Tuesday, 29 December 2009
Monday, 28 December 2009
Wednesday, 9 December 2009
There are 4 aspects of a wood of which you should take note. One is soils and geology which is very specialised, so we shall not dwell upon it.
The other aspects are:
1. Boundaries, banks and other topographical featutres
2. The structure of the woods
3. The composition - trees, shrubs and ground flora.
Boundaries and Banks
Upon entering a wood the first thing you should do is walk its boundary. If it has a large earthen bank and ditch around its boundary, then this is a huge clue to its origin being ancient.
It has to be noted here that this is especially true for the lowlands of England, the south, south-east and east. In the uplands of the west, boundaries are often defined by steep slopes or cliffs. Because of these steep slopes, woodland survived because it could not be ploughed up. Elsewhere, woodland itself was important and huge boundary banks were erected, usually with a live hedge on top to help exclude animals.
In general, the broader the wood bank, the older it is. Post-medieval woods often have much narrower banks.
Such banks were hard work to create and as such, were seldom destroyed. Many marked the bounds of Saxon, or earlier, estates. Between about 800 and 1300AD parish boundaries were frozen in law and could no longer be altered to accommodate changes in land ownership, so a wood whose bank defines part of a parish is almost bound to be ancient.
In West England and Wales, wood banks are often faced and sometimes replaced by stone walls, very often left unfinished.
We shall not dwell upon this further, (those who are interested should consult any books by Oliver Rackham), other than to add that woods may also contain hillforts, barrows and other prehistoric and Roman antiquities as visible clues to the historical use and importance of woods.
The structure of a wood can soon reveal much of its history if you know how to look, because it is strongly related to its management history.
Woods of ancient origin, until the last century or so, had often been managed in the same way for centuries.
How it would have been managed is in one of 4 ways.
Simple Coppice - woodland where multiple stemmed regrowth from cut 'stools' dominates.
Coppice with standards - woodland predominantly coppiced but where there are standards (trees allowed to grow on towards maturity for timber).
High Forest - woodland where there is a more or less closed canopy, much of which is derived from coppice-with-standards, with the coppice element singled and allowed to grow on.
Wood Pasture - grazed woodland consisting of old mature trees (often of pollard origin), increasingly (now) besieged by secondary woodland.
These 4 management systems are in stark contrast to more modern woods, be they secondary woods, which show no evidence of historical management, or plantations, whose uniform rows betray their origin.
There are exceptions, and traps and pitfalls of assumption for the woodland historian to fall into, but there is not space enough here to dwell upon it, except to say that many of Devon's oak woods for example (as typified by those owned and managed by the National Trust on Dartmoor) have timber trees planted in the 19th century on old coppice woods. So though the casual observer would correctly identify such a wood as being 'high forest', it could formerly have been managed in any of the other 3 management systems. Again, refer to Oliver Rackham or George Peterken.
The original wild wood, prior to its taming by man, was sorted out naturally by processes of competition and the preferences of certain species for certain conditions such as drainage, base-richness, shade and so on.
The myth of an oak wood covered Britain is just that, a myth. It would instead have been (as proven by pollen analysis) a mosaic of alder woods, ash-hazel-maple woods, oak-birch-hazel woods and so on. These variations on where trees like to grow still persist today, but have been masked by later plantings, of where man likes trees to grow.
Analysis of these stands has led to several forms of classifying woodland, such as that by GF Peterken (which concentrates on the coppice layer) and 'plot-type' classification systems (which concentrate on the ground flora) from which the present system of classifying woodland (and other habitats) has been derived, the National Vegetation classification (NVC).
To expand upon these is beyond the scope of this blog and beyond all but the most serious woodland ecologist. It also has its critics, in that by classifying woodlands we forget their uniqueness. Much more exciting for the amateur enthusiast as to how the composition of a wood may determine whether a wood may be ancient or not, involves looking at the ground flora. Many plants that grow in woodlands spread only slowly from one wood to another (and as woods are increasingly isolated by agriculture and urban encroachment, so are its plants), so such plants are known as 'indicators' of ancient woodland. If you like woodland flowers, ferns and trees, 'ancient woodland indicator lists' have been developed on a regional basis, whereby you can determine from these lists how many occur in a chosen wood, which can be a huge clue to both its origins and its management.
This shall be a blog of its own, but to briefly summarise, for these 'indicator' lists to be a tool in determining a woods origins, they should be used in conjunction with the other tools for determining a woods origins, that is the location of the wood, old evidence such as maps and charters, the evidence of wood banks and other topographical features, the structure of the woods and their past management.
Before long all this background work as to the clues to a woods origins will be threaded together in relation to woods owned and managed by the National Trust on Dartmoor. This is merely the background material, the clues.
In conclusion, I must tip my hat to Philip H Colebourn, writing in British Wildlife (Vol1 No2 December 1989), whose article Discovering Ancient Woodlands I plundered (shamelessly) for this blog. From him I present, what is (in my humble opinion) the definitive description of what ancient woodland is;
"....'ancient woodland' is not necessarily, from a biological point of view, a tract of ancient trees, but a wood which has not been ploughed up for many centuries."
Wednesday, 2 December 2009
The National Trust and Forestry Commission jointly led 1SW initiative will be developing trails, sites and information across the whole region which will enhance the quality of experience for anyone who fancies experiencing the fun of off-road cycling.
Developments will include purpose built adventurous cycling trails, bike hire facilities, cafes, areas to develop bike handling skills and information on how and where to ride across the region. One of the sites site set to receive funding is Plym Bridge.
Adrian Colston, National Trust Property Manager says: “This funding will enable the National Trust to provide improved cycling facilities at Plym bridge, encouraging people to get out an enjoy the delights of the woodland with friends and family. The National Trust is keen to encourage a wider variety of visitors to come and enjoy its properties, and adventurous off-road cycling appeals to many who might not realise that the National Trust has something for them. The SUSTRANS route through Plym bridge has been a huge success and we will work to provide a quality cycling offer at the site. This will include a new trail for families, novices and intermediate riders to be able to experience the real heart of the woodlands. Detailed plans have yet to be drawn up and local people and users will be consulted on proposals. We do not anticipate any developments to start before 2011 so there is plenty of time to help us shape these exciting developments.”
Funding comes from the Rural Development Programme for England, which is partly funded by DEFRA and the EU. The funding is provided as part of a wider project under the Sustainable Rural Tourism Theme, managed by the South West RDA (regional development agency).
Mike Johns of the South West RDA said: “The 1SW initiative is just one project in a far-reaching suite of interlinked investments that are being made through Sustainable Rural Tourism which will have a really significant impact across the whole region.
“RDPE funding devoted to sustainable rural tourism is designed to have a lasting impact on the tourism industry in rural areas through investing in improved access to, and understanding of, the key features and rural heritage of the South West.
“Equally important, 1SW also offers a tremendous opportunity for businesses close to the hubs and cycle ways to engage with 1SW and maximise the benefits for the local economy.”
The National Trust, South West Lakes Trust, South West Protected Landscapes Forum and Bristol City Council are all key delivery partners in this project and are excited about broadening their visitor base. The project presents a significant opportunity as off-road cycling appeals to many ‘non-traditional’ visitors to the region’s countryside.
The 1SW initiative is funded by Sport England and is a partnership project led by the Forestry Commission including a number of organisations; Woodland Renaissance, CTC (The UK’s National Cyclists’ Association), International Mountain Biking Association UK, British Cycling and Devon County Council. 1SW will be working with a number of organisations to deliver the project – the National Trust, South West Lakes Trust, South West Protected Landscapes Forum and Bristol City Council. More information about the project can be found at www.1sw.org.uk