Watchers of the woods…
PUBLISHED: 10:39 16 September 2007 | UPDATED: 14:51 20 February 2013
Hampshire has more woodland than any other county in the south east and over 5 per cent of England's Ancient Woodland, but don't be complacent, it needs protecting before it is too late. Jim Keoghan investigates...
Since the 1930s almost half of the Ancient Woodland in England and Wales has disappeared. Today just 329,000 hectares survive; this is less than 20 per cent of the total wooded area. Ancient Woodlands are defined as those that have not been cleared or replanted since 1600. Whether replaced with conifers, cleared for agriculture, or lost to development, once removed it is impossible to replace them.
Hampshire has more woodland than any other county in the South East and a significant proportion of this is defined as being ancient in character. There are currently 30,000 hectares of Ancient Woodland in the county, which represents over 5 per cent of the total for England. Despite this, like much of the country, these figures are on a downward trend.
"Ancient Woodlands need to be preserved. They are a beautiful and treasured part of the landscape, aesthetically pleasing and are a key component of our countryside" says Steve Trotter, Director of Conservation and Enhancement with the New Forest National Park Authority (NFNPA) who assist the Forestry Commission in the management of the New Forest's Ancient Woodland. "These woods are also part of our historic heritage and many Ancient Woods may have direct links back to when this country had relatively natural vegetation - rather than the manmade countryside we have now. The remaining Ancient Woods that we have today are the meagre fragments of extensive forests that once covered the landscape of Britain".
Added to their aesthetic and historic role, Ancient Woodlands also play an important part in the county's biodiversity. According to Graham Dennis of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust (HIWWT), many species of wildlife found in Ancient Woodland are very poor at colonising more recently planted woodland.
"There is a group of species known as Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs), such as wood spurge, wild service tree and wild daffodil that do not occur in other woodlands unless they have been planted in them and even then with not as great a level of success. They are better able to thrive in Ancient Woodland sites because of the long continuity of woodland cover and the undisturbed soil profiles."
This is important, not just for the survival of these plants, but also because these AWIs often support invertebrate species that are dependent on them, such as the drab looper moth which is only evident where wood spurge, its larval food plant, is found.
The threat of development
According to the Woodland Trust, the greatest threat facing Ancient Woodland today comes from development. The results of a recent study commissioned by them, which asked the Forestry Commission, several planning authorities, a number of wildlife trusts, and numerous countryside campaigning bodies about cases of threatened woodland, found 109 instances across Britain of Ancient Woodland lost to or vulnerable to development. Within this, problems associated with transport and infrastructure expansion accounted for the highest proportion of threats (31 per cent of cases), followed by amenity and leisure developments (14 per cent), housing (10 per cent), and quarrying and mineral extraction (5 per cent).
In Hampshire, all Ancient Woodland is defined as being a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) by the County Council. SINCs are included in Local Plans for each District Council and there is a presumption against development at these sites. Despite this, SINC designation does not guarantee protection. According to the Woodland Trust, there are currently 14 sites across the county currently under threat from housing development, industrial expansion and road widening.
Although a significant threat, the problems facing Ancient Woodland do not end there. Even those sites that are not directly threatened by any kind of development face a wide array of other problems. These threats include the effects of climate change, inadequate or inappropriate management, invasive or problem species and diffuse pollution. These problems are constant and in some cases increasing.
The realisation that these woodlands needed greater conservation has led to the establishment of a variety of projects in Hampshire designed to ensure that a significant proportion of the remaining areas of Ancient Woodland are both protected from development and well maintained. Added to its management of the New Forest, the Forestry Commission also works with the countryside service of Hampshire County Council on the maintenance of its 450 hectares of Ancient Woodland across the county. On an equally large scale the HIWWT manages 650 hectares of Ancient Woodland including Roydon Woods on the edge of the New Forest, Pamber Forest North of Basingstoke and Crabb Wood near Winchester. These larger woods are complemented by a number of smaller sites in the county that are managed on a voluntary basis by various local communities and charities.
"Our conservation group was started ten years ago following an initiative from the Basingstoke & Deane Borough Council" says Brian Slater of the Oakley Woodlands Group. "They own or lease a number of woodlands around the Borough and held a series of public meetings to see if there was interest in community involvement in managing these woodlands. In the case of Oakley, there was an enthusiastic response and so our group was started. This gave us a remit to manage two copses in our village, consisting of hazel coppice with oak standards".
According to Brian, as in other conservation projects, the volunteers at Oakley see coppicing as the most important part of their work. "Our two copses were traditionally managed to harvest the hazel on a cycle of some 8 to 15 years. Over time, due to the decline in demand for hazel, the 'coppice cycle' had fallen into disuse. Hazel eventually dies if not regularly cropped. Also, if the hazel is allowed to grow too much, it shades out the whole woodland and depresses the habitat for the woodland fauna. In short, the healthy woodland depends on maintaining the coppicing cycle".
Both coppicing and working to ensure the woods are well maintained are essential parts of any effective management programme. To underwrite this, Ancient Woodlands need to be sufficiently financed, something that Tony Anderson, project officer for the Blackwater Valley Countryside Partnership, feels isn't always the case. "One of the biggest problems is that although people enjoy our beautiful countryside, of which Ancient Woodlands play an important role, there is very little money available to maintain them. Countryside budgets are constantly being squeezed, both locally and nationally, and as a result the countryside is suffering."
Aside from lobbying your local councillor or MP on the issue of funding, anyone concerned about the protection of Ancient Woodland can also get involved in the management programmes themselves. The Woodland Trust, the Forestry Commission and a variety of smaller groups are always in need of volunteers to help with the management of the woods they are responsible for. All across the county people have already become involved and their work has helped ensure that Hampshire's stock of Ancient Woodland remains the highest in the south east and that this valuable ecological and historical resource can be enjoyed by people today and in the future.
Further information about Ancient Woodlands, where to visit and how to get involved
Woodland Trust, tel: 01476 581135 or visit: www.woodland-trust.org.uk
Forestry Commission England, tel: 01223 314546 or visit: www.forestry.gov.uk
Hampshire and Isle of Wight Wildlife Trust, tel: 01489 774400 or visit: www.hwt.org.uk
Oakley Woodland Group, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or visit: www.woodland-community.org.uk
New Forest National park, tel: 01590 646000 or visit: www.newforestnpa.gov.uk/index/aboutus/contacts.htm
Hampshire County Council, tel: 01962 841841 or visit: www3.hants.gov.uk/biodiversity/woodland