Managing woodlands

Coppiced woodlandCoppiced woodland

Our ancient woodlands are irreplaceable habitat. Careful management encourages the greatest diversity of wildlife.

Woodlands are our richest wildlife habitat in terms of the numbers of species. Trees, shrubs, mosses, lichens, fungi, mammals, birds, beetles, moths - a huge selection of wildlife lives in our woods.

Ancient woodland is usually the richest in wildlife. The term 'ancient' applies to woodland that has been continuously present on the same site since at least 1600AD. This long continuity of cover in ancient woodlands has allowed specialised woodland species to survive. Rare species that are unable to survive in an open landscape find havens in these woodlands.

What makes a wood good?

A good quality woodland will not only contain a diverse mix of trees, shrubs, flowers and lower plants, but will also have a varied structure, with a mature canopy, areas of dense shrub layer and open sunny areas including glades and paths. This provides more habitats for a wider range of species, including plants, birds and invertebrates. Other important habitat features found in woodlands include streams and ponds, as those in woodlands often have their own unique groups of species and retain a relatively natural structure and water quality.

Management should aim to create a mosaic of habitats, based on an informed understanding of what is already there. Some areas should be left to develop naturally with minimal intervention and other areas managed in rotation.

Woodland management techniques

Coppicing

Coppicing involves cutting trees at their base and allowing them to regenerate from the stump. Traditionally this was done to produce poles for all sorts of wood products. Coppicing opens up the canopy, letting more light in to the woodland floor and allowing ground flora like bluebells, primroses and violets to flourish.

The woodland should be divided into compartments and coppiced on a rotation. This means different areas of the wood are cut in different years and allowed to re-grow, creating trees of different heights. The length of time between coppice cycles will depend on the tree species; a general rotation of between 7-15 years is best.

Only certain trees are suitable for coppicing. In Hertfordshire these include hazel, hornbeam and sweet chestnut. In some cases minimum intervention is preferable to coppicing, depending on the species present in the woodland (get in touch for specific advice).

Thinning

This involves removing the weaker/crowded trees in an overcrowded woodland in order to allow the remaining trees to grow stronger and sturdier. It also allows a dense woodland to be opened up allowing more light to reach the woodland floor. Again this should be done gradually or in stages, especially in areas around veteran trees, in order to avoid causing excessive stress to the remaining trees through sudden exposure to wind and sun. A method of woodland management used traditionally to harvest wood for products such as fence posts, broom handles, hurdles or firewood.

Glades and rides

These open, grassy areas provide light for woodland wildflowers to flourish and for insects such as butterflies to feed and breed. Glades and rides should be large enough to ensure that sunny conditions prevail for most of the day and must be maintained to avoid them reverting to woodland. This can be achieved by managing as you would a grassland, by cutting and mowing to produce a mix of grasses and herbs and a shrubby edge to give a gradual transition from grassland to woodland. The grassy areas should be cut every autumn with the shrubby edge cut every 5-10 years during the winter months. All grass cuttings should be removed but twigs and other “brash” can be piled up to provide cover for animals.

Dead wood

Old, dead and decaying wood, whether standing or fallen, provides microhabitats for a wide range of species. Bats and birds use splits and rot holes in tree trunks to roost and fungi and invertebrates feed on and break down the dead wood. Leaving dead wood also allows the natural processes of decay and nutrient recycling to occur. It's important to avoid being too 'tidy'! Standing dead trees can be left for as long as possible where there is no risk to people and will make fantastic homes for woodpeckers. Fallen dead wood, where possible, should be left where it is, with fallen trees left intact rather than being cut up.

Invasive species control

Contact us for information on controlling rhododendron, Japanese knotweed, snowberry, bamboo, Himalayan balsam and other non-native invasive species, as well as deer and rabbit control to help re-generation success.

Getting the timing right

The best time to do woodland management works and any coppicing or scrub cutting is during the winter. This will avoid disturbance to breeding birds. Work which involves heavy machinery in the woodland should be avoided when the ground is soft, to prevent disturbing the soil and ground flora.

Get tailor-made advice

The above is intended as a general guide only - different sites will have different needs. Contact us for bespoke advice:

Local Wildlife Sites advice: Carol Lodge, Local Wildlife Sites Programme Manager
Wider habitat management advice: Tim Hill, Conservation Manager