Woodland nature notes - from Lilliput to large alders

Moughton Fell Juniper Wood

Grass Wood

Willy and Hawksworth Spring Woods

Spouse's Vale

Moughton Fell Juniper Wood

Woodland walks can be so rewarding. The simple juniper wood up at 400m on Moughton Fell in the Yorkshire Dales can thrill. The juniper trees are windblown and short, but they straighten and grow taller (a little) as they flow and tumble through the protection of micro valleys in the limestone landscape (SD786717). It is a Lilliputian landscape where you fantasise that you are short too, as you wander through a magical conifer forest. Gnarled and twisty trunks suggest the older trees have been there for hundreds of years, and sightings of twayblade orchid confirm a long presence. Looking around from the Fell to the three peaks of Pen-y-ghent, Ingelborough and Whernside, you will see no other trees and wonder why this juniper woodland alone has survived.

Grass Wood

Another favourite woodland in the limestone Dales is on the eastern side of the Craven Limestone Complex, near Grassington, and is owned by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust. In Grass Wood (SD985655) youngish ash grows in the grikes of the limestone pavement, giving the unusual experience of an enclosed woodland canopy over this geological phenomenon (at 280m). The wood is beech on the lower reaches, with hazel coppice as you climb up to the foot of the scars, and with ash and remnants of plantation conifer on the pavements. Everywhere is rich with a groundlayer of wild strawberry, dog's mercury, lords and ladies, primrose, bluebell, and wild garlic in the damper places. This wood has wood anemone, herb paris and wood sorrel, plants that are indicators of a woodland that has been in place for some centuries.

It's important to keep going back to a woodland to catch all the plants that will flower there over the year. That way you can see the stinking hellebore that is in flower in Grass Wood just after the turn of the year, and then the solomon's seal, lily of the valley, bugle, columbine, creeping jenny, tutsan, woodruff and valerian that flower after the first flush of woodland bulbs (or rhizomes) has gone. Flowers of more open aspects also a feature in this woodland. The pavements at the edges of the scars are free from trees and thus less shaded. There grows bloody cranesbill, rockrose, marjoram and the burnet rose.

The woodlands on limestone at Grass Wood would seem to boast a rich flora, in the same way that an upland limestone meadow is often superior when compared to the open moorlands of millstone grit. But there is facet missing that opens up another whole world of flowering plants, and that is moisture. Limestone landscapes can be very dry with their sinkholes and free drainage through the cracks and fissures of the rock. Millstone grit landscapes on the other hand are less free draining, retaining moisture in marshy sumps and bisected by flowing watercourses.

Willy Wood & Hawksworth Spring Wood

Willy Wood (SE163405) and Hawksworth Spring Wood (SE160408) lie over millstone grit in a valley (at 100m) below my local moor in West Yorkshire. The trees are mostly mature oaks with much birch, and some sycamore and ash dotted through. Wych elm is found at the woodland edges, while hazel, dog rose and bramble form an understorey that has honeysuckle scrambling through.

Gill Beck runs through the valley bottom, picking up drainage from small, tumbling side becks and the many seepages that arise throughout the woodland. The first effect of this greater moisture is shown in the presence of far more holly in the understorey compared to the drier, limestone woodland. More obviously, alder grows in the becksides and seepages, having its feet in water and being surrounded in the marshy soil by butterbur, brooklime, meadow sweet and marsh marigold. Celandine is very common throughout the damp woodland bottom as is golden saxifrage. Moschatel has just joined the celandine in flower and the buds on the wild garlic suggest it wont be long. Woodruff will flower much later.

Elsewhere in the wood, wood anemone carpets the less damp woodland floor and the veined flowers of wood sorrel have just started. Bluebells, a few breaking into flower now, rise up on the woodland slopes, squeezing out almost all in their path, except for the woodrush and campion. And it is not just the flowers and trees that make this woodland special. The (originally man-made) ponds at their edges host waterfowl and the shallowest is teeming with tadpoles. Herons are seen on every walk, a little owl every so often, and every day is a cacophony of bird song, drama from pheasants, and the yaffle of woodpeckers. Deer also roam the woods, a hare chomps the grass in field openings, and foxes keep everything on their toes.

Taken all together, this is a stunningly abundant woodland landscape, with much evidence to indicate that it has been there and mostly stable for many centuries. It is part of a working landscape in that the fields around the woods are grazed by livestock and horses, but their incursion into the woodland is little and so there are few pressures on the woodland itself. The ponds look like a relic from a previous century of water management that is no longer needed. Coppicing would once have been an activity inside the woodland, but the younger hazel is unmanaged, growing from seed shed from within the coppice. The protection that these woods seem to enjoy is that there is no productive purpose needed of them except for the joy that walkers get when following the public paths.

Spouse's Vale

As with Grass Wood, protection for another gem of old woodland, this one just south of Sudbury in Suffolk, comes from its ownership by the local Wildlife Trust. The entrance point to Spouse's Vale (TL936363) takes you straight into a magnificent alder carr, the alders have cathedral height and presence with their feet surrounded by a marshy swamp of brooklime, bur-reed and the faintly menacing giant horsetail. The less wet patches of the woodland host what you would expect in moshcatel, golden saxifrage, marsh marigold, wild garlic and meadowsweet. As the land rises up from wet peat to sandy gravel, the alders give way to old coppiced hazel surrounded by bluebells, and then oak, ash and holly. Some very old wild cherries were just in flower over the Easter weekend, and later in the year the yellow archangel will flower, a real woodland favourite of mine. Deer roam through and a woodcock was flushed from the undergrowth.

Spouse's Vale becomes very interesting when you realise that below it, across an arable field, is Arger Fen. This is another old woodland nature reserve, owned by the County Council. The Suffolk Wildlife Trust has seen the potential and has devised an ambitious project to link the two old woodlands through a new woodland on this arable field, so that it creates one large wooded area. They aim to establish this new woodland as naturally as possible, initially fencing to keep out deer and encouraging a natural regeneration from seed coming in from the existing woodlands (some help will come from planting saplings raised from collected seeds). You can sponsor a square on this field by going to the Trust's website (www.wildlifetrust.org.uk/suffolk/swt/pn/index.htm).

It is going to be a fascinating opportunity to watch as nature reclaims this arable field, the returning grassland overtaken first by scrub and then by the tree canopy, and with birds, plants and mammals making it their new home. We have got used to the rewooding projects that are reclaiming marginal farmland in the upland and semi-upland areas of Britain. The relinking of Spouse's Vale with Arger Fen in the lowlands of Suffolk shows that a return of nature is a good idea wherever you happen to be.

Mark Fisher, 30 March 2005


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