Kingston St Mary Wood

Keeping Woodlands Alive

At our January meeting Jerry -Dicker of the Woodland Trust spoke to us on "Keeping Woodlands Alive". He explained clearly what was meant by "Native Woodlands", a term loosely handed about.

Since the end of the Ice Age, when this island became separated from Europe, we could count only thirty native trees. The real importance of ancient woods was the unique environment they created for fungus, flowers, birds, mammals and insects- Once trees were cut down, the area could not be regenerated.

The relation between the various elements is quite fragile. For example, dormice population often die out because they cannot travel far to find new territories.

In ancient times, woodlands was often surrounded by ditches to keep out animals which might destroy it, such as deer, wild boar, man. Why not see if you can find evidence of such ditches in your nearest woodland.

Today woodlands face diseases in trees, brought in by the importation of foreign trees. Finally Jerry Dicker urged us all to go out and enjoy our woodlands and to eat more venison since we do need to cull deer.

Barbara Seaton

Additional Report by Peter Johnson

The Woodland Trust is a body that exists to create, protect and restore ancient woodlands across Britain. Founded in 1972 with the purchase of Avon Valley Woods in Devon by retired farmer Kenneth Watkins it has grown to a large organisation with two hundred thousand supporters, a thousand active volunteers and has bought some 56,000 acres of woodland which are all free to Public access.

Jerry Dicker has worked for many years with trees and is the warden of a community woodland in Gloucestershire. The talk he gave is one of many that he delivers on behalf of the Woodland Trust and he used it to tell us something of the aims of the Trust, the importance of ancient woodland, its evolution and history, work in progress and some of the problems encountered.
Ancient woodland is defined as woodland composed of native vegetation. That is to say, woodland that has developed naturally since the last Ice Age.

As climate fluctuates, so do the species most able to survive. Thus the typical balance of native beech woodland in the south of England and the Scots Pine in Scotland may be in the process of change, with signs of many beech woodlands in the south coming under stress.

The woodlands take many centuries to develop to maturity, so part of the importance of the Trust's work lies in their efforts to prevent their destruction, because once lost, they are gone forever.

How do we know it's ancient? Historical evidence such as early maps is important, and so are archaeological features such as uneven boundaries and the siting of banks and ditches. Equally important are the plant species occurring. Obviously the trees themselves are of importance, and the main broad leafed species are well-known, though it is less well-known that a number of trees have been introduced by humans, many by the Romans, including walnut, sweet and horse chestnut and even the English Elm. Other good indicators are the smaller plants that are formed if woodland such as sanicle, yellow pimpernel, wood sorrel, dog's mercury, and wood anemone.

True ancient woodland probably does not exist today. As well as the introduction of tree species, humans have for a long time managed woodland as a resource, carrying out processes such as clearing,coppicing and pollarding. It seems that a date as recent as 1600 is taken as the "qualifying" date for ancient woodland, though this probably implies that it was already in existence at this time.

Ancient woodland stands in contrast to mono-culture conifer plantations. Here the aim is the maximisation of profit through the rapid cultivation of a commercial product. The tree species used are mostly non-native, the close planting excludes most undergrowth and the management of a crop of trees all of the same age further reduces the diversity of the habitat.

As well as plant life woodland can support a great range of other life forms including mammals, birds and insects, and diversity is vital to maintaining a range of species and life stages The trust has the ambitious aim of doubling the cover of ancient native woodland. The three strategies of creating new forests and protecting and restoring existing woodland require different approaches. Protection has involved campaigning and resorting to legal action where destruction threatens. As we know, development takes many forms and is a constant threat. Jerry reminded us that there is no statutory protection for ancient woodland.
The restoration strategy involves the purchase of suitable sites and their subsequent management, which involves making them open to public access and encouraging the development of various leisure pursuits from strolling to paintballing. On the principle that children last longer than adults the encouragement of the younger age group is vital.

The third strategy of creating new woodland is an exciting challenge and Jerry told us of the Trust's largest undertaking yet, which is the Heartwood Forest near St Albans in Hertfordshire. Here 858 acres are being managed with a range of new planting and importantly, the development of significant open areas to allow for the creation of species-rich woodland edge. A thought-provoking talk by Jerry and a very worthy cause.

Peter Johnson