Managing for Conservation

A Brief Wood­land History

Around three quar­ters of our coun­try used to be wood­land, and it man­aged for mil­lions of years with­out inter­ven­tion from man. But vir­tu­ally all woods today are the result of cen­turies of man­age­ment. Many woods were cleared for agri­cul­ture, with only 10% of land wood­land by the time of the Doomes­day book in the eleventh cen­tury. By 1800 the per­cent­age had declines to 4%, but since then there has been a grad­ual increase in wood­land cover again. Small estates planted areas for both tim­ber and sport­ing use, and then after the first world war there was a major pro­gramme of conifer plant­ing. More recently there has been an increase in plant­ing for con­ser­va­tion and amenity rea­sons, and we are now again approach­ing a 10% wood­land cover in this country.

But wood­land that were not felled were still much val­ued and used by local peo­ple or the lord of the manor. As well as occa­sional tim­bers for hous­ing, woods were often used for win­ter shel­ter for stock, fire­wood for heat­ing and a whole range of prod­ucts made from smaller round­wood. This could include hur­dles (now some­times found as dec­o­ra­tive pan­els in gar­den cen­tres) for pen­ning stock, or pro­vid­ing wat­tle for the walls of houses. Noth­ing was wasted.

In the low­lands, a com­mon prac­tice was cop­pice with stan­dards, a few large trees were left for tim­ber, and the rest were cut on a reg­u­lar rota­tion, vary­ing from seven to thirty years, and left to re-grow from the stumps. The oak wood­lands in the south west were fre­quently entirely cop­piced, with fence stakes, cleft tim­ber (split­ting along the nat­ural grain) and bark strip­ping (for tan­ning leather) also major uses. Fre­quently the cop­pice cycle died out around the first world war, when labour was in short sup­ply. Many woods have been largely left since, although cop­pic­ing has been mak­ing a come­back because it is so good for wildlife.

Achiev­ing a Balance

Cop­pic­ing is good for wildlife because it cre­ates a var­ied struc­ture within a wood, with a vari­ety of young and older trees. The glades cre­ated by cop­pic­ing are espe­cially good for wild flow­ers in the first three years after cop­pic­ing, with extra light get­ting to the wood­land floor. In later years, the young bushes pro­vide excel­lent areas for a wide range of wood­land birds, who tend to hide in the dark­est areas, but feed at wood­land edges, rides and glades. Leav­ing some trees for grow­ing to matu­rity pro­vides fur­ther homes for ivy, mosses and lichens, which in turn pro­vide a home for hun­dreds of kinds of insects.

Thou­sands of years ago nature achieved a bal­ance through the occa­sional falling of a mature tree and the growth of young ones in the clear­ing cre­ated. Occa­sional major storms might wreak tem­po­rary havoc, but in thou­sands of acres there was always an over­all bal­ance. Today’s woods are too small to main­tain that bal­ance on their own, and are often much changed by the pre­vi­ous inter­ven­tion of own­ers over the centuries.

For purely nature con­ser­va­tion, a good rule of thumb is to aim for a diverse struc­ture of trees, in age, height and species. A diverse struc­ture of trees pro­vides a wide range of habi­tat for other plants and ani­mals, and also pro­vides nat­ural pro­tec­tion against sud­den dam­age by storms such as the 1987 hur­ri­cane which par­tic­u­larly affected the south east of the country.

Get­ting Where You Want

This depends where you are start­ing from as well as where you want to go. Some­times very lit­tle needs doing, but at other times, a wood will ben­e­fit from thin­ning, to allow the best trees to grow to matu­rity. Thin­ning enables one to favour dif­fer­ent species, for exam­ple oak is par­tic­u­larly good for insects, and was much favoured in pre­vi­ous cen­turies for its tim­ber qual­ity. In con­trast sycamore is less good for wildlife, can spread very quickly, and also hap­pens to get chewed a lot by grey squir­rels, so the tops are often killed and end up look­ing like a giant flailed hedge!

Cop­pic­ing is an option, but beware it is very labour inten­sive, and the bram­bles do run riot for a few years, so it is not some­thing we would rec­om­mend very often, unless you have a local out­let for the pro­duce. The odd fallen tree is likely to meet your own fire­wood needs.

Sell­ing tim­ber is how­ever, we believe a good thing. Grown well and replaced, it is a sus­tain­able, renew­able resource. Fire­wood does not con­tribute to global warm­ing, pro­vid­ing it is taken from a wood­land under good man­age­ment, where regrowth will replace the wood taken for burn­ing. Grow­ing and sell­ing conifers (soft­wood) in com­mer­cial plan­ta­tions can also be under­taken in a sym­pa­thetic man­ner, and reduce our need for imports. True con­ser­va­tion includes pro­tect­ing the earth for future gen­er­a­tions, and that includes grow­ing our own needs, instead of buy­ing imports that may be con­tribut­ing to clear­ance of woods in other coun­tries. When you do buy tim­ber prod­ucts, one safe way to know you are get­ting it from a safe source is to look out for the Forestry Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil logo.

Some Com­mon Problems

  • Rhodo­den­dron and lau­rel were often planted for land­scape or game cover, but can smother a wood, pre­vent­ing young trees grow­ing as well as killing off the ground flora. If they spread too far, we rec­om­mend cut­ting and burn­ing, and then either pulling the stumps up, or on big­ger sites, spray­ing the regrowth with Round-up herbicide.
  • Ani­mals graz­ing in a wood can pre­vent regrowth of trees. Some nat­ural brows­ing by deer is fine, but if the neigh­bour­ing farmer allows his stock to shel­ter in the win­ter, then the answer is a new fence!
  • Young trees do need look­ing after for the first five years, when they are vul­ner­a­ble to graz­ing (often rab­bits), drought (espe­cially in the first three years and when sur­rounded by grass), or bram­bles (a com­mon prob­lem in wood­land glades. In nature the trees look after them­selves, but think of the wastage rate between the num­ber of acorns pro­duced and a mature oak tree. The answers are rab­bit guards, spot spray­ing with round-up, and strim­ming respectively.
  • Areas replanted are often spaced quite close together, and thin­ning is needed, to both give the remain­ing ones space to develop prop­erly, or also to try and grad­u­ally con­vert the area to trees of dif­fer­ent ages.
  • Storm dam­age is an occa­sional prob­lem, bet­ter avoided by care­ful man­age­ment to get an uneven aged struc­ture. You can clear the mess and replant, but if its only one tree, then why not leave it as a habi­tat for minibeasts and bugs? Over one third of species in a wood depend on the dead and decay­ing tim­ber and leaf litter.

Look out for the Forestry Stew­ard­ship Coun­cil logo when buy­ing wood or wood products.

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