Taking Out Timber, Letting in the Light

Woodland work has continued this winter to open up some of the shadier parts of Hisley Wood in the Bovey Valley, letting the light in. Following on from previous work to fell some larch and reveal a woody bank with a line of hazel shrubs, the timber extraction team has progressed higher up the hill. They have been selectively removing some trees to widen out the rides and give some of Hisley Wood’s veteran broadleaves the space that their grand size needs. Many species of lichen and moss depend on these old trees and use their age-old branches as a long term refuge.

Winter sun on dripping wet moss in Hisley Wood
Winter sun on dripping wet moss in Hisley Wood

The wider rides not only provide a more pleasant place for people to walk and enjoy views across the valley but the additional sunlight has a positive effect on the number of woodland plants and wildflowers. At all times of year Hisley Wood supports a wide range of ground flora from the spring time primrose, celandine and bluebell to the later flowering sorrel and foxglove. These plants all benefit from a bit more sun and, while the wildflowers grow, the insects thrive and provide food for the bats and birds.

The colourful and conspicuous spectrum of wildflowers however, are not the reason why Hisley is a particularly unique woodland habitat. It’s an area well known for its rare and unusual collection of lichen and these species also benefit from a carefully managed increase in levels of sunlight. The beauty of the lichen can be seen best during the winter when the vigorous growth of other plants has receded and twigs and small branches drop from the ancient woodland canopy and lie in the leaf litter.

The varied and intricate structures of lichen
The varied and intricate structures of lichen

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Some of the grand old oaks in the wood are swathed in ivy and provide perfect sites for birds to nest and bats to roost. Surveys show that oak trees support many more species of wildlife than other trees and giving them extra space will ensure they will perform this role in the Bovey Valley for many decades.
Ash and sycamore have also been standing here for hundreds of years and, over time, the lichen growth on these old trees has become worthy of SSSI status. After working around one of the grandest ash trees in the wood, one of the woodland contractors stood back and proudly said “that’s the first time in around 30 years you’ve been able to see that big beauty”.

Giant ash tree bathed in sun
Giant ash tree bathed in sun

The ancient woodland trees aren’t the only signs of age in this valley. The derelict remains of Boveycombe farmstead will also have more opportunity to stand out from the woodland after a bit of careful clearance work. Originally dating back to medieval times, the buildings, walls, lanes and field systems now show up as lines of mossy boulders and crooked oak stems.
The timber extraction team has been felling some giant sitka spruce, an introduced conifer that has quickly become the dominant tree standing over the derelict walls and enclosures of the old farm. As each 30 metre tree crashes to the ground another dramatic view is revealed of the ridge on the other side of Becka Brook. The 4 tonne stems are cut into useable timber lengths and hauled up to the track using an alpine tractor equipped with a skidding winch. This light-weight machine was originally designed for Italian vineyards and is particularly agile on steeply sloping ground while causing very little damage to the ancient woodland soil.

Larch timber stack ready for extraction from the woods
Larch timber stack ready for extraction from the woods
Alpine tractor with winch
Alpine tractor with winch

None of the thinnings from Hisley will go to waste. The smaller stems and brash are piled on the woodland floor, providing shelter for animals, plants and fungi. Firewood arising from the thinning work will be processed and shared out at a community event for local people and volunteers, and the stacks of larch have a commercial value which will contribute to the further conservation of Hisley Woods.
Words and images by Matt Parkins

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