Britain’s Woodlands

Woodland in Britain has been more important to our civilisation and wildlife than its decline over the centuries would suggest; on its future rests the survival of many of our native creatures.

Broadleaved woods, whose leafy glades epitomize for many people the gentle countryside of lowland Britain, are the environment of many of our more interesting plants and animals.

Among mammals, the easiest to see are the several kinds of deer, which live in woods and come out to feed in the surrounding fields.

Squirrels make their home high in the branches. Dormice, now rare, feed and live in underwood and shrubs. If you wait quietly you may glimpse the wood mouse and yellow-necked mouse, which sometimes forage for buds, nuts and insects high in the trees as well as on the ground. Other woodland mammals include common and pygmy shrews, bank vole, mole, hedgehog, weasel, stoat, fox and badger.

Woods are a rich habitat for birds. The common species, some of which also frequent gardens, are the robin, wren, blackbird, wood-pigeon. Chaffinch, chiff-chaff, great and blue tits and willow warbler. Less often you may hear, or occasionally see, cuckoo, woodcock, nightingale, and three species of woodpecker.

Insects and other invertebrate animals are plentiful in many woods. The most colourful creatures are the butterflies, such as speckled wood, small tortoiseshell and silver-washed fritillary. Which feed on sunny days on flowers in glades and at the woodland edge. Caterpillars, aphids and flies are the chief food of many of the birds. Dead leaves and rotten wood are the home of beetles, woodlice. Centipedes and millipedes.

Woods and human affairs

After the last Ice Age, the British Isles was almost entirely covered by trees — the natural ‘wildwood’ – until Neolithic men arrived in about 4000BC. These earliest farmers began to get rid of the trees to make agricultural land. It is likely that by the late Roman period (AD400) farmland and moorland — both man-made habitats dominated the English landscape. Quite large areas of woodland remained; some of these were cleared in Anglo-Saxon and medieval times, and others were turned into managed woodland and some still exist.

Britain has for many centuries been one of the least wooded countries in Europe; but woodland, despite its limited area, has been most important to our civilization as well as our wildlife. Woods are. To some extent, wild places, in that their trees and other plants grow naturally and have not been put there; but all our natural woods, except those which have been formed very recently, have been managed, often for many centuries, to yield successive crops of produce.

Well over a thousand years ago, our ancestors decided to set aside some areas of the remaining wildwood as ‘woodland’, producing crops of timber and underwood, and to use other areas as ‘wood-pasture’, combining trees with grass on which domestic animals grazed. They also had ‘non-woodland’ trees in hedges and fields. These three traditions of tree management have remained separate ever since; you can still see wood-pasture in Epping Forest and Richmond Park.

Much later (from the 17th century onwards) the custom grew up of growing trees in ‘plantations’. This fourth tradition is the basis of modern forestry, which is quite separate from the management of woods. Woodmen use the trees that grow naturally; foresters ‘plant’ their trees — which nowadays are usually conifers — disregarding any native trees that may already be there.

Not all woods are ancient, nor have all woods that are not ancient been planted. Left alone, the natural tendency of almost any land in Britain is to become woodland. Open land is invaded by trees such as birch and oak which readily colonize new territory. ‘Secondary’ woodland, formed in this way on land which used to be farmland, moorland, industrial waste-heaps, railway verges etc., will not be the same as an ancient wood; it lacks species such as hornbeam and lime. Which do not colonize easily, as well as many characteristic woodland plants.

14. November 2011 by Dave Pinkney
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