The nature of CAT – an interview with the woodland team

We are extremely proud of our biodiversity here at CAT and are very lucky to be surrounded by such rich habitats every day. We caught up with Alex Chadwick, a Conservation Development Assistant and part of the woodland team here at CAT, to learn a little bit more about how the site is managed for nature and to find out what wildlife to look out for at this time of year.

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Confessions of a Wannabe Woodsman

I’ve been living in deepest, darkest Wales for nearly half a year now, surrounded by trees and forestry. However, I know next to nothing about these magical places. So earlier this month I decided to rectify this and take part in CAT’s sustainable woodland management course.

I have always been captivated by being outdoors. Not gardening though. Secateurs aren’t really my thing. But the idea of managing a wild wood is a different prospect altogether. There’s something magical about woodlands. These places have captured my imagination more than farmlands or the coast or even mountains ever could – and I love meandering up mountains. No, secretly, I’ve always wanted my own wood and to chop my own timber.

The course was run by Bob Shaw and Adam Thorogood. Shaw has been working in woodlands for over forty years and is an expect in sustainable forestry, whilst Thorogood is responsible for managing CAT’s woodlands. They both begun with a tour of the woods at CAT. What was immediately apparent was Shaw’s deep knowledge and passion for the landscape around him. He seemed to have an eye-opening answer for any question the course participants threw his way.

A short tea-break gave me a chance to find out more about the other participants. This group of eager beavers ranged from forestry staff to landowners to people that just wanted to know more about their countryside. Blue, a budding attendee with a background in media, was keen to start managing his own forestry. Like me, he had been interested in woodlands all his life. Unlike me, he was already deeply involved in woodland management and had volunteered previously. He wanted to learn as much as he could. You have him to thank for the great photos by the way!

The fantastic thing about managing woodlands is that there’s so many people that want to get involved and there are so many possibilities for co-operatives or social enterprises.

The short course was only three and half days long but the schedule offered us the chance to visit a number of different woodland types. We visited Escair Timber, Shaw’s own woodland nearby and a co-operative of which Thorogood is a member. Comparing the three was a great demonstration of how varied this woodland malarkey is. There’s coppicing, plantations and ancient woodland sites all need to be taken into account. It’s not just about growing a few trees and then chopping them down… well it is, but there’s so many different ways of approaching it. One thing did keep nagging at the back of my mind though: when are we going to cut down one of these trees?

I mean, there isn’t a shortage of them. Surely there’s a tree somewhere that no-one will miss? I was probably missing the point.

Coed Gwern is CAT’s very own sustainable wood. It’s an idyllic spot overlooking the Dyfi valley. The blossom has yet to burst. The canopy is a web of silvery purple birch, winter wonderland pine and the odd crunchy orange oak leaf.

It was here that we finally got the chance to practice the skills that we had learnt so far. The group spent a morning assessing a small patch of the wood for problem areas that needed attention. Maintaining light levels is key to encouraging growth. It is vital that you identify the important trees. By pruning the lower priority trees nearby, you stop them from crowding the more important timber and can stimulate growth. It was apparent that some hardcore pruning was needed. This called for… secateurs!?

Coed Gwern also has a delightful workshop complete with lathes and saw-horses. Shaw and Thorogood used this wonderful spot to demonstrate what greenwood craft products can be produced sustainably from wooded areas. Everyone in the team got involved and by the end of the day we had a new gate to show for our hard efforts.

The evenings were spent watching engaging films about sustainable forestry or scouring CAT’s extensive library of practical text books. Both were fantastic tools for completing our workbooks in order for accreditation from the Open College Network.

CAT’s course did a great job at displaying how we can all record the abundance of wildlife around us. Biodiversity is a bit like the back of your hand – you know it’s there, but despite the saying, you very rarely stop to look at it closely. As our weather patterns continue to change, monitoring biodiversity is becoming an ever more important aspect of wood management. CAT has a monitoring scheme in place at Coed Gwern. Volunteers take responsibility for one of many monitoring posts in the forest. Tree types and coverage are recorded every month as well as moss and wildlife. This helps build up a clearer picture of how the woodlands are changing.

But they did not seem to be changing that much to me. We still hadn’t felled a single tree!

The final morning was spent learning horse-logging with Barbara Haddrill. I was admiring the majestic shire horses when Shaw said those magic words, “I think we need to fell that tree.” Finally the moment had come, we were going to chop something down! Of course first we had to do some messing around with health and safety equipment.

The tree was a Douglas Fir that had no potential for timber and was blocking sunlight for a nearby Oak. We were soon ready to go but discussion turned to alternatives for felling the conifer. Was it really necessary to chop it down. Eventually, Thorogood and Shaw decided it wasn’t.

It suddenly became all to clear to me, knowing when not to fell a tree is even more important than knowing when you should. This Douglas Fir was never going to produce quality timber. It was never going to capture the heart and imagination that an ancient oak might but that was no reason to chop it down. It did not pose a threat to any other trees, wildlife or passers-by. All that had to be done was to prune the fir’s lower branches. Now where was those secateurs?

My inner axe-wielding maniac had been sated… at least for the time-being.

The short course proved a fantastic entry point for anyone looking to try their hand at managing a woodland. The tutors are not only experienced but also great at communicating the essentials. You’re sure to learn something new about sustainability even if you’ve spent years in forestry management already. All you need is a sturdy pair of boots, good waterproofs and an open mind. Everything else is provided, even secateurs!

Fantastic opportunity for volunteers at CAT’s Woodland and Biodiversity week


The Centre for Alternative Technology is offering the chance for five volunteers to spend a week assisting our Woodland and Biodiversity team. Taking place from the 5th – 9th November, participants have the option to stay on site within beautiful surroundings near Machynlleth at the heart of Wales.

The Centre for Alternative Technology (CAT) has a strong commitment to the preservation of the environment and enhancing biodiversity. CAT currently manages twenty acres of woodland spread across the main site and at Coed Gwern, an idyllic sustainably-managed deciduous woodland. The woodlands are a range of different ages and include coppice, mature broadleaf and conifer, with a mosaic of diverse microclimates and ecosystems.

November’s Woodland and Biodiversity week will be overseen by Rob Goodsell and Adam Thorogood, CAT’s biology team. Volunteers will be working with Rob and Adam to practice woodland management skills across the site, including thinning, invasive species control and formative pruning. Participants will learn the safe use and maintenance of hand tools. There will also be the opportunity to survey and maintain CAT’s bird monitoring programme.

“The volunteers are fundamental to the success of our work and help preserve and enhance the extraordinary range of biodiversity that is part of west Wales’ unique ecosystem” – Rob Goodsell, Natural Resources Co-Ordinator

For £120 the week includes full-board accommodation in a shared bunkhouse. This one-off opportunity is limited to five spaces, so booking early is recommended. As the work may be physically demanding and will require working in all weather conditions volunteers are advised to bring waterproofs and boots.

The week will be free to attend if you do not require accommodation. Lunch will be provided.

If you would like to join us for this fantastic opportunity then contact us by telephone on 01654 705955 or by email at If you would like to learn more about our commitment to woodland management then please visit CAT’s website.

VIDEO: My job at CAT in less than a minute. Grace Crabb – tutor on CAT’s woodland courses

Coppicing the trees in the reed beds at CAT

Sustainable Woodland Management (5 days) Mon 24 Oct – Fri 28 Oct, 2011

This course is aimed at those currently managing or planning to manage woodland. It covers both practical and theoretical aspects of managing a small wood and will lead to accreditation at Level 3 with the Open College Network.

Coppicing the trees in the reed beds at CAT

Practical Woodland Management (5 days) Mon 28 Nov – Fri 02 Dec, 2011

This course is an introduction to practical coppicing in small woodlands. Learn the ancient skills of growing and harvesting using traditional coppice methods. Including sessions on horselogging and biodiversity surveying, this course can be claimed as part of a CPD (Continued Professional Development) programme for those wishing to start out in woodland management or progress in the field.