A Few Basic Tips
We’ve owned our woodland since 2006. When we first bought it, we had no experience of woodland management and sought out information on how to manage it in order to enhance and protect the habitats it contained. Since then, as well as reading about subject and getting a lot of hands on experience, managing our own woodland and others, we have benefited from the advice of many experts including ecologists, foresters, nature reserve managers, mycologists and a plethora of other people with an interest in various aspects of woodland ecology. The advice that we’ve been given has been varied and sometimes contradictory reflecting the particular interests and priorities of the person giving the advice. We have always tried to listen with an open mind and give good consideration to their input before making our own minds up about their approach and how much we’ll follow it. The following is some of the advice that we’d give someone in the position that we were in when we first bought our woods. Of course, you may well not have bought woodland entirely to protect wildlife, and you will have to find your own balance between your own competing priorities.
For The First Year, Just Observe
When you’ve just bought land, especially when you want to improve habitats for wildlife, you are full of enthusiasm and want to get started, but until you’ve seen the land through a complete year, you don’t know what hidden gems there are. Of course if there’s work that needs to be carried out for safety reasons or immediate threats like Japanese knotweed, do it. Also, you may want to carry out a minimal amount of work to allow you to observe the woodland over the year, such as setting up some seating and cutting back brambles that are encroaching on paths, but don’t be tempted to do more than this until you really know your land and have seen it through all of the seasons.
Get guide books or use online identifying aids such as https://www.ispotnature.org/ and try to identify as many species of flora, fauna and fungi as you can. You never know when you will come across something really rare that will change your priorities when it comes to conservation. You don’t want to build a habitat pile, thinking that you’re enhancing the habitats, just to find that it’s in the middle of a patch of bee orchids. Even if you don’t find anything rare, it will give you a much better understanding of the ecosystem that you are managing, how the various species interact and what environmental factors they rely on. This information is essential as a basis for managing the complex series of habitats that make up your land.
Good Management Is Beneficial
A common misconception is that nature is best left to itself and that we should rewild land through a policy of non-intervention. On a large enough scale and with enough time for the eco-systems to balance out this would create beautiful, natural landscape with a healthy eco-system. You would ideally have a few thousand acres to prevent your neighbours farming activities affecting your land too much and millennia to allow the eco-system to settle down. To make the most of a small wood in your lifetime, a different approach is required. We’re not talking about a “man conquers nature” approach to woodland management, but something more along the lines of giving nature a helping hand and trying to correct the damage previously by humans. For instance, we have gradually removed the Norway spruce that was the dominant tree species in our wood when we bought it. In doing so other trees and plants have flourished which have more symbiotic relationships with the other species present. In another wood, we’ve been removing some of the large beech trees which have created a dense canopy and thinning the thick layer of holly that forms the understory. The canopy is still predominantly beech and there is still plenty of holly, but now light gets to the ground and a healthy herb layer has formed and there are bluebells coming up. The amount of intervention that a woodland requires is dependent on a number of variables, but it is unlikely that non-intervention is the best approach.
Don’t “Tidy” Your Woods
Someone that we spoke to years ago told us that it was “a nightmare owning woods” because they’d tidied up all the litter that was lying around the floor of the woodland over the summer and burned it, just to have their efforts undone over the winter as high winds had covered the ground in more leaves, twigs and branches. As well as this being a bit amusing in a King Canute type of way, it’s also deeply sad. The leaf litter that they were tidying up was the home to many species that they have no understanding of. Many of these species do not seem very exciting or attractive in their own right and some of them are unattractive to the average person, but even the most basic understanding of biology shows us that they are an integral part of the woodland ecology. If you remove the habitat that insects live in, you lower the quantity of insects. Then insect eating animals and birds suffer. When insect eating animals and birds suffer, so do their predators and the effect goes up the food chain. Of course, there are also many more complex connections than this, which mean that deterioration of seemingly unimportant parts of the ecosystem effects the whole ecosystem.
Avoid Burning The “Waste”
There is no Waste in Nature. The brash that you have left over when you’ve cut down a tree and taken everything that you can use is home to lots of species and is capable of being home to many more. Depending on the situation, you could make habitat piles, dead hedges or just leave it where it lands. Dead hedges and habitat piles harbour rabbits which are not popular with foresters. However, they also provide nesting sights which are safe from predators for various birds, homes for a number of mammals and insects and substrate for fungi and create wildlife corridors allowing small mammals and invertebrates to move from one area of the woodland to another in safety. If the pile is large enough, the bottom of the pile will break down anaerobically, depositing carbon in the soil which is in effect carbon sequestration and makes a healthier soil. Even if the pile breaks down over time completely and all of the carbon that would have been released into the atmosphere by burning is eventually released by decomposition, in the meantime, it has provided valuable habitat services and has played a vital role in making your woodland more wildlife friendly.
There is an issue with leaving the brash to rot if -when it decomposes- it’s going to increase the nitrogen in a particularly sensitive woodland environment. It’s partly the low nitrogen levels that are responsible for the amazing displays of flowers in the coppice, but in most woodland, we believe that it’s the best option. If you have an ancient woodland, do be careful where you build habitat piles and dead hedges.
Leave The Ivy Alone
If the desired outcome of your woodland management is to create a sterile environment in which to best monitor tree health, cut the ivy back. Otherwise, it’s almost always best to leave it alone. Ivy is not parasitic on trees. It has its own root system and does not take nutrients from the tree. It just uses the tree as a support. It provides nectar for bees in winter when little else is around, which gives them a food source if unseasonable weather causes them to come out of hibernation too early. Birds eat its berries. It makes fantastic roosts for bats and nest sights for everything from wrens to owls. It creates habitat for hundreds of types of invertebrates, which then feed the bats and the birds. It really is more of a complete habitat than almost any other plant.
We recently cut the ivy off 2 trees. They’re ash trees growing on our neighbours land and they are on the roadside. Because they’re ash trees, they’ll probably get chalara fraxinea (ash dieback) and removing the ivy will allow us to monitor them more effectively and removes weight and sail effect from them which could speed up their demise as the chalara takes its grip. We haven’t cut back any ivy on our own land or any of the other woodland that we’ve managed. The extra weight and the sail effect isn’t relevant on a healthy tree. Trees compensate for their environment, which is why a tree that grows in the middle of a windy field will take high winds without breaking where a similar sized tree grown in the middle of a woodland will suffer windblow if you remove the rest of the trees and let high winds in.
Be Aware Of The Impact Of Dogs On Wildlife
Not allowing dogs in our woods is probably the most controversial of the decisions that we’ve made on ecological grounds. Clearly, if you have a dog, you’re not going to do that, but whether or not you have a dog, it’s worthwhile bearing their impact on habitats in mind. You may decide that dogs have to be kept on a lead during nesting season or excluded from a certain part of your woodland that hosts a particularly rare or vulnerable habitat. You may decide to make large habitat piles that cannot be broken up by dogs, so that birds have a refuge. There are many ways to lessen their impact.
It is widely understood that dogs are devastating to ground nesting birds and many woodland birds are either ground nesting or, like to nest at low levels. It is less widely understood how they affect birds outside nesting season. During the winter, woodland birds and mammals survive on a low level of nutrition, due to less food being available. They conserve energy as much as possible. Inevitably some of them will not make it through the winter, especially a harsh winter. We have woodcocks that overwinter in our woods. Left to themselves they just sit in a damp place, but if you go too near them, they head off into the air in a very panicked looking and highly energetic flight. If they have to do that too many times in a harsh winter, they won’t make it to spring. Understandably, woodcocks are scared of dogs, even at a distance, even on a lead. The same goes for many other species of birds and mammals.
There are also issues with dogs urinating and excreting in the woods. Firstly, the urine and excrement contain high levels of nitrogen and phosphate, which will adversely affect the woodland flora which is very sensitive to nitrification and fungi which is detrimentally affected by a rise in the levels of both nitrogen and phosphate. The result will be a dearth in the mycorrhizal network in areas of high dog activity. Where dog activity is high along the woodland ride network, there may be breaks in the mycorrhiza. This may prevent the spread of the mycorrhizal network from one area of the woodland to another and prevent it from transferring nutrients and signals to, from and between trees.
Then we have the medication issue. One of the most popular drugs for dogs is Frontline. The active ingredient is Fipronil which is an insecticide, which has had its use controlled by the EU as it’s implicated in pollinator decline. The average dog excretes enough Fipronil to kill around 200 bees per day. With ride-side habitat being rich in wildflowers, it is popular foraging ground for bumblebees.
A manager of a publicly owned nature reserve, recently told us that, in the battle between public expectation and nature conservation, public expectation won out, which is why they allow dogs. We have a private woodland and so don’t work under the same constraints as he does. It costs us bookings for our cabin, but we think that it’s worth it.
Brambles Are Part Of The Woodland Cycle
Brambles growing across paths are clearly undesirable and need to be controlled. The same goes for brambles growing across seating, firepits and other areas that you want to access. If you’re managing glades as species rich grassland you need to keep them clear of brambles. We cut brambles a lot. However, they are also a really valuable part of the woodland ecosystem.
Bramble bushes make great nest sites for a number of birds and provide protection with their thorns, they provide and important food with their berries for everything from invertebrates to foxes and they protect young saplings as they grow. Although brambles do shade out small saplings, if you leave a bramble patch alone, trees will always grow up through it and as well as protecting the trees from a number of animals with its thorns, roe deer actually prefer bramble to most trees and it distracts them from eating the trees. If you were to carefully cut the bramble from around all of the naturally regenerated saplings and leave them in full sunlight, chances are a deer would walk through at some point and eat the lot. When you first clear brambles, you may well see a beautiful display of woodland flora, but these flowers have evolved to grow in the sunlight of a briefly lived glade as trees fall and create light patches in the woods or in the early spring when the leaves are not out on the trees yet. If you keep the patch clear and keep it in the light, year on year the woodland flora will almost definitely be superseded by grasses and other non-woodland plants and you will lose that beautiful display. If you let the bramble grow, trees will grow through it, they will shade it out and it’ll create the habitat that the herb layer of the woodland has evolved in.
Where we have a bramble patch that is competing with a plant that we want to encourage we often put on big leather gauntlets and reach in to the main stems of the bramble and cut them. By doing so, we leave the spikey dried stems to protect the other plants. We have a design of a tool to do this without the inevitable scratches that occur with our present method, which we intend to get a blacksmith friend to make. The bramble itself grows back relatively slowly as it’s left in the shade under a clump of stems, giving the other plant an advantage.
Don’t Work In Nesting Season
Unless there is a real danger from not acting, you shouldn’t cut trees down during nesting season. Theoretically, you can do a survey of a tree to see if there are nests, but these are always limited in their scope. It’s easy to miss a small nest or nest hole in a tree and in the woods, they are even more complex because you’ll be felling the tree through habitat. To be thorough, you’d have to check any trees that it may brush against, the herb layer for nests.
It’s not just felling trees of course that disturbs nests. Birds nest in your brash piles, in bramble, in your log stacks and even in the crooks and crannies of your forestry machinery if it’s sat around not doing anything at the wrong moment. You should check for nests before carrying out pretty much any activity in the woods in nesting season. Avoid carrying out any major bramble clearance or moving brash, because you’re unlikely to see the nests until it’s too late however hard you look and birds nest gets really messy when you hit it with a brushcutter.
Work In One Place At A Time
This is less important if your woodland is a small part of a larger woodland, but it is always worth bearing in mind. As soon as you start working in your woods, you will to some extent disturb the wildlife. Animals and birds will flee to other parts of the woodland. As soon as they get to a safe distance, they will start to calm down and get back to eating and living their lives. If you move around the woods a lot whilst working, you risk chasing them around the woods, causing them to use excessive energy running away from you and preventing them from regenerating their energy levels by eating. Doing so can cause serious issues and even kill vulnerable animals. If you work in one spot at a time, it will benefit the wildlife in your woods. For instance, if you’re using a brushcutter to clear the rides in your woods, try to avoid doing them all on one day, instead you can carry out the task over a number of days.
Don’t Use (Agri) Chemicals In The Woods
We have never used herbicide, pesticide, fungicide or fertilizer in the woods (or anywhere else) and would discourage others from doing so. The argument for using agri chemicals has remained the same at least as far back as the 1970s. It relies on the chemicals being tested and safe for you and the environment. Since the 1970s, over 140 chemicals that were classed as safe to use have been found to be so damaging to our health or to the environment that they have been banned. Of course, the chemical companies put millions into lawyers and misinformation campaigns to protect their interests, so you can be pretty sure that all the banned chemicals needed to be banned. A Monsanto exec claimed in an interview that Roundup was completely safe to consume, but then refused to drink the glass of it that was offered to him. If you spray a dandelion, a bee might consume it when collecting pollen or a goldfinch may consume it when eating the seeds. We would reluctantly agree to the use of glyphosate on rhododendron or Japanese knotweed, but even then, this should be carried out by someone who is properly trained so that damage is minimised.
Herbicides, pesticides and fungicides kill in a relatively indiscriminate manner. It is near impossible to ensure that only the target species is affected, especially when dealing with very small secondary species. If you are going to use them, consider whether you would be happy drinking a couple of pints. This is the equivalent of 700 honey bees or 5 goldfinches consuming a millilitre between them.
Fertiliser is completely inappropriate for use in woodlands. It will just encourage non-woodland species (mainly grass) to out-compete the woodland species.
Be Careful What You Introduce
We have mainly stuck with native flora in our woods, with the exception of fruiting trees and bushes. Partly the reason for this is that native trees tend to have more symbiotic relationships with invertebrates than non-native trees. If you look after the invertebrates, you help to support the whole woodland ecosystem through the establishment of a healthy food-chain. We introduce non-native fruiting trees, because the blossom and fruit provide food for invertebrates, birds and mammals. When introducing any new species to the woods, you should ask yourself how it spreads, how big it will get and if there are any foreseeable issues with its introduction.
Italian alder has become popular with people who practice permaculture because of its ability to fix nitrogen and its immense growth rate. This is fantastic in Martin Crawford’s land locked forest garden, but it spreads its seed by dropping it into water, so if you plant it on the side of the river, it will start popping up all along the river banks between you and the sea. This may irrevocably damage vulnerable habitats that you are completely unaware of. It’s possible to plant bamboo as a screening plant and control it so that it doesn’t spread, but that’s only good for as long as you are there to control it. If subsequent owners are not so vigilant, it may become the dominant plant in your woods, shading out the native species.
The Importance of fungi in a Woodland Ecosystem
Fungi are not nearly as well understood as plants and animals. To an extent this is probably a hangover from the days when the church condemned the study of fungi as witchcraft. Fungi are treated with fear and distrust. This is justified by citing poisonous species such as the deathcap. This makes little sense when you consider that, even with the number and range of poisonous plants in existence, few people if any have a blanket fear of plants. Fungi are fascinating to study and play a vital role in nature, particularly in woodlands.
When people think of fungi, they normally think of a mushroom or toadstool as if it is an entire living entity. It is in fact only the fruiting body of a larger being. Most of the fungi is made up of a mass of hyphae which are thread like fibres, known as mycelium which make up a structure which occupies the forest floor and topsoil as well as rotting wood and even living trees. Some fungi are even parasitic on animal life and their mycelium will invade and destroy their living host.
Breaking Down Dead Vegetation
The first and most obvious role that fungi play in a woodland ecosystem is to break down dead vegetation. We are so used to the effect of fungi, that we see it as entirely normal that when a tree falls over, if left on the ground for long enough, if will disappear into the soil. However, if there was no fungi, all the dead vegetation would pile up on the woodland floor and smother the ground layer and herb layer.
Improving soil structure
As hyphae grow into networks and create glomalin which is a naturally produced glue, they aerate the soil, which reduces the effects of compaction, whilst holding it together, which makes the soil less prone to wind or water erosion. This creates a soil structure which absorbs water better, is more favourable for root growth, less prone to future compaction and has more microbial activity. Overall, fungi is essential for woodland soil health.
By breaking down the dead vegetation, fungi release the nutrients, turning it into rich fertile soil. They then take this process further by forming a mycorrhizal relationship with trees where they deliver water and nutrients to their roots in a form that allows the tree to absorb it effectively. In return, the fungi receives sugars that the tree has produced through photosynthesis. In this symbiotic relationship, the fungi’s mycelium acts as an extension of the tree’s own roots, which assists the tree. This is particularly important in nutrient deficient soil and times of drought, when the fungi’s hyphae are more able to access the available water and nutrients than tree roots are. These relationships between fungi and tree have developed over millennia and some of the species specific associations are better known than the mechanism behind it. Many people know that birch trees and fly agaric fungi flourish together. Fewer are aware that they’re sharing out their rations under the ground.
Assisting Communication Between Trees
The mycorrhiza does not just interact with a single tree, but forms a mycorrhizal network between trees allowing the transfer of chemical signals from one tree to another, as well as distributing nutrients between trees. These chemical signals may include defense signals where chemicals indicate that a tree has been damaged in some way and allelochemicals which regulate the growth rate of other plants. The tree’s response to these signals may include extra root growth to prevent drought damage where nearby ground has become dry, or an increase of chemicals that prevent predation by caterpillars where a neighbouring tree has been attacked by caterpillars, even though there is no damage on the tree receiving the chemical signals. As well as being fascinating, it is a great illustration of why we should view the woodland ecosystem holistically, rather than concentrating on specific species.
Looking after the mycorrhizal network
In an ancient woodland, there will be a healthy mycorrhizal network, which has developed over centuries. This is a fantastic asset that you should nurture. In a PAWS woodland, the network may well be relatively healthy in pockets, but will have been degraded in part. You do not have to feed it or maintain it as such. By ensuring that you don’t overly damage it and maintaining the tree species that it has symbiotic relationships with, you will allow it the conditions to thrive. Never use fungicide in a woodland and avoid disturbing the soil as this reduces the quantity of mycorrhizae. Try to ensure that no chemicals run off from any surrounding fields as fungicide is used agriculturally. If you plant a new woodland, the mycorrhizal network of the surrounding hedges will probably start to colonise the woodland. You can accelerate this process by adding mycorrhizal inoculant to the trees that you plant, or you could transplant saplings (with the owner’s permission) from a woodland that has a healthy mycorrhizal network, in which case, the soil around their roots will contain mycorrhizae.
Enjoy Your Woodland Fungi
There is of course a reward for you in maintaining a healthy mycorrhizal network as you will then have a diverse mixture of fungi in your woodland, including edible fungi. If you leave more than you pick, this is a sustainable source of delicious free food. We started our interest in fungi, through our interest in foraging, but by doing so we opened the door to a subject which is both fascinating and extraordinarily misunderstood. From the exquisite sight of fly agarics amoungst the birch to porcelain fungi which look like jellyfish in trees, or Hericium erinaceus with their delicate spines in the style of a waterfall, fungi come in all shapes and sizes. Belonging to neither the animal, nor the plant kingdom, fungi are out on their own, working away at keeping the world as it should be, almost completely unnoticed.
It is useful to divide woodland flora into different layers. Of course, nature being nature, sometimes, you will be able to see 4 clearly divided layers, but more often there will be some blurring between layers. For woodland management purposes, the layers are generally described are listed below.
The tallest and most mature trees in the woodland form the canopy. This layer can potentially shade out the other layers, depending on species of tree and the “canopy cover” which is a phrase used to describe what percentage of the woodland, the canopy shades out. If you have 100% canopy cover made up of beech trees, almost no light will get through it. If you have 100% canopy cover of oak or ash, much more light will get through due to their leaf structure and the translucence of their leaves. If you reduce the percentage of canopy cover or alter the species mix to favour more translucent canopied trees, the layers below will benefit from the extra light.
Understory / Shrub Layer
This is made up of younger trees and trees that are not capable of growing to the full height of the canopy and are relatively shade tolerant. Immature canopy trees in the understorey are often quite spindly in their form as they put their energy into growing tall to reach the canopy. Trees such as hazel and holly spread out more to catch what light they can through the canopy. Holly has an advantage as it is coniferous, so its leaves can catch the light through the winter, when the leaves have fallen from deciduous trees in the canopy. If allowed to grow unchecked, holly can be so successful that it completely shades out the herb layer below.
Herb Layer / Field Layer
Made up of ferns, bracken, bluebells and other low lying woodland flora, these are plants that are especially adapted to the woodland environment. Some are shade tolerant, some like bluebells take advantage of the light that hits the woodland floor in early spring before the leaves are out on the trees above. Some plants only appear when a break in the canopy is formed by a tree coming down, causing light to penetrate the canopy until other trees grow to fill the space that it left. Then the plant will disappear until another hole is made in the canopy. Ancient woodlands generally contain a rich seed bank which will create a beautiful display of woodland flora when the light levels allow.
The ground layer consists of mosses and very low growing plants such as wood sorrel as well as climbing plants that are growing along the woodland floor before finding a tree to climb. In wet woodlands, there may be a dense layer of moss across the woods and growing up the trees. In drier woodlands, there will be far less moss.
Climbers may be found in all the woodland layers. Ivy is the most common woodland climber followed by honeysuckle. Both of these create great habitat. Honeysuckle will wind its way around trees and restrict their growth. This creates beautiful twisted branches which can be used to make naturally ornate walking sticks and other craft objects.
Types of Woodland
Ancient Woodland / Ancient Semi Natural Woodland (ASNW)
Ancient Woodland is defined as land that has been continuously been woodland since at least 1600. It is one of the most important habitats to preserve that we have in the UK. If you have stewardship over ancient woodland, you have taken on a responsibility to maintain habitats which have survived for centuries and should take great care to do so as well as possible.
Many of the species within the woodland will be specialist species which can only survive in that particular environment. Certain plants in this category are known as “ancient woodland indicators”. These include: wood sorrel, wild daffodil, wood anemone, bluebells and Golden-saxifrage. If your woodland contains these plants, it is probably ancient woodland. It is also possible to go through old maps and records to discover the history of your woodland to discover if it is ancient woodland or not.
Plantations on Ancient Woodland Site (PAWS)
Like ancient semi natural woodlands, plantations on ancient woodland sites are ancient woodland, but they have been clearfelled and replanted as a plantation (see below). This type of woodland will still have the seedbank of an ASNW and in places, there may be remnants of semi natural woodland. Especially where these woodlands are planted with conifers, the woodland ecology will be greatly degraded and often, there will be almost no layers to the woodland structure except for a dense canopy that has shaded out everything below. Because the seed bank tends to be surprisingly resilient, these woodlands spring back into life when a more sympathetic management approach is applied. If you have patches of undisturbed ASNW bordering the PAWS woodland, fungi and woodland flora and fauna will soon re-inhabit the woods.
A woodland plantation is land that has been planted with trees as a crop, with the intention of thinning them as required to get the best growth for the chosen market, clearfelling them and replanting. The trees which are intended to be clearfelled at the end are known as the “final crop” and this system is close to agriculture or horticulture in its methodology.
Even Aged Woodland
Even aged woodland results from growing trees as a plantation, or from neglecting a woodland so that the trees form a dense canopy, shading out any growth below. Over grazing and browsing by deer or livestock can also suppress growth of the herb layer and understory, thereby creating an even aged woodland. A few species, such as the wood warbler, love a woodland with a closed canopy and little or know understory, but generally you will have a richer woodland ecosystem if you have at least some growth at all levels.
Where trees are planted with the specific purpose of acting as a wind break the resulting woodland is known as a shelterbelt. Generally, these will contain at least some coniferous trees. They tend to be in strips like overgrown hedges and this shape allows a lot of light to penetrate, making them a rich resource for wildlife. They also act as wildlife corridors. If you have a shelterbelt that runs East to West, the south side will offer a favourable micro-climate for fruit trees and the wildlife that they support.
Low Impact Extraction Methods
When you’ve felled a tree, you then need to extract the timber from the woods. In commercial forestry, this is mainly done using heavy machinery which requires wide tracks and causes a lot of damage to the ground. Where a woodland is being managed for wildlife, a more sympathetic approach is required. There are a number of options to achieve this.
We use a tatty old quad and a small trailer to extract the wood that we use for charcoal, with extra wide (flotation) tyres which prevent it from sinking or causing ruts in the ground as much as it would with narrower tyres. We’ve talked about getting a timber arch to go on the back of the quad which would allow us to extract larger timber, but we don’t handle much large timber and haven’t yet justified the cost to ourselves. We try to work with the weather and only extract timber when the ground is relatively dry and we drive our quad slowly, taking corners wide where possible to do as little damage to the land as we can. For many people, a quad does encourage fast driving and if you race your quad around the woods, it can no longer be classed as “low-impact”. If used correctly, it is a convenient way to extract wood whilst causing minimal damage and will allow you to get to parts of your land that big extraction equipment cannot get too.
Horselogging seems like a thing of the past. It’s easy to imagine that its appeal is more that of a working museum than a serious part of forestry, but it certainly has a place in modern forestry. There has been a resurgence in extraction using horses in recent years as individuals and organisations such as the forestry commission seek effective ways of extracting timber without causing unnecessary damage to habitats through ground compaction or the construction of large tracks for heavy equipment. Like a quad, a horse can get through small gaps between trees compared to conventional extraction equipment. A horse requires more input than a quad, but this is undoubtedly an extremely environmentally friendly extraction method. You don’t need to keep a horse yourself and unless you have a very large woodland, it would be hard to justify the time and expense of training a horse and feeding it through the year for a few stems in winter, but you can hire in horselogging crews to come to your woods and extract your wood for you.
An Alpine tractor is a tractor which is especially designed for use on steep hills, hard to reach places and where ground compaction must be minimised. They are built to be lower to the ground than a normal tractor and have oscillation between the front and rear axles, which allows all 4 wheels to stay on the ground. Some are articulated in the middle, giving them a minute turning circle. Some also have a reversible seat, so that you don’t have to turn the tractor, which reduces damage to the ground. They are heavier than a quad, but lighter than a normal tractor. They have PTOs (Power Take Off), which is a splined shaft which you can attach equipment to, such as a topper, a wood splitter or a winch. The PTO, tends to be smaller than standard, so there is less equipment available second hand, but it’s a useful addition. We’ve not played with an Alpine tractor because we can’t afford one, so it’s not worth finding out how great they are, but they’re definitely an option if you have the budget, woodland and business that justifies one.
On particularly sensitive sites where minimising ground compaction is essential and the timber being extracted is valuable enough to justify it, you could use a skyline. This is basically a zipwire, either taking the timber to a collection point, powered by a winch. They are normally attached to a digger or a forwarder, so the collection point will have to be suitable and ground compaction will occur if the machinery has to travel off hard tracks. The setup time and cost of buying or hiring in the equipment, make them unviable for most small woodland use, but in certain circumstances, they come into their own. We’ve seen a makeshift skyline, which was little more than a zipwire with a winch to return it after it had delivered the timber to the collection point. This is a vastly cheaper version and takes less time to set up, but only good if you are transporting wood downhill in suitable conditions.
Management Styles and Techniques
In a coppice system, an area known as a coup is cut each year. All of the trees in that area are cut low to the ground at an angle to prevent water from puddling on the top and causing rot. The coppiced trees will then sprout from the cut stem creating a multi stemmed tree (or coppice stool). The next year another coup will be cut and this will continue until the time that the original coup has regrown to the required size and then it will be coppiced again with each of the stems that have grown from the stool will be cut back again as the original tree was cut. This will in turn create more stems to cut in the next rotation. Hazel is the most popular tree to coppice, but most British deciduous trees coppice well and mixed coppice is a fantastic habitat. Coppicing allows light to the forest floor, creating a beautiful display of woodland flora in the spring after it is cut, as the herb layer comes to life, flowers and lays seeds which will repeat this display next time that the coup is cut. By the end of the year, brambles will probably become dominant until the vigorous growth of the coppice overtakes them and starts to shade them out. By the time that the coppice is ready to cut again, the bramble will have died right back and the cycle starts again.
Coppice with Standards
As above, but some trees are left to grow on as timber trees. Historically it was a legal requirement to grow a certain number of standards in the coppice in order to provide timber for the navy. The classic coppice with standards system is to have hazel coppice and oak standards. Oak is not only the best native tree for timber, but also has a relatively translucent canopy and therefore doesn’t shade out the coppice too much.
Continuous Cover Forestry
This is a management system whereby you fell individual trees and carry out thinning operations. This increases the light that gets through each layer to the next, thereby encouraging saplings and trees in the understory to grow up into the canopy. Sometimes, large trees will be taken out or will fall over, creating a sizable gap in the canopy, but generally, the idea of this system is to maintain a relatively complete canopy. This method of management creates a very stable woodland environment. It is very good for bluebells and other herb layer flora that take advantage of the early spring light when the leaves are not yet out on the deciduous trees in the canopy and understory as the shade provided when the leaves do come out, prevents them from being out-competed by grasses and bracken. To successfully manage a woodland as continuous cover forestry takes a lot of thought and understanding because you have to account for how the different species will grow based on nutrient and water availability, soil type, and how shade tolerant they are, in order to create a good balance between the woodland layers and the different species.
Group felling involves cutting down all of the trees in a small area of the woodland. You can then either replant or allow the woodland to naturally regenerate from the seedbank in the woods and from any cut stems which will coppice. Group felling and replanting is a good method of changing the makeup of tree species in the wood without causing too much disruption to the woodland as a whole. If you have a conifer plantation and want to slowly convert it to a mixed or deciduous woodland, by felling a small area of conifers each year and replanting with deciduous trees, you will maintain the overall woodland structure during the conversion.
This is generally seen as the most disruptive method of woodland management. A large area of woodland is cut down. This can either be replanted or left to naturally regenerate. The land will often suffer from erosion, due to wind and rain, and any trees left on the margins of the cleared area my well suffer from windblow, especially where erosion has weakened the root structure. It is sometimes necessary to clearfell a woodland where for instance, a larch plantation is suffering from Phytophthora ramorum.
This is a management technique where you clear the trees from the area immediately around individual specimen trees. In a woodland that we used to manage, an area had been planted up with spruce trees many years earlier, with a view to selling them as Christmas trees. The woodland had then been neglected. The trees had grown far too large for the proposed purpose. In amoungst the spruce were some impressive veteran oak and ash trees. The owners, didn’t want to remove all of the spruce because it would have left a massive open area in the woods, so we haloed some of the oak and ash trees. As well as making it possible to see these gorgeous trees, and encouraging them to grow and fill the space, it also allowed space for their seed to take root and establish deciduous areas to break up the area of spruce. If we had continued to manage that woodland, we would have gradually haloed more of the veteran trees and over time converted that area into being a mixed woodland. Unfortunately, the owners sold up and we no longer work there, but the areas where we haloed large trees, will be regenerating into more healthy habitats as a result of our work.
If you are looking to increase the amount of standing dead wood in your woodland, one option is to monolith some trees. This is where you reduce the height of a tree and remove any side branches to leave a stable trunk that can be left to rot. If you are doing this to a deciduous tree, you will need to ringbark it to ensure that it dies. As the trunk rots, it will be occupied by invertebrates, fungi, birds and bats. It will take many years to rot completely and in that time it will add a rich and diverse habitat to your woodland.
Monolithing a tree requires climbing with a saw which is skilled and dangerous work which should only be carried out by a properly trained professional. Occasionally, a tree monoliths itself by breaking off, part way up the stem. If this happens, consider cutting any branches off with a pole saw and leaving the trunk in place rather than tidying it up.
Finding Your Path
We all have to balance our different woodland management objectives. We were aware that living in the woods necessarily involves compromising habitat preservation as does making charcoal and building a cabin for others to stay in the woods. It was for this reason that we didn’t buy another woods that we looked at which was completely unspoiled ancient woodland. It was absolutely beautiful, but our presence would have been detrimental. Instead we bought land that required a lot of maintenance to remedy previous bad management. There is no question that our woodland is richer in an ecological sense as a result of our presence. Due to our management it has been described by Devon Wildlife Trust as “a mosaic of habitats”. Your priorities, your woodland, the way you enjoy it and your circumstances will be different from ours and so your decisions will be different. If you take the ecology of your woodland into account in every decision that you make, your woodland and the habitats it contains, will be richer as a result. There is no greater reward than watching nature flourish as a result of your management.