Shades of Light & Dark

The varied chain of woodlands along the Bovey Valley are among the significant habitat features of the East Dartmoor National Nature Reserve (NNR). They also form part of a Special Area of Conservation (SAC) and a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). These classifications aren’t handed out lightly; they are only bestowed on places where local wildlife is a priority, where there is something of note that is so remarkable that we need to protect it and conserve it for the future. Though the reasons for these titles may not initially be obvious, they are always based on some good science, and conservation organisations work hard to enhance these wild places.

In the Bovey Valley Woods, the Woodland Trust and Natural England are working together with Plantlife to develop a new project; Building Resilience in South West Woodlands. Here, the lower plants are the focus of all the attention. Dave Lamacraft, Lower Plants Champion from Plantlife and his colleague Alison Smith describe the woodland as a “site of national importance for its assemblages of lichens and bryophytes”.

Left: An ancient boundary along the Old Manaton Road; The variety of lichen on an old boundary oak

The lower plants or the mosses, lichens, bryophytes and algae are the simple organisms that are among the oldest organisms on earth and the Building Resilience project aims to highlight these species in the web of life in the diverse Atlantic Woodlands of the south west. It aims to help people to learn about the importance of these treasured wildlife gems and build their resilience by taking part in their conservation and, as these SACs, SSSI and nature reserves were set up to provide outdoor laboratories for research, what better place to start than the East Dartmoor NNR?

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Over recent centuries, local records show these woodlands have gradually changed their character as agriculture and other land use has changed. Dave Lamacraft explained “Tithe maps indicate that many areas within the site were open-structured woodland, farmed wood pasture. These areas would have included open grown boundary and pasture trees which would have supported a rich and important suite of lichens that grow on old trees in open, well-lit conditions.”

Tithe map Boveycombe and Vinnamore
Old Tithe maps show the extent of the open wood pasture in the 1800s

Maps from the 19th Century show this quite clearly and, continued Dave, “as farming within the woodland has decreased, so have the open areas and, gradually they have become a shadier place.” The woodland grazers, the cattle and ponies of years gone by, are no longer there to maintain the character of the woodland pasture and, over time, the lower plants have suffered.

The solution to this predicament for the precious lichens is to cut out some of the dense areas of woodland understorey. As holly is a shade tolerant plant and also an evergreen, it has become dominant in some areas but there are other areas where the dimly lit woods are causing the lower plants to struggle. To find out where, which species to remove and how it should be done, the Building Resilience project plans to set out a method for people, who may not be expert botanists, to survey their local woods and help to preserve the diversity of species within them.

Left: Ken Webber working through the tangle of holly; Stumps treated with herbicide and green dye

In the Bovey Valley Woods, the new survey and management methods are being trialled.  If you had been out walking down the Old Manaton Road last winter, you may have seen where experienced woodland contractor, Ken Webber, had been felling the dense holly understorey next to the ancient track boundary. The larger holly trees have been in place and the smaller cut stumps were treated with a licensed herbicide to prevent the regrowth.

Left: Cut rows create a corridor for small birds, mammals and invertebrates: Some of the larger holly trees have been left in place

With the neatly stacked holly branches, the ground has been opened up to let the light in. Seeds of other flowering woodland plants have been lying dormant for many years and should bring some life back to the bare ground but, most importantly, the ancient oaks along the boundary line and the associated lower plants will be able to re-establish their place in the web of woodland life. As the project develops and future lichen surveys record the rich pattern of life, the resilience of the Atlantic woodlands will become clear.

rob-on-slope-3 600px wide_Matt Parkins
Rob at work on the steep slopes

by Matt Parkins

If you are interested in volunteering for this project… there is an opportunity to get involved this summer, carrying out baseline surveys along several banks that will be managed in the winter.

There will be a training day on Wednesday 27th June to introduce volunteers to the survey method and how to ID key lichen and bryophyte growth forms. The survey will provide an understanding of current conditions on the banks, so we can monitor the impact of management work. Training will begin at 9:30am at the Woodland Centre, Yarner Wood, and finishes around 3.30pm – 4:00pm.
If you are interested, please email alison.smith@plantlife.org.uk.
Please bring pack lunch, wet weather gear and wear well-treaded boots.

We have also arranged another survey visit for 18th July so you can practice your skills.

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