Managing ancient woodland and how that differs to managing other woodland
By Martin Hügi, Ancient Woodland Restoration Project Manager
Woodlands are defined as ancient if the area has been continuously wooded since 1600 in England and Wales, and 1750 in Scotland. This continuity of canopy cover means that the soils are relatively undisturbed when compared to surrounding land.
Ancient woodlands are relatively scarce and are home to complex and interdependent plant and animal communities that have developed over centuries and require these unique conditions. They often also contain archaeological features that have been lost in the wider landscape. For this reason ancient woodlands are irreplaceable and care should be taken when planning and undertaking work within them.
All woodlands are different, including non-ancient woodland planted more recently; tree species, stock and ages, owner objectives, access and topology, soils, markets, pests and diseases and so on, all will have a bearing on how to approach management. It is therefore
recommended, for all woodland, to have a management plan.
If woodland is ancient then extra care should be taken to carry out a detailed survey, looking down as well as up! This helps identify and map unique and vulnerable features so that they can be protected during management operations. Features could include areas of ancient woodland specialist flora; large deadwood, standing and fallen, ancient and veteran trees, and archaeology such as woodbanks, sawpits and ditches.
Importantly one must always keep in mind that the soils are in, and of themselves, one of the fundamental features of ancient woodland. They underpin the biodiversity and must be protected. Works within ancient woodland should be planned and carried out to prevent unnecessary, excessive and irreversible damage to these soils.
Where ancient and veteran trees exist within and on the edge of woodlands they should be given special attention, the niche habitats within these trees are unique and can be sensitive to rapid changes in their local environment. It does not mean that management cannot take place around or near to such trees; it just means that the work should be carefully planned and perhaps phased. It is a good idea to ensure that the area around them is not opened up too quickly, and that the root zones are protected from compaction. Ancient and veteran trees provide a historic, cultural and genetic link to the past and are a great asset within the wooded landscape.
In some regions of the country, where there are high uncontrolled deer populations, woodlands and in particular ancient woodlands, with their vulnerable and specialist flora can be threatened by excessive browsing.
Where they are known to be present a deer impact assessment should be undertaken and steps taken to reduce the deer population. Effective management of ancient woodland is impossible if there is a moderate to high population of deer in the vicinity. They can quickly undo any positive management, severely affecting the biodiversity of the woodland and preventing any natural regeneration of trees.
If control of the population is impossible, or challenging, then they will need to be excluded, but this should only be seen as a temporary measure as exclusion can be difficult to maintain. The Deer Initiative is a good source of information and advice on deer assessment and management www.thedeerinitiative.co.uk.
The overriding principle with management of ancient woodlands is to adopt a precautionary approach, ensuring that a comprehensive survey is undertaken and management works carefully planned and undertaken.
More information and advice can be found at www.woodlandtrust.org.uk and in some priority areas funding is available to provide ancient woodland owners with a free woodland survey and assessment.