Raymond Cook at Priors Wood.Bluebells Priors Wood.

Ancient Woodlands

What do we mean by an ancient woodland and how does it differ from other woodland. The Woodland Trust defines an ancient woodland as one that has been in existence without a break since 1600. According to this inevitably rather arbitrary definition about a fifth of all English woodland is ancient.

The reason why ancient woodlands are so important is that they contain a great deal more wildlife than modern woodland. Wildlife begins from the bottom of the food chain and in ancient woodlands you have hundreds of years of leaf litter and rotting vegetable matter on the floor of the wood. Also you have many old and rotting trees with fungi, lichens and mosses growing on them These conditions provide sustenance for numerous small insects and various other micro-organisms, which in turn attract birds, larger insects, small mammals, such as mice, voles, shrews and bats, and they in turn attract larger birds, such as owls and birds of prey and larger mammals like foxes and badgers.

The plant life in an ancient woodland is also very different. Throughout most of the wood there will be a thick canopy of tall, mature, spreading trees which, from mid May to November, allow little light to fall on the woodland floor, thereby severely limiting what can grow there. Brambles, for example, which grow in such a bun dance in 'new' Weston Woods, are unable to grow in such conditions and in their place you find flowers, generally bulbs, such as bluebells, wood anemones and wild garlic, which flower in early spring before the trees come into leaf" When the canopy becomes too thick the stems, leaves and flowers die and the nutrients from them are slowly reabsorbed into the bulbs. Other plants which require very little light, such as ferns, dogs mercury and golden saxifrage, are also likely to be present.

But probably the most magnificent spectacle to be found in any ancient woodland is its majestic trees of great height and girth, often with holes which provide homes for birds and bats and are covered with lichens, mosses and fungi as well as climbing plants like ivy, old man's beard and black bryony. Oaks, beeches, ash, sweet chestnut and small leaf limes are the principal large trees to be found in ancient woodland, with smaller numbers of wych elm, hornbeam, wild cherries, field maples and whitebeam along with smaller shade tolerant trees like yew, hazel and holly growing below the canopy.

Priors Wood is an excellent example of an ancient woodland. Other ancient woods to be found in our area are Weston Big Wood, near Portishead (ST4575), Kings Wood, Winscombe (ST4155), Leigh Woods on the south edge of the Avon Gorge (ST5574), Towerhouse Wood, just north of Nailsea (ST4771) and Ebbor Gorge Woods (ST5248). Spring is a beautiful time to visit an ancient wood.

Raymond Cook