What do we know about woodland in Britain?

Kingley  Vale

Ancient woodland

Protected woodland areas

Does this protection mean anything?

I have three wall charts that show the National Inventory for Woodland and Trees in England, Scotland and Wales. I got them for free from the Forestry Commission and they look like the countries have come out in a rash of little green spots. Occasionally the rash inflames to a jagged-edged blob, and sometimes there are areas that haven’t erupted at all.

Is that what you would expect of the distribution of woodland? What does it say about the importance of woodland in our landscapes? For instance, are these spots the small fragments of fabulous ancient woodland that clothe the cloughs around my local moor? Does each little spot have its own story?

Kingley Vale

My friends in the south promised me a good woodland walk in the South Downs, and as soon as we parked up we saw the first yew tree, one of the three native conifers that we have in Britain, and which was to be the feature of this walk.

Kingley Vale is a bowl-shaped valley of gravel and coombe that backs into an Upper Chalk escarpment. At our end-of-October visit, the ash in amongst the yew had dropped it’s leaves so that the yew shone emerald green as it clothed the bowl and formed a large grove in the valley. It is said that this yew woodland is one of the best examples of its kind in Britain and perhaps also in western Europe.

The valley yews are at least 500 years old and some could be a 1000 years old. The path that takes you under their canopy reveals a twilight world of massive trunks and looping boughs that could be a setting for one of Disney’s wilder fantasy animations. There’s not a lot that can grow in this evergreen shade, except for the colonies of fungi and the bunches of fruiting butchers broom, another evergreen woodland specialist.

The yews of the steep escarpment are smaller, less than 200 years old, and with a variety of deciduous shrubs at their edge: spindle, dogwood, buckthorn and wild privet, all with their autumn fruit. We saw trampled ground along these woodland edges, joined by animal tracks that criss-crossed under the yew. The noises coming from the woodland confirmed that we were there during the rutting season. Bucks were emitting their characteristic calls, and the mud circles are their rutting stands where they stamp their forefeet. As luck would have it, we saw three fallow does come out along a path and then skirt a woodland edge before diving into the yew woodland. Minutes later a fallow buck emerged from the path, sniffing the air as he exactly navigated the same route that the does had taken.

This woodland can be traced back 2000 years and there is nothing to say that it could not have been there longer. Hence its description as an ancient woodland because of the continuity of trees on the site. In more formal terms, Kingley Vale was one of the first National Nature Reserves (NNR) in England, declared in 1952 and which now covers an area of 150 ha. As we walked around the reserve, we came across a memorial to the life of Sir Arthur Tansley, the first Chair of the Nature Conservancy Council (fore-runner of English Nature) who was instrumental in acquiring Kingley Vale for the nation. He also wrote a two volume set in 1939 - The British Islands and their Vegetation – which I really enjoy for its species lists of characteristic woodland habitats.

As one would expect, there is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) that covers Kingley Vale but it is larger than the NNR. It extends out each way along the clay-with-flints capping of the plateau above the escarpment. If we had time, we would have walked north along the plateau in search of the juniper scrubland, another favourite of our native conifers. We would also have been able to have looked out over the downs that are an AONB, a candidate SAC, and for which the locals are bucking for national park status. But all of this is really secondary to the recognition that Kingley Vale is a site of ancient woodland, publicly owned, and has NNR status.

Ancient woodland

Many woodland fragments can be traced back to the Middle Ages (1000-1400 AD) through documents, maps, surveys or place names – or by the archaeology of their boundary earthworks, or the woodland structure of giant or ancient coppice stools. Long established woodlands also have a characteristic set of woodland plants that are only stable in those enduring habitats, and which can be taken as indicators. The key element is the continuity of coverage with trees since at least 1600 AD, irrespective of whether they are self-sown, planted there, or indeed even whether the trees planted are native or not. Thus an ancient woodland site may now be covered in plantation conifers, and perhaps even sycamore in some regions, but the value of the site is in the intrinsic ecological capacity of it to regenerate as native ancient woodland when the conifers and other exotics are removed. This is now the policy of the Forestry Commission in England such that conifers planted on ancient woodland sites will not be replaced.

The amount of ancient woodland in Britain is known from surveys that began in the late 1980’s and which continue today (Northern Ireland is the last to be fully surveyed). The current figures for ancient woodland show that there are nearly 40,000 ancient woodland sites in Britain covering 549,900 ha. Of that area, some 325,800 ha are semi-natural broad leafed woodland, and the rest is plantation on ancient woodland sites (PAWS). In terms of size, only 46 ancient woodland sites in Britain are over 300 ha (0.1% by number), with nearly 50% being less than 5 ha. Looking at overall woodland coverage, sites are much larger than ancient woodland sites, with 67% of all British woodland being more than 100 ha.

To put this into perspective, ancient woodland is less than a fifth of the total woodland coverage of Britain. Much of the other woodland has arisen from planting over the last 100 years or so on agricultural land that hasn’t had any continuity of woodland coverage. The paucity of ancient woodland coverage is revealed when you consider that the overall woodland area of 2,800,000 ha in Britain is only 11.9% of land cover. Ancient woodland thus contributes only 2% to the landscape of Britain. England has the most by number and area, the SE of England being a particular hotspot for ancient woodland, with NE England having the least.

Protected woodland areas

Trees are wildlife as much as the plants and fungi that grow beneath them, and the insects, birds and mammals that find refuge in and around them. And as with all wildlife, the trees and the assemblages they form need some respite from the exploitative activities of humans. However, the description of woodland as ancient doesn’t confer any protected status in spite of the potential ecological importance of the site. Only recently has planning guidance to local authorities required them to draw up an inventory of local ancient woodland in their area, and for it to be given greater protection from development, but not from any other abuse.

The protection that has been given to woodland comes from legislation in 1949 that set up a system of national nature reserves where “wildlife comes first” and where they are places for scientific research. Most NNR are publicly owned by the statutory nature agencies, but a small number are owned by “approved” voluntary conservation organisations or the Forestry Commission.

The first NNR was declared in 1951 at Beinn Eighe in the NW Highlands. It is mostly a tree-less upland, but it does contain fragments of native pinewood along the shoreline of Loch Maree. Other NNR followed in the fifties in which woodland formed the main habitat, such as Blean Woods in Kent, Castor Hanglands, Holme Fen and Monks Wood (Cambridgeshire), Wychwood (Oxfordshire) Hales Wood (Essex) Roudsea Wood (Cumbria) and Kingley Vale in W Sussex.

By 1989, there were 147 NNR with a substantial amount of woodland, but I can’t tell you how many out of the 428 NNR overall in Britain today because the data is now split between the separate nature agencies for England, Wales and Scotland (I don’t think a deer really cares whether it is in an English wood or a Scottish Wood) and only Natural England makes it easy to check. Thus the current number of woodland NNRs in England is 61 out of a total of 215 NNRs, with perhaps another 50 or so having substantial woodland areas. These 110 woodland NNR in England cover about 9000 ha.

All NNRs also have a SSSI notification, but there are an additional 6000 or so SSSI in the UK. Some of these are designated for their geological features, but many contain woodland as a significant element, although there is no easy way to identify them. Searching the English SSSI for site names that have “wood” in them throws up around 580 out of a total of around 4,000, but there will be more. An estimate for the area of woodland in England covered by SSSI is about 80,000 ha. Thus a rough count for woodland areas in England protected by NNR or by SSSI is perhaps between 800- 1000, with an area of 89,000 ha. This is pretty poor when you consider that there are 22,000 ancient woodland sites in England that cover 341,100 ha, especially so when is not known what proportion of the NNR and SSSI are ancient woodland sites.

It is also poor when you consider that SSSI are more likely to be exploited land compared to NNR, as so few are in public ownership. Their protection comes from a list of allowable “management activities” on the site that equate pretty much to farming, and a bar against endangering any of the species that the site is notified for.

There is another protection of woodland that pre-dates legislation on NNR and SSSI designations. It rests in the beneficial “protective” ownership of the land. Thus you would be surprised to know how much woodland is owned in the public good by Government and by local authorities. The Forestry Commission own nearly a third of all the woodland in Britain, which means that at least 4% of the land of Britain is publicly owned. Within that, they own a quarter of all the ancient woodland of Britain (the proportions for ownership by the FC in England are a fifth of all woodland and a quarter of ancient woodland).

I can’t yet give you an overall figure for local authority ownership, but if we take just West Yorkshire where I live, overall woodland cover is 5.2% of which a third is ancient woodland split evenly between semi-natural and plantation (the latter is more likely to be planted with broad-leaf trees such as sycamore, than with conifer). Local authorities in West Yorkshire own nearly a third of all woodland, and it would be interesting to know how much of this is ancient woodland since most of the ancient woodlands that I walk near me are publicly owned.

In more recent times, voluntary sector conservation organisations have started to build up woodland landholdings so that wildlife trusts, Woodland Trust, both National Trusts (NT and NTS) along with the RSPB own at least 80,000 ha woodland in Britain (and probably more as each day goes by). The National Trust have long been woodland owners, and have a significant record of protective stewardship, reinforced by their commitment to minimum intervention – “a restrained approach to management” of their woodlands, some of which are designated sites such as Side Wood SSSI and Stonethwaite Woods SSSI in the Lake District, and others that are not covered by any designation such as Strans and Rais Wood in Upper Wharfedale (1). Of note also is The Mens, a 155 ha high forest reserve owned by Sussex Wildlife Trust which also follows a minimum intervention approach.

Does this protection mean anything?

The approximations and gaps in information shown in this brief outline of woodland protection are characteristic of the literature available, and indicate that we are really not on top of an understanding of how we value woodland as a wildlife habitat. Moreover, no amount of species and habitat action plans can make a difference when the limited aspiration of the protection that does exist gives us no clue as to how effective it is, especially since, by tradition, almost all our woodland has been managed for forest products. Could this be the problem – our protected woodlands are not wild habitats, as shown by the fact that some of the most managed have been given NNR status, such as Bradfield Woods in Suffolk. Remember, an NNR is supposedly where “wildlife comes first”.

In an attempt to draw parallels with other protected systems around the world, a study in 2001 set out to evaluate how the roughly 630,000 ha of protected woodland area in Britain, which includes the ancient woodland as well as those with NNR and SSSI notification, fit within the six IUCN categories. The categories range from “strict nature reserve” to “managed resource”. It must have been some agonising guesswork because the authors could only identify 10,000 ha in the UK that fitted into IUCN I, the highest category. Another 47,000 ha made it into IUCN II and III, leaving the remaining 570,000 ha in the three actively managed and extracted categories (2). Thus the area of non-intervention, natural woodland in the UK is as little as 0.3% of overall woodland coverage, which is 0.03% of the area of Britain.

Perhaps we should take comfort that we seem to make our woodlands work for us, even if we can’t protect at least a good part of them for wild nature. But we fool ourselves on this as well: we have the lowest woodland cover of any country in Europe apart from Denmark, the Netherlands and Ireland (the rest range from 22% in Belgium to 66% in Sweden) and we use far more wood at 44 million square metres each year than the 8.8 million square metres we produce.

Are woodlands destined always to be the poor cousin of nature conservation in Britain? Why can’t we have more inspirational leadership in ractheting up woodland coverage as given by the Community Forests and the National Forest? The National Forest area has gone from 6% woodland coverage to 17% in the 10 years of its existence (3). Why don’t we turn our biggest public woodland resource – the 90,000 square kilometres of the Forestry Commission or 4% of land cover – into a National Wildland System for Britain? Is it that so far-fetched when it is about the same proportion of land that is given over to the National Wilderness Preservation System in America.

Mark Fisher 26 November 2006

Some of the assumptions in this article are based on interpretation of data from Forestry Commission statistics and Woodland Trust publications.

(1) Minimum intervention management (2001) Woodland Guidance Note 1, National Trust www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-tw01_gl01.pdf

(2) Protected Forest Areas in the UK (2001) WWF www.wwf.org.uk/filelibrary/pdf/protectedforests.pdf

(3) The National Forest www.nationalforest.org

 www.self-willed-land.org.uk  mark.fisher@self-willed-land.org.uk