Beech Droves and Gnarled Oaks

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for the Quantock Hills… ever since visiting for the first time last year, I’ve taken every opportunity I can to explore this ancient landscape – usually this means a very early start on a survey in the south-west to factor in some free time when I get there!

One of my favourite places is the Drove Road which is a prehistoric track running across the higher ground, presumed to be an ancient trading route which avoided the wetter lowlands. At one end is the Triscombe Stone accompanied by an information board which has the following to say:

‘[the drove road] is also on a ‘Harepath’ (a Saxon army route) recorded in the 14th century as the “Alferode”. In the year 878 King Alfred may have been familiar with the route during his stay nearby at Athelny, on the Somerset Levels.’

The track is lined with ancient beeches which have been coppiced – their boles much older than their branches – but they encompass the road as though the two have always been together, the arches echoing the holloway which runs beneath.

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If you continue beyond the Drove Road, leaving Crowcombe behind and taking a left along the winding lane towards Nether Stowey, you pass through stunning oak woodland. The gnarled contorted oaks are much older than you might guess from their dwarf stature – the exposed aspect and low nutrients of their habitat slows growth and the result is an eerie, exhilarating woodland – made all the more spectacular by the mist which eddied through the trunks on my last visit.

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This is an ancient landscape, one which is far from intact yet which retains remnants and features which have been lost in much of our modern countryside. The sessile oaks which twist and spiral were coppied for centuries for use for charcoal and in tanning leather. This practise of cutting to the base stimulated fresh growth and allowed the trees to be sustainably harvested by generation after generation – a far cry from the clearfell destruction which you can see at work in the Forestry Commission plantations which have appropriated parts of the nearby Great Wood.

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The ongoing ecological value of these woodlands is incredible – I know from experience that the trees beside the road are packed with bats – and the continuity and history make it culturally important. But you need know little of either to be awed by the impression of entering these spaces. The photograph below is perhaps my favorite – it taps into something primeval which is captured in some of the best literature and still to be appreciated in light and bark and leaf. This is the kind of lane which brings to mind Tolkien’s words:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

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Vegetation Layers in an English Woodland

The different layers within a woodland are one of those classic illustrations from ecology textbooks – usually a cartoon graphic showing how the structure changes as you move from the ground up to the canopy. The distinctions are indicative – there is often plenty of overlap between the layers – but these are a useful way of thinking about the woodland in terms of its ecological function beyond what simply meets the eye. Helping you to see the wood for the trees, if you will!

We undertake tree climb and inspect surveys for bats in a variety of settings – from individual trees in gardens to well-spaced parklands and dense woodlands. Each of these gives a different insight into vertical variation but a recent climb in an oak and ash woodland gave a nice opportunity to illustrate how this changes in a typical ancient woodland habitat.

English Oak Woodland Structure
Photographs taken at 2m (bottom), 6m (middle) and 12m (top) in an English oak and ash woodland to illustrate the variation in spatial structure.

The number of ‘layers’ and their distinctions vary between sources and across countries – I’ve seen three defined layers, nine defined layers and every number in between delineated in various graphics. I’m going to keep this simple and focus on the three broad categories which are shown in these photos:

Field Layer – taken at 2m height

Ground Layer
Photograph taken at 2m showing the field or ground layer in an English oak and ash woodland

 

This photograph encapsulates what could be considered the field layer, the ground layer or the forest floor depending on which divisions you use. Broadly, this is the view from the ground – the most apparent vista for most visitors to the woodlands but the scene varies greatly as the year progresses. In secondary woodland or more botanically diminished sites, this can be a mass of ruderals such as nettles, cow parsley and bramble whilst some plantation woodlands can be head-high in bracken. In ancient woodland – such as this – springtime sees a flush of ancient woodland species which time their flowering early in the season before the canopy closes overhead. As May arrives and the trees and shrubs come into leaf, the main event on the forest floor is already coming to an end. Some species flourish later in the season but in September, the vegetation has largely died back often leaving a relatively bare floor. The dominant vegetation remaining is therefore the trunks of the trees and the shrubs which rise above the field layer to leaf and flower higher.

Scrub Layer – taken at 6m height

Shrub Layer
Photograph taken at 6m showing the hazel-dominated shrub layer in an English oak and ash woodland

This could be described as the under-canopy, the scrub layer, the shrub layer or the under-storey layer. This is the level at which the shrubs flourish – those smaller woody species which often include hawthorn, blackthorn, hazel, holly, dogwood and elder, amongst others. These shrubs can often form such a dense canopy that the view to the treetops above can be quite obscured – something of an issue when you’re searching for bat roosts! In this instance, hazel and hawthorn dominate and as the photograph shows, they form a dense and highly cluttered environment some 6m above the ground.

Canopy Layer – taken at 12m height

Canopy Layer
Photograph taken at 12m showing the space between the shrub layer and the woodland canopy in an English oak and ash woodland

This is up at the top of the trees, where the taller trees branch and close their canopies to claim first use of the sunlight available. I’m not right in the canopy in this photograph – the trees did not require us to climb to the peaks – but this nicely illustrates the shrub layer below with the high canopy of the oak and ash above. In some forests, the species composition includes a sub-canopy of smaller trees – such as rowan, silver birch and field maple – which form a layer between the lower shrubs and the taller climax species. This photograph nicely illustrates how much of a space can open up between distinct layers within the higher reaches of the forest structure.

Why does it matter?

An appreciation of how the character and conditions of a woodland change on a vertical plane are just as important, although a little harder to appreciate, than the variation on the ground. The illustrations above are for just one section of just one woodland and each type of species composition but they help to give a visual idea of how this works.

One example of how this type of variation is important is when considering how bats might use a habitat. Different species of bat have different hunting characteristics and habitat preferences, and this often relates to how open or cluttered a habitat is. Species such as brown long-eared are highly maneuverable and will glean insects from leaves so a reasonably cluttered woodland environment suits them perfectly. At the other end of the spectrum, a noctule hawks in open space, often flying over fields and catching its prey on the wing. Species such as pipistrelle are typically characterised as edge specialists which forage along woodland edges, hedgerows and other similar environments.

Pipistrelle
Pipistrelle bats are typically described as ‘edge’ species which forage along the edges of vertical features, such as a woodland edge

The field layer of the woodland looks ideal for a species such as brown long-eared but you might think that it would be too cluttered and enclosed for other species. However an insight into the structure above the shrub layer reveals a mosaic of open space and leaf cover which provides perfect ‘edge’ habitat for a hunting pipistrelle, and the voids between the trees would be perfectly navigable for a noctule in search of a roost. This was the subject of a talk by Ian Davidson-Watts at a recent BCT Bats and Woodland conference which you can read more about in this blog post here.

If you’re looking for tree climb and inspect surveys for bats, do check out this page for further details!

 

Oxlips at Hayley Wood

Botany is one of those passions you can engage in almost anywhere – this could be spotting dandelions brightening in the lawn, ivy-leaved toadflax scrambling up the wall or whitlow grass offering a tiny bunch of flowers beside the pavement. Sometimes however, a flower requires a pilgrimage and oxlip – Primula elatior – is one of those species.

A rare woodland flower, somewhere between a cowslip and a primrose in appearance, it’s distribution is largely restricted to the point in the country where the counties of Essex, Suffolk and Cambridge meet. Hayley Wood has always been in my head as the destination for this pilgrimage – I can’t for the life of me recall which book which introduced me to the name but it has always stuck.

Situated near Cambridge, Hayley Wood is an ancient woodland, mentioned in the Doomesday book and owned, managed and protected by the Wildlife Trust for Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire since 1962. It plays host to a wide range of ancient woodland species – I spotted dog’s mercury, bluebell, yellow archangel, bugle and lesser celandine to name but a few. I hope to return later in the season to seek a few more of it’s treasures but this day was all about the oxlip.

The day I visited was overcast and perpetually interrupted by April showers, but although a little late for the main event, I was not disappointed…