The summer months are a perfect time to reflect on the woodland management work over the last year. Matt Parkins has written this review reflecting on the management work to restore the ancient woodland in Hisley and Houndtor Wood. Looking back on the work programme he reports how areas of the woodland in the Bovey Valley have been transformed – light has flooded back into Houndtor through thinning the giant conifers and new views have been opened up in Hisley Wood, as small stands of larch have come down. When you look beneath the surface there is also a lovely symmetry to the funding story for this work.
Restoration of the Woodland Trust’s woods along the Bovey Valley has continued to make good progress in some of the priority conservation areas. Working with a team of ecologically minded contractors and the application of some good science has led to sensitive management of the woodland ecology in the adjoining plots at Hisley Wood and Houndtor Wood.
Where a block of plantation larch is standing over a well-developed understorey of hazel and other important woodland shrubs, the larch trees are being progressively felled in strips. This approach will allow the broadleaved trees and shrubs the time to develop a good woodland structure over a number of years, without causing a disruption on a large scale. Patience is the name of the game, and to demonstrate how it is working, an interesting scientific research project was going on simultaneously with the felling work.
A PhD researcher from the University of Exeter has been using the hazel coppice at Hisley Wood, as a site where dormice were being tracked, at the critical time of year as they prepared for hibernation. Three tagged dormice were tracked to monitor their behaviour during the autumn. The preliminary results showed that the felling work did not disrupt this protected species. In fact, one of the dormice was found to be moving around the trees, on either side the felling area, before it went into hibernation in November.
Further up the hill in Hisley Wood, the larch trees are from an earlier planting and the larger trees are more spaced out, with a better developed broadleaved understorey. A different felling approach was used here; taking out clusters of larch in groups of around 15 trees each time. This low ecological impact technique is helping to open up the woodland, while additional care is being taken to preserve the trees, where thicker ivy stems may be providing temporary roosting sites for bats, or nesting sites for birds and dormice. Carefully planned felling in clusters leaves some areas of woodland completely undisturbed and has the additional benefit for passing walkers, of revealing some spectacular views to the other side of the valley. The diversity of wild plants and invertebrates is showing signs of improving in this part of the wood and, during a volunteer work day, a group of students discovered a number of oil beetles in the newly restored sunny glades.
Along one of the highest parts of Houndtor Wood some of the largest, most shady conifers have been thinned to improve light levels and give wild woodland plants more chance to recover. Western red cedar was planted in this part of the wood in the 1960’s and has become quite large, casting a deep shade on the ground below. Due to the size of the trees and the steep ground, the work to thin these conifers has been quite challenging but the combined experience of two small contractor teams successfully extracted the first phase of timber. Not only have these trees been casting shade, impeding the growth of woodland ground flora but they have contributed to the gradual depletion of some of the ancient woodland boundary banks and hedges. With increased light levels, these features of landscape heritage and wildlife value will stand a better chance of restoration and future work can focus on laying the hedges and replanting shrubs where necessary. The additional sunlight reaching the ground in this part of the wood should also have a beneficial effect on an ancient earthwork on the highest part of Houndtor ridge (see the map below).
Down at the lower part of Houndtor Wood, more of the giant conifers have been felled along the banks of the Becka Brook. This is one of the areas of the conifer plantation where experimental fenced enclosures are being used to assess the level of shrub regrowth under conifers while keeping out the browsing deer. Further scientific techniques are being employed here as it is a case of thinning the conifers out to the right level where the sunlight can reach the developing broadleaves and start their restoration. To do this, the volume of standing timber must first be measured and calculated. The conifers are then thinned to a density where the native species can receive sufficient light to grow beneath the canopy of Douglas fir. Once the good woodland habitat is developing beneath the conifers it will provide a better connection for the wildlife to move along the valley using the important riverside corridor. This is also a crucial part of the woodland for the rare barbastelle bat. There are a few ancient oaks still standing here which can be protected during forestry works, leaving the ideal roosting sites in place.
This ancient restoration work in the Bovey Valley has been supported by Viridor Credits Environmental Company, via the Landfill Communities Fund. The local landfill site at Heathfield is now in a transformation phase of its own. The site closed down in 2016 and is itself to be restored, to blend in with the surrounding Devon countryside https://blog.viridor.co.uk/2016/01/18/end-of-an-era-as-heathfield-landfill-site-closes-its-gates-after-35-years/
The work also forms part of the wider Moor than meets the eye Landscape Partnership which is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
by Matt Parkins