I’ve been asked to describe how the mounds are made. You see, the idea is that these brash mounds serve more than one purpose – they are habitats and need to provide shelter for as many species as possible, which means that they must have a number of micro-environments in them. The dense layer at the bottom which provides habitat for species such as beetles and small mammals and shelter for amphibians, to the more loosely woven upper storeys where small birds can roost or nest. The important word here is ‘woven’ because these are not just heaps flung together in a thoughtless jumble, they are structures.
This brings me to the second purpose: whatever shape they are, they should please the eye. Circular upturned coracle shapes, rounded and smooth, are ideal and straightforward to create. Sitting at regular intervals between the trees, they catch the light or sit in shadow, covered in frost, steaming in the winter sunlight, glaucous with algae and lichens or green with conifer leaves, they are beautiful and a sight to behold.
When we did our first session in the woods at Rollrights we didn’t fully understand what Stephen and Claire wanted and we clearly didn’t get it quite right, because Claire rushed over and very firmly told us so. During that first conversation she told us of her vision – in the words she wrote to me later, ‘I dreamt of seeing the horizon as the golden roseate hues descended through the wood where it had been cleared. I thought that a sea of coracles would continue to provide habitats even when the trees lifted themselves over the horizon and the light pierced through the thick gloom of the young forest’. That and all she said about the long history of the area gave me a powerful lot to think about and, by the time we got home, both of our heads were buzzing and we had to sit quietly to take it all in.
To the making of mounds, as we’ve learned to do it so far. If building from scratch, we start with a core of larch logs or bits and scraps we find lying around on the woodland floor. Some of it is already rotten, some isn’t. We pile them into a dense mound shape and then, depending on what wood is nearby, start to fold in longer pieces as a covering.
For covering material, any good lengths of recently pruned wood are fine. Freshly cut larch branches from trees which have recently had their canopy lifted work well – they are supple and if the ends are cut to a point then you can push them into the ground. Older stems are brittle and tend to snap easily. One of the beauties of larch branches is that they curve so that when laid over a mound, the branchlets clasp on and help to create the rounded shape. The woods are full of ash saplings, too many to count, and these also serve well to create a strong structure, as does young beech and oak.
For an idea of mound-nastiness, the two below had been made very close together and with little thought to aesthetics, with chunks of wood sticking out all over them. They were also very visible, being on the edge of a path.
We could have pulled it all apart and started again, but Karl decided to join them together and make a giant barrow. We started by gathering any spare brash lying about that couldn’t be well used for covering material and began to fill in the gap. We then started to lay the beautiful larch stems over the resulting heap, pushing the ends into the ground for stability.
Gradually, we wove in lengths of larch to keep hold the structure together until it felt firm when pushed. Karl then added a finishing touch and threaded ash stems around the outside.
The gaps are small enough to create a tight weave and large enough for small birds to get in so they can roost or nest. For most of the time we were building this mound there was a robin hopping about inside it.
In mixed woodland there are many types of wood and other materials to use so being creative with it is easy (especially if you are Karl who has revealed a flair for building mounds and has created some amazing structures). Some mounds can be dressed with fresh green moss or the dried stems of long grass, which take on a silvery look in sunlight. Some wood gathers lichen and algae to give beautiful shades of green.
Here are some more ideas:
Go and start building – now!