The sound of leather on willow!

The sound of leather on willow!
September 5, 2012 Adrian Walters

On some areas of the Sudbury and Cornard riversides willow trees are a dominant feature. Interestingly, old engravings and paintings record a riverside almost completely devoid of trees, the land being open cattle grazed flood-plain. Grazing is a tradition that the Sudbury Common Lands Charity has managed to continue into the twenty-first century.

Some of the willows are hybrid trees planted for the cricket bat market. The charity’s book ‘An Appreciation of Sudbury’s unique Riverside’ contains details about these willows which are felled as they grow to maturity. This generally causes an outcry because people perceive these trees to be long-established features in the landscape. In fact cricket bat willows reach maturity in as little as seventeen years. New trees are planted to replace the felled trees to provide a future crop.

During the 1990s the Sudbury Common Lands Charity Trustees’ had the foresight to plant a number of cricket bat willows around the margins of King’s Marsh and Coote’s Meadow on the Sudbury Common Lands. Management of the Sudbury Common Lands costs money and therefore income from a few cricket bat willows is very welcome even though people may perceive the felling of trees to be a bad idea. New trees have already been planted to take the place of the ones due to be felled.

Timing the felling work is extremely difficult as ground conditions are generally not suitable during the winter and during spring and early summer plants, some of which are uncommon, are in full bloom. Late summer or early autumn is therefore, the preferred time for these operations. In addition ground conditions are usually better and damage that could be caused by the very large machinery is minimised.

The charity has to sell its trees to a willow merchant who, in turn, has to employ a specialist willow felling contractor working on a national scale. During August the contractor was as far afield as Northallerton in North Yorkshire and Carlisle in Cumbria. Whilst the willow trunks are removed for processing into cricket bats the felling of numerous trees produces a huge amount of top wood which has to be disposed of by burning.

On the Cornard riverside there is a different issue relating to the bat willows. Here many of the trees are suffering from the virulent watermark disease and the trees must be felled and burnt in an effort to check the spread of the disease. Regular walkers of the Cornard riverside will have noticed the characteristic die-back on many of the willows and while the disease rarely kills the trees it affects the wood so badly as to renders it quite useless for the production of cricket bats.

Although the Sudbury Common Lands Charity does not owns the land on the Cornard riverside, as the land manager on behalf of private landowners it has a measure of responsibility. Whilst some small amount of timber may be salvageable a large number of diseased trees will have to be felled in order to try to stop the spread of the disease to healthy willows and regrettably this work is unavoidable.