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.