Managing our Woodlands for Wildlife

Conservation Officer Andy Lear talks about how we manage our woodlands and why it's important for wildlife

Winter is when we carry out much of our woodland management work. Visiting one of our woods you are likely to see evidence of management activities such as tree felling, coppicing (cutting of shrubs and undergrowth), cutting back along paths and woodland rides, and mowing.

What are we hoping to achieve?

We are trying to create woodland with a varied structure comprising a mix of trees and shrubs of different ages and heights around a network of open rides and glades. This benefits a wide range of woodland plants and animal species.

Why is this necessary?

Woods in Leicestershire and Rutland (and throughout much of the UK) are too small and isolated to be fully functioning ecological units. Woodlands have also been intensively managed for hundreds of years as a source of firewood and timber for buildings, tools and other woodland products. So they are no longer ‘natural’ woodlands.

Historically, tree species composition has been altered by selection and planting, with the age structure affected by the repeated cutting to generate younger timber trees and shrubs.

More recently, the decline of traditional woodland management has left many sites dominated by mature trees with little open space. The lack of management has proved detrimental to a number of woodland species dependent on that support. An example being the decline in fritillary butterflies – many of which disappeared from the woods of Leicestershire and Rutland in the second half of the 20th century.

As a consequence of all this, we are left with a situation where we have to intervene to manage woods for nature conservation in order to preserve the wildlife which inhabit them.

Silver-washed fritillary

Silver-washed fritillary - Jim Higham

How does we go about this?

Firstly we assess the wood. What type of wood is it? What is the current structure? Are there any rides and glades? Is there any evidence of past management? What historical species records are there and what is left now? This information can then be used to help guide the management strategy.

However, even without this information, our first priority would be the creation of a network of open spaces by opening up any existing rides, clearing glades and making new rides where necessary. This might be all the management that is required in a small wood or all that is possible with available resources, but it is probably the most beneficial thing that can be done to improve the wood for nature conservation.

When opening up rides the idea is to make them wide enough so that sunlight can reach the ground; the structure we usually aim for is a grass strip in the middle, mown once or twice a year, and a scrubby margin of coppiced shrubs. This provides bright, open areas for butterflies, dragonflies and other invertebrates, and allows woodland plants to flower. The coppiced edges of rides and glades provide dense scrub which is ideal nesting and feeding habitat for many woodland birds.

Where there is evidence of historical coppice management such as large multi-stemmed ash and hazel coppice stools, then we usually try to restore coppicing to a proportion of the wood. This is a very labour intensive operation particularly in the initial stages, and if contractors are involved it can be very expensive. For this reason coppicing is often restricted to a small proportion of the wood and much of the work is done by Trust staff and volunteer teams.

Once coppicing has been restarted the plan is to then recut the area on a regular basis – in the east Leicestershire woods we aim to have a coppice cycle of about 10 to 12 years. Cutting adjacent areas in successive years creates a series of coppice ‘coupes’ of different age vegetation giving a range of habitats from open areas to dense scrub.

As well as promoting the flowering of woodland plant species, such areas also encourage regeneration of trees by allowing seedlings to become established. For instance, oak seedlings can be found in the coppice areas of Prior’s Coppice but not under the tree canopy in unmanaged areas of the wood. As the new coppice grows up and becomes denser it becomes an ideal nesting habitat for woodland birds including many migrant warblers. It is in these coppices that you can hear birds such as the blackcap, garden warbler and chiff chaff singing in the spring. 

Chiff Chaff

Chiff Chaff - Janet Packham Photography

Often we leave a scattering of larger trees within the coppice coupes. In the past, these were allowed to grow on into larger trees for providing structural timber, however in the case of our woods we hope that some of these will eventually develop into veteran trees which are particularly beneficial for invertebrates and fungi and can provide rot holes for bats and birds to nest in.

A woodland that is planted rather than arisen naturally is a plantation woodland. These often have a limited range of trees all of similar age and soon develop a closed canopy, which is not particularly beneficial for many woodland species. Where this is the case, we try to break up the canopy by localised thinning and creation of small glades, with the aim to increase the structural variety of the wood. This management helps tree regeneration by letting more light onto the woodland floor so that existing tree seedlings can escape shade and grow on towards maturity, whilst the open space and ground disturbance creates conditions for tree seeds to germinate.

Native woods do not usually need replanting after felling as they will regenerate naturally. Planting is not something the Trust does to any great extent in its woods. It is usually done by woodland owners wanting to create a commercial tree crop or to increase the diversity of the tree cover.

On many of our sites there is at least one area left with minimum intervention, where there are large quantities of fallen and standing deadwood, trees here are left to grow to maturity. Regeneration in these areas occurs in the gaps where trees fall through disease or are blown down. These areas benefit the species which require conditions provided by mature trees, shade and rotting wood. This is particularly important resource for these species because many mature trees have been lost from hedgerows in the wider countryside and are not being replaced.

Looking forward…

As with all nature conservation, a judgement has to be made as to what we value most. If our woodlands were very much bigger and much less isolated in the landscape, then the intensity of our management would be much less. However because most woodlands in Leicestershire and Rutland are small and have been intensively managed for hundreds of years, we continue to intervene to support the wildlife which is dependent upon that management.

Visit one of our woodlands