – it is not financed by the tax payer!
The extraction of mature trees is undertaken by contractors for Wrights, and they are required to take out the trees with as little disturbance as is practicable.  Unfortunately, it is a fact that felling trees in an area will appear brutal for a period, as can the clearance of vegetation to keep the towpath open.  What may appear harsh immediately after cutting and clearance will soon grow back.  The best managed wildlife meadows are mown twice a year to allow fresh growth to emerge and avoid eventual dominance by the strongest species.  Likewise with occasional clearance along the banks of the Navigation, clearance of dominant species from time to time can improve the diversity of plants and improve the habitat – not withstanding the fact that on those occasions when clearance does take place it can appear rather devastating at first glance for a short period.