Beech tree at Burnham Beeches National Nature Reserve (NNR) in Buckinghamshire.
Anyone who knows Hembury Woods SSSI/SAC might have noticed that other than the mature 18th century plantings alongside the River Dart, elsewhere within the woods a pretty ruthless attitude has been taken towards the beech, especially where it has been underplanted as a plantation crop between dense oak coppice. We shall return to beech trees in Hembury Woods in a while but, before that, let us look briefly at the beech tree (Fagus sylvaticus).
Beech is, of course, one of our native broadleaves, but unlike a lot of the other species that colonised the British Isles after the last glaciation, beech was a late-comer. Because of this and then the subsequent clearing of the wildwood for agriculture, beech was pretty much isolated in the south and south-east of England, South Wales and parts of Dorset and Norfolk. Pollen analysis has shown that it occurred in other localities (including a central belt across Devon) but that by the Middle Ages it was only found in the areas listed above. Where it occurred, it was utilised for firewood and charcoal and little else until the furniture trade became mechanised in the late 18th century. Now it became a timber tree. As Oliver Rackam puts it; 'The beech coppices and wood-pastures that supplied London with fuel were converted to timber production. The great beechwoods of the Chilterns, beautiful and monotonous, with timber trees and not much else, are in their present form only one or two generations of trees old.'
In its southern heartland, alongside oak, it is the definitive tree of Wood-pasture and Forest (as in Royal Forests), with ancient pollards towering majestically in such places as Burnham Beeches (Buckinghamshire) and Epping Forest (Essex).
One of Burnham Beeches 'very reverend vegetables' - a beech pollard
In the late 18th century and into the 19th century, alongside sweet chestnut and conifers, it started to be planted as an ornamental tree in woods outside of its southern range.
The large mature trees alongside the River Dart in Hembury Woods date from this period.
The large mature trees alongside the River Dart in Hembury Woods date from this period.
The age of plantation planting, (though present in this country since the 17th century), arrived in earnest in the 1950's and 1960's. Forestry in this period, grubbed up, replanted and effectively destroyed more ancient woodland in these decades than had occurred in the last 400 years. This is a staggering achievement, with many ancient woods turned into monotonous plantations, the vibrant ground flora and understorey destroyed beneath the dense shade. As well as conifers, many woods were turned into plantations of beech, because it grows faster than oak.
Often, as at Hembury Woods, beech was underplanted beneath oak (often alongside conifer, as a 'nurse' to draw it up) with the future plan being that several crops of trees could be taken off one site, dependant upon thinning regimes and at what point in the rotation (time between fellings) the trees were. Either the oak or beech would be removed as a first crop before the beech shaded out the oak.
No other native tree, but yew, will grow beneath the dense shade beech casts. Oak, birch and to a lesser extent, hazel and rowan, are light demanders. They will not regenerate naturally beneath beech, so as 'artificial' as oaks dominance is in western oakwoods due to Victorian forestry (another blog, another time) to maintain the diversity of tree species there is a case for controlling beech.
As Oliver Rackam says in Tree News (Autumn 1997) and the revised edition of Ancient Woodland (2003) 'Does beech threaten to get out of hand? It gets into other types of woodland, especially northern and western oakwoods, overtops the existing trees and - it is argued - threatens to turn them all into replicas of Chiltern beechwoods. One hears the argument that this should not be opposed: the absence of beech from North and West Britain and from Ireland is merely a historical accident; if wildwood had not been fragmented beech would by now have become as widespread as a native as it is an introduction. Against this it is argued that beech did not readily occupy wildwood before human intervention. My view is that the beech threat exists but should not be exaggerated; it should be dealt with on a wood-by-wood basis.'
George Peterken in Natural Woodland (1996) definitely believes it finds its own equilibrium in woodland it colonises, its spread checked by shallow rooting, and drought which it can succumb to 15 years after such events. Beech in its native range, under predicted climate change models, will increasingly be put at risk through such events.
So let us return to Rackam's view on dealing with beech on a 'wood-by-wood basis' and return to Hembury Woods.
It must be stressed here, that the presence of beech at Hembury Woods, is not by accident, but by mans intervention. We have the mature 18th and 19th century plantings and their naturally sown progeny, and we have the plantations of the 1950's and 1960's.
The mature riverside plantings and their progeny will not be touched unless they conflict with other mature tree interests (such as one specimen that is corkscrewing its way up through the branches of one mature oak of especial interest for lichens). Mature trees such as these are fantastic for birds, bats, invertebrates and epiphytic lichens, especially where rot holes form and decay can enter. Such trees of course will be retained unto their death and collapse, when as deadwood they will provide habitat for specialised saproxylic invertebrates whose larvae feed on deadwood. Such invertebrates are our fastest declining species.
The beech plantations will be controlled. It must be stressed here, that the plantings of the 1950's and 1960's were purely economic. Their initial planting in conservation terms was a mistake. That in the intervening years they were not thinned for their future economic value was an oversight. That the markets they were initially planted for no longer exist makes the initial mistake of planting and the oversight of thinning all the more painful in the present.
In this present time, the beech underplanted beneath the oak are starting to overtop it, both inhibiting the ability of the oak to spread its crowns and of oak, birch, hazel and rowan to regenerate beneath it.
Allied to this, we have report after report of losses of woodland wildlife such as butterflies and flowers, birds and invertebrates, in large part due to the decline of traditional practices that regularly let light into woodlands allowing sun loving invertebrates and flowers to take advantage of such conditions until regrowth occurs, allowing other species to utilise these conditions (many birds utilise the 'thicket' phase of regeneration which is absent when woods are planted up).
So by removing the underplanted beech we can allow the oak, hazel, rowan and birch the light they need to thrive and regenerate. Such areas will then either be managed as high forest or coppice with standards (biodiversity is best served by utilising different management systems thus allowing areas of old growth to be adjacent to open areas, providing opportunities for those species with different requriements).
Finally, those who know Hembury Woods will notice that whilst some felled beech has been extracted, in other areas it has been left where it has been felled (notice in these areas how dense the remaining woodland is despite all the trees cut out). Extracting it all when it has no value as anything but firewood is neither economic, nor worth the damage to the rides when it is deep in the woods. Also, we do not have the manpower to extract everything, a workforce of one warden and an occasional volunteer can only do so much. Best of all, it introduces an element of mess and deadwood that has been sorely missing in these woods for years. The wood where it lays will provide habitat for deadwood invertebrates and fungi, shelter for regeneration to grow through protected from browsing deer, and shelter for ground-nesting birds from people and dogs. The value of deadwood will be explored in the next blog. Remember, woods are not gardens or formal estates. Mess is great for wildlife and this theme will be returned to next time, but suffice to say that the felled plantation beech is providing more value for wildlife now than it ever did standing.
From the above you would be forgiven for thinking that the Hembury Woods warden hates beech. Hailing as he does from the south-east, beech country, the opposite is true. (Though he does hate plantations, be it beech or conifer.) With his better half still resident there, he is a regular visitor to the Chilterns beechwoods (such as Bisham Woods, the inspiration for the wildwood in Kenneth Grahame's 'Wind in the Willows') and old wood pasture sites such as Burnham Beeches with its 'very reverend vegetables', ie, its beech pollards.
He also highly recommends 'Beechcombings; The Narratives of Trees' (2007) by Richard Mabey on said authors love affair with the beech tree. Of especial interest was the authors musings on the management of his own beechwood, Hardings Wood, and especially what to do about a plantation in the heart of it, which he thinned out to create more diversity. What he says sums up how the warden feels about the plantation beech swamping the oak in Hembury Woods;
'It had been planted for timber after all and we would simply be fulfilling its destiny. A bit more light might encourage some regeneration and maybe incursions by the flowers and ferns of the old wood.'
By removing a lot of the underplanted beech at Hembury we are rediscovering the old wood before the ravages of forestry. There is a place for beech at Hembury Woods, just not the plantations shading out the oak.