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Woodlands from plantations

Posted: Tuesday 8th December 2015 by NIA

Coppicing - Rupert PaulWoodlands from plantations

Trees are perhaps the thing that people associate most with wildlife, but woodlands are much more than trees, and for a woodland to be full of the flowers, birds, bees and butterflies that we all enjoy many other things have to be present.

One of the Nature Improvement Area’s main priorities is to make a real impact on our landscape by helping to change many of our young planted woodlands from groups of trees into wildlife-rich and attractive places to be.

Despite the changes that the Industrial Revolution brought to Birmingham and the Black Country, at the end of the 19th century the area was still a predominantly rural landscape, much of which supported a network of ‘ancient’ woodlands linked by diverse hedgerows. ‘Ancient’ woodlands are defined as those that have existed since at least 1600AD, but many of these will be much older, and some may well be remnants of the primeval forest that colonised the country when the ice retreated following the end of the last ice age.

These woodlands would have historically formed a vital part of a mixed landscape, where cultivated fields provided crops; pastures and meadows provided grazing and hay for the livestock which produced meat, milk, clothing and horsepower; and woodlands provided wood for heat, building, tools and furniture.

It was actually the suburbanisation of the 20th century that saw many of the features of this mixed agricultural landscape disappear from Birmingham and the Black Country (whilst in the countryside it was often changes in farming practice). There are, however, perhaps more ancient woodlands left in Birmingham and the Black Country than you might expect: there are clusters in our most rural parts, such as the west of Wolverhampton, to the south of Aldridge and in the south of Dudley and Birmingham, whilst perhaps more surprisingly there are also remnants scattered throughout even some of our densest built-up areas.

These remaining old woodlands are special and complex places that feel rooted in the past and which are full of plants, animals, archaeological remains and other features which tell a long and fascinating story about where we live.

By their very definition ancient woodlands are irreplaceable, but in the latter part of the 20th century hundreds - of often very small - new woodlands were planted. This went some way to replace the habitats that we have lost, however, there are many things missing from these plantations which may take hundreds of years to arrive on their own.

This is where the Nature Improvement Area partners, led by the Wildlife Trust, are picking things up: The new woodlands were planted densely to prevent the trees losing out to vigorous grasses and other plants in the scramble for light and nutrients, but once the trees began to mature they often became crowded and grew only thin trunks and small, weak canopies. This is not only bad for the trees themselves, but the lack of light that reaches the woodland floor and the lack of variation in the woodland creates few opportunities for woodland wildlife to thrive. Being so dense and dark also means, of course, that people can’t access the woodlands and enjoy them either.

The Wildlife Trust is running projects across Birmingham and the Black Country where we’re working alongside local volunteers and groups of school children to ‘thin’ the trees in these woodlands. This means removing up to about half of the planted trees to give those remaining the opportunity to flourish. Through being involved with these projects people are taking the opportunity to get out in the fresh air and do some exercise whilst picking-up important woodland management skills and learning about woodland wildlife.

But as said previously, it’s not just trees that make a woodland: a healthy woodland habitat comprises a diverse range of trees, shrubs, herbaceous plants and bryophytes (mosses and liverworts) that occupy different ‘niches’. In a typical local ancient woodland you might expect to see trees such as oak and ash forming the canopy, with perhaps mature rowan and field maple growing slightly lower. Commonly the woodlands will have a lower still ‘shrub-layer’, often dominated by hazel, a species that if left undisturbed will grow into a small tree, but when cut at the base throws up abundant new shoots to form a multi-stemmed shrub. This ability of hazel to ‘coppice’ so well (an adaptation to grazing by the animals which roamed the primeval forest) has ensured it has been favoured by farmers and woodsmen for hundreds - if not thousands - of years; its young flexible stems being ideal for numerous uses such as making fences or the wattle and daub walls of traditional buildings.

The shrub-layer of woodland is a vital component which provides breeding habitat and a food source for numerous birds, mammals and insects. With our volunteers and school groups we’re helping to create this within young plantations by coppicing (cutting at the base and allowing regrowth) hazel, and by planting hazel into woodlands where it wasn’t included in the original mix.

Below the shrub-layer you might expect to see a scattered layer of woody undershrubs such as bramble. Under and around this grow what are for many people the gems of old woodlands: the spring-flowering woodland plants such as bluebell, ramsons, primrose, wood anemone and wood sorrel.

Many of these ‘field-layer’ species are poor colonisers of new sites, moving through woodlands at perhaps only a metre a year, and they may never reach new woodlands - particularly where these are isolated by urban development. This is where the work of the Nature Improvement Area will make a unique difference to our landscape and will really help to create woodlands from plantations. As you may have read in this spring’s addition of Natural World (The Wildlife Trusts national magazine), we have a small army of volunteers collecting the seed of these ancient woodland ‘indicator’ species from our local ancient woodlands ready for sowing into our younger ones.

Projects have been happening in sites such Cannon Hill Park in Birmingham, Milking Bank in Dudley, Massey’s Bank in Sandwell and Smestow Valley Local Nature Reserve in Wolverhampton. If you’d like to get involved, or know of a site that might benefit from this type of project in the future, please contact us. This is crucial work that is helping to create an urban landscape permeated by a network of beautiful and vibrant woodlands that everyone can visit and enjoy. 

Simon Atkinson

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