Once persecuted to extinction, find out how we're helping pine martens make a welcome return to the UK's woods.Read the story
Communication & Engagement Manager
For wildlife to thrive, a healthy wood needs a variety of habitats and features, including open glades, deadwood, grassland, and shrubs and trees of different ages. Working in harmony, these spaces create a haven for all kinds of species, from delicate plants to carnivorous mammals. Some woods need a helping hand to reach this healthy state, and we're working hard at many of our sites to do just that. One such example is Little Doward in the Wye Valley. Here’s how our efforts are set to make a big difference for our beleaguered wildlife at this special ancient woodland.
In the past, woods were a vital resource managed by man for food, fuel and shelter. Ancient woods like Little Doward have had woodland cover for at least four centuries - some for thousands of years! As a result, each one is a unique, complex community of animals, plants, fungi, insects, and other unseen microorganisms. Every element is an important piece of the woodland habitat. If one element is removed, the woodland ecosystem is thrown out of balance.
Today, many of our woods have deteriorated. They have become isolated and disconnected from other habitats in the landscape. Often they have become uniform and lack many important features. Many ancient woods are planted with non-native trees, impacting the ecological integrity and resilience of these important and special places.
We need to bring our woods back into balance.
A healthy woodland is not simply dense stands of trees. It needs a mixture of habitats, including open spaces, scattered trees and scrubby areas. The transitions between these habitats, known as ecotones, are important too – they're like fuzzy edges as one space blends into another. Many of our species thrive in these fuzzy edges and need the different habitats to survive.
Some wildlife also depends on disturbance and changes in light to flourish, like the rare fingered sedge, tintern spurge and wood white butterfly.
We manage Little Doward with disturbance in mind. Selective felling of trees and grazing livestock helps to mimic the disturbance of the past and create niches for wildlife to thrive in.
Often gnarly and hollow, ancient trees are in the final stage of their life and are very old compared to other trees of the same species. Veteran trees have some ancient tree features but aren't yet as old or complex as an ancient tree.
Ancient and veteran trees are extraordinary wildlife habitats. Their nooks and crannies, decaying wood and hollows provide homes for hundreds of species. Many generations of invertebrates will live on a single tree, while holes and crevices are ready-made roosting spots for barbastelle bats, nuthatches, tawny owls and many more. Did you know an ancient oak tree can support a gigantic 2,300 species?
But these vital trees are slow to develop. We must protect those that we already have, and look out for those that could be the ancient trees of the future. To help do this at Little Doward, we fell some trees that are too close to our ancient trees. It gives them more light and space to grow and helps to prolong their life. The ancient tree needs time to adapt to the changing conditions, so opening the space around it must be a careful, gradual process.
We’ve selected some younger trees for this treatment too, in the hope they can develop into the next generations of veteran and ancient trees at Little Doward. By giving these trees more space and light, they can develop into old age without the tough competition of a dense woodland where trees tend to die at younger ages. This will provide continuity for those diverse and rare species reliant upon our ancient trees.
Credit: John Bridges / WTML
Up to 1 million species worldwide live in or on deadwood.
As well as fallen branches and toppled trunks on the woodland floor, deadwood can include standing trees that have died and decaying matter in ancient trees too. Deadwood in our woods may look to some like it needs tidying up, but leaving it in place has enormous value to ecosystem health. Retaining it on site is an important part of our woodland management.
The diversity of life in deadwood is vast. It provides valuable habitat for a plethora of fungi and invertebrates. At Little Doward, this includes the rare Cosnard’s net-winged beetle, which relies on dead and dying beech wood in mature woodland for larvae development. Numbers of this special beetle have declined due to removal of dead and decaying wood as well as the loss of old and ancient woodland. It’s now thought to be found only in the South Downs, the Forest of Dean and Wye Gorge.
Credit: Claire Miller / WTML
In common with many other ancient woods, conifer trees were planted at Little Doward as a source of quick growing timber. But these non-native trees are relatively new to the UK and don't provide the resources our native wildlife need. Our native trees and wildlife have evolved together over thousands of years and developed close relationships beneficial to survival.
Restoring Little Doward to be an entirely native wood can’t happen overnight. Removing all the non-native trees at once would create a sudden influx of light which would 'shock' the woodland, so we have to manage it slowly and carefully. The process takes years, but this is vital if the wood is to become healthy again. Over time, native tree species will regrow in place of the non-natives from seeds that have lain dormant in the soil.
Credit: Thomas Winstone / WTML
A healthy, balanced woodland has a myriad of vital components. One of the elements missing from Little Doward was a top predator that would once have ruled the roost here: pine martens. As a native species, they would have played an important role in the local ecosystem, eating whatever was abundant, from voles and mice to insects and berries. But, as across much of England and Wales, they had disappeared from this woodland.
As part of our work, we’re supporting a pine marten reintroduction project led by Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust. Following extensive research and surveying, forty pine martens have so far been released in the area. Success is already noticeable, with ranges extending and kits being born among the new populations.
It’s still early days for our management approach at Little Doward – we won’t see the full impact of our work for several years. Our work is based on our scientific understanding of individual species and woodland ecosystems and will bring the wood back to its former glory and help wildlife thrive.
Surveying has already begun, with an invertebrate expert monitoring the site from April to October this year. Full results will be available in early 2022, but several rare beetles have already been found. We anticipate that Little Doward will become a nationally important site for saproxylic beetles, as well as flies associated with ancient and veteran trees.
Little Doward is just one example of how we care for irreplaceable ancient woods and create havens for wildlife. We look after several other woods in the Wye Valley too and will be managing them all carefully to create a connected and resilient landscape that benefits people, wildlife and the environment.
We couldn’t do this without you. Thank you to all our members and supporters who enable us to carry out this vital work.
We have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rescue these remaining fragments of our natural heritage. But we can't do it without your help.Support the ancient woodland restoration fund