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Rhododendron removal

by Brian Lavers

This article first appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of The Lark, the members’ magazine of the Countryside Restoration Trust.

Pierrepont is blessed with two largish areas of woodland: Wey Wood, which, as its name suggests, borders a section of the northern bank of the river, and Tankersford, which lies further to the north between the farm track and the bridle path.

Both woods contain a wide mixture of of native broadleaf trees, which range from relatively new growth to the very mature. Tankersford also has an area of chestnut coppice and, somewhat incongruously, a small plantation of Norway spruce.

Unfortunately, both woods also contain large areas of well-established and slowly expanding rhododendron and, in the case of Wey Wood, a few areas of the equally unwelcome cherry laurel.

Typing Rhododendron Ponticum into Google will quickly reveal how despised this particular form of rhododendron has become wherever in the world it has been introduced. Close personal contact with it soon reveals why. Within in it and beneath it virtually nothing else exists. After four winters spent attacking it within Tankersford, the only sign of life revealed has been one solitary bird’s nest¹. (We cease work at the end of February so as not to interfere with nest-building birds and start again around November.) A couple of clumps hide badger setts — left entirely undisturbed by the volunteers, of course.

Given the sheer size of the task, the first eradication efforts of the Pierrepont conservation volunteers (the “Wrinklies”) were, to say the least, somewhat tentative. Our enthusiasm was further dented by reading on one of the many related websites that, “It is a fallacy to think that volunteer labour is the answer to rhododendron control”! However, enthusiasm for the project was spurred after a couple of the more eager volunteers removed one of the smaller clumps and the potential for improvement became clear.

Our initial means of removal are simply bow saw, hook and axe, together with some spade and muscle power to remove the more shallow-rooted growths. The longer-established stems, some measuring more than a foot across, require a chainsaw to reduce them to a more manageable size. The thinner stems are piled together ready for burning when dry, while the thicker stems are sawn into logs as they make excellent domestic firewood.

However, that is not the end of the story, of course, as the stumps are too deeply-rooted to be moved (we have so far eschewed all mechanical aids to uprooting) and sprout new growth with remarkable vigour as soon as your back is turned. A second phase of destruction is therefore required.

At Pierrepont we have used the drill-and-inject method to administer the coup de grace. This consists of drilling low down on the stump, ¼ inch (6mm) or larger holes an inch (25mm) or so deep, parallel to and as close as possible to the sap wood and injecting (pouring or spraying in our case) a 25% glyphosate solution. This seems to work first time in most cases, with any new growth rapidly dying back — but R Ponticum is remarkably tenacious and a second application is sometimes required.

After four winters at Pierrepont our efforts have proved very rewarding, with vegetation bouncing back almost immediately over previously virtually dead areas of the woodland floor. It is all very hard work of course but judging by the results there cannot be many physical tasks so gratifying! Come along and join us some time — and you can cancel the gym membership too.

¹A second nest was found in November 2012.      back to article

Rhododendron root being drilled and sprayed with a 25% glyphosate solution by Countryside Restoration Trust volunteers.

Rhododendron roots are first drilled to a depth of about an inch (25mm) and then a glyphosate solution is sprayed in the hole.