woodland brambles

A short guide to brambles and when/how to remove them!

Brambles are natural colonisers

These thorny plants with the tasty fruits are woodland expanders and natural colonisers. 

Their role in nature is to colonise the woodland edge and throw out long shoots to expand the territory of the woodland itself.  The plants create a rich topsoil where they grow: the leaves become nutrient rich mulch as they fall, and the fruits attract birds whose nutrient rich droppings often have other tree seeds embedded.  These, and other wind-blown seeds, will grow up among the thorns which offer the seedlings protection in their early years.  

Brambles in schools

Many schools generally have small patches of woodland, or 10-30 year old tree planting areas.  Often neglected for years these ‘copses’ become great places for brambles to go about their day to day business of expanding the woodland naturally.

If you want to use the small woodland/copse/grove/thicket for Forest School (FS) activities, it is preferable to remove at least some of the brambles and open up the area.  (That said, we have just been working with a school whose FS site vegetation is only brambles!)

Removing a few brambles

If you have just a few brambles, then they can be easily cut back, and the ‘crown’ of the plant dug out and removed.  The crown is a swollen bulbous head just below soil level (see pic), once this is removed it is unlikely any further growth will occur. 

But what if you have extensive patches of bramble that have not been touched for years?  How do we get rid of these?

Bramble crowns best removed by pickaxe
Bramble crowns

Three ways to remove brambles

1. Chemical herbicide:

Triclopyr, trade name SBK, or Glyphosate, trade name RoundUp can be used to manufacturer’s instructions.  Cut back brambles to gain access.  Spray stems and remaining foliage – this may take 2-3 sprays.  Once dead, remove the bramble.

Problem: the cumulative time is never considered at the outset.  High carbon footprint.  The chemical kills all else leaving the ground bare and prone to other weeds which can take considerable energy to manage (nettles, etc).  To blitz the whole with herbicide will probably create longer term problems for you.

2. Excavator:

A skilled digger driver can rip out patches of brambles quickly.

Problem: the stringy bramble stems can often be resistant to excavator buckets resulting in a deeper ‘dig’ to get the crowns out.  As in Method 1, all the ground flora underneath the brambles will be lost, and other colonising weeds will be difficult to manage longer term. The ‘dig’ will result in a lot of soil being displaced; and it will be difficult to separate the brambles from the soil.  To blitz the whole with an excavator will probably create longer term problems for you.

Using a pickaxe to remove brambles. Thick leather gloves are a must.
Using a pickaxe to dig out the bramble crowns

3. Remove by hand using pickaxe/spade – Nov to May:

This is the BEST method for schools.

  • The task is labour intensive, therefore if you can get 5-10 volunteers, you should make big strides.  Use a long handled hedge cutting attachment to reach into the patch and take the long stems down, then get in and ‘pick’ (see below) or ‘spade/graft’ out the root crown.  This will preserve the existing ground cover (often ivies and other more delicate woodland vegetation) and provide a long term sustainable solution.
  • Go for a 9am-3pm session and if anyone can spare 2-6 hrs to contribute, then the day should be fun and constructive.  Good community building.
  • Any brambles that do come back can be targeted later with spot application herbicide – or dug by hand…. therefore, preserving the all-important ground layer.
  • Use the hedge cutter sparingly, so that people can see the bramble stools as they appear, and they know where to dig.
  • Put all brambles in one or two piles, using a pitchfork to carry them.  Towards the end of the day start a small fire, keep it contained and burn all the brambles – they burn easily and quickly.  Do a basic risk assessment and get someone to manage the burn.
  • For hand protection, use tough but inexpensive ‘Welders Gauntlets’.

‘Pick’ – similar to breaking/pulling up old slabs, use the pickaxe to get underneath the ‘crown’ of the bramble and lever it up.  The patch may require some cutting back to gain initial access (hence the long pole hedge cutting attachment), but once in, the removal is swift and effective.

Problem: minor scratches will appear on your arms.

Follow this link for a more detailed look at effective bramble removal