Unique in the Netherlands, our pride and joy
For hundreds of years, the craftsmanship of a withy worker was associated with rough landscapes, the unpredictable climate and the survival of the withybeds. A withy worker’s job is therefore a hard one, mainly due to the amount of heavy lifting and bending. In all weathers. True craftsmanship! A craft is broader than a profession, whereby you make something by hand. The focus is on how a product is made or how a service is delivered. Van Aalsburg B.V. has a motivated team of young and older employees, led by 6 brothers, who carry out this craft with passion. That is unique in the Netherlands.
The withybed worker, then and now
Withybed workers in earlier centuries were the epitome of poverty: hard work for little money. In winter these hard workers were away from home for 6 days and walked or rowed for hours to the withybeds. And back again. They slept in a self-built, draughty and damp hut.
The work in the withybeds has essentially remained the same over the years; they still chop wood and lug it through the mud. However, circumstances have changed; today, withybed workers go home every day and there are good facilities at work. They also use modern work tools, which make their job easier.
Cutting back trees
Tree cutting is still done traditionally, especially in areas that are inaccessible to machines. It is specialist work and it takes at least three years to learn the ins and outs. The knowledge and skill is often passed down from father to son. This was also the case with the Van Aalsburg family. The most important tool of a withybed worker is his razor sharp chopping knife. Many regional models have emerged over the years, such as a billhook, a curved harvesting knife and a teenmes. (pruning knife). Withybed workers choose a model according to their preference. And they sharpen their own knife themselves. Craftsmanship.
When the withybed worker has chopped down the wood, the branches are tied up in bundles (known as faggots). This used to be done with thin pieces of willow cordage but nowadays rope is used. Growing and processing willow to make cordage was very labour intensive and demanded a special tying technique. This technique is still mastered by a few specialists at Van Aalsburg B.V. The faggots are then dragged to a place accessible to larger equipment where they are all bundled together with thicker rope and transported to storage.
Withybeds are places where many pollard willows grow. These can be (former) fields or naturally created withybeds, such as in the Biesbosch and Rhoon. Withybeds have been planted and exploited in the Netherlands for centuries. The old withybeds are still maintained in the same old way, although they are now occasionally subsidised.
Willows and agriculture
A lot of low-lying land (or polders), especially near rivers, was formerly too marshy for agricultural work and therefore practically worthless to farmers. Farmers therefore chose to grow willow on this land. The best willow branches were destined for baskets, fish traps, furniture, stakes for supporting green beans, broom and shovel handles, and revetments. The remaining branches were used for hydraulic applications.
The willow thus became an important part of agriculture. These willow products can still be seen in some museums, such as the Biesbosch museum. Shortly after 1960, many willow applications were replaced by plastic. As a result, many old withybeds were abandoned and fell into neglect. The market imploded and so did the logging industry.
Maintenance and management
Nevertheless, several old withybeds continued to be maintained. They became important for tourism, conservation of our cultural heritage and nature conservation. They are now mainly maintained by Staatsbosbeheer, Groenservice Zuid-Holland or Landschapsbeheer Nederland. Van Aalsburg has maintenance contracts with these parties for over 100 hectares of traditional withybeds. We also manage new withybeds, which are planted and harvested by machines.
Van Aalsburg has the expertise and the equipment to maintain our cultural heritage. Especially in tidal areas. We have vessels to transport the harvested material over water. We can also transport the harvest over land with crawler vehicles with our own loading and unloading devices. These are compact, light-weight vehicles. They are therefore extremely suitable for manoeuvring over narrow paths and marshland.
We can skilfully and responsibly take care of:
- pollarding of the willows in the withybeds;
- trenching and dredging of the trenches
- mowing vegetation on paths and in withybeds
- pollard willow cuttings
- reed cutting
- laying of paving (clay shells) on trails
- planting of new withybeds.
The wonderful world of the pollard willow
The world of the pollard willow is a wonderful world. Pollard willows are a feast for the eye. A miracle. Artists study this world and give shape to their discoveries. The willow can be admired in many old drawings and paintings. Rembrandt drew Hieronymus beside the pollard willow and Van Gogh placed emphasis on the triangular-shaped pollard. No artist could resist painting the willow. Extraordinary!
A 250cm-high willow cutting no thicker than a thumb is planted in the ground and 3 years later cut back to the desired height. Another three years later, the willow is cut back again but it now has many more branches. The pollarding should be done with angled cuts and each time a little higher up. This process is repeated every 2 to 4 years and the pollard willow then grows taller and thicker throughout the years. Year after year, time and again, cut back after cut back.
The trees are important for plants and animals. This is apparent when you look closely at an old pollard willow. Many hollows, tangled branches, unreachable places and rough bark. Lots of moss and ferns, which feel at home on the tree. A paradise for all kinds of animal species. The hollows are used as a nesting and sleeping place. Birds find their food and hatch their eggs in the tree. Bats sleep there. Spiders, woodlice and centipedes flourish under the bark. Mosses and ferns grow in the crown.
The loyal tree eventually becomes so tall and so old and so rotten and so weary that it falls over. Perhaps during a storm. The old pollard willow is then replaced by a new willow cutting and the whole process is repeated. Century after century.
The new withybeds
Old withybeds are labour intensive, and the quality is not the best. That’s why Van Aalsburg B.V. has created a new world of new withybeds. They already cover some 1,500,000 m2 (150 hectares) of land. The focus is on species such as the ‘Silky-leaved Osier’ and the ‘Common Osier’.
Planting and maintenance
The new withybeds lie on the landside of the dykes on good, non-sandy agricultural land. Willows soon grow well there. The new withybeds have been planted with machines designed in-house, making the work more pleasant. No less than six rows are planted in the ground at the same time. The height, distance and driving speed are computer controlled.
The cuttings are pruned in winter and sawn into smaller cuttings. These are then planted in precise rows again in spring and are ready to be harvested in two years time. Van Aalsburg B.V. has designed its own machines in order to plant and harvest more efficiently. After approximately 8 harvests, the small pollard willows are then dug up and new willow cuttings are planted in the withybeds.
Unfortunately, the new willow trees are unable to avoid diseases or pests. Formerly, aerial spraying of pesticides was used as a combatant. But that was in the past. Van Aalsburg now uses a self-built installation that can spray up to a height of 6 metres over the withybed. This has resulted in a more accurate, eco-friendlier and cheaper way.
Harvesting starts at the beginning of autumn. Firstly, the willows are pollarded – the best material from the withybeds. The employees of Van Aalsburg B.V. have been trained in-house to select and cut down quality wood. The whips used for grafting or weaving are then bundled per 20-25 pieces, transported and processed.
The grafting whips are sawn off or cut to the desired height as required by the arboriculturists. Small trees are grafted onto these willow rootstocks and cultivated for ornamental horticulture. The whips for weaving are supplied unsawn in any desired size and type. Van Aalsburg B.V. can weave fencing with these whips for companies and private individuals. Enthusiasts can also ‘do it themselves’.
The residual product is cut off with the self-built harvester, which can be converted into a planting machine. And back into a harvester again. This dual-purpose machine can tie a bundle of brushwood in 11 seconds. In total, 300 faggots per hour and 2,400 per day and all with the help of just 2 employees compared to 24 men who used to do this manually. This means that there will always be enough material to make revetments and fascine mattresses.
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