Half Acre Head wilding project

At the end of  2005, after three years of searching, we bought a derelict house and three acres on the edge of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). The land was south facing, and had a seasonal stream running along one edge, and the house was within walking distance of the bus-stop, pub and (at a leg stretch) school, GP and village shops. Perfect. At last!

The land had been used for several years to raise pheasant chicks and ducklings to sell on to the local shoots, so it was heavily eroded and over fertilised. There were a grand total of seven trees: a middle aged ash which we promptly hung a swing from, and six gnarly old hawthorns, relicts of a long gone hedgeline. There were a few struggling beeches trying to grow into a hedge around the garden, but we were all feeling pretty blasted by the strong southwesterly cross winds funnelled along the valley towards us.

The view south in 2008

We let the field recover, taking a hay crop off if it didn’t get grazed by sheep or next door’s highland cattle. Removing the nutrients seemed to help, and after a few years it began to refill with flowers.

June 2009 haymeadow

The wind could be brutal though. By 2012 we were still feeling battered. We had stuck in some willow whips along the edges to try and create a little shelter, but with 700m of boundary, we needed some help.

2012: not much change

In 2015 we got a grant from the AONB to plant some hedges and fence them off, creating a narrow strip around the edge of our field, which we let grow out. Harebells, lady’s mantle, wood cranesbill, meadowsweet and great burnet started to show their colours. Marestail and buttercups, yarrow and forget-me-nots joined them.

Spring 2015 and the newly planted hedge

Fast forward a decade – one of the kids has fallen in love with horses, and hundreds of the trees have grown, so less hay, but more hedges. We’ve had time to put in a veggie plot and a compost bin, and the B4RN community broadband have installed their main line through our field.

Autumn 2020

The summer of 2022 was dry even here in the hills – over two months without rain, and although we didn’t quite hit the 40 degree heat of Hexham, we were in the high 30s once or twice. The grass was parched and we were carrying 200 litres of water down the field for the horses each day.

The AONB offered us another grant scheme – Farming in Protected Landscapes. By now all our fence posts were rotten, and we’d realised that the verges were too narrow in any case – the barn owl that had hunted their long grass had died in Storm Arwen, but we had seen a red squirrel run up the dry stone wall to check out the pine trees.

It’s all a bit too muddy just now, but we found a spring, and have created a pond. Put some leaky dams in the burn to create some slow moving pools, and dug out some swailes, sort of, in the the furrows to hold water at the head of the hill. Water troughs have been installed for the horses so they don’t break the bankside into the burn, and we’ll soon be collecting rainwater from the roofs to feed into them. We’ve laid the hedges in a wildlife style that maximises the retained biomass for carbon and cover, creating denser thickets for wildlife and windbreaks. We’ve widened those verges, putting in over 1000 more trees, in 300m2 of Miyawaki style forest,  a hazel and sweet chestnut coppice, and more diversely planted verges, including some Scots Pine, just in case the red squirrel returns. We’ve used far more coloniser species like birches and alder than we had before – as some researchers think these also colonise the soil with mycorrhizal networks beneficial to other woodland trees.

2023 the frozen pond filled by a spring

One of the very best things has been involving volunteers – as hedgelaying trainees, birdbox builders and tree planters. We’ve had a the local youthy’s DofE group hammering, a National Trust gardener in a ditch next to a young farmer pleaching, a handful of scouts sliding around in the mud, and a field full of refugees grooming horses, playing football with the dogs, making bobbin lace, but just glorying in being out of the city, and a few old friends besides. Between us we’ve planted over 1000 trees and shrubs. It’s been the most rewarding part of it all.