Upping our game in the woods

Shooting and woodland naturally work well together, and, by managing woodland correctly, we can maximise the benefits for all. And let’s not forget that increasing woodland cover and quality is a high priority in tackling climate change and biodiversity loss in the UK. 

Woodland creation

Much of the UK’s political and media attention is on increasing the amount of woodland – and for good reason. We are bound by international agreements and pledges to combat climate change and to restore biodiversity. Woodlands are central to these targets – they are key carbon stores and increasing their coverage could help offset the carbon that society cannot avoid emitting.

We know that shooting is a key driver for woodland creation. Peer-reviewed surveys of farms indicate that, over ten years, the ones with shooting planted ten times more woodland compared with those without.

We also know that well-managed woodlands have high biodiversity value because they have developed over hundreds of years when people managed their woodlands for timber and fuel.

Swinton women in shooting

Managing woodland

Since World War II, woodland management has declined but shooting does push back against that trend. Surveys carried out by GunsOnPegs indicate that over 80 per cent of shoots are actively managing woodland. GWCT research shows that where game shooting occurs on a farm, ride management, coppicing and shrub planting occur between four and seven times more frequently.

The most recent Forestry Commission data indicates that around 58 per cent of English woodlands are known to be sustainably managed. That’s either through a funding scheme or adherence to the UK Forest Standards. All rosy in the garden then? Not quite. 

Woodland ride

Condition of UK woodlands

The Forest Research’s National Forest Inventory (NFI) provides the information on the condition of all UK woodlands through a series of 15 ecological indicators. There are some key issues across the board. The shrewd reader will infer that being in a sustainable plan and good ecological condition are not always the same thing at the same point in time. In fact, the Woodland Trust used the NFI data to deduce that just seven per cent of Britain’s native woodlands are in good ecological condition.

The question is: do you know what ‘good’ looks like for both shooting AND the ecological health of woodlands? That is the core premise of the guidance we released this year, which focuses on four of the 15 ecological indicators that are most relevant to the game shooter or deer stalker and puts those targets in a context we can use.

Open spaces

Standards to aim for

  • For woodlands less than ten hectares: 0-10 per cent open space.
  • For woodlands greater than ten hectares: 10-25 per cent open space. The reviewed UK Forestry Standard is proposed to recommend ten per cent as a benchmark.

Benefits to shooting

  • Sunlight into release pens.

  • Flushing points for shoot days.

  • Glades for deer management.

  • Rides (wide) for increased woodland edge and standing Guns on.

Points to note

  • An open space needs to be at least 15m wide to qualify. This allows the profile – from grassland to shrub to main tree – to recreate itself, bringing with it all the species that need that transitional habitat. This also applies to flushing points and glades in woodland. They need to be 15m wide to count towards the open space in your woodland.


  • Letting open space fill in over time is a good thing. Consider opening new areas for glades when existing ones start to return to main trees.

  • Depending upon how much wood you need to remove, a felling licence may be required. Consider the health and safety of yourself and others. Get someone qualified and competent to fell trees.
Open spaces

Herbivore damage

Herbivore damage is a major issue in the first 30 years of establishing new woodlands. It is also a key reason why there is too little regeneration within established woodlands and why they cannot increase in size. Damage can come from a range of species, including domestic livestock and small mammals. However, two species are of particular concern and relevance to shooting: deer and grey squirrel.

Standards to aim for

  • No damage below 1.8m (deer,
    boar, farm livestock, hares, rabbits
    and mice).
  • No damage above 1.8m (grey squirrel).
  • In practice, we are looking for very low levels of damage. This will allow processes like regeneration of the trees and shrubs to occur and the tree limbs and crowns will be broadly healthy.

Benefits to shooting

  • Woodlands with good shrub and young trees provide cover for game and deer.

  • Trees planted or regenerating have a chance of establishing and growing into strong specimens.

Recognising and minimising herbivore damage

The Woodland Ecological Condition methodology considers damage below 1.8m could be caused by many mammals but above 1.8m it is assumed to be only grey squirrel. The critical element is damage below 1.8m, as this will always lead to an unfavourable condition score. This means deer management needs to be effective, and for most people that means a cull plan is required.

Grey squirrel management is critical and, if you have red squirrels or pine martens in the area, it is often best conducted through regular bursts of live trapping. Otherwise, you can use kill traps. This can then be followed up with shooting to keep the numbers down before you do another cycle of trapping. If you are providing feed for gamebirds, then ensure you pair that with effective grey squirrel control. Greys will take the feed and there is concern that without control you are enhancing their winter survival rates, which will lead to increased damage.

Herbivore damage

Role of deadwood in woodland management

Deadwood is a key part of a healthy woodland environment. That deadwood can be both off the ground as dead limbs or entire trees, or it can be on the ground in the form of stumps or fallen trees and limbs. Deadwood is broken down by fungi and invertebrates and some of those invertebrates are natural food for game. So it is especially important for gamekeepers to consider the recommended levels as a minimum, so they are confident there is a surplus for any natural foraging by gamebirds.

Standards to aim for

  • 20-80m3 per hectare.

  • Three fallen trees greater than 20cm diameter at breast height AND four standing dead trees per hectare (a truck load full of deadwood per hectare).

  • Exceed 20-80m3 per hectare if releasing gamebirds, to offset the invertebrates they eat. There are detectable changes in the numbers of some invertebrates (i.e. beetles) within 15m of release pens.

Benefits to shooting

  • Provision of natural food for pheasants.

  • Deadwood and brash can provide cover for gamebirds.

Points to note

  • Creating deadwood can be done through damaging the bark to kill limbs or even ring-barking a trunk for the whole tree.

  • You don’t need a licence for this, but do consider carefully where you do this. Standing deadwood brings with it risks of limbs falling on people.

Managing woodland and regeneration

Regeneration means making new, and in forestry that means trees and shrubs being able to produce enough new growth to replace themselves. To achieve this, a woodland will need to provide trees and shrubs with enough light, space and protection from herbivores for their seeds to survive and grow. So, while managing woodland, you’ll need to work towards meeting the open space and herbivore damage elements to achieve good regeneration.

Woodlands that can regenerate are good for game because they are ‘warm’ woods with cover. For the deer manager they’ll hold deer better and so it is important to make sure you have enough open space in the form of wide rides and glades to enable woodland stalking.

Regeneration levels in most woodlands are poor, and it can be difficult to spot what is not there. Make yourself check for seedlings, saplings and young trees. Are they there or not?

Standards to aim for

  • Trees 4-7cm in diameter at breast height present.

  • Saplings present.

  • Seedlings present.

Benefits to shooting

  • Woodland that can regenerate provides cover for game and deer.

  • It provides the right woodland structure for a wood that is attractive to game.

  • Increasing woodland coverage through natural regeneration avoids planting costs.

Woodland condition

Do also make a record of the condition of your woodland. Not only is it important so you keep track of its condition, but it also provides the key evidence BASC can use to show shooting’s conservation value.

Advice is essential unless you happen to be a forester by training. The main grant schemes across the UK for woodland creation and planting can gain you access to professional advice but for many landowners entering that process, this is a bigger step than they are willing to initially make.

The Sylva Foundation helps run a government-funded scheme (see below) to access advice. BASC has met the foundation to share ideas on what good woodland management should look like.

You can contact your BASC regional office for further information.

Woodland regeneration

Free woodland management advice in England

Landowners in England may be eligible to apply for a package of free advice to support woodland creation or management.

The free advice is provided under the PIES (Protect, Improve, Expand, Sustain) project funded by Defra and the Forestry Commission, delivered via a partnership between three organisations: Sylva Foundation, Forestry Canopy Foundation, and Grown in Britain.

Eligible landowners include those with existing woodland that do not have a current management plan in place, and/or any landowner interested in creating new woodland on their land. The offer is available only to landowners in England.

So far, 91 landowners with 3,000ha have benefited from the funded advice package, covering more than 400ha of existing woodland, and with 114ha of new woodland proposed.

How can the PIES project help landowners?

The PIES project provides a network of independent forestry agents to deliver high-quality and standardised advice to landowners across England. Landowners taking part in the project receive one-to-one advice plus ongoing online support and technical services. Following the initial advice and visit, plans and maps are shared with the landowner via a free account on the myForest online platform run by Sylva Foundation. The platform provides ongoing support, while simplifying the process of applying for government incentives and meeting regulatory requirements.

Beneficiaries are supported in planning to comply with the UK Forestry Standard, achieving Grown in Britain certification, and improving access to the Woodland Carbon Code. In addition, Grown in Britain Forest Certification is offered free for three years as part of the project, supporting eligible landowners in making the most of their woodland resource.

The PIES online application process has been designed to be straightforward. Read more and apply here.