Winter’s no time to take it easy

All winter long James Gillies and his team have been kept busy with the increasing amount of stewardship work Oxon-based Valeag is being asked to undertake.

As more and more people buy into the Entry Level and Higher Level Stewardship schemes (ELS and HLS), the firm’s workload grows and grows.

“Since November we have been kept busy with fencing contracts and hedge restoration,” he says.

“The majority of our work is stewardship based, but there is also an encouraging level of interest from private clients asking us to apply our skills to more domestic work such as creating ornamental hazel fencing.”

It was a significant woodland contract undertaken by Valeag last November that has kept the firm busiest all winter.

The task was to create a new attraction for one of Oxfordshire’s best agricultural success stories – Millets farm centre.

Millets was selected as one of the key locations for the Trafalgar wood project, designed to celebrate the bicentenary of Nelson’s victory at the battle of Trafalgar.

The site was already home to a good deal of original woodland that had to be thinned out before a new stream could be dug and planting of the new trees could commence.

“We took on the contract to plant and maintain the new woodland, which is to be named Phoebe after one of Nelson’s ships,” he says.

“We thinned out the old growth as a lot of trash had eaten up a fair amount of the useable space.”

Around this about 4000 native broadleaf trees – including willow, hazel, oak and Scots Pine – have been planted.

“The idea is that the wood will not just be ornamental, but functional as well.

We plan to harvest the willow in a coppice rotation and the hazel will be used at local craft days,” says Mr Gillies.

He adds that by being involved in the project from the very start he was able to make sure the process ran smoothly and to budget.

“From the day we met Millets’ management I have been deeply engaged in the plans.

It is a working farm, so we need to get on with our work and disturb the usual activities as little as possible.”

Rather than retracting his involvement once the site is ready for its opening, Mr Gillies sees the project as a continuing interest, which will need management for the next 10 years and beyond.

“We could have come in and done a quick job here and ripped people off to make a quick profit, but we would rather look at the long-term plan.

We want to be involved here for some years to come,” adds Mr Gillies.

Unlike the stewardship work Valeag has primarily been involved in, the Millets job received no grants and the finance was planned and allocated from the outset.

“This is a budgeted project and we have had to stick to it, which is not always easy with so many inevitable, but unplanned, variables.”

Keenly aware of the importance of good publicity, Mr Gillies believes the Trafalgar project has been a good PR exercise for everyone involved and says that it certainly hasn’t hurt his business.

“A neighbouring farmer had seen what we had done at Millets and has asked us to undertake 4000m of hedge planting for him, proof that one good job helps secure another.”


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