Trees, woodlands and forests are vitally important to life on earth, providing oxygen to breathe and removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. They are attractive in the landscape, they enhance our parks and towns and they support a spectacular variety of wildlife. Trees also provide us with raw materials for many different uses from building houses and furniture to producing the paper we write on. Studies have even shown that tress and woodlands can enhance our mood and reduce stress.
Devon appears to be well wooded, but this is partly due to the many hedgerow trees and green leafy lanes. In fact, less than 8% of the County has tree cover, which is lower than the national average.
Managing existing woodland
In the past, woodlands were a central part of the rural economy, providing such essential products as timber, fuel and fencing. Reflecting this productive use, many Devon woods were managed on a coppice system, which is now often considered to be very good management for wildlife.
A well-managed coppice contains a number of standard (mature) trees that are well-spaced and take minimal light from shrubs and plants below. Traditionally, these standards were eventually used for timber. The shrub layer is managed by cutting back discrete blocks every 15-20 years to leave stumps (known as stools), which then produce long shoots (known as poles). The woodland becomes a mosaic of different stages of growth from recently cut back areas to mature ones about to be cut. The continual opening up of areas allows sunlight to penetrate and woodland plants, such as bluebells and primroses, to flourish, which in turn are ideal for insects, particularly butterflies. Hazel coppice is a classic haunt for dormice, one of Devon’s special mammals.
You can tell if a woodland has been coppiced before because trees like oaks that normally only have one trunk have several and sometimes you can see the old stump or ‘stool’ at the bottom.
These days there is little economic incentive to continue coppicing, though many woods are managed in this way specifically for wildlife. Coppicing can be re-introduced to a wood but this needs to be considered carefully, especially if the wood has not been managed for many years. In the intervening time since a wood was last coppiced it may well have developed a new and significant wildlife interest dependent on the conditions of more mature high forest. This type of woodland will have many features missing from coppice systems, such as old trees with cracks and fissures (good for bats, for example) and dead wood (a very important resource for invertebrates). These features would be lost by re-introducing coppicing.
The choice of woodland management is largely determined by the size of the woodland, its past management and what kind of habitat you want to create. If you are unsure about the interest of your woodland it is often – perhaps almost always – best to avoid large-scale dramatic action. Seek advice first if you are not sure what is right for your woodland, but here are some management principles that are likely to benefit wildlife in most circumstances:
- Leave both standing and fallen dead wood – this provides habitats for 1000’s of species, mostly insects but also other small creatures, hole-nesting birds and bats, as well as many types of fungi, lichens and mosses.
- Retain ancient trees, even if they look nearly dead or are dead.
- Logpiles provide summer and winter nesting sites for dormice and nesting birds and is a way of providing a dead wood habitat if you are thinning trees out.
- Exclude stock (cattle, sheep, ponies) from woodland, especially those with dormice, as they can prevent regeneration of young tree saplings.
- Woodland edges are often rich in wildlife such as butterflies and flowers. Allow plants to grow taller and create a wavy edge where possible rather than a straight one to increase the area of edge habitat.
- Create glades (open areas) within woodlands to allow more light in for flowers and butterflies. Glades linked by tracks are more useful to wildlife than those that are isolated. This is especially true of larger woods, as plants and animals may not be able to find new clearings. Create glades around ponds or swampy areas where trees grow poorly anyway.
- Retain brambles, especially in sunny spots – these provide shelter and a food source for many animals and their flowers are a nectar source for insects, especially butterflies. They also protect tree saplings from deer browsing. Only clear brambles where they are swamping young trees and shading out more interesting woodland plants.
- Retain climbers such as honeysuckle, ivy and traveller’s joy – these provide food (fruit, berries and leaves), cover and nesting sites for insects, birds and mammals including bats. Honeysuckle is especially good for butterflies and is used by nesting dormice.
- Invasive non-natives such as rhododendron, laurel and sycamore can take over a woodland to the detriment of native species and should be managed or eradicated entirely. Coppicing sycamore prevents seed dispersal but provides abundant insect food.
- Only recommended in previously coppiced woodlands.
- Coppice on a 15-20 year rotation (i.e. cutting the same area every 15-20 years). Hazel only produces nuts about 7 years after being coppiced.
- Only cut small areas (less than 0.3 ha).
- Always retain some mature coppice over 15 years old.
- Avoid coppicing next to a recently coppiced area – create a patchy environment.
Whether in an urban or rural setting, trees and woods can enhance the appearance of a neighbourhood making it more desirable, attract birds and other wildlife, remove pollutants from the air and provide children with an exciting environment in which to play and explore. Any individual or community group can carry out tree planting or create a woodland with some careful planning.
Chose your site carefully. Never plant trees on species-rich or marshy grassland or on heathland as these are much rarer habitats which would disappear under the shade of trees. Once a site has been chosen (and permission granted where necessary) then there are other considerations such as what species of trees to plant. Native trees, especially those that are already growing in the area are the ideal choice. Where possible buy locally-grown trees, or collect acorns and other seeds locally and grow your own in pots or a dedicated bed on an allotment or in someone’s garden.
Most trees need a tree guard to protect them from rabbits and deer, and a stake to hold them up in high winds. Once the trees have been planted, it is crucial that they are maintained. Grass and weeds around the trees should be cleared until the trees are well established. Make sure that tree guards are intact and protecting the trees, but don’t forget to remove them once the tree is well-established and replace any trees that have died.