Britain has seen nearly half of its ancient woodland destroyed or degraded since the 1930s and much of that has been due to over-planting with conifers for timber. These plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS) have the capacity to become attractive, wildlife-rich and useful community resources once more. But for many, time is tight because there is a limited period within which restoration can take place.
Soil is of great importance to ancient woodlands' continuity and successive conifer planting disrupts this irreversibly. "There is a specific web of fungi that must be undisturbed," says Woodland Trust site manager Michael Ryder. "Dead wood is home to hundreds of insects and fungi and when it breaks down the nutrients are replaced into the soil."
The trust describes rescuing these sites as a top priority. One that is returning to its ancient self after 20 years of labour is Northfield Wood, which is among the 26 ancient woodland sites Ryder manages in the east of England.
Bordering the village of Onehouse in Suffolk, the 33ha site is relatively large by ancient woodland standards. Records show ownership and management in Northfield Wood as early as 1264 with coppice records beginning in 1788. Rather than a pristine habitat, it has long been a working wood, with a particular history of charcoal-making from coppiced wood, evidenced by remaining kilns and coppice stools of 3m girth.
In the 1960s, it was extensively planted with Norway spruce and western red cedar. But many original mature standards remain, chiefly ash and oak as well as field maple, hazel and small numbers of birch and naturalised sycamore. The trust has drawn up five-year management plans for the site. "The restoration has worked well," says Ryder.
He explains that the task of rejuvenating the wood was not simply a question of clear-felling the conifers then waiting for nature to take its course. Phase one of the restoration consisted of selective conifer felling to allow light through the canopy.
An infestation of a forestry pest, the great spruce bark beetle (Dendroctonus micans), worked to the trust's advantage, gradually thinning the cover of Norway spruce. However, the site is currently under quarantine and all infected trees are felled with advice from the Forestry Commission.
Phase two involves fine-tuning conditions to favour re-establishment of native trees. Fast-growing bracken and bramble take over if there is a sudden large exposure to light, swamping other species. "We find bruising bracken with a horse and roller useful in allowing broadleaves to grow through the undergrowth," says Ryder.
Another regular task is mowing the edges of the wood's extensive network, which have been made more accessible. Meanwhile, coppicing is carried out to increase the diversity of habitats. "Hornbeam trees are particularly shady so are coppiced in rotation every five years to encourage floral diversity," says Ryder.
The felling is done almost entirely by volunteers from October to March, representing "thousands of pounds worth of work", he adds. All are thoroughly trained, although as yet lead volunteer John Michell is the only designated chainsaw operator.
Keeping people on-side
However, such work has to be carried out diplomatically. "Some people still complain about tree felling, but many will then see the changes and it has always been a positive thing." A variety of events in the wood helps keep locals on-side. "Events with musicians and woodturners may look impromptu, but they have been through extensive risk assessments and are certified," Ryder explains.
The diversity of species now at home in the woods is readily apparent. "There has been a vast improvement in fungi and flora life over the past decade. The indicator species have exploded and spread," says Ryder.
Orchids in particular, including twayblades, common spotted, greater butterfly and early purple, have reappeared in abundance. "We have seen a dramatic rise in white admiral butterflies due to an increase in honeysuckle," he adds.
But this can bring its own challenges. Northfield's insect and butterfly population is due to be assessed next year, but Ryder is concerned that specialist charities could try to influence the site's management as a result. "If a rare species is discovered, it will be because we have built a robust environment that supports as many different species as possible," he says. "We cannot focus on any one species in particular to the detriment of overall biodiversity."
The wood's financial sustainability has also been given a boost. "The firewood market is developing and broadleaf trees make good coppices," says Ryder. "They are more economical for producing firewood because you cannot coppice conifers."
The timber already felled by Ryder's team has been put to a range of uses. "At first we used an industrial chipping unit, supplying wood pulp for paper to a company in Wrexham, but it is miles away from here," he says. "Now it is mainly used for firewood because wood burners are popular in the area, but also for fencing by farmers."
Privately-owned ancient woods can provide a resource for country sports, he adds. "Broadleaf woodlands and their thicker ground flora provide good cover for game." But one species, the muntjac deer, Ryder sees as the biggest threat now facing Northfield. A trained deer manager surveys browsing damage every year and while any hunting is purely conservational, shot game can still be sold to local butchers. Revenue goes towards fuel for the chainsaw and supplies for volunteers.
Ryder is keen to encourage younger generations to interact with the woodlands. "We have regular visits from schools," he says. "Local scouts have 'cook-offs' in February. They sleep with their bivouacs and we provide them with a site and set up a raised fireplace. It's a great way to get people reconnecting with and respecting woodlands. But they are areas of conservation so we don't over sanitise them like parks. I think that people prefer it that way."
PAWS: facts and figures
- Ancient woodlands (continuous since at least 1600) occupy less than two per cent of Britain's landscape. They are highly fragmented, with most sites covering less than 20ha.
- An estimated 44 per cent of all ancient woodland, or 219,000ha, consists of plantations on ancient woodland sites (PAWS).
- Ancient woods often contain archaeological remnants that testify to their former use and are also considered part of their conservation value.
- The Forestry Commission offers grants to landowners to restore PAWS and also provides guidance along with the Woodland Trust.