Woodland restoration is a slow process requiring a determined approach and, with good planning and dedication, Houndtor Woods in the Bovey Valley is showing real signs of progress. For decades, the dense cover of introduced conifer trees has been casting shade over the ancient woodland soil below, suppressing the wild flowers and reducing the range of insects and birds that once thrived there. To remedy this habitat conservation problem, the Woodland Trust is using a step-by-step method; thinning out the conifers and encouraging the native species of plants to establish in their rightful place.
As an example of this process in action, an area of woodland next to Houndtor bridge shows how this patient method of habitat management is progressing. Some decades ago, this young plantation of Douglas fir was dark and very shady; wild plants and animals struggled to survive. As the years have passed, local forestry contractors have taken out a few trees at a time, until this year the grand conifers have reached a critical height and spacing. Finally, there is enough room and sufficient light for native woodland shrubs to get a foothold below.
The ideal ‘structure’ of a diverse woodland habitat starts with the small stuff; the flowers and ferns at ground level. Then, the understorey, the shrubby layer develops. This is where the blossom, nuts and berries grow, sustaining many forms of life. And above all, the canopy; the big trees where birds, big and small, will forage, perch and nest. In this case the well-spaced Douglas fir are providing the canopy. With more light reaching the woodland floor, over five thousand hazel shrubs have recently been planted to bolster the understorey, speeding up the conversion of Houndtor Wood from conifer back to broadleaved woodland.
Planting trees is not just about giving nature a helping hand – it is also a highly rewarding activity. Over the last four years a group of dedicated tree planters, brought together by Premier Paper Group, have been returning to these woods in the Bovey Valley. This annual event brings together Premier Paper staff and their clients, from across the region, for a day of tree planting. As a paper manufacturer and supplier, Premier Paper Group is aware of its corporate responsibility for the resources they use, and by planting trees with the Woodland Trust this is a perfect opportunity to give something back to nature.
Previously the group have planted trees in Pullabrook Wood, (follow this link to blog), but this year the planting site was located at the top edge of Houndtor Wood in an area where a stand of conifers had recently been felled. And after a long walk in, with a steep ascent to the planting site, the group needed to refuel with some breakfast before tackling the task ahead! Many of the team already had some experience, having taken part in previous years, and once they started planting they worked fast and efficiently. In total they planted 700 hazel trees. This dedicated team effort will help this whole area to become a well structured and diverse woodland habitat over the next few years.
Hanging up their tree planting spades for another year, the group headed out of the woods of the Bovey Valley and back to their different roles and work places. And, walking out of the plantation, across Houndtor bridge and along the Old Manaton Road, there was time to reflect. In the longer run, this area of the woods will become the perfect home for some of our favourite woodland species, including the dormouse. This small arboreal mammal currently lives on either side of this plantation but will not find an easy path to move around beneath the spaced-out conifers, until the understorey provides the connected ‘corridor’ it needs. Reconnecting habitats in this way will have a beneficial effect on many other species of insects, birds and mammals and it seems to be working. When the sun shines and the pools of light pierce the tree canopy, woodland butterfly sightings are looking good.
As well as the woodland wildlife, the additional sunlight will also help the ‘riparian’ habitat along the Becka Brook. Insect life in the river bed will be looking up and the whole food chain- from dippers and trout, to otters and herons – will find a more secure place to live.
A real ‘win-win situation’ this winter!
By Matt Parkins and Kate Smith