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Trees and plants at Hackfall

Hackfall is north-facing and very steep in places, its plant communities affected by the underlying geology and the very localised flushing from the calcium-rich water which arises from numerous springs. These springs, the river and the sheltered location produce a very humid microclimate at the bottom of the wood.

The steep upper slopes are more exposed, have underlying rock which typically gives rise to more acidic soil and the plants here are typical of acidic woodland. The area to the east of Mowbray Castle, for example, has extensive areas of bilberry, great wood rush and occasional patches of heather. Other acid-loving plants on the site include wavy hair-grass, hard fern and small cow-wheat.

Much of the wood was clear-felled in the 1930s by a timber merchant, with very little replanting afterwards apart from some Scots pine which have survived in small areas at the north end of the wood and near to Hackfall Farm. Many of the trees that are present today have regenerated naturally and in some areas the majority are less than 70 years old. This process of natural regeneration has allowed more aggressive trees such as sycamore to dominate some areas. In general, however, there is a good mix of trees, including ash, wych elm, sessile oak, beech, rowan and silver birch.

Under the trees in some areas is a shrub layer consisting mainly of hazel, holly and guelder rose, below which is a mosaic of plants typical of ancient woodland. These include bluebell, herb bennet, red campion, yellow pimpernel, sanicle, wood forget-me-not, common twayblade, orchid, water and wood avens, sweet woodruff, enchanter’s nightshade, wood anemone, primrose, uncommon toothwort, herb-paris, dog rose, meadowsweet, ramson (wild garlic), bugle, dog’s mercury, common foxglove, greater wood rush, weeping sedge, liverwort (on rocks near the river) and great horsetail.

Steep rocky stream sides support an abundance of ferns including hart’s tongue and male-fern and a rich moss flora. Where conditions are wettest, alder, bird cherry and spindle are common and the ground flora is particularly rich and dominated by meadowsweet, great horsetail, pendulous sedge and tufted hair-grass.

At the southern end of the site, small-leaved lime is common in the open canopy and the wood fescue is abundant on the cliff faces and precipitous slopes down to the river bank.

In the northern half of the site, Dutch elm disease has killed stands of wych elm, leaving open clearings which have been colonised by bracken, bramble and rosebay willowherb.

At least 46 species of fungi have been recorded in the wood, including stinkhorn, bracket fungus, butter cap mushroom, candle snuff fungus, King Alfred’s cake, orange peel fungus, velvet shank fungus, scarlet elf cup, dead man’s fingers, coral spot, sulphur tuft and fly agaric.

(Information obtained with kind permission from hackfall.org.uk.)

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