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Woodland Development: A Long-term Study of Lady Park Wood

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In 1944 Lady Park Wood (45 hectares of woodland in Gloucestershire and Monmouthshire, UK) was set aside indefinitely by the Forestry Commission so that ecologists could study how woodland develops naturally. Since then, in a unique long-term study, individual trees and shrubs have been recorded at intervals, accumulating a detailed record of more than 20,000 individual beech, sessile oak, ash, wych elm, small-leaved lime, large-leaved lime, birch, hazel, yew and other species.ÊIn the seven decades since the study started, the wood has changed; trees grew, died and regenerated, and drought, disease and other events shaped its destiny. Each tree and shrub species reacted in its own way to changes in the wood as a whole and to changes in the fortunes of its neighbours. Meanwhile, the wild fauna, flora and fungi also responded, leaving the wood richer in some groups but poorer in others.ÊIn this landmark book, beautifully illustrated throughout, George Peterken and Edward Mountford, summarise the ongoing results of the Lady Park Wood study, highlighting its unique place in nature conservation and its significance to ecology in general. It also builds on experience at Lady Park Wood and elsewhere to discuss in particular: the role and maintenance of long-term ecological studies; the concept and form of natural woodland; the role of minimum-intervention policies in woodland nature conservation; near-to-nature forestry; and the desirability and practicalities of re-wilding woodlands.

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1: Understanding Woodland

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1

Understanding Woodland

To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in the hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.

Patrick Kavanagh, Irish poet, quoted by Robert Macfarlane in Landmarks (2015: p. 63)

What (Nan Shepherd) learns – and what her book (The Living Mountain) taught me – is that the true mark of long acquaintance with a single place is a readiness to accept uncertainty: a contentment with the knowledge that you must not seek complete knowledge.

Robert Macfarlane (2015: p. 71)

Rewilding recognises that nature consists not just of a collection of species but also of their ever-shifting relationships with each other and with the physical environment. It understands that to keep an ecosystem in a state of arrested development . . . is to protect something which bears little relationship to the natural world. Rewilding has no end points, no view about what a ‘right’ ecosystem or a ‘right’ assemblage of species looks like. It lets nature decide.

 

2: Lady Park Wood and its History

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2

Lady Park Wood and its History

Lady Parke was one of the five parts of Hadnock

Wood, a large ancient wood in the parish of Dixton,

Monmouthshire. The modern reserve includes most of the historic Lady Parke coppice and a fragment of the ancient Patches Wood in the parish of

Staunton, Gloucestershire. Today, Hadnock Wood,

Patches Wood and a large tract of secondary woodland planted on farmland in the 19th century form part of Highmeadow Woods. They are managed by

Forest Enterprise (England) as part of the Forest of

Dean, even though much of the ground lies in Wales.

Climatically, Lady Park lies right on the boundary between the oceanic western uplands of Britain and the somewhat drier and warmer lowlands. For the record, mean annual temperature is 9.3°C, mean annual precipitation is 719  mm and nitrogen deposition is 14.4 kg/ha/year (Verheyen et al., 2012).

2.1

Physical Environment

Lady Park Wood stands on the left bank of the Wye as it passes through the upper Wye Gorge downstream of Symonds Yat (Fig. 2.2). This part of the river concludes an amazing sequence of great meanders formed in Devonian Old Red Sandstone that starts near Hereford and continues even after the river encounters the Carboniferous Limestone hills after Goodrich. The Wye enters the hills at Walford, flows out again below Symonds Yat and turns smoothly at Goodrich back into the hills below the settlements of Symonds Yat east and west, before bending round the Dowards and out into a wider valley as it approaches Monmouth. The crowds of visitors to Symonds Yat Rock thus witness a double view in which the Wye flows north on the right and back south on the left.

 

3: The Ecological Reserve

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The Ecological Reserve

Lady Park is an attractive place and an ecologically interesting wood, but its main significance for ecologists lies in its early establishment as a research reserve and the long and detailed record of its trees. From

1945 onwards, we have the curriculum vitae of some

21,000 individuals, from huge, spreading trees of

18th century origin to saplings that only briefly grew large enough to be recorded before they perished.

The creation of the reserve and the circumstances in which the record has been compiled and preserved is a story of shifting institutional relationships, scientific endeavour and human and organisational limitations spanning the entire post-war decades.

3.1

Origins

Lady Park Wood is almost unique in becoming a research reserve before nature conservation was officially established in Britain, and it remained an anomaly for 40 years as an ‘ecological reserve’ on

Ordnance Survey maps, but neither a Site of Special

 

4: Recording Trees and Expressing Change

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Recording Trees and Expressing

Change

Since 1944, recording has developed as a relay. Foresters from Oxford University initiated recording and kept it going until 1960. The baton was passed to the Nature Conservancy between 1971 and 1987, by which time others had been involved intermittently. Since 1992, recording has been maintained by ecologists working independently, but with the cooperation of the successor bodies of the Nature

Conservancy and the Coleford office of the Forestry

Commission (FC), now Forest Enterprise (FE).

4.1

Oxford University

The project was started by Dr Eustace Jones

(Fig. 4.1: see p. 36), a lecturer in the forestry department of Oxford University. A keen bryologist, he had searched out mosses and liverworts in the Wye

Valley and had organised forestry field courses in

Highmeadow Woods during the 1930s. There, and in the New Forest, Hampshire, he had taught survey techniques to forestry students based on long transects through representative stands. Several crossed

 

5: The Changing Woodland

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The Changing Woodland

Woods are constantly changing. However fixed and statuesque they may seem to a casual, shortterm observer, both the balance between individual species and the character of the stand as a whole change constantly. Thus, for example, as trees grow larger, so their numbers must decrease, for there is a fixed amount of space for them to occupy. Here, we deal with trees as a collective, the ‘stand’, leaving the behaviour of individual species to later chapters.

5.1

How Stands Grow

Several schemes have been devised to describe how stands grow (Table 5.1). At their simplest, stands start with ‘bare ground’ (which is how foresters see land devoid of trees) and a pioneer phase of saplings with plenty of space between them. As saplings grow, branches interlock and a thicket develops. Further growth results in stratification as fast-growing trees overtop slow growers and weaker trees die, i.e. they are ‘excluded’. Eventually, trees grow to full height, at which point the stand is mature, with a canopy of individuals whose crowns are open to full sunlight, above a subcanopy of trees whose crowns spread below the canopy and an underwood of shrubs, saplings and slow- or poorly-grown trees which, necessarily, suffer the shade cast by canopy and subcanopy trees. If the trees have been grown for timber, they would be felled at this stage and a new stand would be established; or some of them would be felled, leaving space for subcanopy trees, underwood trees and even saplings to grow into the canopy. If, however, the stand is allowed to grow on, it develops a distinctive condition with aged canopy trees and a complex vertical and horizontal structure known as

 

6: Ash: The Tree in the Spotlight

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Ash: The Tree in the Spotlight

6.1 Trees in General

Changes in the stand show how trees develop and change en masse, but, like any human community, the 33 tree and shrub species found in Lady

Park also coexist with and compete against each other. They are like characters in a play staged on the slopes and cliffs of the Wye Gorge, the course of which is determined not just by the collective dynamics of the community but also by their individual personalities and how they react to circumstances, events and each other. Some are dominant and others subordinate; some occupy all arboreal walks of life, while others stick to their particular, if narrow, niche. Some are opportunists enjoying a fast life, but a short one, while others are slow and persistent late developers, and a few manage to be both. The race does not always go to the strong, but to those with well-developed survival instincts. Like us, each may fall prey to chance and the unexpected, and react in different ways. Not that there is a conclusion to a race: it continues indefinitely, with endless twists and turns.

 

7: Beech and Oak, The Major Forest Trees

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Beech and Oak, The Major

Forest Trees

For centuries, beech and oak have dominated in Lady Park Wood. Not only have they formed the largest individual trees they have also been the main concern of woodmen and foresters. Yet they are competitors: in both managed and natural woodland, the fortunes of one declined as the fortunes of the other improved. Oak long dominated in both wood pasture and coppice, but beech was favoured in the conversion to high forest and

‘natural’ woodland, only to be brought up short by grey squirrels and the 1976 drought. Today, both their futures are in the balance.

7.1

Beech in Britain

Beech is the tree that makes the ecological weather. In theory, it has the characteristics of a natural winner: not only does it cast such deep shade that few trees can live in its shadow but also it bears shade when young, lives long, regenerates well and is mildly resistant to browsing. In undisturbed woodland, it ought to dominate, and, once dominant, it should have the capacity to stay dominant.

 

8: Limes and Wych Elm

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Limes and Wych Elm

The remaining long-lived canopy trees in Lady Park

Wood are small-leaved lime, large-leaved lime and wych elm. Field maple might have been added, but its performance in the wood relegates it to a subordinate tree. Wych elm, too, ought to be relegated, but it was an important canopy tree in parts of the wood for the first 30 years of this study.

Both limes and wych elm have played fourth fiddle to oak, beech and ash as timber, so even now they are seen more often as slender subcanopy trees with smoothly arching branches than as towering trees in the canopy. Both can dominate the underwood in ancient coppices, but deer and domestic stock browse them avidly – they have been important sources of foliage fodder in the past – so they are uncommon in pasture woods and are usually restricted in the uplands to less grazed, rugged ground. Their fates diverge today: while numerous wych elms have succumbed to disease, the limes grow serenely on and even seem to be benefiting from climate change.

 

9: Birch and other Short-lived Canopy Trees

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Birch and other Short-lived

Canopy Trees

These are species whose survival strategy is best summed up as quick-witted opportunism. They often dominate new growth after felling, especially where the ground has been left bare by timber extraction, but they cast only light shade and cannot therefore exclude the long-lasting shade species, such as beech, wych elm and lime. Fast growing in their youth, provided they are well lit, they generally outpace the most vigorous ash, oak and beech enough to dominate the canopy, but their growth rate declines and eventually their crowns are confined by more vigorous neighbours. Individual trees rarely last long and cannot replace themselves in a mature stand until the canopy is opened up by heavy thinning or a substantial natural disturbance. Even then, they succeed only by responding quickly. In theory, they will be favoured when the rate and intensity of disturbances – natural or silvicultural – increases, but long periods without substantial disturbance should reduce them to minor stand components.

 

10: Field Maple and Hazel, the other Coppice Species

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Field Maple and Hazel, the other

Coppice Species

In regularly cut coppices, field maple and hazel grow every bit as vigorously as the other trees – indeed, hazel and field maple are major contributors to the underwood – but as soon as coppices are neglected, their slower height growth and their ultimately smaller stature oblige them to grow in shade and become subordinate in high forest and most forms of natural woodland. Together with ash as coppice and pedunculate oak as standards, they form the characteristic lowland coppice type on neutral-alkaline clays and loams, and jointly dominate a few coppices in Essex and Dorset, but both become less frequent on light, acid soils, especially maple. In Lady Park, maple is never more than frequent, even on the most alkaline soils, whereas hazel is abundant and still dominates parts of the young-growth stands. Both could be characterised as either large shrubs or small trees.

10.1

Field Maple

Field maples were common components of the underwood in the ancient coppices of the lowlands, south-east lowlands and borderlands of England and Wales, especially on alkaline soils. They can grow into trees, but have rarely been allowed to do so, and they never attain the size of oaks and other canopy dominants. Widespread also in mixed hedges, where they have sometimes been pollarded, they can grow into sizeable boundary trees. They compete in the scrub that colonises open ground, but not vigorously. Their lives became more difficult in the 20th century with the spread of grey squirrels, which debark them almost as enthusiastically as they debark sycamore.

 

11: Minor Trees and Shrubs

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Minor Trees and Shrubs

These subordinate tree species form a mixed bunch.

Several can grow into the canopy, but they never achieve the stature of oak and other canopy dominants. Mostly, they remain in the underwood, where they influence the growth of the canopy dominants by restricting space for regeneration. The evergreens – holly and yew – can dominate underwood, but they and the other species are generally found as a thin scatter. In Lady Park, the performance of each is distinctive enough to encourage the idea that tree species have their own personalities – that each contributes something unique to the woodland community.

11.1

Hawthorn

All the individuals in Lady Park are common hawthorn, Crataegus monogyna, a ubiquitous species, common in many kinds of woodland, which fruits abundantly, employs birds to distribute these fruits widely and thereby becomes one of the characteristic colonists of secondary scrub and a characteristic underwood in secondary woodlands on former arable. Populations thin out on base-poor soils, but hawthorn seems well suited to most other soil types.

 

12: Habitats

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Habitats

Woods contain a host of habitats that enable particular species to thrive within their bounds.

Within Lady Park, we have, for example, tracks, rock faces and tufa-forming seepages, but not streams, save for the not inconsiderable bulk of the Wye at its foot. This chapter gives more detail on the habitats most directly related to stand dynamics, dead wood and open spaces.

12.1

Dead Wood

If there was one feature that foresters sought to minimise, it was dead wood. Managers who grow utilisable timber see dead wood as waste, timber defects, a source of disease and, in some forest types, an invitation to fire. And yet, in natural forests, dead wood is not just inevitable but an important habitat, and a state through which the nutrients are recycled into new growth. Moreover, just as bald heads and gammy legs are part of the human condition, so dead branches and hollow trunks form a natural stage in the life of trees.

In Lady Park Wood, dead wood takes many forms. Stumps of trees felled in 1942 are still prominent (see Fig. 7.19). Coppice stools remain, some completely dead, most the foundation of living trees

 

13: Species

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Species

The wild flora, fauna and fungi of Lady Park have changed in concert with changes in stand age, deadwood volume and the amount and form of open space, but recording has so concentrated on the trees that the records available are insufficient to examine the changes thoroughly. Only the ground flora has been recorded in any detail, so analysis concentrates on the plants, however much we might wish for a more balanced appraisal.

13.1

Ground Flora

Woodland ground vegetation reflects the texture, drainage and reaction of the soil, but the amount of light reaching the ground determines its expression at any one time. Many species grow and flower in spring, when the amount of light reaching the ground rises to its annual maximum before the tree leaves develop, but then they die back, leaving dry stalks (e.g. bluebell) or nothing at all (e.g. ramsons).

Summer-growing plants remain weak under thickets, but compete strongly in the higher light levels afforded under mature stands and may reduce the performance of spring-growing species. Some, like the evergreen brambles, continue to grow in winter.

 

14: Long-term Ecological Studies

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Long-term Ecological Studies

Many aspects of ecology, especially in woodland, can be understood only through observation continued over decades or centuries. The practice of making observation dependent on research grants and three-year Ph.D. courses prevents these aspects being studied. The philosophy, now fashionable, of designing observations only in order to confirm or disprove some preconceived hypothesis makes it difficult to discover the unexpected. At Madingley Wood, along with Wytham Woods and Lady Park Wood, the long duration of existing studies makes it possible to break out of these limitations.

(Rackham and Coombe, 1996)

Forests operate on timescales of centuries, during which some changes are rapid and profound but most are slow and almost imperceptible. We try to understand them, not only for their intrinsic interest but also for highly practical reasons. What changes are happening now? Is the change unprecedented?

To what extent are people responsible? Do we need to do anything to stop, reverse or facilitate change?

 

15: Natural Woodland in Theory and Practice

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Natural Woodland in Theory and Practice

The target in Lady Park Wood has been to recreate natural woodland, which, like most ecologists, we take to be woodland whose characteristics have not been influenced by people and have thus been determined by natural factors alone. However, natural woodland so defined has probably not existed in pure form in north-west Europe since the ice retreated and early hunters decimated the megafauna; it has certainly not existed in Britain through historical times, during which woods have been cleared, grazed and felled; and it is not recoverable, for we cannot exclude the effects of past use, nor the indirect effects of people even from strictly protected reserves.

What, then, is the point of a target that is unattainable? Several reasons were listed in the introduction, but fundamentally it is a scientific necessity. We need ‘control’ woodland, as free as possible from human influence, so that we can assess the impact of people on woodland processes and characteristics. We do not deny that people have long been part of nature – indeed, many revel in the details of how people and woodlands have interacted down the millennia – but we need a clear framework for understanding our impacts.

 

16:  Near-to-Nature Forestry

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Near-to-Nature Forestry

Forestry is a broad church now, far removed from the narrow objectives of the 1970s. Then, the aim was to grow utilisable timber as economically as possible, and other considerations were deemed to be a restraint on, or a cost against, timber production. Net discounted revenue calculations were the order of the day, even when they led to poisoning well-established 35-year-old oak plantations and replacing them with Corsican pine. The target was to cover as much of Britain as possible in timber plantations, almost all of which were even-aged and coniferous. In doing so, foresters accepted no limits and barely acknowledged that there might be places where trees were unwelcome. Some saw this as a moral issue – to follow a ‘biblical’ injunction and make several million trees grow where none grew before – and it was reinforced by the liberal use of herbicides to control ‘weeds’ and

‘scrub’, as well as efficient drainage, especially of upland peats, to improve growth rates. As one forester memorably said to GFP, ‘If the site ain’t right, we’ll make it right’ – but in his case, it was ironical and said with a smile.

 

17: Rewilding, Remoteness and Wilderness

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Rewilding, Remoteness and Wilderness

Eustace Jones would not have said this in 1944, but Lady Park Wood has, in effect, become a test of woodland rewilding. Of course, many other woods have been allowed to run wild, but this one has been recorded as it has grown wilder and thus provides both an informed example of what happens and a basis for assessing whether rewilding is worthwhile and wise.

Rewilding is a modern idea based on old themes, which has come to prominence now because we have realised increasingly that our separation from nature is harming both nature and us. According to the Rewilding Britain website (www.rewildingbritain.org.uk/), rewilding ‘is ecological restoration and a little bit more’, which allows nature to look after itself, thereby ‘securing the good things that nature provides’ – clean air and water, carbon storage, flood control and ‘amazing experiences’. Where land rewilds, rewilders see habitats expanding, wildlife multiplying, people reconnecting with nature and

 

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