Devon’s Ancient Woods

PUBLISHED: 10:45 24 January 2008 | UPDATED: 15:00 20 February 2013

Piles Copse, one of Dartmoor's few remaining ancient oak woods

Piles Copse, one of Dartmoor's few remaining ancient oak woods

Much of the county's traditional woodland has been lost in recent decades, but now new initiatives are under way to halt this threat to a significant feature in our countryside

Since the 1930s almost half of the ancient woodland in England and Wales has disappeared. Defined as those woods that have not been cleared or replanted since 1600, today just 329,000 hectares survive; this is less than 20% of the total wooded area.

"I think it's vital to preserve ancient woodlands," says Eleanor Davis, Operations Manager with Moor Trees, a volunteer charity that helps restore woodland across Devon. "These woodlands date back centuries, and if we lose them through neglect or development then it will be of significant detriment to our natural environment. We've got to work to ensure that these woods thrive and expand."

According to Eleanor, ancient woodlands are an enormous benefit to the county's biodiversity. "There are species known as Ancient Woodland Indicators (AWIs), such as wood anenome, wood sorrel and wild daffodil, that do not occur in other woodlands. They are better able to thrive in ancient woodland sites because of the undisturbed soil profiles, which are a result of the long-term continuity of woodland cover. Many of these species are not just of national importance but of European and international importance too."

The UK, like much of the world, is losing biodiversity at an alarming rate. More than 100 species have been lost since 1900 and even somewhere like Dartmoor, which enjoys the added environmental protection afforded to a National Park, has seen ten species become extinct since park status was declared in 1951.

"The main problem facing ancient woodland is neglect. If you take Dartmoor as an example, during the past 30 years, our ancient woodland sites have been ill-managed, resulting in a decline in their value," says Richard Knott, Ancient Woodlands Project Officer with the Dartmoor National Park Authority". Ancient woodland sites are no different from other woodland; they need comprehensive management. To take coppicing as an example (the process of harvesting a tree by cutting it down to ground level and then allowing it to grow over a period of years), if this is done periodically it encourages the individual trees to live much longer. If the coppice cycle is managed correctly it can also increase biodiversity in the wood because of the beneficial effects of varying light levels reaching the woodland floor."

The threats facing Ancient Woodland and AWIs do not end with neglect. In all sites, invasive and problem species can have detrimental effects on biodiversity. Planted conifers and rhododendron are the most widespread and densely shading plants, which by blocking out sunlight can all but eradicate ground flora. There has also been an increase in diffuse pollution. In recent decades, nutrient levels in soils and groundwater from agricultural fertilisers have risen, which is adversely impacting on woodland flora, favouring hardy weed species over more distinctive and often delicate woodland plants.

Added to these environmental problems, despite increased conservation efforts a significant threat still comes from development. The results of a recent study commissioned by the Woodland Trust - which asked a number of campaigning bodies about cases of threatened woodland - found 109 instances across Britain of ancient woodland recently lost or currently vulnerable to development. Transport and infrastructure expansion was the biggest threat (31% of cases), followed by amenity and leisure developments (14%), housing (10%), and quarrying/mineral extraction (5%).

The best legal protection for an ancient woodland against development is for it to gain Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) status. Craig Dixon, Biodiversity Officer with Devon County Council, says that despite the environmental value of these sites, in Devon SSSI status is not guaranteed. "It is certainly true that a number of the best examples of ancient woodlands here have been designated as SSSIs in order to protect them from potentially damaging activities.

However, this is not true for all Ancient Woodlands. In fact, the majority of such woodlands are not SSSIs." Although this leaves them vulnerable to human intervention, those sites without full legal security are not completely without protection. "The Government's National Planning Policy, whose section on biodiversity identifies the importance of ancient woodlands, states that planning authorities should identify such woodlands in their area that do not have statutory protection and not grant planning permission for development that would damage them, unless the need for and benefits of the development outweigh this damage".

Without complete legal protection there always remains the risk that parts of Devon's ancient woodland will be vulnerable. In light of this, the county is fortunate that a number of organisations are operating conservation projects at the moment that aim to ensure that, even if some ancient woodland sites are lost, there will remain a significant number that are both well cared for and in some cases expanding.

Two of the largest conservation schemes are taking place in both National Parks. "The Dartmoor Restoring Ancient Woodland Project and its equivalent on Exmoor have been established to improve the condition of ancient woodlands, expand the area of native woodland and increase sustainable timber production," says Richard Knott. "Both areas are entitled to an array of grants under the English Woodland Grant Scheme, which provide landowners with funding to sustain and manage existing woodlands. In addition, because these two sites have been classified as Ancient Woodland Priority Areas (AWPA), landowners are eligible for additional finance through Woodland Improvement Grants."

Funding is also available for the plantation of new native woodland, the idea being that these woods will eventually become ancient woodland sites in their own right. There is still plenty of debate surrounding the issue of plantation. Some people believe that to encourage growth in the size and number of ancient woodlands it is best to let existing sites regenerate themselves, something achieved through effective woodland management. This way, these sites develop at their own pace and with an ecological make-up identical to the rest of the wood. There is also criticism that taking seeds away from existing ancient woodlands, for the purpose of growing trees elsewhere, deprives the original sites of the chance to regenerate effectively.

"There is certainly no consensus on this issue, but from our perspective, what we do, which is taking seeds from ancient woods, growing them in our nursery and then planting them in new sites, is a much quicker process than letting existing sites expand by themselves. Our method increases the density of native woodland cover much faster. What's more, we do everything possible to mimic the ecological make-up of the woods from which we took the seed, which means taking some AWIs and other plants distinct to the site and placing them in the new woodland," says Eleanor Davis of Moor Trees, whose volunteers work to plant new woodland in both National Parks and across the county. "The best compromise is the planting of native woodland on suitable land adjacent to and linking existing ancient woodland. This achieves the speed of a new plantation, whilst maintaining a direct link with the initial site. But then this is not always possible and so to increase numbers we opt for new plantations."

To complement the work being undertaken in the National Parks, there are also a number of other conservation projects being run by the Forestry Commission, the National Trust, the Woodland Trust and the Devon Wildlife Trust. Added to this, there is also the countywide work being done by Moor Trees. "We provide practical help and assistance in woodland management, including invasive species removal, habitat creation and restoration, and research and biodiversity audits for landowners who possess existing Ancient Woodland or who want to grow new native woodlands on their land. We also give advice to landowners on how they can gain access to different sources of conservation funding," says Eleanor.

Aside from lobbying your local councillor or MP on the issue of protection or funding for Ancient Woodland conservation, Eleanor says that anyone concerned about the protection of these sites can also get involved by volunteering with Moor Trees. "We are always on the lookout for new volunteers; we have over 100 at the moment, but we always need more. Equally, we would love to hear from any schools, businesses or other charities that would like to learn more about woodlands in the county. We are open to all ages; we even had a two-year-old toddler working with us on a project recently. It's a great way to get out in the open and also help the local environment at the same time."


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