Bringing ancient woodland back to life

Four years ago I bought a 27 acre (11ha) plantation on an ancient woodland site (PAWS) near Llanfair Caereinion in Mid Wales. The following summer, I made contact with Alastair Hotchkiss, one of the Woodland Trust’s ancient woodland restoration officers, who kindly agreed to help me by preparing a management plan for the wood.

As far as we could work out the wood is on its second crop of conifers – about 4ha of 28-year-old Sitka spruce and Japanese larch, and 5ha of 15-year old Douglas fir.

My plan for the wood was to thin the conifers, drag the timber out using my heavy horse and sell it to help fund the management. I also wanted to increase the amount of broadleaved trees in order to improve the wildlife value.

My Dutch Draft mare is strong enough to  move timber (Image: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)
My Dutch Draft mare is strong enough to move timber (Image: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)

Creating a restoration plan

Discussions with Alastair, and the survey work that he undertook, resulted in some more sophisticated proposals that will enable me to continue with my plans but in a way that will gradually restore the woodland. These were set out in the ancient woodland restoration plan that Alastair produced.

In essence, over many years, the site would gradually be restored to semi-natural ancient woodland – in this case an oak/birch wood. Alastair’s recommendation was to do this using a continuous cover system, thinning the conifers to create better conditions for the natural regeneration of deciduous trees. He explained to me that some ancient woodland plants had managed to hang on in the wood, despite the dense shading, and that clear felling some or all of the conifers wasn’t a good idea as it would further stress these plants by suddenly exposing them to direct sunlight and the full force of the Welsh weather. “Better to do it gradually,” he said. Initially this meant ‘halo thinning’ by removing the conifers from around any broadleaf trees that have managed to grow amongst the conifers – especially oaks – as well as thinning out about a quarter of the conifers. To do this I obtained a felling licence for thinning 250 m3 of mostly spruce.

Thinning of young douglas fir to favour birch with a fixed monitoring point marked on tree (Photo: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)
Thinning of young douglas fir to favour birch with a fixed monitoring point marked on tree (Photo: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)

The restoration plan identified two areas where work was ‘critical’ and needed to be undertaken more or less immediately. This has been my focus in the year since the plan was produced.

Removing the timber

Extraction of the timber by horse was going to be a great help as it would enable me to select individual trees to thin out rather than the somewhat industrial, indiscriminate approach of removing lines of conifers in ‘racks’, as had been done around 15 years ago. However, it was going to be a long haul, uphill for my Dutch Draft mare and although she is strong enough, each log would take about 15 minutes to get to a roadside stacking area. The alternative was to use stone to surface a grass track that runs down through the larch and spruce. This would enable the 26-tonne-load wagons to come into the wood to collect the timber, reducing the time to bring out each log to 5-10 minutes. The track was put in a year ago with help from the Welsh Government’s Timber Business Investment scheme.

Stacked spruce from PAWS thinning beside the newly surfaced track (Photo: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)
Stacked spruce from PAWS thinning beside the newly surfaced track (Photo: Alastair Hotchkiss/WTML)

So far I have felled and sold over 100 tonnes of softwoods to a local fencing supplier. The character of the wood has changed, now looking much more like a mixed woodland than a dense conifer plantation. An understorey is starting to develop, including birch, oak, rowan and holly seedlings, which will have much more chance to thrive in the gaps I’ve created.

It’s going to take nearly 50 years to fully restore this wood, but at least the work has started.

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