Dr Cat McNicol takes us on a guided tour of the woodland that so many of us take for granted, highlighting the work that is being done, and what we can all do to protect the landscape around us.
We all see trees in everyday life, be that the chestnut trees lining the road into town, the stubborn silver birch at the bottom of the garden, the lone oak in the field opposite the house, or the beech woodland where you walk the dog.
But how often do we stop and ask ourselves, how are these trees managed?
To many people, woodlands can feel like wild places, unmanaged and left to their own devices, especially when you are waist-deep in bramble on a beating line. From the outside, these woods are a constant presence requiring very little intervention, a bit like a scabby farm cat.
However, all woodlands in the UK today are managed to some degree, with their health now high up on government agenda as we try to combat climate change.
To ensure that our woodlands remain ‘future proof’ and look after us in a changing environment, we in turn need to look after them.
To understand the challenges that woodlands face now, we have to look at the past.
The pattern of woodlands and forests across Britain has not always been so patchy. Around 6,000 years ago, the country was fairly-well covered in trees (around 60% was woodland). These ‘wildwoods’ were not thick, dark and impenetrable blankets of trees but were scattered with open patches, scrub and grassland.
As human societies began to develop and agriculture began to flourish, these woodlands were slowly cleared to make room for food production. However, woodland was maintained in patches to provide fuel and materials for industry.
When society advanced, practices such as coppicing became common, woods began to have names and boundaries and they were owned and managed.
However, our need for wood became so great that by the early 1900s only around 5% of England was covered in woodland. This was when we saw the beginning of mass commercial planting of trees and a need to not only produce more timber, think conifer plantations, but also to reforest some of the land.
Now, in 2022, it is estimated that around 13% of the UK’s land surface is covered by woodland. Things are looking up, but we need to ensure these woodlands continue to thrive.
The woodland in the UK, and England specifically, has a fascinating and intertwined history with hunting.
Back in the 1100s, when we were still wearing chain mail and wielding swords, many kings were great huntsmen. Under their rule, woodlands were placed under the ‘Forest Law’ which protected the ‘venison and vert’ which referred to game such as red deer and wild boar as well as the habitat that supported them.
These protected woodlands and the surrounding land became known as Royal Forests, reserved for royals and those with their permission to hunt in. Some of these forests still physically exist such as the Forest of Dean and the New Forest but they are now open to all.
What we see from the past is that woodlands are intertwined with our lives. Healthy woodlands provide many benefits to us from flood mitigation to space for recreation, shelter belts to game bird cover, carbon capture to improved mental health…
Whether you own or manage woodland for timber production, sporting purposes, biodiversity, recreation or a combination of these reasons, there are several ways you can work towards your woodland being healthy and resilient.
By looking at a few factors, you can start to understand what aspects of your woodlands are already doing well and which areas you need to focus more management on.
Ideally woodlands will contain a spectrum of tree ages from young saplings which provide new growth and expansion of the woodland, right up to large ancient trees. These different ages and heights of trees provide varied structures for birds, insects and mammals to forage, shelter and nest in.
With a range of tree ages comes a range of tree heights. As ever, diversity is key. Are there thickets, scrubby edges, fallen and standing deadwood, open spaces such as glades and rides? A mosaic of different structures can support a wide range of plant and animal species and is the sign of a healthy woodland.
If possible, woodlands will comprise a mixture of native tree and shrub species, basically anything that has been in Britain since the last ice age! These species provide our native wildlife with their preferred habitats and food sources. It is important to remove or discourage invasive species such as rhododendron and laurel as these often out-compete native species and make woodland floors dark and nature poor.
Unfortunately, there is an increasing number of diseases and pests affecting trees in the UK. The most widespread tree diseases in the UK are currently ash dieback, Dutch elm disease and Phytophthora ramorum (which affects larch). We can reduce the chance of losing entire blocks of woodland to disease by encouraging a variety of tree species. Trees can become more vulnerable to disease or struggle to establish if they are also under pressure from browsing herbivores such as deer, rabbits and voles, so ensure you take the right steps in reducing this damage.
Isolated trees and woodlands are less likely to be resilient to environmental change or support healthy wildlife populations. By connecting woodlands up, wildlife can move more freely, putting less pressure on one area. Tree seeds can spread further. Simple changes such as restoring and maintaining hedgerows or planting trees on small strips of land can help to connect patches of woodland for not only game birds but other wildlife, as well as providing extra nesting and foraging habitat.
Although the trees stand still, woodlands do not. They are dynamic, ever-changing systems and there are so many ways to enhance your woodland for wildlife and game.