Celebrating English Woods
Left to right- Holly wood- Oak wood- Chestnut wood
I enter an ancient woodland, there is no need to look for evidence of its age amongst ancient indicators of plant and landscape features for I feel it all around me in the giant bollings of oaks, the dominating foliage of sweet chestnut and in the exquisite old holly trees characteristic of England as Strawberry trees are of Ireland.
As I have had a break from working and strolling in such woods I am amazed at the effect of these old woods. I find myself breathing deeper, standing taller and as every cell enlivens I note this cannot be recreated in a classroom or on a screen as it is too alive with presence. As always John Muir has the perfect words to describe this aliveness:
'Were trees mere mechanical sculptures what noble objects they would be! How much more throbbing, thrilling, overflowing, full of life in every fibre and cell, grand glowing silver rods- the very Gods of the plant kingdom, living their sublime centaury in sight of heaven, watched and loved and admired from generation to generation.'
Left to Right- Ebernoe Common- Kingley Vale- West Dean Woods
A visit to West Sussex reveals some exceptional woods. In the Sussex Weald there are two woodlands of notable wealth. Ebernoe Common and The Mens (German for common) which are remnants of an extensive woodland which once would have been at least 23,000 acres and created fuel for the iron industry since at least the Roman times producing around 500 tons of iron per year from 46,000 tons of coppiced wood.
Since Anglo-Saxon times the Weald was one of the largest and wildest woods in England and is still one of the most densely wooded parts in England today. This demonstrates how woodlands in more industrial areas tend to survive. John Evelyn (Sylva- Trees and the Propagation of Timber 1664) blamed industry for the destruction of our woodlands and Andrew Yarranton stated in his writings of 1677 that trees were being planted in the Forest of Wyre for the production of iron! However Daniel Defoe (most famous for his novel Robinson Crusoe) remarked that the woods in the weald were lost to agriculture long before the iron industry. Evidence supports Defoe’s theory far more than the former writers as woods today are far more prolific in areas that were used for industry. Areas of the Weald, Lake district, Forest of Dean and the Wyre Forest are amongst the most wooded areas of England and all have a history of Industrial use.
The Mens has the richest lichen flora in the South East and one of the richest fungal floras in Britain. It is also notable for its diverse plant flora and fauna, again one of the best in Britain. Rare beetles thrive there as well as woodland butterflies.
As we travel towards Chichester we come across West Dean Woods notable for its old coppice and profusion of wild daffodils in March, a notable ancient woodland indicator. In the newer woods one can see evidence of the medieval method of ploughing known as ridge and furrow.
On the other side of Chichester on the back roads to Funtington is a very special area indeed. Situated in the Hamlet of west Stoke is Kingley Vale, the largest and most impressive Yew wood in Europe if not the world! Some of the Yew trees are at least 2000 years of age creating several groves of pure yew trees. The surrounding area is a delightful chalk downland with an array of striking wildflowers.
The Yew trees are what we term as heritage or veteran trees meaning they have reached a stage in their lives known as ‘old age’, this is a specific and important stage in a tree’s life. Trees germinate from seeds and start life as a sapling before maturing to a stage known as ‘middle aged’. In middle age they have reached their maximum height and spread. A tree in middle age has a large income from its leaves which creates the energy a tree needs to lay down a ring of wood each year. However once a tree starts to die back its income is reduced (the leaves) and it can no longer meet its commitments ( growing a ring of wood each year) indicating it is in its final stage in life ‘old age’. When a tree is in this stage it is more supportive for wildlife than at any other time. Trees in old age often have burrs and bosses, crooks and crannies, elbows and knees, holes and crevices. Supporting hole-nesting birds, wild bees, bats and a myriad of invertebrates that make use of the above features often fashioned over hundreds of years.
The time when a tree is in old age varies from species to species. Birch for instance is old at hundred years , ash and elm around 200 years and oak over 300 years. Yew is an exception as trees rarely live beyond 500 years if left to their own devices except yew which only just reaches old age at this time. The stage of old age is often the longest stage in a tree’s life.
Yew has caused much confusion amongst experts as it is notoriously difficult to date. This is partly due to the fact that it has long periods of dormancy where its growth completely stops for hundreds of years. This means in that time it does not grow a ring of wood, the counting of which is often used to date a tree and it even confuses modern carbon dating. However piecing together historical records and using carbon dating has enabled experts to conclude that some of our oldest yew trees in Britain are around three to four thousand years old. The oldest Yew in Britain is said to be the Fortingall yew in Perthshire, Scotland estimated to be 5000 years old.
Left to Right - Hollybank Woods - The New Forest, Hampshire- Windsor Forest
We now leave the county of West Sussex and go literally just over the border into Hampshire where we find remnants of the once vast wood known as the Forest of Bere.
Hollybank Woods is situated in the village of Emsworth and is mainly a mixed broadleaved woodland with planted conifer stands in places. In the wetter areas it hosts many species of flower including hundreds of early purple orchids. The Forest of Bere once covered a vast area starting around the area of Emsworth and stretching down to another famous forest, the New Forest. In Saxon times it was known as the Forest of Baer( Baer meaning swine pasture) and was a series of commons creating an open landscape of trees, heathland, farmland , wood pasture and coppice. In Norman times it became a Royal Forest ( Forest of Bere) which is a hunting ground owned by the King and not necessarily woodland.
In the forest the King has rights to all the game and this can include private land which is still part of the ‘legal’ Forest boundaries. The ‘legal’ Forest boundaries may double the size of the actual Forest owned by the King.
Recently this woodland has been put under a coppice regime as volunteers cut back the trees in rotation. The main reason why many of our ancient woodlands do not support the the diverse flora and fauna that they once did is simply neglect and lack of management.
Further remnants of the Forest of Bere are found in Wickham and possibly Waterlooville and Bedhampton.
Finally we come to the largest remaining tract of unenclosed pasture land, heathland and Forest in South East England, the New Forest. The New Forest stretches across South West Hampshire and South East Wiltshire towards the East of Dorset. It is a unique survivor of the common land system, the least modified landscape in the whole of lowland Britain, the supreme place for lichen in Europe ( due to lack of acid rain) and home to 2/3 to 3/4 of the saproxylic* invertebrate population of Britain.
*Saproxylic invertebrates are those animals without a vertebral column depending on dead or decaying wood. Sapros =dead xylos= wood.
It was created in 1079 by King William the first and still 90% of the Forest is owned by the crown. Commoners and wealthy land owners alike often disliked the Forest system which meant certain rights were taken away. William’s sons, Prince Richard and William the second (William Rufus) both died in the wood creating the rumour their deaths were a punishment for the creation of the Royal Forest.
Commoner’s rights were confirmed in 1698 and also in 1877 when the Navy tried to encroach on them. The common land system was an important system in rural England and enabled the land to be well –managed and its resources put to good use. Often the rich landowners would own the large trees and the land itself but in exchange for its maintenance the commoners were given certain rights and customs.*
The New Forest is a living historical landscape, demonstrating the importance of preserving the Ancient Countryside for now and the future.
*Commoner’s rights include: Right of Estovers (cutting of peat for fuel); Right of Turbary ( wood for fuel) ;Right of common of Marl ( digging of clay) Common of Mast ( Pannage= beech mast and acorns for pigs) and Common of pasture. Customs included the cutting of Bracken at the end of August for animal litter; Bee hives in July-September and the cutting of gorse and holly for winter browse for ponies and deer.
All the woods we have explored thus have had a long history of woodland management demonstrating continued management is essential for these woodlands to survive and thrive. Coppicing and pollarding extend the life of individual trees and almost guarantee a healthier ecology in woods performed under sensitive management. Hazel, lime and ash trees rarely live much beyond 200 years of age yet once coppiced can live almost indefinitely with examples of stools ( the stumps and roots that remain after coppicing) that are 1000 years old. Pollarded trees are also known to live over a 1000 years such as the great oaks of Windsor Great Park.
However early woodland management has also meant that there are no examples of ‘Wild Wood’ left in Britain today. How did these original woods look before they were managed and how they were formed is an important study to further understand our woodlands and their ecology today.
If you have enjoyed this article you may wish to learn more about trees on our online tree folklore course.
Poetry of flowers
Join me to explore the flora of the British Isles on this blog. My intention is to attempt to capture the unique quality and beauty of each species of flower, tree or shrub. For every species featured I will be growing many more wildflowers to celebrate the joy of their existence, their intrinsic conservation value and bewildering array of uses. For nearly 30 years I have noted, studied and explored wildflowers in the field much to the patience of the walker beside me. To share this passion is a heartfelt plea to respect, preserve and care for all British Wildflowers no matter how common they seem.