History of Willows
at Long Ashton Research Station, Bristol
| K.G. Stott
National Willows Officer, 1949-1999
Opening address/Introduction to Willow Biomass Conference, Long Ashton Research Station, September 3-6, 1994
[Ken Stott was awarded the OBE for services to the willow industry in the south-west in the New Year Honours list, January, 2005. He kindly agreed to this article being re-printed on the website for the benefit of those who would be interested to learn something of what lay behind this award]
I have to cover 72 years from 1922 so can only give you a flavour of Long Ashton's involvement with willows, the personalities and their times.
Immediately following the 1914-1918 war the Government made an appraisal of the UK's strategic resources. 1919 saw the foundation of the Forestry Commission. Basket willows had also been strategically important in the war - everything carried by men, was carried in a basket -ammunition, food, medical supplies. Peace- time industry also depended heavily on basket-containers, many of unique design. The skeps of the cotton mills, GPO baskets on the railways, all the specialized baskets used to collect and transport agricultural produce.
Basket willows were grown along many river valleys in lowland England, particularly in the Midlands and the South West. but the Somerset levels have always been predominant. However the basket willow industry was primitive and plagued by pests and diseases. So in 1922, and because the industry was concentrated in Somerset, J P Hutchinson was appointed Willows Officer at Long Ashton Research Station, Bristol, to do research and give advice to improve productivity.
Hutchinson published some 40 papers on willows in the Long Ashton Annual Report between 1922 and his retirement in 1939 .Of particular significance are those around 1930 when he was joined at the Research station by a young entomologist,
In the 1930s competition from foreign imports and Britain's Depression brought serious economic problems to the industry. By 1932 the area under willows had halved to 3000 acres from the 6000 noted in the Agricultural Output of England and Wales for 1925. In these difficult times, Hutchinson probably saved the industry, ironically by an act of entrepreneurial imagination, rather than science. He brought over a French machine that could process willows 40 times faster than by the hand methods then current. It was enthusiastically received and manufactured under licence. The enhanced productivity of these machines did much to keep the industry solvent throughout the 1930s.
Hutchinson turned in later years to the more secure cricket bat willow industry to study problems of stain and grain distortion which reduce the value of the timber for cricket bats. He demonstrated the influence of pruning wounds on bat quality and developed preferred methods of producing sets for propagation. Throughout his 17 years he gave advice on all things willow, a prototype of our ADAS advisory service. Also we are permanently in his debt for initiating a national collection of willows at Long Ashton. To improve the choice of (our native) basket willows varieties, he introduced clones from Europe, and later collected ornamental willows, tree willows and preferred cricket bat selections, amassing finally 124 clones.
He retired in 1939 leaving Kearns, soon to be deputy Director of the Research Station, to deal with willows throughout the last war. Again willows were a strategic material. Everything dropped by parachute was dropped in a basket - light, strong, they bounced on impact and could be made to any shape. Home production of willows was about 2000 tonnes per year. There were 630 manufacturers employing 7000 basket makers. We had to import 3000 tonnes/yr, costing £1/4 million pounds from Argentina. 7000 basket makers were kept busy and the fair distribution of supplies was co-ordinated, can you believe, by the National Basket and Willow Trades Advisory Committee. Like other fields of agriculture, willow growing was stimulated by the wartime introduction of new ideas and methods.
Towards the end of the war, the above body formulated ambitious plans for post war expansion, suggesting a need for 5000 acres of willows, 25,000 basket makers and a turnover of £2,000,000. Though not remotely achieved, the post war period saw the continuation of large government contracts, which kept basket makers working to capacity, and with rising prices of willows, prosperity for willow growers.
It was against this buoyant background that Kearns persuaded the Agricultural Research Council to appoint a new Willows Officer, but at a level that would allow the officer other academic opportunities should willow research diminish. How wise he was - even more so, how wise the authorities who listened - because as you will hear, post war willow research has been a story of changing fortunes.
So in September 1949, this young Forestry/Botany Honours graduate, K.G. Stott was appointed. First hic-up - I was called up at Christmas for National Service, and Kearns was left carrying the can for another 2 years.
From my return in 1952 for 10 years or so, willow research progressed covering the rooting pattern of basket willows, the effects of spacing and harvesting cycle/cutting height on growth rate and yield, and weed, pest and disease control, using the exciting new spray chemicals that were becoming available. In the field of cricket bat willows, their utilization and economics were studied and the relationship between timber quality and culture.
To maintain continuity with Hutchinson et al. it was all published in the Long Ashton Annual Reports with also annually an account of the year's research and advisory activities, with notes on acquisitions to the willows collection.
Worth noting is that the introduction of BHC/DDT as a single spray in late spring transformed insect control in basket willows, but a range of new fungicides were no more effective against the main disease, Melampsora amygdalina rust, than Bordeaux mixture had been it the 1930;s. Disease control proved illusive, in fact having to wait for the introduction of the systemic fungicides in the 1980s.
With the general reduction in agricultural labour, chemical methods of weed control became a dominant component of our research programme. The new triazines, particularly simazine proved very effective in new plantings, and in combination with amitrole (as Weedazol TL ) as an early spray in spring to control most weeds in mature beds. Greater bindweed, (Calystegia sepium), emerged as the most recalcitrant weed.
In the late 50s one of the UK’s periodic shortages of paper pulp prompted a joint investigation with J Jobling of the Forestry Commission Research Branch into possibilities of using the ubiquitous pollard willows of the English lowlands, or the promotion of plantations of tree willows. We concluded that as British land owners seemed unprepared, unlike their continental counter parts, to plant newly bred poplars there was little scope for willows.
By the early 1960s our geographic and economic survey of the basket willow industry showed that the problems were mainly economic, caused by cheap imports of willows and baskets - and unfortunately, despite our combined efforts with the NFU, to the inability of growers to co-operate to achieve economies of scale and so enhance their collective competitiveness.
Diversification from willows became necessary. Kearns' prophecy had come true - and in 1964 building on my research in weed control in willows I assumed responsibility at Long Ashton for research on herbicides in fruit and amenity plantings. This brought me into collaboration with other scientists in this field but notably David Clay at the former WRO - here with us today.